The fashion industry is undergoing a period of substantial change at the hands of the digital revolution. Buzzword techs like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and blockchain will all have a strong impact on the fashion world, just as these technologies are transforming industries across the board. There is one particular technology, however, that is set to revolutionise the way we think of fashion: mass customisation.
We are at a point where consumers are more demanding than ever, whilst market conditions remain volatile. It’s the perfect storm for a revolution: keeping abreast of technological movements has never been so critical.
Fashion designers are more overworked than ever. In a bid to try and keep up with increasing consumer demand, they are forced to create a profusion of collections. Sadly, these only tend to hit the shelves at the point where the designs are already going out of style. This has led to a state where we are seeing retail sales plummeting, and discounted lines an all-too-familiar, sorry sight.
Fashion Week, the most important event in the fashion calendar, has a part to play in this. Most of the collections seen on the catwalks are previews - not ready for public consumption. Nonetheless, fashion fans across the world are able now to witness these shows in real time. They want what they see, either on the catwalk or on the streets of Fashion Week, where celebrities and fashion influencer use the opportunity to showcase their own take on upcoming trends.
When consumers see these trends, they want them straightaway. Why would they want to wait six months, after all? With mass customisation, they need wait no longer.
Fast-moving designers can have new designs ready and available to order on brand websites within days or weeks of the catwalk show. Marketing departments make proud displays of the looks (measuring engagement with styles along the way to hone targeting), promising availability with sneak peeks as the designers bring these new looks to the site via 3D rendering.
Brands are battling to be ahead of the game and offer ‘see-now-buy-now’ lines right from Fashion Week itself. But what of the majority who aren’t traipsing the streets of Fashion Week? We have the technology now to bring them to the party, and get them purchasing feverishly in real-time, as if they were actually there. As Tom Ford said at last year’s New York Fashion Week:
“We spend an enormous amount of money and energy to stage an event that creates excitement too far in advance of when the collection is available to the consumer. Showing the collection as it arrives in stores will remedy this, and allow the excitement that is created by a show or event to drive sales and satisfy our customers' increasing desire to have their clothes as they are ready to wear them."
Technology such as mass customisation will further digitise and speed this process. It’s high time the fashion industry made the leap.
Personalisation at scale is becoming increasingly a reality in the fashion industry. The ability to use mass customisation to facilitate this, through the use of 3D rendering software and augmented reality, for example, will be a real driving force.
Another technology, currently in nascent form, but growing fast, is artificial intelligence and machine learning. Though this tech might seem a bit removed from fashion, this is far from the case.
Artificial intelligence has the capacity, for example, to identify upcoming trends at an early stage, and to use algorithms to determine the ideal fabrics, colours, patterns and cuts to pre-empt those trends ahead of time. Of course, we must take care not to put too much stake in algorithms to determine the nuances of individual fashion selection; a human element will remain vital to identifying the correct choices for upcoming lines.
Nonetheless, such integration between AI and mass customisation has the potential to bear much fruit. Beyond the assistance AI can offer to the fashion designer, when combined with 3D rendered customisation options on a brand’s website, algorithms will assist in pushing through orders in an efficient way that streamlines the production process. AI will additionally facilitate a move to the superior flow manufacturing model, which benefits cost reduction and elimination of excess inventory, for example.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of personal data. Superficially, such data is hugely beneficial to the marketing department, but pulling data on specific custom orders to inform future designs with the integration of AI and customisation options, will be equally beneficial.
As though it weren’t immediately obvious, there is a beautiful potential crossover with mass customisation and VR/AR technologies. At present, we are looking at screen-based 3D rendering software for users to design and order customised fashion products. However, as virtual and augmented technology take off, and all signs point to this being very imminent, we will see a move to the application of this 3D rendering in AR and VR. How does that work?
Well, imagine being able to try on clothes in augmented reality. Hold up your smartphone or tablet, let the app process your dimensions (as with Snapchat filters etc), and select different clothing options to try them on in real-time. Change the length of your sleeves, the colour of your skirt, make sure it fits perfectly, then hit ‘Order’ and your fully customised outfit will be on its way to you directly.
Not only will augmented reality allow mass customisation to grow exponentially, it is also bound to increase order value. A person that tries on a full outfit they like, customised to their exact specifications, is more likely to order the entire outfit than one item. Of course, customised products can incur a price premium. The potential ROI is phenomenal.
There is a warning to heed for brands looking to take on fashion technology in these areas. As Doug Stephens, futurist and author behind Retail Prophet, says:
“In a world where almost every aspect of our lives is somehow tethered to technology, experiences that engage our bodies, our senses and our souls are at a premium. Digital is what we’ve become but visceral is what we crave.”
A craving for meeting deep inward feelings beyond the superficial satisfaction of digital remains strong in consumers. Overly-digitising buying experience, whilst paying no mind to the humanity behind what drives our purchases, is a mistake. In a brand strategy that embraces the new, innovative technologies now open to us, we must remember to deliver a sense of community, a sense of education and inclusion… an emphasis on identity.
Consumers are absolutely not content to buy what everyone else is buying. That is one reason that the mass customisation model will succeed. But equally we must nurture that individual spirit with the way we present our offerings.
A personalised service should be just that - personal. Even if we use chatbots for customer service, as a kind of personal shopper integrated with our customisation software, we are delivering customer value over and above anything that the mass production model could possibly offer.