The Society Magazine – Decrypting Tomorrow #4
FashionTech, how innovation is reshaping the industry

by Raffaella Bianchi
January 28, 2022

From emissions reduction to the more extensive attention for recycling, the necessity of a change has influenced small and big corporates in most industries, including Fashion

In the latest years, climate change issues have been part of our life, not only in the everyday news but also in the ordinary individual search for products and materials that are recycled or otherwise environmentally friendly.

One of the industries with the most significant room for improvement is fashion, which – so far – has been slow to change; however, the pressure to be more sustainable is increasing. According to Forbes, “Return waste is a major problem in fashion, and especially in the online fashion industry. Every year, 2.3 billion kg of waste is generated by returns.” This happens because consumers often order the same garment in different sizes and colours, returning unsuitable garments. As a result, most of the returned garments are not resold. Many companies are moving fast to find disruptive alternatives to address the previously slow pace of change and thus join the common cause of fighting climate change.

Technological innovations will drive the industry’s future

Like everything else, the fashion industry has undergone a profound change in the last two years. As reported by McKinsey & Company, 2020 was “The worst year on record for the fashion industry.” With retail shops closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, fashion customers have shifted to online streams, and brands have had to adapt quickly to this change. As a result, technology investments, which have since been considered experimental, really became a necessity. Contingency plans made a profound shift towards online channels, reshaping digital assets and completely rethinking supply chains.

Every significant change leaves its mark on history. Again, the fashion industry is expected to regain its value margin – touching $672.71 billion by 2023 – by bringing technological and disruptive innovations accelerated by the COVID-19 contingency. Technology will drive the future of the industry, and to become innovators and leaders, brands must take advantage of the current scenario by creating a high connection with customers and the environment.

The years of the materials revolution

A trend that has received the most extraordinary resonance lately is related to alternative materials that can rediscover and re-engineer old favourites and high-tech materials with existing realities. From luxury to fast fashion, brands are increasingly looking for alternatives to today’s materials to reduce gas emissions while maintaining high quality standards. Fibre innovation is skyrocketing, and many fashion brands are focusing on integrating these new technologies into clothing and accessories. According to a McKinsey report, patent applications for innovative fibres have increased about eightfold between 2013 and 2019. Lidewij Edelkoort, one of the world’s most famous trend forecasters, predicts that “Silks and cellulose will definitely become the focus of biotechnology. Hopefully, this will become a staple of high-tech materials available in the future. However, one has to realise that clothing production is a deeply rooted tradition and has not changed much since the ‘Bronze Age’, so developments may take a long time.”

Like in all revolutions, change is generated by two actors: high-potential startups and large corporates. The former provides their hunger for growth and their biotechnological know-how, while the latter – thanks to their finances and open-minded, cutting-edge vision – embrace change and create partnerships with the former. Orange Fiber, a designer and supplier of eco-friendly, sustainable fabrics, is a virtuous Italian example. The company’s fabric is based on the extraction of high quality cellulose from the leftovers of the citrus juice industry, which now account for 60% of the original weight of processed fruit that would otherwise have to be disposed of. The end result is a silk-like cellulose yarn that can be blended with other materials, allowing customers to obtain a soft, silky, lightweight sensory material that reshapes the sartorial experience. On the occasion of the forty-seventh edition of Earth Day, in 2017, Orange Fiber launched its first collaboration with Ferragamo through the “Ferragamo Orange Fiber Collection” project, an exclusive green-fashion collection dedicated to innovation and sustainability. This collaboration combined fashion and design with an ethical production cycle, using only low-impact, naturally sourced fabrics. Orange Fiber has also closed a partnership with Swedish giant H&M creating Conscious Exclusive, H&M’s premium collection launched in 2019. This partnership is part of a broader framework that sees the startup linked for years to the H&M Foundation. A virtuous relationship that began in 2015 with the winning of the first Global Change Award and that has seen citrus fabrics featured in events, exhibitions and exclusive creations.

H&M is, in fact, one of the fashion giants strongly committed to reducing waste and pollution in fashion. In 2020, 64.5% of the materials used by the H&M group were recycled or from more sustainable sources. The Group continually focuses its efforts on R&D to predict future trends and connect with innovative startups to reach the goal of having 100% sustainably sourced materials by 2030. A prominent example is the development of a sustainable fabric made from the regenerated textile fibre Infinna, produced by Infinited Fiber Company. The Finnish startup’s technology can transform textile waste rich in cotton, cardboard and agricultural by-products into new unique textile fibres with a soft, natural look and feel. In 2019, after completing a successful pilot, H&M became one of Infinited Fiber’s shareholders. In early 2021, in Weekday’s online shop, H&M launched the first garments fully regenerated from 100% post-consumer textile waste.

Trends prediction will save the fashion industry

In addition to the materials revolution, other changes can be adopted to reduce waste. As the COVID-19 pandemic shifts the business model from offline to online, it seems clear that brands need to rethink their social media strategy. According to P&G, “The real challenge is that advertising overload could damage customer engagement, creating the opposite results. On average, users spent less than two seconds looking at mobile ads and, in general, these ads appeared far too often.” So how can fashion brands maintain customer engagement while buying economic returns and sustainability?

There are three main starting points for brands to turn their attention to: maximising the efficiency of existing social platforms, benefiting from the existence of new social media that can potentially be useful in extending the fan base, and building a direct monetisation strategy around these platforms. As in other sectors, the use of platforms allows companies to collect an exponential amount of data that, if processed appropriately, can bring enormous benefits. Furthermore, as data is collected and incorporated into databases, artificial intelligence allows for innovation in the approach used so far to design and develop new campaigns. This will lead to predicting patterns of what customers want and desire. Lalaland, an Amsterdam-based startup founded in 2019, uses machine learning to generate full-body models and a diverse library of size-inclusive models. Brands can then share the models with their customers, allowing them to get high-resolution, customised and relevant images. The final output is a realistic, ready-to-publish model created in minutes. By representing personalised clothing and the diversity of humankind, Lalaland allows brands to create a deep connection with their customers, being a virtuous example of how AI can be used to produce tangible results while fuelling the imagination. Another example of how AI can improve brand conversion and customer engagement is given by, which, by leveraging computer vision and artificial intelligence, offers a scalable virtual fitting room experience for retailers. Founded in 2020, the startup provides virtual fitting technology through API integration, helping fashion e-commerce create a shopping experience where shoppers can visualise clothing and matches with any outfit they choose. This allows brands to improve the online consumer experience and leads to higher engagement and sales conversions.

Fortune favours the bold

Fashion companies should become more resilient, build a deep perception of industry risks and act strategically to minimise them. By doing so, successful startups will be those who are able to anticipate their competitors, while improving the company’s operations and productivity and ensuring business flexibility.

The challenges are complex and manifold, and the fashion industry is undergoing a profound transformation at all levels. The use of low-impact materials, previously considered only for sportswear, is the first step in changing a system based on established rules. The same can be said for the use of well-known technologies and platforms whose potential has not yet been fully exploited to improve the transparency of the supply chain and consumer behaviour theory. Collaboration between the whole production chain through the exchange of knowledge and research funds will be the basis for future changes in this area.

However, to achieve and entrench effective change in the system, all actors involved, from startups to corporations, should not be driven only by the mere profit that can be derived from innovation. When selecting goals, companies need to look beyond their balance sheet, aiming for alternative and revolutionary solutions that will leave a mark on the fashion industry while improving it.

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