If you are a fashion designer, a buyer, or a production supply chain manager, I'm sure you were understandably concerned when you saw the news warnings of a global quarantine that would make your job impossible or nearly impossible.
If we had asked fashion industry professionals what their worst nightmare would be, most likely no one would have even thought to answer, "a global lockdown caused by a pandemic". However, it happened. It is still happening, in fact, and its effects on the industry are changing fashion with no turning back.
Across the entire value chain, from the field workers who harvest the fiber to make textiles to designers, to retail sellers, all professionals in the apparel industry have seen their work threatened by the pandemic. Among the major global industries, fashion was certainly among the most impacted; from product development to manufacturing, all stages of the production chain were affected by the closure of airports and ports.
The paradigm is shifting whether like it or not, the only question is what to do to meet these new challenges.
Why old fashioned?
Fashion is still stuck in the 20th century. The current business model has been the standard since the globalization of the industry with the advent of ready-to-wear apparel and the present cult of fashion designers and luxury brands. Even with new developments in computation and robotics, fashion has not been able to follow the modernization and digitization that happened in other industries, remaining aligned with the wholesale and retail model that work based on predicted demand.
Revolutionary technologies such as 3D, artificial intelligence, and big data have been available for years and have already been incorporated by automobiles and furniture industries, which are far ahead in their digital transformation, to automate production and enhance the product life cycle. Fashion, however, has been very reluctant to adopt digital technologies in its product development and manufacturing.
But what is preventing fashion from embracing its digital transformation? First, there is a general fear that digital will enter the world of fashion and it will lose its artistic aura, where its value lies, and take jobs away from people. Second, most senior fashion managers see investment in technology as an additional cost that will harm their revenue. The mind of a senior fashion manager is set to think about cutting expenses and achieving the lowest production cost possible to maximize profit.
Contradictorily, it is precisely this mindset and the current business model that is contributing to the decline of the value of fashion goods. While fashion items are essential, they are now secondary and wasteful since they have become low-cost with the growth of fast fashion market. Up to 30 percent of what the industry produces is never sold, however, this loss, which is the real threat to the profitability of brands and retailers, is rarely counted.
In short, it is imperative that brands, suppliers, and retailers recognize that it is a huge problem for everyone within the industry to have a business that accepts huge discounts for a third of its inventory and then must deal with dead stock, raw materials and finished goods being destroyed. It is an unsustainable business model from a social and economic standpoint. We’re not trying to be the bearer of bad news, we’re simply stating the facts. It’s time for a change.
From product development digitization to e-Fashion
Fashion’s product development process is extremely slow and bureaucratic, about as far from 21-century efficiency as you can imagine. On the design and production side, the industry is still based on physical sampling. The sample journey, a complex process involving multiple steps, can take many months until the product is ready to be manufactured.
In addition, physical product development demands a huge amount of financial investment in raw material, labour, freight, taxes applied into the sampling and manufacturing of pieces that are sold at heavy discounts. What cannot be sold often ends up as deadstock, in landfills, and sometimes incinerated, harming the environment and brands' image and revenue. Needless to say, none of that is good.
On the sales side, the industry is still highly dependent on department stores and street retailers. As they remained closed during the quarantine, brands and retailers saw a dramatic drop in orders of up to 86%, and cancelled orders worth billions of dollars while retailers got stuck with unsold inventory.
It was crucial to find a new strategy to adapt to the ‘new normal’ that the pandemic has imposed and that has been going on for almost two years now. Almost overnight, the global fashion industry turned to 3D digital design and focused on e-commerce to continue operating and selling, accelerating the digital transformation started many years earlier that was being delayed by the industry's old-fashioned mindset.
The mandatory quarantine brought many challenges for the industry that, first, saw in digital technology a tool to keep operating, but now has awakened to the potential of digital technology to address older and more problematic challenges. Nothing makes way for necessary changes quite like an emergency.
Brands are still adopting 3D as a tool to help product development, like sketching, playing around with options, interacting with what’s feasible or not. However, 3D is much more powerful than that.
Gonçalo Cruz, PlatformE's CEO, for Business of Fashion.
What is e-Fashion and what's its role in fashion's digital transformation?
At PlatformE we have coined and have been using the term e-Fashion as a synonym for 3D digital fashion. The term is applied to highlight the full potential of a 3D asset beyond the hyperrealist design. A 3D asset can store and transmit rich information about product configuration and production rules that when streamlined across the whole value chain allow brands to have total control over the entire product life cycle.
Fashion product development is undergoing a fundamental revolution thanks to digital patterns and samples. A simple switch to 3D digital product development will potentially lead to a more sustainable and waste-free fashion manufacturing system.
With exponential breakthroughs in technology, 3D digital development, and manufacturing operations, the fashion industry is embracing a new approach to design and prototyping. The outstanding capabilities of 2D to 3D pattern-making software offers several benefits for reducing time-consuming and lengthy product development and manufacturing cycles.
Despite all the tragedy surrounding the pandemic, some major brands have been able to realign and accelerate their digital strategy. They have managed to overcome the challenges of creating and producing while avoiding the physical approach, using 3D design and digital technology instead. When life gave them lemons they digitized those lemons to avoid overstocking.
Digitizing product development has proven to be a competitive advantage and has helped brands' revenues increase, even in times of pandemic and economic downturn. Companies that have embraced 3D design - whether by working with third parties or investing in an in-house 3D digital design team - are investing in the creation of digital material libraries, artificial intelligence to identify trends, and cloud-based platforms for data intelligence and product management, are closer to implementing a digital product development plan, leveraging the gains from using 3D assets.
The key to success comes down to more than just gizmos. It’s vital to build a product development plan that considers the entire process, leveraging the full potential of 3D to transform product imaging, sales, marketing, supply chain and production management. It is crucial to avoid approaching digital product development as a deployment project, but instead focus on widespread adoption through an explicit 3D and digitization strategy. You won’t get there by accident, so it’s best to lay out a plan.
A shift to e-Fashion will be inevitable and the brands that realize this sooner and start working on taking the product development digitization further by using 3D assets to connect design, manufacturing, sales and marketing in a true end-to-end digital strategy will gain greater advantages over their competitors.
PlatformE's technology has been developed and is constantly being enhanced to help brands overcome this challenge and implement a successful digital strategy. Our technology ecosystem comprises 3D digital product creation, product configuration and customization for e-commerce, dashboard to monitor production and fulfilment, production and shipping control, and digital-savvy factories so you can quickly start producing on demand.