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.

Focus on physical retail: holograms and TikTok driving in-store sales

Holograms have been used in a variety of ways over the years. Think Tupac appearing onstage at Coachella in 2012, or the hologram of the late Robert Kardashian gifted to Kim Kardashian by Kanye West in 2020 for her 40th birthday. Long before this, in 2006, legendary designer Alexander McQueen showcased a hologram of a young Kate Moss as part of his Widows of Culloden show.

Despite the sci-fi name, hologram technology is relatively simple and has been around for a while, but that hasn’t prevented it reappearing in a retail setting this month. H&M has placed a hologram display in its Williamsburg store, in Brooklyn NYC. Powered by holographic communications platform Proto (described as “the world’s first and only” of its kind) the display combines a cross between the physical and the digital, with the campaign also offering dance and exercise classes as part of the athletic clothing line H&M Move. This is an interesting development since it brings a proven technology into a new setting, at the same time as blending it with other retail channels – making it more fitting for fashion’s drive towards omnichannel commerce., This trend also appeared in news that TikTok is driving sales in physical stores, not just on Amazon and other direct-to-consumer (DTC) sites as it has usually been known to do. There is clearly a pathway from digital experiences to physical shopping, and back again.

This adds a deeper layer to what would otherwise be a simple example of adding a digital multimedia element to physical retail. Instead, fashion is recognising that both channels can influence one another – even if, as is the case with TikTok – the channel is not brand-owned. For many people it remains likely that going to a brick-and-mortar store is still a special occasion, but it also looks increasingly probable that it will be digital channels that drive them there – and that they will experience some form of digital engagement when they arrive.

NFTs and virtual stores, accompanied by real-world benefits 

The new week has also seen LA athleisure brand Alo Yoga rolling out an NFT as part of its Aspen ski collection. Each product will have a corresponding digital twin, which unlocks real-world experiences including access to Alo Houses, and personal training sessions at Alo Wellness Clubs. Although the brand has been quick to assert that they are not using ‘NFT language’ and other confusing jargon, instead opting for their digital twin to be called a ‘digital certificate of authenticity,’ the underlying technology principles are the same. As in a continuation of the cross-channel trend, the brand has also just opened its first virtual store; collaborating with experiential e-commerce platform Obsess to bring the concept to life. As per a press release by Alo, customers can visit via mobile, desktop or the Meta Quest 2 VR headset. 

This touches on a theme that The Interline has predicted for 2023: brands are moving away from the abstract and are focusing on clarity, practicality, and tangible benefits. While this is an example of a brand capturing two bold visions from 2022 (Metaverse and NFTs) it’s doing so in a considered, pragmatic way, and shunning some of the negative baggage that has rightly become associated with those labels.

We expect to see more brands following suit as this year progresses.

What might AI search mean for product discovery

At the moment AI is everywhere, but right now it hasn’t yet been widely deployed in web search – despite new efforts from both Google and Microsoft with Bard and Bing respectively. While a lot of attention has been focused on the use of generative AI in visual applications, the integration of large language models (LLMs) into search could have an equally profound impact on  fashion brands and retailers, for whom web search has steadily evolved beyond being a tool for pure brand discovery to also being an engine for product decision-making.

That space hasn’t fully crystallised yet – AR experiences, embedded 3D objects etc are still not universally used – but it is generally agreed that search is a good place to showcase specific products rather than just general branding. With that in mind, what  implications does this have if AI search becomes more prevalent? It likely means LLMs making product recommendations for people based on extremely subjective inputs.

At the moment machine-learning enabled product recommendation engines have been embedded in some eCommerce frontends, and Google has its own recommendation engine that transcends its different products. But if ChatGPT and its peers (and its descendents) do, indeed, represent the future of web search, then they also represent the future of product discovery that takes place outside a brand’s own sphere of influence.

In the future where the line between search and conversational interface blurs, then, it’s going to be critical for an AI to know as much as possible about your products if it’s going to make an informed recommendation. And there’s also the thorny question of what happens in scenarios where a shopper asks ChatGPT (or an equivalent) for a product – say a piece of outdoor performance apparel that fits a set of narrow criteria – and the model surfaces multiple results. What’s going to happen if the consumer asks for a recommendation based on subjective rather than objective criteria? It’s already difficult to unpick how generative art models are creating new images (from what training data, and with what copyright implications) so the same questions are going to be asked about how an AI search engine arrived at the recommendations it made.

This will be interesting to track as the European Union’s set of AI governance and regulation frameworks comes closer to being adopted – especially since it looks set to extend provisions that were previously restricted to ‘high risk’ AI applications into more general purpose use cases. What might this mean for the expectations around transparency, openness, and fairness in AI search? And what implications does that have for a business – Google – that runs on ad revenue?

There is no immediate action for brands to take here. At the moment, the deployment of AI into search seems inevitable, but so does a (potentially lengthy) acclimatisation period for the tech giants behind it – who have difficult tech and social problems to engineer their way out of. In the near future, though, the pressing challenge with AI, for fashion, is set to shift from finding a way to stop public generative models from infringing on copyrights, to finding a way to educate other public models on fine distinctions between different products.

From sustainability to circularity: patents and R&D at the core of change for the fashion industry

Some fashion experts say that there is no such thing as ‘sustainable fashion’. It’s a big claim, but not an unfounded one. The unfortunate reality is that the industry as a whole is growing rapidly and it has not succeeded in reducing its negative impact on the environment in the past 25 years. We make more fashion than ever, wear it less often, and throw an alarming amount of it away. 

Where does the solution lie?  It will need to be systemic, with major shifts in behaviour as well as a focus on technological innovation.

To start, beyond  being ‘sustainable’, the goal should be to think of fashion as being ‘circular’. This has been a big focus for many companies, but its definition is also similarly nebulous. What does circularity actually look like?

On a consumer level it’s comparatively straightforward. It  means purchasing second-hand clothing, choosing to buy clothing made from textiles that can be recycled easily, as well as donating and recycling old clothes. 

At an industry level, it’s harder to pin down. But to help unlock the possibilities and move the industry closer to a definition, we’re seeing  smaller tech-led innovators, who focus on improving production processes that use harmful chemicals and promoting recyclability. Some notable examples include DyeRecycle who developed a chemical process to decolour textile waste and reuse dyes; US company Circ who uses hydrothermal processing to treat cotton and polyester fibres thus making them easier to recycle; and UK-based Worn Again recycles textiles at a molecular level.

This type of technological excellence that reinvents the way clothes are made, along with growing awareness among consumers, could finally be what moves the needle for the global textile industry to have a refresh. The goal? A world where disposable fashion is phased out, recycling is mandatory, toxins and microfibers are at a minimum and renewable energy is commonplace. 

As that description suggests, this is a long-term, deep strategic shift in the way fashion operates. And it’s not an effort that will be completed any time soon. But every step towards closing the loop of fashion is a step towards a future where circularity is not just talked about, but practiced.

The best from The Interline:

This week we published another instalment in our series of digital product creation executive interviews, an examination of the possibility space of phygital fashion (in partnership with PhygitalTwin), and two features from Mark Harrop and Darya Badiei.

In this week’s DPC conversation, we talk to Victor Chao, CEO of Frontier, about fashion’s need to find ways of digitising at speed and at source.

In her latest exclusive feature for The Interline, Darya Badiei explores ‘The Billion Dollar Return Dilemma‘, wonders whether capturing consumer body data offers a clear path to improving it in ready-to-wear, and considers how commercially viable make-to-measure is.

Elsewhere, Mark Harrop shares his recommendations for the right steps before embarking on a PLM project: a big enterprise decision that, although a vital investment for many brands and retailers, shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Finally, to coincide with the launch of a unique, limited-run digital and physical collection, we worked with the team behind PhygitalTwin to examine why the inflexible nature of the traditional fashion structure makes it a poor fit for the grassroots communities and growing influencer culture that are defining the future of fashion.