By  on April 9, 2007

MILAN — Imagine a device, no larger than a washing machine, that reduces your clothes to mere algorithms and then reinvents them into entirely new designs. Or, robots that scan customers and their shopping bags in stores and point them to the most appropriate products.

These devices may sound far-fetched — and even a little scary — but are not impossible, according to Vito Di Bari, professor at Bocconi and Politecnico Universities here, one of the guest speakers at the fourth edition of the Moda e Tecnologia talk show last month. The event was organized by fashion consultant Marina Garzoni in a partnership with IBM, La Rinascente department stores and Vogue Italia to discuss how technology can help and change the fashion industry. It also introduced IBM's virtual store manager project, which allows retailers to measure their performance, and the computer company's "multisensorial cabin," a three-dimensional virtual shopping experience that has been installed at La Rinascente.

Although fashion is usually associated with free-spirited creativity and craftsmanship, the fast pace of global change is forcing the industry to increasingly turn to technology to maximize benefits — especially in terms of retailing.

"Fashion designers were originally wholesalers and have only recently become retailers," said Michele Norsa, chief executive officer of Salvatore Ferragamo.

Norsa said the company counts almost 500 stores in 57 countries, with the need to take different cultures into consideration. "We need to create a global retail system, not one made up of many small systems. This is a priority for us," said Norsa.

The executive said he receives an "extraordinary" quantity of information and details, but that he needs data to be more streamlined in order to act faster. "Can we manage all this information and transform it into something useful? We have too much information, but maybe not the one we really need," he said, lamenting a lack of knowledgeable human resources in this field. "There is a gap between IT and our store managers. We know that about 48 percent of our customers are Asian, for example, but how many buy locally and how many in the U.S. or elsewhere? There should be a global data bank available to all fashion companies."

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