NEW YORK — As far as topics go, technology and sustainable fashion remain fairly nebulous, but the Nordic Fashion Association presented a crystal clear case for innovation Wednesday morning.
The group’s Sustainable Fashion Summit here pulled together authorities from Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland to discuss new ways to reduce waste and create sustainable business practices. Swedish Fashion Council chief executive officer Elin Frendberg proved that point with a litany of examples. As Nordic companies switch from linear fashion systems to circular ones, there is a greater need for using earth-friendly fibers and components. She highlighted the upsides of Grindr-enhanced jeans, inventory-free businesses, brands renting garments, garments that illuminate for safety purposes and clothing that adjusts to temperatures.
When governments support careful innovation, sustainable practices and responsible consumption, as Sweden does with tax incentives for such efforts, they help to create better fashion systems, Frendberg said.
Convinced that some of the sustainability challenges can be solved by using technology, the SFC has been building information systems for the past year, connecting research and technology to brands. As part of its Front Row Forensics initiative, computers are being trained to recognize what appears on the runway and then convert that information into real-time video that is sent to consumers, buyers, bloggers and influencers to offer immediate feedback. That information can then be used in production to reduce slack in the supply chain. “So if people only like two of the 10 looks that are shown on the runway, then the other eight may not ever go into production,” she said.
While fashion designers and computer developers are each excelling in their respective fields, when designing products together they sometimes aren’t even in the same room, Frendberg said. “Fashion designers are brought in at the last stage of development. ‘Can we make it look cool for women? Can we do a flower in pink?’ It’s hideous,” she said.
To try to bridge that divide, the SFC hooked up six fashion brands with digital designers and developers from Bontouch and KTH students for a Fashion Hack event. Uniforms for the Dedicated trimmed a hooded jacket with printed lights so that commuter cyclists in Nordic countries will be safe pedaling home after nightfall. Another designer, Andrea Reschia, developed a prototype, digitalizing the soles of a best-selling boot style to help blind people walk safely. Smart fabrics and technology was installed in the sole to help guide them, adjust to changing temperatures and monitor the location.
Lazoschmidl’s Josef Lazo and Andereas Schmidl integrated a pair of jeans with the dating app Grindr. Two metal studs on the backside can be used to send electric shocks to let the wearer know “they are shockingly hot.” To try to reduce drowning among children, which is reportedly 500 per day, De Moy’s founder Pernilla Eriksson created a sensorized caftan that sends a signal when an ankle band-wearing child falls into the water.
Frendberg also singled out BACK, whose founder Jennie Rosén was at the event. The company is developing customized designs with Tinder. Attendees at the Lower East Side event saw video footage of outerwear by BACK that was part of another special project. The hooded jackets and tote bags were designed to illuminate to keep wearers safe from vehicles, during long winter Nordic nights. These award-winning designs were made through a partnership with IF, a Swedish insurance company.
Creating new business models is essential to improving sustainability, Frendberg said. The new brand Atacac creates digital images of garment prototypes that look like finished products, and then only produce on demand. The inventory-free business also uses dynamic pricing — the way that airlines do — so that the price increases as availability lessens. “They don’t have anything in the supply chain. They only produce what is demanded,” Frenberg said.
Another Swedish company, Volumental, is using artificial intelligence to develop a 3-D foot-scanning system for retail to generate personalized footwear recommendations. In addition, the company sells data to other vendors as a secondary business. Referring to one of the premises of Rachel Botsman’s book about the sharing economy, “What’s Mine Is Yours,” Frendberg said, “We have to create functions not products.”
To that end, Swedish fashion brands such as Filippa K give shoppers the option of leasing garments or buying them. Many outdoor brands offer rentals, too, as do men’s wear labels such as Uniforms for the Dedicated, Frendberg said. Children’s wear labels such as Vigga are also into the trend since demand is even greater, Frendberg said, noting that a baby grows eight sizes in two years. “So there is no point in buying new stuff all the time. There are subscription packages sent out for different sizes,” she said.
In terms of innovation in materials, the Dedicated Institute, a cross-disciplinary nonprofit committed to sustainability and the “careconomy,” is pulling carbon dioxide from the air to use in fibers that then become climate positive, Frendberg said. The group wants more companies to asks, “How can business be good for people and great for the planet?”
Attendees were also reminded how Wine Leather won a H&M Foundation’s Global Change award for developing a vegetal leather using wine-making leftovers. Setting out to create the most sustainable backpack, Fjällräven worked with recycled fibers and used recycled polyester and nature-friendly spin dyeing for its Kanken backpack.
An even more united effort is under way through Mistra Future Fashion, a research program that brings together fashion institutes to create systemic change through life cycle analysis, fiber development, raw materials, design, business models, recycling and waste use. MFF is working with Filippa K to develop a future wardrobe that is expected to be unveiled next year and is meant to be indicative of circular fashion. Made with technological and biological fibers, the collection uses greener energy in the manufacturing process. Frendberg noted that a recent U.K. survey found that respondents tired of a new sweater after four wearings. “We need to find viable solutions even if the consumer is like that,” she said, adding that biodegradable fibers are being developed.
Biodegradable clothing has even been used for culinary purposes. The Swedish label Houdini planted its biodegradable thermal underwear in soil, which was later used to grow vegetables that were used for a special menu for an eight-person dinner. “They didn’t tell us until afterward that it was biodegradable,” Frendberg said. “There is so much happening now with fashion innovation….The most important thing is to create new systems as soon as possible. Old clothes have chemicals in them so we don’t want to take them into new loops.”
Showing a photo of an oversize cordless phone, Frendberg said, “This is where we are in fashion tech today. It’s very big, chunky, heavy and not very usable. But probably we’re going to the next phase very quickly.”