Digital technologies are transforming businesses from one end of the spectrum to the other. Everything from stickers and promo items, to furniture, to interior spaces are being impacted by new innovations that force us to look at things in a completely new way. And fashion is no exception to that rule. In fact, the digital transformation of the fashion industry is only just getting started, and there are myriad opportunities for those willing to jump into a new way of thinking about the way garments are produced.
During Kornit’s Business Unusual event held June 16, Omer Kulka, Kornit's CMO, interviewed Steve Brown, Apparel Product Development and Merchandising Expert, on the Transformation of Fashion in the last decade — and where he predicts it will go next.
Brown noted that the entire dynamic of the fashion industry has completely changed in recent years, with designers able to be more responsive and more resourceful as digitization has made it easier for them to connect, share, and move pieces through the process. For example, he cited sketchbooks, and the ability to share and get feedback — and approvals — on designs much quicker than is possible using traditional methods.
That said, he noted, “fashion is very fast-moving. On the front end, we’re pushing the envelope and changing the way it looks. But on the back-end, it’s still an analog process.”
The problem is that while consumer demand is forcing brands to move away from just a few big collections per year, and digital tools are making it easier to create new elements on an accelerated scale to get new designs into the hands of the public, the supply chain just isn’t keeping up.
“It still takes a long time,” noted Brown. “We can have an amazing digital sketch or digital design, but who has the printer or the technology to produce it?”
Already, digitization is speeding the time to market, and making fashion brands more “concise,” said Brown, but when it comes to the actual production, the fashion industry, like any other, is a creature of habit. Brands want to see the margins, and the return on investment to switch the entire production supply chain to new processes, and that can be a huge hurdle to overcome, when the ROI likely won’t be immediate, but rather a long-term investment.
That said, Brown noted that, “COVID-19 is an accelerator [of that transition], but it will still be a long process. We just don’t have the infrastructure to go faster, and we need to put that in place first.”
Data is the Future of Fashion
For Brown, while the supply chain is a big piece of the puzzle, the real driving factor in pushing brands to start to demand the changes is going to be data. “We want to have a consolidated system, and be able to react to decision-making virtually,” he said. “The quick process is the design phase, which is happening now, but what will help going forward is a lot of trials. When it comes to the more technological aspects of design, vendors can work with the brands and see where there will be issues.”
Brown cited eCommerce and the rise of more digital shops as one place where data is driving the transition. One problem, he noted, is that while it is tempting to think it can all be on-demand, producing nothing but artist renderings until the time for production arrives, the reality is that brands still need pieces to do photo shoots with for the listings on their online stores. And retail is still a powerful driver of sales, even if it is trending more toward creating experiential spaces, rather than straight traditional stores.
That need for samples will eventually ease, predicted Brown, but it is likely that demand won’t vanish completely any time soon. “They are already so advanced in digital design,” noted Brown, “that is already happening. Some handbag designs, for example, are already virtual. So we will start to build confidence to buy from a design.” But for now, he noted, many wholesalers and other channels will still ask how they can sell without samples.
For the brands themselves, data will become more of a key driver of what pieces actually make it to market. Brown noted that brands already know that 50-60% of a line might be carried over, and not need to be revolutionized for each new collection, which in turn saves on costs and efficiencies. That, in turn, allows those brands to focus on what he called the 80/20 rule — 80% of sales is the volume pieces that are carried from season to season, while 20% is focused on new items.
Not only can the data be used to determine which pieces should be continued as part of the 80%, but it will also help drive the direction for the 20%. “You don’t have to reinvent the whole line,” said Brown. “It is based on the best sellers, customer behavior, and what is your product DNA.”
He continued, “Data hasn’t been in the design process [to this point], but it should compliment it. If 60% of customers are asking for a particular product, then give the designers the freedom to design into that. But steer them in the right direction — it brings the conversation back to design what we know we can sell, versus what we think we can sell. Take care of your core customers, but if 90% want a trench, why wouldn’t you design more trenches? Use data to design what the customer wants.”
Taking that a step further, Brown noted that in an ideal world, that connection to the customer, and the data they provide, will become even more personal. Digital avatars that allow customers to try on individual pieces, the ability to customize individual fashion elements, and even put together different elements to create their own unique spin on a brand are all things Brown sees in fashion’s future.
“Data and technology will integrate the consumer into the process,” he said, “changing the relationship between the brand, designer, and consumer. I think this will be a slower process than we want to think, but I do think we’ll get there.”
Takeaways for Printers
As a print shop with a wide-format digital textile printer, and a desire to break into the fashion space, what does all of this mean?
While Brown focused on the evolution coming to the fashion space, rather than on the print technology needed to get there, the reality is that the future he envisions for fashion simply can’t be realized with the current analog presses used to produce the vast majority of fashion fabrics today. To embrace a future of more personalized, individualized fashion collaborations between designers, brands, and consumers will require robust digital print technologies inside manufacturing facilities capable of taking an order and shipping out a finished garment in just a few days.
For print shops, this is an opportunity. Most brands right now are barely, if at all, looking into what digital technologies can do for them. But a shop with the right press, and the right finishing equipment, can bring new ideas and inspire creativity. It may or may not lead to new jobs or lucrative contracts right away, especially given how slowly Brown notes the supply chain element of fashion is moving, but make no mistake — the PSPs who establish relationships with brands and designers now to test new ideas, processes, and techniques will be the first ones called when the brand does ultimately decide to start investing.
That said, printing and assembling fashion is not the same as producing other textile projects such as soft signage. For PSPs looking to position themselves as the future of fashion, start learning the ins and outs of the process now — analog processes and all — and look for ways your technology might be able to ease pain points or offer new services or products. Learn everything there is to know about the brands you want to target, and how those garments are produced from start to finish, because these designers won’t be looking for a printer to send a file to — they will be looking for partners to help them revolutionize their industry.
Fashion is on the cusp of a new era, just beginning to open up to the possibilities of what the future may hold. PSPs have an opportunity to be part of that revolution and help shape the way fashion industry will operate in the next few decades. The only question is whether or not your shop will be at the forefront of that evolution — or just watching the wave pass you by.