The Robot Wears Prada: Future of the Fashion Industry

My phone flashes. It’s time for my store appointment. I unlock my screen and my personal fashion assistant, greets me with a smile. “Welcome, Romita. Your calendar tells us you have a future book launch (bucket list, people) and I’ve put together ten ensembles for you to choose from.  We’ve generated a color palette matched to your skin tone and picked out the most flattering fits according to your measurements, keeping the weather predictions in mind.” She walks me through my customized wardrobe. “Might I also suggest the new model of our mini-tote bag in our special stem-cell leather; of course it charges your gadgets, flashes in case you leave any belongings behind and reminds you of appointments, but it also looks great in the four different ways it can be carried. Meanwhile, you can try on your dresses on the Simulator while I get your green tea fixed for you. Ilana, your style psychologist is in today for a consultancy. Once your session is over, you’ll be taken through our new collection in store. Made in our hybrid tech-enabled fabric, no robots were harmed in the manufacturing process. Happy shopping!”

Farfetched? Wake up to 2030. The Jetsons Age is here to stay- and the fashion industry, currently estimated at a whopping $2.4 trillion globally, is not far behind. The integration of fashion with tech is the obvious way forward, and it’s definitely more promising than LED t-shirts.

This along with the burning issues of environmental concerns, population control and alternate resource development form the basis of a few prophecies that you don’t need Nostradamus to make.

1. Convenience: ‘Store to door- delivered hot and fresh’

It’s no surprise that e-commerce will only expand; a report by Shopify reveals that the fashion and accessories sector is estimated to grow from $223 billion at the end of 2016 to $355 billion by 2020. But a look into the crystal ball shows that convenience will be a major competitive edge for e-retailers. Fit, the biggest post-sale killer for any online brand- with a return rate as high as 30%; is a prime area of scrutiny. Virtual fitting rooms are already providing a glimpse into the future, and will soon become the new normal. SenseMi has one of the more advanced smart mirrors today, equipped with cool features like Kinect cameras, 360 degree base movement, face recognition and Cloud database technology. Estonian startup Fits.Me has partnered with British shirt retailer Thomas Pink for a cutting-edge bio-robotic fitting room to help customers find the perfect shirt. In layman speak? These mirrors show us a human size ‘avatar’ of ourselves in real time statistics, with pre-programmed fabrics, portraying the delicate nuances of fabric fall, stretch and drape; helping both retailers and customers avoid repeated returns and trials.

2. Experience: ‘Shopping in Wonderland’

For Christmas shoppers in 2016, Google came up with the concept of Window Wonderland. Focusing on 19 prominent retailers of New York such as Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany and Louis Vuitton, it walks you through the spinning gold elves and crystal trees of their iconic holiday windows, in a series of high-res imagery shot from a 3-d perspective. This allowed people to experience the displays from their personal devices, anywhere in the world, as if they were walking on 5th Avenue.

Another futuristic example of tracking Christmas shopping anxiety is eBay, which created an emotionally powered pop-up store in time for Giving Tuesday last year. Using bio-analytic technology and facial coding, the store removed outside stresses of the customers so they could ‘peacefully’ browse the ‘Giving’ catalogue of their items.  The technology then let the customer know which items they connected to the most emotionally.These tech-integrated consumer ‘experiences’ are the early specimens of what is to come in the next few years.

3. Seamlessness: ‘Clicks to Bricks and back’

The divide between online and offline will diminish. Stores will ‘pop-up’ in places less expected. “One thing I expect we’ll see relatively soon is retail integrated into unconventional places, like Ubers or Airbnbs,” says Matthias Metternich, founder and CEO of COCODUNE, a new direct-to-consumer swimwear line. Brick and mortar stores will play a major role in customer engagement, building relations and brand recall. Soon we will carry passwords on our own person, transforming into a cashless society. “By 2025 every person will become a walking ATM… Indians are moving payments, use of biometrics at a very fast pace.”, says Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant.

4. Personalisation: ‘Extra tall blue-striped pearl button decaf’

Custom is key to novelty in the future. Artificial intelligence makes room for personalizing products and experiences for shoppers, without the hassle of logistics. Google’s Project Jacquard which made headlines in the fashion world for weaving conductive yarns into fabric with bespoke touch and gesture sensitivity; collaborated with Levi’s on their Commuter campaign. The Trucker Jacket “allows wearers to control their mobile experience and connect to a variety of services, such as music or maps, directly from the jacket. This is especially useful when it might be difficult to use the smart phone, like when you are riding on your bike.”

Another last decade breakthrough is the much talked about trend of conversational commerce, or chatbots. Similar to Whatsapp, it is personalized message-based interaction that can guide users at every step of the buying cycle. So when you ask the bot to find you a top with vertical blue stripes, it steps in as your stylist, and gives you options based on visual intelligence and personal requirements, all in a two-way dialog format we know so well.

5. Materials: ‘Science meets Planet’

Wearable tech, simply called wearables will focus not just on functionality but also sustainability. Case in point: Brooklyn-based company Modern Meadow has developed a technology to create leather from the stem cell of a single cow. Its genetic makeup can also be altered, to produce variations in the texture, color and transparency, as required. This technology, if made feasible can revolutionize the accessories industry. BioCouture, is a UK-based initiative whose ‘ultimate goal is to literally grow a dress in a vat of liquid.’ This liquid, consisting of sweetened tea, yeast and bacteria sprouts cellulosic fibres molded into dresses and blouses. Whether these materials can rival commercial viability or not only time will tell; but research on similar green projects is a clear indicator of the future.

6. Data: ‘Magic Fortune-Tellers’

You know the crucial tasks in the everyday life of a fashion house? Pricing items correctly, regulating quantities, stocking enough of the right styles, colors, fabrics and sizes, ensuring stores are well-supplied and functioning smoothly. All this and more is made possible by data analytics. Sentiment analysis, an important ingredient in gauging customer experience, is done by data crunching the likes, comments, shares and re-tweets on social media platforms. This is not a new practice, although the sources of data have changed over time. In the form of text, audio, images and YouTube videos, data mining in the new age is almost an imitation of the human brain process; hence known as – Cognitive Computing. This means faster insight on trends. Says Keith Mercier, retail industry leader for global cognitive business solutions for IBM, “If we can give a retailer a two-week jump on trend prediction, [then] two weeks of selling time in stores is golden in this highly competitive industry.”

7. Careers: ‘Techie versus Fashionista’

3D printing has been a breakthrough innovation in the past few years and many fashion houses have been experimenting with this technology. If commercialized, it can not only make manufacturing quicker, cheaper and easier; but can also disrupt the traditional supply chain of fibre to garment. This is why Business of Fashion has listed ‘3D Printing Engineer’ as a top emerging career of the future. Another natural progression of future retail demand will be that of understanding the behavioral psyche of the human consumer. This is even more relevant in today’s time of rapidly changing preferences, trends, technology and aspirations; and cannot be replaced by a bot or computer. “If you understand how human perception works on a neuro-scientific level and how people choose clothing based on their psychological makeup, you can create an incredibly effective strategy, ultimately enhancing the overall customer experience and the bottom line,” says Kate Nightingale, founder of Style Psychology. Dubbed the sexiest job of the 21st century by the Harvard Business Review is that of a data scientist; another crucial skill required in years to come. The increasing number of online classes and TED talks about the wonders of data indicate that this is a hot upcoming job description.

Now if all this talk is bordering on ‘science geek’ to you or you’re thinking “It’s not like my department store shopping is changing anytime soon”, think again. How much of the change is for the sake of innovation and how much will actually make our lives better; is yet to be seen. But the change is real. Till then, here’s a glossary:

NFC: Near Field Communication. It allows two electronic devices brought within 4 cm of each other to establish contact with each other.

Connected (objects/stores etc.) :  A smart device with wireless connectivity (bluetooth, NFC etc.) which can operate independently.

Chatbot: A computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users, especially over the Internet.

Wristable: Wearables worn on the wrist such as Fitbit, AmazFit etc.

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