The elaborately wrought hairstyle of the 30,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf would suggest that fashion goes back way beyond the first appearance of the fashion industry in the 19th Century. We decorate ourselves to impress and when someone comes along with a more impressive decoration, we copy it. This desire, turbocharged by social media and celebrity culture, is now an epidemic of obsession.
Over 80 billion articles of clothing are produced each year and the average American buys an item of clothing every four days. Stella McCartney speaks of a world ‘drowning in fashion’, though presumably not in her high end, responsibly sourced clothing. In the past, fashion brands traded on their heritage and that heritage still counts for something, but for how long?
Our towns and cityscapes are transforming before our eyes as the millennials shop on-line and the high street stores close their doors. E-commerce operators are growing 24 times faster than their solid street-side rivals, fuelled by social media fluency and deft production cycles. Artificial Intelligence now provides trend predictions based on vast quantities of data in a process known as ‘Surveillance Capitalism’.
The browsing and shopping history of every on-line individual can be analysed to predict desires as yet unthought of. Edited, a data analytics company specialising in fashion, has a searchable data base of over sixty million products. The accuracy of trend forecasting enables focussed distribution and more efficient supply chain management. An AI chatbot will instantly identify you as a regular purchaser and give you the refund that a human may have hesitated over.
Microsoft’s chatbot Xiaoice is being used by over 40 million people on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. Entertainingly, its Tay chatbot, on Twitter, had to be taken down after it learned too well and started tweeting offensive messages. AI will allow for a more personalised shopping experience and will guide you with endless patience.
The apps are already with us. Screenshop, created by Kim Kardashian, enables you to take a photo and then shop for that look on the app and Dressing Room presents you with an avatar, customised to your measurements, which you can then outfit as you please. AI is now shaping fashion design in the same way that it has enabled architects to model their designs. Companies like Sewbo and Softwear (brilliant) use robotics to fully automate sewing. And it won’t be long before all those adorable fashion items are brought to you by driverless trucks.
The impact of Millennials and Generation Z
The counterculture is the culture, all those vague hippy ideals their parents had have found fertile soil in social media and suddenly there’s a generation using their purchasing power to articulate their desire for sustainable, ethical fashion. These are people who prefer to buy products they found on Instagram or Snapchat and shop with their smartphones and their impact on how retail brands present and position themselves is profound. Generation Z are the younger sisters and brothers of millennials but by 2020 they will account for 40% of global consumers.
They are the true children of the digital age because they have never known anything else and they have no lingering allegiances to the old ways. Their influence has seen the rise start-ups specialising in recycled materials and vegan leather substitutes, they are consumers who want to know about the sourcing of materials and the treatment of the workers. Fashion brands are desperate to secure their approval.
Selfridges throws open its flagship store as a music venue. Doc Martin promote their youth credentials with uber hip memorabilia in a designer grunge clubbing space, not a shop, oh absolutely not a shop. Two hundred companies in the fashion sector are now Certified B Corporations meaning that they meet high standards of social and environmental performance and are part of a community of people using business as a force for good. Fashion brands are falling over themselves to associate themselves with ‘good’ causes.
Nike, controversially supported Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest, for which they got a lot of criticism but not from the audience they were after. Levis and Gucci have both given support to campaigns against gun violence. Assos and Uniqlo donate aid to refugees and H&M support the LGBTQ+ community.
The Battle for the Marketplace
As engrossing as Game of Thrones and just as liable to throw up completely unexpected plot developments. All eyes are on India, up until now an important sourcing hub, it is set to become the most important consumer market outside of the western world. It’s GDP is predicted to grow at 8% and it has a swelling middle class eager for western fashion.
At present online sales in India are dominated by Flipcart but there will be a battle to become the platform of choice for consumers and manufacturers. The fashion industry has been used to pushing trends at its audience, it is having to adjust to a world in which the audience will have a much greater say in what it wants. Fashion brands are entering a period in which self-disruption is going to be a key element of survival, with brand makeovers, sub labels and alliances with tech companies as part of the strategy.
Automation and data analytics mean that trends can be responded to much more rapidly. Sharecloth already offers digitized styles for which retailers can place orders even before the garments are manufactured. Adidas operates ‘Speedfactories’ projected to produce a million pairs of running shoes by 2020 using digital design which enables mass customization. Adidas are also responding to millennial pressure by promising that all their shoes will be made from recycled plastic by 2024.
The days of fast fashion are not yet over but it does seem as though our obsessive consumption of clothing may be slowing down and that more and more sustainable and responsibly produced clothing will find its way into our wardrobes.
Written by Stuart Cooke, Blog Editor at Mahileather.com providers of ethically sourced leather bags and accessories.
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh