In a piece originally running in last year’s 5th Edition publication, business process expert and occasional WhichPLM reporter, Kilara Le, examines the fashion industry’s history of innovation, and the melding of craftsmanship and technical expertise that will be required for fashion and technology to truly mix.
The fashion industry’s love affair with technology has kicked into an even higher gear recently, with 3D, avatars, wearables, and virtual try-on simulations getting a lot of attention from brands and consumers like. Advancements in visualisation and simulation are piquing the interest of fashion designers, and helping to fulfil consumer expectations of accessibility and personalisation.
To meet those expectations and avoid missed trend opportunities, technology is being used across the board – something that is, in turn, forcing strategies to shift. These changes in how we all think about and produce clothing are aligning the world of technology with the world of fabrics, patterns and construction. And while other industries – whose products don’t need to move and flex with a person in the middle of them – have been using 3D visualisation software for decades, fashion is now catching up. Finally.
But although proven technologies exist for all of these applications, it can be tempting to think that technology is all that’s required, when in fact a more significant shift in understanding is sometimes needed from designers and product development teams – a willingness to recognise that the tools won’t be the only things to change.
To get a better handle on how the industry sees this kind of transformation, I set out to ask some experts – people on the front lines and at the cutting edge – how they believe technology is transforming the business of fashion.
Bridging the digital divide
Every idea has its time, and perhaps that time is finally coming for the adoption of 3D CAD and digital visualisation in fashion. It seems as though this has been on the cusp of mass market adoption for decades, but over the last few years simulation of fabric properties and construction mechanical properties has become more accurate, and intuitive enough to overcome the stigma of “stiff” or unrealistic rendering. Across the board, the visual portrayal of fabrics, stitches, trims, digital human avatars and digital fit forms has greatly improved. And it’s these advancements, combined with a new generation of graduates who should hopefully be digital natives, that look to be finally turning the tide on the adoption of 3D for fashion.
“This generation will drive it fast,” says Yoram Burg, President of Optitex USA, “the average age is 22.” He is clear, however that they will be the translators, at least at first, for design, product development teams and patternmakers – not the vanguards of a sudden shift.
Speaking of the new generation, though: wearable technology has hit the headlines in a big way lately – so much so that the technologically amazing has started to seem almost commonplace. The average shopper gets the concept: clothes or devices that we wear that do stuff for us or tell us things. Coming back down to earth, though, what exactly is a ‘wearable’, and what can it do for me? Or you? Or society as a whole? The media would have us believe that this intersection of fashion and technology is going to change the world, but I’m interested to know how it’s going to change the RFA industry, and how – or not – it might mesh with the rise of 3D design.
Presently, when we speak of wearables, we are still talking about more engineered products: wirelessly connected versions of hardline accessories like bracelets and watches that people have been wearing for generations. They are designed on industrial CAD systems such as SolidWorks, and for the most part just need to flex with the human body, and not move around it with ease like our everyday clothes do.
The tools used for designing modern wearables are interesting precisely because, as of late 2015, they represent a division between the fashion and the technology that is extremely close to being bridged.
Apparel CAD systems are different from industrial CAD programs for a multitude of reasons, not least because they boast functionalities that mimic traditional patternmaking methods. As 2D patternmaking and 3D apparel CAD software begins to incorporate the lifelike lighting, movement and backgrounds that have been common features of programs like SolidWorks (and equivalents like CLO 3D, Maya, 3D Studio Max, and Rhino) for years, the ability to create a virtual world for the designer and the consumer edges closer to reality, enabled by technological and process advances from both worlds. Gerber Technology’s recent announcement that their new 3D CAD program will be using the open source Blender software as their platform is emblematic of this trend, as it opens up more possibilities for inter-industry collaboration.
There will be hurdles such as hardware costs, rendering speeds, and process changes along the way, but in an industry well-versed in upgrading infrastructure and embracing change, I don’t believe these barriers will stand for long.
“Another element to take into account is resistance to change. We operate in an industry that is very fast,” says Laura Gelis, Worldwide Marketing Manager for Lectra Fashion Design and Product Development. “Teams are constantly rushing to meet extremely short deadlines. In some cases those people are reluctant to change by fear of destroying a fragile equilibrium.”
Laura is absolutely right to speak of a careful balance, although I believe the balancing act goes beyond that of making sure day-to-day product design and development can continue alongside the implementation of new technologies. As I see it, a kind of democratic, mutual understanding has existed between fashion and technology for several years – something highlighted in the 2014 WhichPLM Annual Review, when Ben Hanson wrote about the trend of consumer technology firms like Apple poaching fashion executives.
I believe this sort of gentleman’s agreement is soon going to become a full-on collaboration, with fashion and technology agreeing to work together to better serve their mutual goals.
For example, with truly integrated wearables (i.e. those that aren’t just “smart” versions of existing products) come a range of engineering considerations that simply are not dealt with or even thought about by your average apparel design team. Non-flexible components; power sources; circuit board design; washability; trackability.
There is also the consideration that consumer electronics products are usually developed over the course of years, not months. While this poses an immediate challenge for technology teams looking to enter fashion, it’s also one example of how multidisciplinary teams will have the advantage – understanding software development, electrical engineering, materials science, the human experience and the importance of clothing fit.
And make no mistake, this kind of multidisciplinary approach is going to be a requirement if fashion and technology are to integrate successfully. As Wearable Technology Business Unit Lead for WWA Advisors and Founder of Principled Design, Despina Papadopoulos points out during our interview, most of the commercially available “wearables” today don’t really integrate with the ethos of fashion, they simply operate and connect as an additional layer on top of clothing, without really sharing a sense of what makes clothing matter.
Important steps are being taken to address this disparity, though, including Google’s announcement of an integrated sensing fabric collaboration with Levi’s called Project Jacquard, which embeds capacitive touch functionality into yarn. The name is a nod to the precursor of the computer, the Jaquard weaving loom, industrialised in the 1800’s at a time when fashion drove innovation – something I believe we’ll see again.
So, to borrow Despina’s words, how can we bring fashion and technology together in a way that “remains true to the whimsy and the social and emotional reasons we wear clothes”?
A major component of this is likely to come from that merging of flexible electronics and textiles at the design stage – somewhere that 3D design and visualisation tools will have the edge, since they allow creative professionals to accurately place seams and components to be functional and interactive as well as aesthetically sound.
The designer of tomorrow, then, needs an understanding of circuitry, programming, materials, and user interface. A tall order for anyone, but luckily they still have a bit of time to learn.
The fact remains that there are hard components in this equation that we don’t yet have substitutes for, according to Jess Jur, Leader of Thrust V at the ASSIST Lab and Assistant Professor in Textile Engineering at N.C. State College of Textiles. Project Jacquard is a step in this direction, and several technology developers (some interviewed in other editorials in this publication) have opted to translate advances made in the medical world that have met FDA approval and rigorous testing to more style-driven applications.
As Jur points out, though, even these approved technologies won’t necessarily make the transition to fashion without considered adaptation. In the case of a wearable ECG (electro cardiogram) each patient’s body is different, which complicates things because you need to have intimate contact with sensors at an exact pressure – something easier said than done with limited sizes and linear grading.
This is where some of the elements that the fashion industry has been toying with for years – specifically personal avatars from body scans and made to measure capabilities baked into 2D apparel CAD software – can help to advance the concept of technologically viable, fashionable wearables.
But even these have their limitations. Body scans and their resulting avatars enable accurate representation of a human body for some placement and measurements and for more accurate fit forms (both physical and virtual) but still don’t simulate the changes in body measurements due to breathing, or cater particularly well for the parts of the body such as abdomen and thighs that are more compressible on some people than others.
Another issue applicable to mass adoption is that most of the virtual 3D avatars don’t accurately represent the shape of the person being body scanned; they change the company’s idealised avatar body to match the measurements entered. Distribution of body shape is quite important when making patterns and fitting garments, and let’s not forget posture. While now, everyone looks pretty good as an idealised avatar, which is fine for online shopping or virtual try-on, this is yet another opportunity for software companies to mesh tradition and reality with technology.
In short, a wearable technology that requires a tight fit or a particular positioning (for sensory feedback or user interface purposes) must be designed to more exacting standards than ever before. And while the addition of extreme animations to virtual avatars (such as squatting and jumping) go some way to remedying this – as seen in Tukatech’s solution – there is still some distance to go before electronic components and patterns can be perfectly fitted in three-dimensions.
Benefits for the brand and retailer: sample reduction, showrooms, faster iterations, direct to pattern capabilities
Everything I’ve written about so far is predictive – at least for the moment. The technologies, the resources, and the consumer appetites all exist today, but there remains a change in mindset amongst brands and retailers who must first embrace digital-first ways of working.
Luckily, rapid progress is being made in this area. Big businesses have already begun to achieve dramatic savings through the adoption of 3D prototyping and sampling, and as with all enterprise technologies, these demonstrable results are beginning to influence a broader shift in understanding.
And as more high-level executives buy into the benefits that can be achieved through adoption of 3D CAD, the internal resistance (both mental and fiscal) will continue to break down. A recent Sourcing Journal Online article highlighted a 65% reduction in sampling by retailer Target (who are interviewed in another editorial in this publication) and a 2-week gain in product development speed.
Amongst other retailers and brands, Target took the proven approach of analysing the impact that 3D could have across design, merchandising and all other departments that would benefit from working in a new way. As you might imagine, the change in mindset that this required was in many ways as significant as the implementation of the software itself, and many organisations have chosen to work with an informed third party consultant to help manage this shift to digital-first thinking.
As Gelis pointed out in response to my question on challenges to adoption, “That’s why it is important to be fully accompanied in the process of adopting a 3D virtual prototyping solution. Consultants will be able to design a path for implementation taking into account all the specificities of a given organisation (skills of the people, existing process, organisation and more).”
Filling in the gaps
We all know that technology is a tool and not a solution. We can live without it, but it makes our lives better – or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. 3D in and of itself isn’t going to change the world of fashion; it’s only through early adopters and responsive software companies that advances like truly integrated wearable technology can reach consumers.
One concern that an interviewee addressed quite neatly is the common perception that technology’s intrusion into fashion is going to spell the end of style, robbing us of both unique fashions and commoditising the craftsmanship that goes into creating them. Again design is key, but its not just aesthetic design, it’s design thinking, creative problem solving and asking users (i.e. the human beings who actually wear the clothing) what their needs are.
This misconception fails to take account of one key aspect of this whole transition, though: the fact that wearable technologies will still require traditional fashion skills in order to really penetrate the market. When I asked Papadopoulos what patternmaking software she used, she told me that she works with a patternmaker who does 2D flat patterns by hand. And even Jur (who you’d expect to be at the forefront of modern methods) said that he and his team are printing some of their circuits in electronic ink using, wait for it, screen-printing screens.
These kinds of traditional techniques should ensure that, however advanced the technology embedded in them becomes, clothing will remain a uniquely personal and expressive thing – and perhaps that the fashion industry will find itself teaching other sectors a great deal.
*This piece has been published verbatim from WhichPLM’s 5th Edition Report, which is still available to purchase.