Cover Story: Fashion Forward

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 8, 2021 - November 14, 2021.
Cover Story: Fashion Forward
-A +A

From haute couture to casual wear, fashion is a multi-sensory affair for both designers and consumers. The human senses play a big role in how a garment is designed — from the vividly coloured patterns to the feel of the fabric between one’s fingers.

A handful of designers still rely on traditional designing techniques but, even then, they cannot run away from tech innovation in the fashion space. Pattern printing is one of the earliest innovations in the industry, invented in the 1920s. Prior to that, fabrics were hand designed and stretched on cardboards to be used as templates for future patterns.

As the industry grew, so did the tech tools. Mathieu Bonenfant, fashion marketing strategy director at Lectra, a company that provides technologies aimed at fashion, automotive and furniture companies, tells Digital Edge that while innovation is rife in this space (accelerated by the pandemic), it still remains a complementary tool for fashion designers. 

“It really depends on the designers, as they tend to pick tools that are most effective for them. From our experience, their job cannot be limited by tech, especially since creators are expected to have borderless creativity. Tools should be there to help and not limit,” he says.

Sizer can take a person’s body measurement with up to 97% accuracy

While there are designers who still use pencil and paper, digital software such as Adobe’s Procreate resonate with some designers. Bonenfant says Lectra has a tool called KaledoStyle that supports designers when they are coming up with patterns for a garment.

“Design is not just about the garment itself. It also encompasses the fabric, colours, shape and the technical specification of a design. The new generation of fashion tech includes 3D designing as well.”

Andrew Tan, founder and CEO of KL Fashion Week (KLFW), says fashion tech with artificial intelligence (AI) has been around in one form or another ever since Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is the current state of the web, which has more user-generated content and usability for end-users. 

Today, fashion tech is more consumer-centric, bridging the gap between consumers and brands, both offline and online. 

“AI is used to enhance customers’ shopping experience, analyse data, boost sales, forecast trends and offer inventory-related guidance. Chatbots and touchscreens are being used in stores to improve customer experience and customise product suggestions,” says Tan.

“It’s almost impossible to head to a fashion brand’s website and not find some form of AI chat tech that’s being used to help enhance the customer experience. The tech behind AI includes algorithms that track customers’ journeys to match them with the right products.”

Customer demand a driving force for fashion tech

Since the first fashion tech solution, consumer demand has been the driving force behind new fashion tech. Lectra’s Bonenfant shares that after the digitisation of patterns came the automation of fabric cutting, followed by marker making (the process of determining the most efficient layout of pattern pieces for a style, fabric and distribution of sizes).

This sub-wave of fashion digitalisation that combines marker making with fabric cutters resulted in the use of less fabric. Bonenfant says this is done by mixing up the apparel sizes when cutting fabric with multi layers, which can produce markers with a single cut.

“For example, we optimise the position of the patterns on the fabric by combining two S sizes with three Ls, to find the best jigsaw to use the least amount of fabric and reduce waste. These jigsaws require advanced algorithms,” he says.

Bonenfant sees an evolution in the fashion supply chain, as fashion designers and manufacturers further connect with the end-user to drive traffic to their products. A designer’s priority now is focused on designing clothes that people will buy and wear — ethically, of course.

“While the demand and supply need to be perfectly aligned, we cannot spoil any more of the planet’s resources. In France, we have a new law coming into effect in 2022, where it will be forbidden to destroy unsold fashion goods and items,” he says.

“That’s quite a game changer, because we need to think differently. Many fashion companies think about profit margin when they purchase garments from the factory, where they buy in bulk and a long time in advance to bring down the price. Now, they need to also manage the end of life of these goods.”

It is the era of the agile supply chain, adds Bonenfant, as manufacturers and designers will produce only what is needed and nothing more. The interaction and connectivity between designers, manufacturers and consumers will become more seamless to better understand the demand to supply it.

“At Lectra, we enable our clients to do their part with our cutters, which minimises the fabric required for a perfect fit. The garments are graded to make sure that they do fit your consumer and you have fewer returns. It’s all about connecting designers, consumers and factories.”

Consumers are also expecting a lot from brands as they anticipate frictionless brand engagement. Bonenfant says a strong connection with an online marketplace is important nowadays too. As such, Lectra recently acquired Neteven, an online distribution company.

Sustainable fashion is a hot topic among consumers and designers today. Information transparency is also important to consumers, he says, as consumers become more conscious of their purchases. 

“In Europe, it was discovered that when data about the sustainability of the garment or product is shown, a customer is 15% more likely to purchase it. In fact, the more information about the supply chain is available — such as how the garment was made, its durability and impact on the environment — the better,” he says.

Data is a big component in the fashion industry today. User data will allow brands and manufacturers to learn about people’s fashion wants and needs. For designers, their design sketches and marker templates are their intellectual property.

Bonenfant says Lectra’s Kubix Link solution, which is a product lifecycle management tool, stores the designers’ data for safekeeping and future use. He adds that it can be connected with digital platforms and push this information to marketplaces so that consumers can benefit from the product data to make better decisions when shopping. 

The bottom line is that consumers dictate the moves of the fashion industry, says Bonenfant, especially on the sustainability and body inclusivity front, so that brands are held accountable and diverse in their offerings.

“When a consumer is aligned to a certain value, they push for it. And that is a good thing because it also creates new marketplaces for designers to penetrate. There was a disconnect between demand and supply but, now, we definitely see things shifting, especially with the help of tech tools.”

Filling the pandemic gap

When the pandemic hit, companies such as Sizer Technologies, with its body measurement tool, and Holition Beauty, with its augmented reality (AR) cosmetics tool, moved into the spotlight, as fashion designers and brands needed to find other means to reach their consumers.

Interestingly, both companies have been around for close to a decade, focusing on research and development to refine their tech to be cost-effective and user-friendly. Both solutions faced similar challenges in the pre-pandemic world, where their potential was undervalued. 

John Peeters, director of business development at Holition Beauty, says that a decade ago, smaller cosmetics companies could not afford bespoke technology at this level of sophistication. The company spent years refining its product to make it cost-effective and adaptable.

“We’ve developed a line of HTML code that brands can add to their website, mobile app or in-store tablets. It can be installed anywhere and used even in mirrors, when the industry greatly incorporates Internet of Things (IoT) solutions,” Peeters says.

Sizer, on the other hand, is on a mission to reduce the frequency of online garment returns in the e-commerce and uniform industry. Nicole Levitt, vice-president of marketing at Sizer Technologies, says 40% of fashion items bought online are returned, about 70% of which is due to incorrect sizing. As for uniform workwear, about 35% of the world’s workforce wears uniforms but finding the right fit is difficult.

“Companies such as Amazon and ASOS have free return policies and they’ve dug a hole for themselves and consumers too because when a consumer doesn’t know what size they are, they’ll order five sizes of the same item, try it on and ship back the rest. It has created a vicious cycle because when the retailers get the goods back, they often can’t sell it and then it’s sent to the landfill,” Levitt says.

“Not only are these logistical nightmares, it’s an issue of sustainability as the carbon footprint of the purchase increases. On top of that, hundreds and thousands of dollars are spent on shipping apparel across the country. It can’t go on like this.”

Sizer’s solution can take a person’s body measurement with up to 97% accuracy. The made-to-measure solution calculates the measurements and feeds them back to a tailor or to brands, so that more custom-fit garments can be generated.

Levitt says: “We see ourselves as a tool to feed accurate data into the complete fashion value chain, whether it’s giving the data to the retailer for their consumers or feeding it back to the designers to build a size chart or make a garment using data.”

Russell Freeman, chief technology officer of Holition Beauty, says its AR tech includes machine learning, which enables face tracking. Taking into account the different devices that its Holition Beauty solution might be used on and the effect of lighting on a person’s look, Freeman says its tech aims for accuracy and speed.

“It’s a combination of AR tracking, image processing, deep learning AI and machine learning. It runs at 100 frames per second, so it will work in a browser without the need to install an app. We also developed our own rendering algorithm to simulate cosmetic products, which is our specialty. We’ve put a lot of time into trying to make it as real as possible,” he says.

“We also have an analysis framework that has deep learning embedded within our tech, which can scan faces and identify skin tones, facial features, blemishes, dark circles and so on. Products like foundation were tough to match and blend into the skin with AR and we did that.”

Levitt says Sizer’s computer vision technology captures images and applies machine learning computer vision algorithms to accurately calculate body measurements.

To use Sizer, a user will need to download the app, place the phone upright at a 90-degree angle and step about two metres back from the phone. An interactive tutorial guides users to perform a few simple poses as well as a full 360-degree body rotation to get accurate measurements.

“That 360-degree body turn is what gives us accuracy because we’re calculating algorithms for different body parts, such as the chest, hips and waist,” she says.

“We take 12 main measurements, which are needed to give good size recommendations, and we are at least 97% accurate for each of those measurements. This means that if a tailor measured your waist with a measuring tape and then you were measured with Sizer, it would be at least 97% accurate.

“We’re still a relatively new start-up and we’re constantly improving our accuracy. The solution is based on data and machine learning, so the more people we scan, the better the accuracy.”

Sizer has a dashboard where brands can access their users’ anonymously gathered data to better understand their wants and needs.

A major issue in the fashion industry is size charts, which are not consistent across brands. Levitt says a person might be a size M in one store but an L in another. On top of that, most size charts were built years ago, which does not accurately represent body shapes today.

“With the data, fashion designers can rebuild size charts that better reflect their shoppers’ body shapes. It will also make them reassess their views on what is considered average body shape and size,” she adds.

AR, deep tech, IoT and sustainable fashion will shape the future

IoT is one of the most exciting emerging technological trends in the fashion market. KLFW’s Tan says everyday fashion continues to improve and adapt with each year to reflect the realities of daily life. 

“This has been seen most clearly in the advancements in apparel tech and wearable gadgets, which have gone as far as affecting how we experience our surroundings and interact with others and our bodies,” he says.

“Smart clothing, wearable spaces, multi-functional designs and responsive sportswear have all developed massively over the past three years. As our real lives become increasingly mixed with a virtual existence, many designers have been experimenting and pushing the limits of what wearability means.”

In the cosmetics space, Holition Beauty’s Peeters says AR tutorials are set to dominate. Right now, make-up tutorials are ubiquitous on social media, with make-up gurus demonstrating and simplifying professional make-up looks, but he foresees AR being a guide instead in less than five years.

Holition Beauty is ready to lead in the cosmetics space with its AR tutorials

“Many women have yet to master sophisticated make-up techniques. The AR tech will make these looks more accessible to women everywhere and we’ve even developed a pilot AR tutorial with Burberry, involving a contouring, blusher and highlighting trial and tone scanning.

“If we add an analysis feature, we can understand the user better and make better recommendations and that’s really what we’re pushing for.”

AI and AR will have the biggest impact across the cosmetic sector, which is the tech sweet spot, says Freeman. The clothing and jewellery spaces rely on physical objects, which is challenging because of the time needed to reproduce the visualisation required.

He explains: “This is where AI will really assist, as it can reproduce and make these models automatically so that these solutions become cheaper and more accessible.”

In the garment space, Levitt’s Sizer sees solutions complementing the in-store shopping experience as retailers become more accustomed to tech solutions as well as having an omnichannel solution for seamless offline to online shopping experience.

“We foresee shoppers scanning themselves at home. So, when they go to a store, they would scan, for example, the barcode of the item and it would match them up to their size,” she says.

“[It gets rid of] the fitting room syndrome, where you take multiple sizes of the same garment to try on. The solution expedites the process by selecting the right size for you.”

3D avatars are also on the horizon. Levitt says: “Sizing is the foundation to everything in fashion, so once you get the right body measurements, other technologies such as 3D avatars can be built around it.

“Companies will be able to show visualisations of the garments on an avatar with the right measurements and fit.”

Product innovation is happening in the name of sustainability as well. KLFW’s Tan says 12.8 million tonnes of clothing are sent to landfills annually. On top of that, the fashion industry is responsible for up to 10% of global carbon emissions, industrial wastewater (20%) as well as the use of insecticides (24%) and pesticides (11%). According to fashion search engine Lyst, there is a 47% increase in the number of shoppers looking for ethical and sustainable products.

Tan says: “Environmental impact is moving consumers and brands to the concept of ‘slow fashion’ and away from the long, costly manufacturing process. As a result, more brands are opting for sustainable production and consumers are choosing conscious brands over fast fashion.

“As the reality of the climate emergency sets in, designers are seen moving away from seasonal collections in favour of designing timeless pieces that can serve consumers for years.”

He adds that fast-fashion giants can produce as many as 52 micro collections a year. To keep up with rapid consumer demand, traditional brands had to release up to 11 collections a year.

Novel fabrics are arguably the future of fashion, he says, as they are another way for designers to set themselves apart and appeal as a sustainable option. These fabrics automatically regulate the amount of heat that passes through them, helping the wearer stay cool or warm.

“All the facts point to the idea that eco-leather is not a very sustainable option. Start-ups like Modern Meadow are combating this by creating lab-grown leather without harming animals. Likewise, companies like Bolt Threads and EntoGenetics are innovating super-strong spider silk,” says Tan.