Without his impressive collection of accessories, Batman would just be a guy with anger issues. Without his AI-enhanced exoskeleton, Iron Man would just be an arrogant genius with a life-threatening heart condition. And without her talent for disguise, how would the fugitive spy known as the Black Widow survive at all?
We can’t all be superheroes, but fashion lets us become someone else, even if only a little bit. As our clothes and accessories demonstrate, fashion is visual and fun. But it’s also the interface between us and our world, protecting us while broadcasting who we are and who we want to be.
In the not-too-distant future, fashion will enhance much more than our appearance. It will monitor our physical and mental well-being and signal our needs in the moment. It will be more assistive, thinking and acting to help us improve our performance in a given environment. It will be more adaptive, made from advanced materials that change their appearance and function according to our requirements and desires. The extreme possibilities could genuinely make us more than we are – an exciting prospect for those of us who secretly dream of acquiring superpowers!
Before we can reach this future, though, the fashion industry has some urgent catching up to do. Its current business model doesn’t work for today’s consumers, who are rebelling against fashion’s tradition of pushing whatever comes off the runway at them. Instead, consumers want what their favorite social media influencers are wearing. And they want it fast, with a personalized fit. Today’s consumers are also increasingly passionate about sustainability even as the fashion industry confronts a waste problem of global proportions.
Facing the urgent need to modernize its business model and solve its sustainability problem without sacrificing growth, an industry not known for leading the way in technology adoption is suddenly on the verge of a massive technology makeover.
Advanced Technologies Are the Industry’s New Look
In its explorations of new technologies, the fashion industry is right on trend. Like virtually every other industry, it is looking at the potential of artificial intelligence (AI), centralized platforms, blockchain, and virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) – and it likes what it sees.
For example, manufacturers can’t afford to waste time and money creating products that increasingly rebellious consumers don’t want. Enter predictive AI, which uses image recognition and machine learning to break products down into collections of data points, such as color, pattern, material, and design detail, so manufacturers can quickly identify the latest influencer trends and develop new offerings fast.
Similarly, producing only enough product to meet demand allows manufacturers to reduce waste while appealing to customers’ desire for customization, whether that means a tailored fit, a unique color combination, or nonstandard details. Robots and 3D printers are making it possible to manufacture anything from shirts to shoes on demand.
The industry is also trying on VR and AR for size, with mirrors and glasses that let customers cycle through multiple items and entire outfits in shops without removing their own clothes, as well as Web sites that let people “try on” clothing and accessories in their own homes before buying.
And the latest generation of smart glasses, with their built-in speakers, video-recording ability, and integration with phones and digital assistants, are both useful and, well, we won’t go so far as to call them fashionable, but they’re not hideous.
Improving Accuracy in the Supply Chain
Companies are also starting to explore how technology can help them tackle their sourcing issues, from choosing vendors that can meet both delivery schedules and ethical employment standards to using materials produced more safely, delivered more efficiently, and tracked more closely to prevent loss and theft. Using specialized platforms, blockchain, RFID, and other next-generation supply-chain management technology can help the industry track products and their component parts.
Digital transparency into the supply chain improves inventory accuracy and availability, prevents counterfeiting, and – in a nod to consumers’ increased interest in the broader societal impact of their purchasing decisions – creates greater supply chain transparency. Some fashion companies are already giving their customers detailed information about every step of a product’s journey, from the farm where wool for a sweater was sheared to the factory that spun it into yarn to the actual truck that delivered it to the warehouse or store.
Technology Makes Circularity Stylish in the Fashion Industry
Growth in the fashion industry generates a continuous stream of appealing new products – and, unfortunately, an equally continuous stream of greenhouse gas emissions, pollutants, and other waste. If the industry doesn’t change its practices, it will create an estimated 148 million tons of waste by 2030, or 38.5 pounds (17.5 kilograms) of waste for every person on the planet. Yet this crisis could also create a runway for new opportunities to satisfy customer demand for both new looks and new ways of doing business.
Technology makes it easier for fashion to join the circular economy, which is based on reusing materials and ending waste. This can take multiple forms:
- To make new materials from recaptured materials, fashion manufacturers need to source, track, and verify the content of recaptured materials and design products that take advantage of the materials’ best qualities.
- To make new items of clothing from recaptured parts of existing clothing, manufacturers need to identify and source used clothing, ensure that it can be recycled or upcycled, and design products that incorporate it.
- To buy back and resell barely worn or unworn clothes, brands need to track both items and past customers in order to identify and recapture previously sold or never sold items for resale.
- Brands can also participate in subscription/sharing models, in which consumers wear something once or a few times before sending it back for something different.
In all of these cases, success requires manufacturers to identify products (what they are, what they’re made of, where they come from, how they can be reused) so they can track the components, maximize their value, and continue to reuse them with minimal waste.
Fashion: the New Softwear
Farther down the runway, we may find ourselves thinking of clothing as less like hardware – something to buy once, wear until it’s worn out or obsolete, and then dispose of – and more like software, something that changes to meet our needs (and whims) and that we use for longer periods of time. Think of shoes with interchangeable tops that snap onto replaceable soles or clothing that grows with the wearer.
We’re already seeing the emergence of smart clothing containing sensors that provide haptic feedback and offer assistive support to improve performance and prevent injury. The new Nike Adapt BB sneakers, for example, contain sensors that pair with a companion app to adjust the shoe’s fit and advise the wearer on how to improve the way their foot hits the ground.
This personalization trend has plenty of extra room in the seams. In the future, we may be able to alter our clothing with “in-app purchases” and “upgrades” that keep an item fresh, interesting, and useful for longer while still generating revenue for the maker.
The concept of clothing itself will also stretch. Instead of selling clothes and accessories, a manufacturer might sell designs and materials for customers to create and personalize with 3D printers in the store or at home.
Meanwhile, fabrics will adapt to meet new technology-powered demands. We’ll see more materials developed to last longer, require less care, recycle more easily, and/or biodegrade faster. Researchers are developing smart fabric that actually has soft, flexible circuits embedded in the fibers. Smart fabric might literally let us update our clothing digitally, with manufacturers pushing out color changes or the ability to adapt to changing weather in real time.
Or imagine being the first fashion retailer to offer clothing made of fabric that can fend off bacteria, foil surveillance, track data about the wearer’s actions, and generate energy from the wearer’s motions. How is that anything other than a superhero suit?
If the fashion industry wants to thrive and grow, it must shift from continuous consumption to responsible consumerism while continuing to satisfy the unquenchable human desire for something new. It might be the industry’s most epic challenge. But by using technology, fashion can transform itself – and maybe even help save the world.
Download the executive brief: Future Fashion Could Make Us Superheroes.
Dan Wellers is the Digital Futures global lead and a senior analyst at SAP Insights research center.
Fawn Fitter is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology.
Top image via Getty Images. Photographer kobrin_photo (image #1004052580).