Our regular analysis selects one or more news stories from fashion technology, and presents The Interline‘s take on why they matter to our global brand and retail audience – as well as what they might mean for the longer-term future of fashion. As always, this analysis is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email – and signing up continues to be the best way to get a fresh look at the fashion technology news, completely free, in your inbox, as we enter 2023.
To mark the end of 2022 – a transformative year in fashion technology – our writers got together to look back at our most popular features from each calendar month, and to consider where things have changed this year – as well as where they haven’t. This special edition of our newsletter captures The Interline team’s thoughts on the year’s most-read fashion technology stories, starting with…
Published at the start of 2022, this article by Marije de Roos asks a seemingly-simple question: can fashion balance its desire to react to consumer demand as quickly as possible, with its growing environmental and ethical responsibilities?
After debating this question, we all agree that it remains unanswered. Like any industry, fashion exists in a careful equilibrium of give and take – giving its customers what it believes they want, whilst trying to extract as little from people, resources, and profits as possible. From that pure commercial perspective, this is probably a question that will never be conclusively answered, because even if the industry achieved perfect balance then new pressure would mount to achieve greater efficiency, scale, or creativity.
From a more holistic point of view, though, it’s even clearer at the end of 2022 than it was at the start that fashion cannot continue operating its current model indefinitely. Right now, the calculus between responsive and responsible is heavily weighted towards the former, with the industry prioritising speed, volume, and variety at almost any cost. In a world of finite resources and a rapidly-changing climate, this is anything but a responsible approach, and from waste and pollution to wage poverty, the fashion industry is now being forced (no longer asked) to place much greater emphasis on its responsibility to people and planet.
This article focuses on the use of AI as a solution to both sides of the responsive / responsible equation: testing the market with yet-to-be-produced designs at scale, and making the most accurate predictions possible of what the market is going to want. We believe these remain valid use cases, and in fact the progress of both AI and sustainability regulation have only increased the recognition of the problem and the urgency of identifying a solution.
This is cheating slightly, since Blockchain topics were at or near the top of the pile in both February and March. But with two different perspectives on the subject, we’ve chosen to combine two features into one short examination.
First, Muchaneta Kapfunde asked whether blockchain in fashion could be considered “ready”. This is, we all agreed, something of a loaded question, because it presupposes the idea that the industry has largely agreed what blockchain should be doing for fashion, and that brands, retailers, and their partners are waiting for the technology (or applications of it) to catch up to their vision.
In some cases this is true. Blockchain is at the core of many (if not most) of the luxury industry’s plans to tackle authenticity and to elevate the buyer experience, so that sector is definitely working towards maturity with a particular goal in mind. As Muchaneta’s article explains, though, fashion remains generally uncertain of what it wants to achieve by building blockchain-backed applications, and The Interline is still mostly unconvinced that blockchain is the right solution for the most common use cases that it’s being developed to deliver.
On balance, our team still agrees that blockchain has potential as a data transport layer – a way to get information from source to consumer – but that fashion does not really have a data transport problem. The industry’s issues are primarily focused on an inability to capture correct information, not difficulties in conveying it.
And this is a key theme of February’s second blockchain piece, from Emma Feldner-Busztin, which contains a quote that our team members unanimously still agree with:
“To keep in mind: the unalterable nature of data on the blockchain means there is an incentive for the information to be accurate and complete, but not a guarantee.”
This spring, we released the Fashion Reset Report. Written by an independent panel of industry insiders from a range of different disciplines, the report was published and promoted by The Interline, and includes a foreword from our Editor that everyone agrees remains as vital at the end of the year as it did nearer the start:
“We need to challenge whether scale has to be the way fashion quantifies success, and if so, whether that scale can be sustained through equitable treatment, environmentally-sound production, and technical innovation.
There are ways forward from here for fashion. But the key realisation, from my perspective, has been that none of them much resemble the recent past. To dust off, pick up, and keep producing and consuming like before would be to miss the largest opportunity in living memory: for fashion to truly reset, rather than just rebound.”
How successfully the industry was able to capitalise on that opportunity remains an active subject of debate here at The Interline. As we discovered when we discussed it for this roundup, some of the key drivers for change captured in the Fashion Reset Report 2022 have seen progress, while we believe others have been passed over for a variety of different reasons – some valid, and some less so.
Generally speaking, though, we collectively believe that hindsight has shown that the COVID pandemic was not quite the catalyst for wide-scale re-evaluation and re-orientation that analysts had predicted for many industries (fashion included). That being said, our team all agreed that the long shadow of the disruption it caused has led to a general realisation that the world around fashion can change quickly and unpredictably, and brands, retailers, and suppliers are actively working to shore themselves up against it.
In April, The Interline hosted an education-focused event in partnership with the University of Manchester and a panel of fashion technology vendors, titled Future Fashion Disrupters.
Presented as a showcase of just how far digital transformation has advanced in fashion, the event spotlighted a single style as it progressed through a thoroughly modern product lifecycle – from digital design and digital printing, to data-backed sustainability, product data management, and Metaverse possibilities.
For the in-person and remote audience, this all served as an example of how far things have come, and how different the fashion business of 2022 is likely to be from the expectations that traditional education have set. For The Interline‘s team members and partners, this was a reminder of just how divorced much of the machinery of fashion is from both the potential of technology and from the everyday proof of the benefits of digitisation.
Reading our report back, and reconsidering it eight months later, we don’t believe too much has changed. While companies like The Digital Fashion Group are working to elevate fashion education and prepare for an influx of new, digital-native talent, there remains a significant pool of both future and current fashion professionals who have limited exposure to the power of technology.
Opening up technology horizons to those people is one of The Interline‘s key objectives for 2023, and our writers all remain committed to ensuring that the stories we write – and the way we write them – are carefully calibrated for both technology experts who are leading the charge within the brands they work for, and for people who are immersed in the challenges facing fashion but who do not necessarily know that technology could hold the solution.
We launched the first episode of The Interline Podcast at the start of this year, and as spring started to give way to summer, we hosted a special episode of the show where we brought together a leading brand – New Balance – and an industry advisor to share their perspectives on the reality of spearheading digital product creation.
Needless to say, given the importance that the industry at large has subsequently placed on DPC, everyone here agrees that this episode remains essential listening. With so much of the fashion industry embracing the value of digital assets, proof points such as the ones presented in this podcast episode have taken on an even greater importance.
Innovation in fashion often emerges out of necessity, and the last couple of years saw a particularly pronounced example: unable to stage physical runway shows during the deepest phase of the pandemic, fashion designers and brands took to creating digital alternatives. Some of these were pre-rendered, some ran in real-time as immersive experiences. All had something in common: they made use of digital environments, digital products, and digital avatars.
In a lot of ways, these shows were the earliest hint that the tools being used to build the Metaverse could be deployed to realise more immediate value: transplanting experiences that have traditionally been pitched at a niche audience, and making them more accessible by making them digital.
When the immediate reason for staging fashion shows digitally went away, though, there were contrasting perspectives on whether it made sense to continue to create them. Our team’s opinion is that much of the work that went into staging runway shows digitally is now being parlayed into real-time immersive experiences for end consumers, but this feature remains vital reading because it documents how fashion can turn disruption to its advantage – something the industry is likely to need to keep doing in 2023.
A precursor to our DPC Report, Mark Harrop’s July feature sets out to examine the history of fashion’s relationship with 3D. It also makes a strong case for why the time has now come for the industry to move beyond thinking about 3D as an isolated project, and to start considering the multi-faceted nature of true digital product creation.
As a statement of how far fashion has come, and as a roadmap for the next few years, this feature is the perfect companion piece for the DPC Report, and our team had nothing to add to it on reflection – other than further endorsement of the enduring relevance of the title.
As part of our partnership with The Digital Fashion Group, we published several exclusive features written by them this year. This was the second, and our team suspect that it emerged as the most popular one because it collects – as the title suggests – perspectives on the implications of the Metaverse (and the nebulous “Web3”) on the near and longer-term future of fashion.
At the time this article was written, Metaverse hype was perhaps at its zenith, and clarity was in very short supply. Our team found it refreshing, after re-reading this feature, that most of the perspectives presented are positive but not wildly optimistic. And as we enter 2023, that likely remains the right attitude for anyone to adopt when thinking about a Metaverse strategy.
It’s no secret that The Interline is made up of people with both positive and… more pragmatic perspectives on the viability of the Metaverse. So as a counterpoint to our most popular feature from August (which falls into the first bracket), seeing this article at the top of the pile from September reassured us that the industry at large shares the same view.
Our team all agreed that, when it comes to something as polarising as the idea of an entirely new (and largely untested) market for digital fashion that exists in a virtual world that’s still under construction, the sensible approach is for brands and retailers to be aware of the potential, but to work on partitioning off the parts that they believe can deliver a return today.
It’s become a fashion industry mantra this year that sustainability requires transparency. Which is a glib way of saying that, for any brand or retailer to make a confident sustainability statement (whether it’s environmental or ethical in nature) it must have gathered the data to substantiate that claim, and it must be willing to open the books on that data to consumers and regulators.
After re-listening to this special episode of The Interline Podcast, we were reminded of just how important it is to be able to see this model put into practice.
It should come as no surprise that our first-ever downloadable report dedicated to digital product creation was our top feature for November. Despite only releasing near the very end of the month, the feature announcing the release of the DPC Report drew in enough traffic in just a few days to become one of our most-read pieces of the entire year. And the Report itself became our most-downloaded asset ever in the same short timeframe.
The evidence, then, is strong for DPC being one of the fashion industry’s hottest topics, with 3D assets at the forefront of so many brands’ investment strategies for the near future. But while real-time experiences and digital fashion are exciting, at the same time our team all agreed that the real untapped value of DPC lies in how interwoven it is with almost every challenge and opportunity fashion faces. From sustainability and on-demand production to new frontiers of creativity and new models of monetisation, The Interline team are all happy to endorse the idea that digital product creation is potentially the foremost engine of change in fashion’s near-term future.
Our most-read feature in the last month of the year is a prime example of where digital assets, digital tools, and digital end-to-end workflows are unlocking new possibilities. Or, more accurately, making pre-existing visions (such as mass personalisation) practical.
For a year that began with the question of whether fashion can strike the right blend between responsiveness and responsibility, it’s fitting that the most popular article in the final month is a breakdown of the commercial viability of an approach to fashion that’s built on that balance: mass tailoring.
By combining custom fit, digital assets, and on-demand production, mass tailoring has long been seen as a “holy grail” of fashion for its ability to ensure that every product finds a buyer, as well as being a tool that could instantly address the industry’s sky-high return rates. But traditionally the mechanics and the mathematics have been difficult to reconcile; on-demand production and unit-of-one manufacturing have been pigeonholed as being far too expensive to make the transition worthwhile.
Our team are still firmly of the opinion that most production will remain offshore, with growing percentages being managed nearshore and in-country (and on-demand), but we equally all agreed that there’s much more to consider when evaluating the bottom line of new production methods and paradigms than just the per-unit manufacturing cost. And this is something we’re likely to hear a lot more about in 2023 as the negative impacts of waste, fit, returns, excess inventory, and other variables begin to weigh even more heavily on fashion’s balance sheets.