The Future Of Fashion: From Design To Merchandising, How Tech Is Reshaping The Industry:(2)Manufacturing

Fast fashion has created an instant gratification mentality. 

Since WW2, fashion has officially been broken up into seasons: spring/summer lines debut on runways in early fall, and autumn/winter lines debut in February.

The staggered timeline is designed to give brands enough time to gauge the interest of retail buyers and customers. In the time between when fashions are introduced and when they arrive on store shelves, brands assess demand so that they can manufacture the right number of garments for the season.

Fast fashion, in which designs move quickly from catwalk to store shelves, has upended every aspect of that model.

Brands like Zara, H&M, Top Shop, and Forever 21 have built their businesses on speed and agility. Once these retailers spot a new trend, they can deploy their hyper-rapid design and supply chain systems to bring the trend to market as quickly as possible.

This allows fast fashion brands to beat traditional labels to market. Garments and accessories strutted down runways in September and February may get spotted and replicated by fast-fashion brands before the originals even hit stores.

With a nearly real-time ability to get the newest styles on shelves, fast fashion brands can also push out broader varieties of clothing styles to cater to the preferences of smaller, more targeted segments of customers.

They can also push smaller runs to test the waters for customer demand, or sell collections for hyper-short lifespans.

NO MORE FASHION SEASONS

The rise of fast fashion is decimating the biannual seasonality that has long structured the fashion industry.

Fast fashion brands may issue as many as 52 weekly “micro-seasons” per year. Topshop, for example, introduces ~400 styles per week on its website.

To keep up, traditional apparel brands are now debuting around 11 seasons a year.

Cheap alternatives to high-fashion items remain hot consumer commodities. Even amid the retail slowdown, Zara’s parent company, Spanish retail giant Inditex, saw nearly $30B in sales in FY18 (February 2018 – January 2019) — a 3% increase in net sales.

Social media accelerates that cycle. Influencer marketing and other social media strategies help new trends travel fast, creating rapid consumer demand for hyper-cheap fashions.

Shoppers act on that demand instantly, thanks to “See-Now Buy-Now” tools on platforms like Instagram and Pinterest.

Fashion Nova is one example of a fast fashion e-commerce brand that has successfully leveraged social media to build its customer base and its brand. The company has more than 15 million followers on Instagram, as well as more than 3,000 influencers, known as #NovaBabes, promoting its clothes.

Fast fashion brand Boohoo has said that its profits doubled after paying celebrities to promote its products on Instagram to 16- to 24-year-old fans.

Yet fast fashion clearly has a dark side. Brands manufacture low-cost, low-quality apparel in factories with questionable working conditions, relying on workers who receive low pay. The inexpensive materials used to create cheap garments are also laden with chemicals.

Since rapid production runs create excessive textile waste, cheaply made apparel harms both factory workers and the environment: according to the Environmental Protection Agency, some 12.8M tons of clothing is sent to landfills annually. Global textile production emits 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually (more than international flights and maritime shipping combined). The fashion industry is responsible for up to 10% of global CO2 emissions, 20% of the world’s industrial wastewater, 24% of insecticides, and 11% of pesticides used, according to some estimates.

While the sustainability issues within fashion, and fast fashion in particular, are not new, what is new is how the industry’s most influential customers are starting to respond.

THE PUSH FOR SUSTAINABILITY

Consumers are wising up to the negatives of fast fashion: socially conscious shoppers are embracing the growing movement of “slow fashion,” which focuses on sustainable materials and transparent, ethical labor and manufacturing.

In 2018, the fashion search engine Lyst tracked more than 100 million searches on its shopping site and reported a 47% increase in shoppers looking for products with ethical and style qualifications, including terms such as “vegan leather” and “organic cotton.”

The growing concern about sustainability is particularly prominent among younger generations: 83% of millennials in the United States value companies implementing programs to improve the environment, according to The Conference Board Global Consumer Confidence Survey. And 75% are willing to change consumption habits for more sustainable offerings.

Young, upcoming brands in the fashion space are making moves to align with this shift in consumer sensitivities. Cuyana urges customers to shift their focus to buying “fewer, better things.” Its products are made with sustainable, plant-based materials including linen and silk. Another young company called Pact offers cotton garments that are certified organic by GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard).

The shift to sustainability is particularly noticeable in the shoe industry. Allbirds, for example, produces shoes made from eucalyptus leaves.

In response, a number of prominent brands have announced new clothing lines and initiatives focused on sustainable materials:

  • H&M’s Conscious Collection features a leather jacket and cowboy boots made using Piñatex, a leather-like material made from pineapple leaves which are typically discarded in pineapple production. The line supports H&M’s broader goal to increase the use of sustainable resources to 100% by 2030.
  • Levi’s Wellthread x Outerknown collection is piloting products with 30% “cottonized” hemp and jackets with detachable hardware to make them more easily recyclable. The company’s Water<Less(R) Denim line was created to reduce the amount of water used in producing some of the brand’s most popular styles and fits.
  • Adidas has announced plans to make 11 million pairs of sneakers with recycled ocean plastic in 2019.
  • Online resale site thredUP teamed up with Conscious Commerce to launch the Choose Used Capsule Collection, a limited edition collection of secondhand pieces screen-printed with fresh designs.

A shift to more sustainable fabrics is not the only way the fashion industry is shifting to embrace more sustainable practices.

ThredUp bills itself as “the largest online consignment and thrift store.” The company predicts that the total secondhand apparel market (resale + thrift & donations) will hit $51B by 2023 — driven by a growth in the resale sector.

Another company, Poshmark, takes a marketplace approach to fashion, allowing customers to buy and sell used items with other users through the site.

Taking a cue from these younger companies, H&M announced (in April 2019) that it will test sales of secondhand and vintage items in a bid to boost the brand’s sustainability cred and connect with environmentally minded customers.

AI and advanced technologies may also have a part to play in the push for sustainability in fashion.

One area they could improve is returns, which is currently a significant source of waste within the fashion industry (and the e-commerce segment in particular). On average, 40% of online purchases are returned. With data and AI capabilities, retailers could more effectively match customers’ shopping behavior and preferences, potentially reducing the overall number of returns.

Even as the slow fashion movement gains traction, the rise of social media and the fast fashion model (not to mention e-commerce) have transformed fashion as we know it.

RAPID ITERATION & PRODUCTION

The costs of starting a fashion brand have gone down significantly, thanks to technology and e-commerce.

The dawn of Etsy made it easy for anyone to start an online shop and build a following. Now, decreased production costs make it feasible for small or emerging brands to manufacture small runs of products at reasonable margins and build up online audiences from there.

In years past, fashion labels would have to manufacture hundreds or thousands of items in order to produce them at a reasonable price.

Now, startups like Maker’s Row make it simple for small labels to find small-batch manufacturing partners that can meet their needs at scale, with transparent standards around pricing and sourcing. Emerging brands can weave small-batch runs (and transparent production standards) into their marketing.

NYC-based menswear line Noah, for example, produces ultra-small batch clothing lines — rumored to sometimes be as little as 12 or 24 items — and often sell out of these items quickly. The launches includes detailed blog posts about the items’ sourcing and purpose.

Large high-end brands are also evolving their approach to production to better compete with fast fashion retailers.

Tommy Hilfiger makes the fashions in its new TommyNow line available instantly — all around the world, in-store and online — as soon as they sashay down the runway.

That means TommyNow items hit stores three times faster than traditional collections, with just a 6-month window between product ideation/design and release.

“It’s about delivering on the instant gratification that consumers are really seeking,” says Avery K. Baker, Chief Brand Officer at Tommy Hilfiger. “Closing that gap between the visibility of a fashion show and the moment of purchase.”

he Hilfiger brand has gone all-in on making the Now line experiential and immediate.

NYC launch of the TommyXGigi collection

The first TommyNow collection — a collaboration with model Gigi Hadid — launched with a two-day Fashion Week extravaganza that supported a huge social media push. The event livestream was made “shoppable” for Facebook Live and supplemented with instantly-buyable product debuts on Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Many other brands aim to follow TommyNow’s example.

That’s no easy feat: shortening an 18-month production window into just 6 months required the Tommy Hilfiger brand to overhaul its entire design, manufacturing, and distribution ecosystems.

Yet plenty of technologies are emerging to make scalable, sustainable production more feasible, at a faster pace

STREAMLINING THE SUPPLY CHAIN

Some brands are “internalizing” production to quicken the pace of manufacturing and meet consumer demand more rapidly.

In April 2018, Gucci launched Gucci Art Lab, a 37,000-square-meter product development and lab testing center with in-house prototyping and sampling activity for leather goods, new materials, metal hardware, and packaging. The project’s aim is to bring the Gucci supply chain closer to home — ultimately giving the brand greater control over product development, sampling, and material development.

Elsewhere, brands are exploring how 3D printing can help them produce goods on-demand and create new avenues for customization.

3D PRINTING PERSONALIZED PRODUCTS

Performance professional apparel brand Ministry of Supply unveiled an in-store 3D printer that creates customized knitwear (and can produce a customized blazer in just 90 minutes). Printing the garments reduces fabric waste in production by about 35%.

Adidas has also partnered with Carbon to create 3D-printed sneakers and shoe parts.

The limited edition Adidas Futurecraft 4D, which retails for around $300, is the latest product from the partnership (shown below). Adidas also invested in Carbon through its Hydra Ventures arm in Q4’17, and joined Carbon’s board of directors.

For now, Futurecraft 4D shoes are hard to find, because production is limited. It’s a situation that the company hopes to change over time.

“Ultimately, we’re still ramping up the innovation. It will be faster, more limited material. Ideally, the vision is to build and print on demand … Right now, most of our products are made out of Asia and we put them on a boat or on a plane so they end up on Fifth Avenue.” – Adidas CMO Eric Liedtke

New Balance and Reebok have launched similar initiatives. In March 2018, Reebok released the Liquid Floatride Run shoe, the first product to market out of the company’s 3D printing concept, Liquid Factory. The shoe features 3D-printed “laces,” Liquid Grip on the sole, and the company’s new Flexweave material.

“Footwear manufacturing hasn’t dramatically changed over the last 30 years,” says Bill McInnis, Head of Future at Reebok. “Every shoe, from every brand is created using molds— an expensive, time-consuming process.

“With Liquid Factory, we wanted to fundamentally change the way that shoes are made, creating a new method to manufacture shoes without molds. This opens up brand new possibilities both for what we can create, and the speed with which we can create it.”

NEW ROBOT DESIGNS FOR THE MANUFACTURING FLOOR

As with every other industry, automation and robotics are also coming for fashion manufacturing. They’re already in the warehouse: many brands use automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) for stocking and transporting inventory.

Using robots in garment manufacturing, however, has been more challenging.

Robo-cutting fabrics has been possible for years, but sewing presents a challenge, as hard robots have difficulty working with pliable, elastic fabrics.

Advances in soft robotics will infiltrate garment-making in the future. In the meantime, startups are combining hardware and software to create automated sewing systems.

SoftWear Automation, for example, is developing “Sewbots” equipped with robotic arms, vacuum grippers, and specialized “micromanipulators” that can guide a piece of cloth through a sewing machine with submillimeter precision.

The Sewbots use specialized cameras and computer vision software to track individual threads at 1,000 frames per second. (In one contract, the startup brought a supplier’s T-shirt manufacturing costs down to just $0.33 a shirt.)

In February 2019, SoftWear announced Sewbots-as-a-Service, which allows manufacturers, brands, and retailers to rent the fully automated sewing workline. The program is intended to enable US-based companies to source and manufacture in the US at a lower cost than outsourcing, with greater predictability and quality.

Robots have long been used in shoemaking, but Nike doubled down on robo-manufacturing with its 2013 investment Grabit, a robotics startup that uses electroadhesion (a form of static electricity) to help machines manipulate objects in novel ways.

Since then, Nike has started using Grabit’s technology to assemble a sneaker’s “upper”— the flexible part of the shoe that sits atop the foot. (The upper is highly technical to manufacture, and had long been one area where human intervention was necessary.)

By embracing manufacturing systems that rely more on machines and less on humans, fashion brands of the future will speed up production and minimize concerns around labor conditions in their facilities. However, they also risk potential blowback from automating a factory workforce — albeit a notoriously poorly paid workforce operating under difficult conditions.

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