The conversation around sustainability might just be the ties that finally bind fashion and tech.
It certainly advanced the conversation about the two industries’ intersection — or sometimes lack thereof — during Tuesday’s Onestop Emerge Summit, the second annual gathering of e-commerce solutions provider Onestop and its partners, held in Manhattan Beach, Calif. At the summit, technology firms, retailers and apparel manufacturers came together to discuss social media, personalization, wearables and branding. But it was the topic of green that seemed the key in moving the dial on a dialogue that’s taken hold across the broader apparel industry as brands search for ways to be relevant to a new generation of much more discerning shoppers.
But there’s a fundamental disconnect in the understanding of what tech can be to fashion. Look at this year’s Costume Institute gala, pointed out Grant Hughes, cofounder and chief strategy officer of Los Angeles wearables company FocusMotion.
“Even though Apple sponsored the Met Gala, which is probably one of the most exclusive events in the world and also known for being one of the most fashionable, when people showed up…people showed up in the most technologically sophisticated article of clothing that most of them had on and there were only a couple examples of this and they involved LEDs woven into a dress and maybe something that was 3-D printed. You can see there is a chasm here,” said Hughes, who talked about smarter integration of technology in wearables during the conference.
Fashion tech should instead be about solving fundamental hurdles challenging the industry’s existence, pointed out John Harmon, senior analyst in Fung Business Intelligence Centre’s New York office. That would be sustainability particularly as it relates to fast-fashion players.
“These companies, they move inventory on shelves in two weeks. These days you can buy a pair of jeans for $10. A sweater for $8. It really makes clothing disposable,” Harmon said.
It also makes it more difficult for companies operating on the more traditional development cycle that takes months before product makes its way to store shelves. Technology can help reduce lead times with the help of computers and robotics, Harmon pointed out. There’s innovation such as robotic knitting machines, such as those made by Shima Seiki, which could take the place of a human seamstress. Brooklyn-based tie company Thursday Finest has its own software program, or robot that takes orders and takes the yarn selected by a customer and then begins to 3-D print it. The item is finished and packed by hand before being sent off to a customer.
Celebrities can be important in increasing awareness about sustainable efforts, but being environmentally conscious is also just very Millennial, Harmon said.
In fact, Onestop, which assists companies with their e-commerce backends, released the results of a new survey during its summit showing 56 percent of Millennials, defined as those between the ages of 18 and 34, said they’re more inclined to buy product from an environmentally conscious company. That’s more than the 26.6 percent of Millennials who said they’re more likely to buy a product when a celebrity endorses or owns it.
“I think this generation is really the most aware [of] social responsibility,” Onestop president and chief executive officer Michael Wang told WWD. “We also believe ultimately the business’ brand has to be a co-creation [with] the consumers. The brand cannot create something the consumers wouldn’t love. So from that angle, environmental, social awareness and the responsibility certainly goes a long way in connecting with targeted consumers.”
That idea was seconded during Jeff Fromm’s talk during the conference on marketing to this specific cohort.
“If you create meaning or purpose, then you’re going to drive sales volume potential,” said Fromm, who is president of Kansas City, Mo.-based marketing consulting firm FutureCast.
Millennials, or people who think like Millennials, demand uniqueness, innovation and meaningfulness, Fromm said. Brands that can’t deliver can be easily cast off the list in consumers’ minds of companies in the running for consideration.
“When things slide down, Millennials and Millennial mindset consumers can disconnect from your brand by moving three feet down the aisle in a grocery store or driving across the street to any of your competitors and they do not need to file divorce papers.”
It ultimately wends back to the need for a better grasp of what tech and fashion each means to the other.
“Our industry is still behind,” model, entrepreneur and gadget geek Coco Rocha said during her talk. “There are designers out there that think if they just strap a fax machine on a dress, it will be tech meets fashion. I don’t think they quite understand what it really means.”
Rocha pointed to designers such as Iris van Herpen and Rebecca Minkoff as examples of trailblazers, either incorporating tech into the development process or at retail, but underscored authenticity.
“How we sell it, how we advertise it, some people are doing great. Some people are doing not so great,” she said. “They don’t quite understand what the space means. Fashion is very frivolous, but tech can be too. And the two, for some reason just can’t have a great conversation sometimes. Tech doesn’t think it needs fashion and fashion sometimes doesn’t think it needs tech.”