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."Gaetano Sodo, IBM's global business services partner for fashion and luxury, concurred, noting that, historically, fashion has stemmed from the genius of the entrepreneur or designer working in an artisanal way. "There was no need to manage a web of stores in the past, but when designers reinvented themselves as retailers, they started needing more efficient and faster tools," said Sodo.

Sodo said the fashion industry is lagging behind other sectors, which have a more managerial structure, and fashion houses still rely on physical travel, rather than technology.

However, there is awareness in fashion that technology can help the shopping experience. Marcello Binda, ceo of Gruppo Binda — which owns the Wyler Genève and Breil watch and accessories businesses, and produces and distributes the watch and jewel collections for Dolce & Gabbana's D&G line — said the company will double the square footage of its Milan store with the help of a set decorator, "multisensorial" and three-dimensional projected images. "The store will never be static and the customer will be more central than the purchase," said Binda.

The company will open a store in New York in June. To mark the opening of a temporary store there a month ago, Binda launched an online project allowing customers to turn into DJs. "More than 600 people applied in 22 days — [including] Jude Law — and Buddha Bar asked us to produce a play list," said Binda.

Vittorio Radice, ceo of La Rina­scente, is a strong promoter of the "shopping experience." Radice said a study has shown that 80 percent of people lingering in Piazza Duomo, where the main La Rinascente store is located, are there on their leisure time. "They have no needs or obligations, that's why we must create curiosity, overcome their rationality, propose innovation through the use of technology, so that the store is a meeting point," said Radice, noting that 14 million visitors pass through the store each year.

Augusto Romano, president of Romano SpA, which produces denim and sportswear brand Meltin' Pot, said the company has invested in communication through the production of movies as it cannot rely on its own stores yet. "We don't have owned stores, and we try to communicate the personality of our products in a nonstandard way, putting two different worlds in touch with one another," said Romano.Others, however, were more wary of the overuse of technology. "We must innovate while respecting the company's DNA and never lose track of reality through the use of technology," said Matteo Cordero di Montezemolo, vice president of Poltrona Frau Group. Montezemolo said, to him, innovation is equivalent to research in new materials or collaborations with new designers, as long as they are in line with the mission of the brand. "In Tolentino, where Frau is headquartered, you can't hear the sound of a machine, it's all still made by hand," said Montezemolo proudly. "We must not be overcome by technology and innovation must not be a shortcut to make more money, more quickly."

These were sentiments also expressed by Matteo Marzotto, president of Valentino SpA.

"The human factor is irreplaceable and technology is operated by men, especially in the luxury range of fashion, which still relies on manual craftsmanship," said Marzotto. That said, the executive underscored the importance of a well-oiled machine that allows the right merchandise to be delivered on time. "Timing is key and we simply cannot afford to be even a week late," said Marzotto.

Andrea Pontremoli, president and ceo of IBM Italia, said "it is not who is bigger that wins, but who is unique, and technology can help amplify that uniqueness." Pontremoli also pointed to the double edge of technology. "It helps speed things up, but if your business model is wrong, it will only grow more wrong faster," he said.

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