Maastricht -- Technology is changing the fashion landscape and the companies which do not adapt will probably disappear. That was the main message from the 34th World Fashion Convention, held this week in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Organized by the International Apparel Federation (IAF) in partnership with Dutch business network Modint, this year’s event focused on the theme “Building a Smart Future for Fashion”. The next edition, set to take place in October next year, will be held in Lahore, Pakistan.
“Don’t be scared of technology. I hate it when newspapers write about artificial intelligence (AI) and use a picture of Terminator to illustrate the article. AI is not an enemy!”, said Matthew Drinkwater, head of the Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion. “Embrace new technology as an enabler”, added Jeff Streader, CEO of Go Global Retail, an American investment platform for the apparel and footwear industry.
Apparel factories are coming home, according to the specialists invited for a panel discussion about smart manufacturing. Technologies such as 3D design and printing are set to cause an “onshoring” movement. “The market is always trying to chase the lowest labor costs because the fashion industry is still very dependent on manual labor. We’ve seen an automation evolution, not a revolution, which is ironic considering apparel factories were among the first to be mechanized”, pondered Stanley Szeto, head of apparel manufacturer Lever Style Inc, which has brands such as Hugo Boss, Paul Smith and All Saint on its list of clients. “It’s a question of when, not if, robotics will replace manual labor”, he said. Szeto also predicts factories to resemble warehouses in the future, with very few people working in them. When machines do most of the work, there is no longer a need to set your factory in another country.
If you’re afraid this new scenario will cause unemployment rates to go through the roof, think again. “In the history of mankind, a lot of professions have been misplaced. Secretary used to be the most popular job in the US. Not anymore. As we progress, some jobs die and others are born. I believe there’ll be other needs for human talent”, stated Szeto. Sanem Dikmen, Managing Partner at Turkish T-shirt manufacturer European T-shirt Factory, agrees with him: “Any position replaced by a machine is creating another position. We need other people, technical people, to do the programming. It’s a different proposition, and we can train our employees”, she said.
The experts also said that automation is key to survive in such a competitive market. “The new generations don’t want to wait for anything anymore. That’s why we strive to be as efficient as possible”, said Dikmen. She also stressed how automation can help the fashion industry to become more sustainable: “the more efficient you are, the less resources you’ll use”. Szeto agreed: “If people never went out, if they never left the house, there’d be no need for cars. But they do want to go out. Same goes for clothes. We need to find solutions to give people what they want with less impact on the environment. Of course it’s important to consume less, but it’s not realistic to tell consumers not to buy any piece of clothing for a year. The question is: how can we be more efficient with resources?”
When it comes to retail, panelists were unanimous: retailers should use data to understand their customers better and offer them exciting, personalized experiences. Those who fail to do so will be swept away by competition. “Data is the new oil and AI is the oil drill”, said Jorij Abraham, e-commerce Strategist at E-commerce Foundation. According to him, Google has seen a 60 percent increase in searches containing the words “for me” in the last two years. Searches with the words “Should I...?” grew 80 percent in the same period. “How can companies survive in such a landscape? By becoming love brands. But that love is entirely based on big data”, he affirmed. Jeff Streader agreed: “knowing your customer is more important than ever”
American subscription service Stitch Fix was mentioned by the panelists as a good example of a company using artificial intelligence to consolidate itself as a ‘love’ brand. Stitch Fix sends boxes with clothing to customers, based on an initial questionnaire on the company’s website. Once the box arrives, customers can choose which items to buy and which ones to return. The content of subsequent boxes is then decided according to what shoppers keep and send back. This way, the service gets more and more personalized with time, thanks to big data.
The advice to use data to understand customers better is not only valid for digital companies. Brick and mortar stores should also focus on getting to know their customers better and offer them a more exciting experience. “Consumers want theater”, said Sjors Bors, CEO of digital content studio I Heart Studios. “As retailers, emotion is absolutely crucial to the experience we’re offering. What’s the purpose of your shop? Provide excitement!”, added Drinkwater, from London College of Fashion. Improving customer experience becomes even more important when one takes into account that future brick and mortar stores will probably no longer employ salesclerks. “Prepare yourself for the next generation of ‘DIYers’ who will shop in unmanned stores. Self-service checkout is already a reality”, warned Streader. The convention ended with a rather strong remark: “it’s not retail that’s closing down. It’s inefficient retail that’s closing down”.
Last but not least, specialists were emphatic when talking about the importance of voice search in the future. “By 2050 about 50 percent of all searches will be voice-based”, predicted Abraham. “Talking about the future of retail means talking about the future consumer”, added Bos. “Shopping with Alexa [Amazon’s virtual assistant] is absolutely normal for my 9-year-old daughter”.