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.

Robots and fashion: on the high street, and behind the scenes

Technology is already taking some big strides this year. January has been ushered in by luxury house Louis Vuitton constructing a large, hyper-realistic robot of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama in its New York City store as part of the pair’s newest collaboration. Robots being used in the fashion industry is not new, however these occasional, splashy displays serve as a reminder that robotics has also been progressing in a significant way behind the scenes – notable in supply chain and smart manufacturing.

Nike, H&M, IKEA, Amazon, and Walmart are among some of the companies who are leveraging robotics to power their logistics and supply chain processes. The benefits of doing so? Reducing operating costs and driving efficiency and accuracy. The industry’s pain points are primarily in inventory allocation and distribution, with inaccurate tracking leading to lost revenue. Robots have been used to perform frequent stock-taking, shelf audits, and identify stock shortages – as well as being critical cogs in automated warehousing and distribution. 

We expect that these systems will mature even further this year, using artificial intelligence to complete a vast array of more complex tasks, and placing a greater emphasis on automating production beyond spreading, plotting, and cutting. This has already been the focus of a pre-pandemic project by Levi Strauss & Co and Siemens. Recently, The pair have reportedly participated in a project that centred on investigating robotics in apparel production. The project follows a previous initiative by Siemens, who worked with the  Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute in Pittsburgh, USA, with the aim of building software to guide robots to handle all types of materials.

Although COVID may have shifted the industry’s attention temporarily away from robotics, new cost-cutting measures and greater requirements for transparency and disclosure, are likely to have brought the potential for automation back to the fore.

And it’s important to remember that there has been large investment into robotics and connectivity to assist with manufacturing optimisation and preventative maintenance.

Fair labour: from lip service to action

The global apparel market is estimated to be worth $1.52 trillion  and, as we’ve established, it is one of the last to be automated at the manufacturing level. There are many reasons for this: among them that automation is going to have a profound effect on fashion’s relationship with its talent – both employees and partners. The concern is that any attempt to switch high-volume production (which is overwhelmingly conducted by skilled workers in countries where wages are low relative to consumption markets) will have far-reaching impacts on workers in developing countries, who are already some of the most valuable and vulnerable people in the industry. 

In recent years, there has been a drive towards automation: replacing human beings at checkouts, and creating smart, connected stores that de-emphasise people. However, we are yet to see this fill the gap in retail labour at scale, and an ongoing retail labour shortage has seen the hiring market increase in competition, with higher pay but fewer openings for warehouse and in-store jobs alike. In the near-term at least, there is a slim chance that technology will replace these crucial retail jobs. 

And the same goes for supply chain expertise and capacity in traditional, high-volume production, where labour rights remain a boiling point issue for the industry. Brands undoubtedly have a great deal of responsibility for how workers are treated based on how significant a priority fair labour and living wages are in their sourcing strategies and purchasing practices. And, just as it is with environmental accountability, legally binding regulation around human rights in apparel manufacturing is tightening and extending to new territories. 

As time goes on, the hope is that brands will prioritise ethical and sustainable manufacturing that continues to be conducted by skilled partners, even as they advance with more practical steps in other core areas – including automation of short-run and rapid-turnaround manufacturing. 

This may seem like optimism, but consumers are increasingly holding brands to account. Gen Z (which makes up 32% of the world’s population and is the largest generation to date) are a group that have grown up on the internet – giving them access to a wealth of information at their fingertips, quite literally. This has encouraged ethical consumption, and many younger people are shifting their buying behaviours in the face of the well-documented effects of climate change and the rising awareness of treatment of workers downstream in the fashion supply chain. 

As per a study by Merkle on the Next Generation of Consumer Behavior report, 83% of Gen Z’ers want brands to take a stance on social issues, and right now industry-spanning reports, like the ever-insightful Fashion Transparency Index, suggest that most brands are ill-equipped to take an informed stance (or to make measurable progress) on vital issues such as human rights and living wages.

Fashion weeks: big bets on physical and digital 

With physical fashion weeks already in swing in the world’s fashion capitals, alongside the return of  Digital Fashion Week New York and Metaverse Fashion Week, it seems as though both physical and digital showcases are set to continue side by side. It seems that, at the moment, there is still a large focus on physical shows with some kind of digital overlay. But is it only a matter of time before brands will put equal emphasis on digital experiences? Some of the latest news around investment in digital fashion spaces suggests so. 

Earlier this month, beauty brand L’Oréal announced that its corporate venture capital fund BOLD (Business Opportunities for L’Oréal Development) was investing in US-based startup, Digital Village. The startup is a ‘metaverse-as-a-service’ platform and combined NFT marketplace. A spokesperson for  L’Oréal emphasised that they believe that the future of beauty would be a combination of the physical, digital, and virtual – and it’s a small hop to see the same blended strategy becoming more prevalent in fashion. 

It seems that ongoing interest in realising the metaverse vision is also being backed up by big money, as per this month’s cover of Time Magazine and the story of ‘Davos Meets the Metaverse’. The implication here is that the metaverse has caught the attention of the largest financial players, as it is set to gain significant momentum in the next few years. It’s estimated that the metaverse will reach maturity in 2030 and the size of the Metaverse market, which is approaching 500 billion dollars today, is predicted to reach 5 trillion dollars in 2030. Making up some of this significant spending is Syky, a next-generation luxury fashion marketplace built on blockchain for designers and consumers, which has just received $9 million in funding.

While the digital fashion industry is still growing to catch up with its physical counterpart, the evidence suggests that within the next ten years, the fashion landscape will be one that has a formidable digital component. And with digital garments, digital avatars, and real-time environments and engines at their disposal, fashion brands are already working to reshape the way they engage with consumers – with much more to come.