It’s ironic that fashion, which has a perpetual fascination with transformation, finds itself grappling with its own reinvention. The need looks urgent: There’s a greater push for greener practices in the apparel industry, and some of those efforts go all the way down to the fundamentals.
A wave of innovation has emerged in recent years that takes aim at revamping earlier stages of the design and manufacturing process. Modernized approaches take cues from advances in 3-D imaging, gaming, crowdsourcing — even aerospace technology — to make prototypes faster, more accurate and better targeted to current tastes.
The newer crop of digital tools appears to have business benefits, too. They can mitigate errors and help brands manufacture only what they need. The result: Fewer overruns, returned merchandise and cost savings, and that may make the technologies some of the most intriguing, and therefore effective, weapons in the war on waste.
Judging by projections from the United Nations, such tactics can’t come too soon.
The U.N. believes that the world is heading toward a global temperature hike with disastrous consequences. If things don’t change, then the organization estimates that by 2040, the atmosphere will rise 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit beyond pre-Industrial levels. It doesn’t sound like much, but it would be enough to flood the coasts, deepen the severity of droughts and undercut food supplies.
Meanwhile the apparel sector, considered one of the “dirtiest” industries when it comes to environmental impact, has been doing some soul-searching. Sustainability has started breaking out of the specialty niche to become a common talking point. Granted, it’s not entirely clear whether “circular economy” and “eco-friendly initiatives” are genuine interests or simply virtue-signaling marketing messages.
Either way, environmental impact is becoming increasingly tough to ignore. And for consumer-facing products, design and production is where things get real — on various levels.
H&M learned that the hard way. Last year, the Swedish retailer reported an eye-popping problem, namely $4.3 billion in unsold clothes and accessories. That vast pile of wasted inventory has become a cautionary tale, both in business and on the sustainability front.
“That’s mostly because their MOQ [minimum order quantity] test, or their purchasing ability, needed more refinement,” Vineet Chaudhary, cofounder and chief executive officer of Trendage, a fashion game app developer and virtual fitting tech provider, told WWD. “They were purchasing way too much and not selling fast enough. So they have to write off all of these.”
This is precisely the area that his company is exploring now.
Trendage started with a fashion game app called Style.Me, which lets users style their avatars, or game characters, by mixing and matching outfits. The data feeds insights into trends and preferences, which powers product recommendations on e-commerce sites for a growing list of brands, department stores and other retailers.
Naturally, the primary purpose is to boost sales. But according to Chaudhary, the next step takes the information into design and purchasing decisions.
“It’s in the early stages,” he explained, “but we’re working with both sourcing companies and retailers to use ML [machine learning] for creating new design options for customers — before it’s even been prototyped.” Using the trend data, the company can take a single item, such as black dresses, and use it to inform thousands of new design options and variations. Retailers post it online, so they can gauge customer popularity or purchase intent before placing massive orders.
Chaudhary likens the approach to Groupon’s, with consumer transactions completing when a deal reaches critical mass. It’s similar to Kickstarter for crowdfunding or San Francisco’s Betabrand for retail. The latter goes into production on new items once they attract enough buyers.
“Where this all really turns on its head is when it goes from ‘design, manufacture, sell’ to ‘design, sell, manufacture’,” said David Macy, chief product officer at Gerber Technology. He knows something about upending the design and manufacturing process. Last year, his company acquired Avametric and its 3-D rendering software for fashion, which powers the AccuMark3D application for realistic cloth simulation.
In layperson’s terms, the tool creates virtual prototypes for garments in 3-D imagery. The realism is impressive, all the way down to the way textiles drape and hang.
The secret to this realism is the last thing a fashion brand might expect: Some serious aerospace chops.
Turns out, Gerber also makes aircraft parts, so it has a fundamental understanding of how to develop technology that takes the physical world’s rules into account — including the laws of physics, gravity and other factors. The result is a system that can render virtual garments with impressive realism, including how different fabrics lay on a figure and move.
With realism and accuracy in virtual prototyping, brands could cut costs at the beginning design stages as well as the order placement and production run.
With AccuMark 3-D’s cloth simulation, “patternmakers and brands can visualize what a garment will look like before they manufacture it,” said Macy. “And [it] allows them to present a 3D model to customers…potentially even sizing it to fit on a body and matching them, so that they can make better decisions.”
Poor fit is a top reason customers return merchandise, especially e-commerce customers. And the single-fit model that brands tend to use doesn’t help. To state the obvious, people come in all shapes and sizes.
Without targeted data, an apparel brand may not even realize that there’s a huge chasm between their fit model and the actual sizes of their average customers.
Cue product returns. At scale, that can amount to a lot of unwanted pants and jackets stuffed into clearance bins. Or landfills. Plus, there’s little to no shipping or overnighting physical prototypes. Multiplied across every product for every brand — not to mention the distance for overseas manufacturers — the fuel costs alone start to take on epic proportions.
“We’re helping that part of the process by saying, ‘Hey, in many of these cases, you don’t actually need to create a physical product’,” Macy explained. “You can create a realistic 3-D visualization, which is good for making a lot of the decisions along the way. We think we can cut down the number of samples produced by roughly 50 percent.”
Gerber and Trendage aren’t alone in wanting to bring the prototype process into the 21st century. Clo Virtual Fashion, Lectra and many others are hot on the trail.
Like Trendage, Clo has gaming in its DNA as well. Its tools first found traction in animation and game avatars — complete with skins, hair and costumes. Now the tech can 3-D render clothes, not to mention virtual supermodels.
WWD got an up-close look at Clo’s tech last summer, and at the time, ceo Simon Kim summed up the software’s green potential: “In order for a technology to be sustainable throughout the supply chain, you have to start from the beginning and design development is where you start that process,” he said.
Where it ends is usually the bottom line. Fortunately, the economics of new prototyping tech and the “sell first, manufacture later” premise look like good business.
“Instead of the retailer taking the risk and working with their sourcing company in Asia, let’s say, for 10,000 dresses, I think what we’ll start seeing is a new business model appear,” Trendage’s Chaudhary added. “We’ll start seeing in the next year or two years, a new way of going demand first.”
And along with it, a new way of greening that precious step between creative concept and production reality.