When Fashion Meets Technology

3D Printing, Virtual Reality and Blockchain are just a few of the technologies set to transform the fashion sector

Most of the style-conscious population have watched models saunter down the catwalk in strange, 3D printed pieces, but this seems to be where the fashion industry’s engagement with innovative technology ends. As adaptive and fluid as the world of fashion may be, designers have admitted that there has been a lack of technological adoption in the sector as a whole. Recently though, this appears to be changing. Startups are looking to garments as a new way to deliver innovation, from location-based services to smartphone charging ports. Technology is making fashion more accessible in a number of different ways, but what new tech is currently used in the industry, and what does the future hold?

Technology within fashion reaches far beyond 3D printing. For example, companies like Blockverify are using Blockchain technology to protect against counterfeiting. This is a real problem for designer brands, especially as more and more items are sold by independent online retailers with questionable sources. By issuing products with a unique tag, Blockverify can ensure that any item is genuine. It’s speculated that within the next five years, all luxury consumer goods (including coveted fashion items) will be fitted with encrypted chips. Retailers have long adopted technology in a big way, including high street fashion labels like Topshop. During the Autumn/Winter London Fashion Week of 2014, production company Inition created a Virtual Reality experience that gave viewers front row seats at Topshop’s catwalk show via Oculus Rift DKI headsets. Other applications of tech have been more novel – Nike’s self-tying trainers, for example, or the Snow White-esque bathroom mirror that gives you make-up tips. The mirror is best suited to cosmetics, but could be easily applied to fashion. In spite of these developments, Francis Bitonti, who designed a stunning 3D printed dress for model Dita von Teese, lamented the fact that he had to use CAD (computer animated design) tools meant for animation. Despite the disappointment of disgruntled designers, there is a bright future for technology and couture. One day, clothes could enhance personal healthcare by monitoring heart rate or glucose levels. Location devices could be used to make sure the wearer is safe, whether they be young, adventurous children or military personnel. A startup called Wearable Solar is even developing clothes that can charge smartphones using renewable energy.

How will technology disrupt the fashion industry?
All of the exciting tech now used in the industry has transformed fashion into something incredibly useful. Clothing is no longer just about aesthetics (not to mention avoiding charges of public indecency). Now, designers can keep track of their products and gain valuable market research via tags and sensors. Designers and distributers will be able to see who buys their products and where they wear them. The information collected by sensor-fitted clothing could also bring fashion closer to other sectors like healthcare, as wearers will be able to effortlessly track their medical data. More established technologies like 3D printing obviously have huge implications for manufacturing and design, offering another way to create clothing and accessories that is quicker and cheaper than traditional methods. For the most part, the disruption has been positive. Designers have happily embraced 3D printed textiles to create futuristic pieces, and once big fashion retailers adopt the printers, clothing will be made using stereolithographic techniques. Certain high street brands have struggled to disassociate themselves with sweatshop workers – through installing efficient technology, there will be far less need to enlist cheap labour. The prototyping power of 3D printing also gives customers the chance to own completely unique items, and even design them themselves. Ironically, this presents challenges for a sector that thrives on individuality, because whilst 3D printing gives consumers a chance to be unique, it takes away a level of exclusivity. If consumers can print their own designs at home, this will pose a serious challenge to the dominance of big labels.

The business angle… For fashion-associated businesses, the challenge now is to work out how they can use innovation to their benefit. At the moment, customisation sites like Shapeways focus on domestic products – but it won’t be long before they turn their attention to garments too. If you can design your own lamp, why not a jacket? Fashion labels need to keep a keen eye on sites and emerging startups that might offer this sort of service. As much as 3D printing has allowed fashion to adopt technology, it may threaten established fashion brands by giving consumers the chance to be their own designers. Businesses will have to offer consistently higher quality products if they are to successfully complete with domestic 3D printing. Through new technology, fashion has merged with other industries like healthcare. This has created huge business opportunities both within and outside of the fashion world. We are already seeing designers collaborate with electronics companies to offer clothing that’s both on trend and innovative.

As exciting as the future of fashion is, the digital revolution has presented challenges for designers, brands and retailers alike. 3D printing has the potential to give consumers much greater power, potentially standing up to established brands. CAD tools have still not been developed for specific use in fashion, but this will only be achieved by wider adoption. Designers need to fully embrace technology before they can make demands of it. Although there have been some difficulties, for the most part disruption has been positive. Sensor-fitted garments have opened up a plethora of exciting new avenues to be explored by entrepreneurs and fashion designers alike. The question is, will consumers really be comfortable with encrypted chips and tracking devices sewn into their clothing? It’s now up to marketers to convince the public to buy into the new face of fashion, and make technology all the more wearable.

Will the fashion industry continue to embrace innovative technology? Is 3D printing a blessing or a curse for designers? What other business opportunities could arise from smart garments? Share your comments below.