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The Next Digital Chapter for Fashion

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In his second exclusive this year, our Founder & CEO, Mark Harrop, shares his thoughts on the near-term future of our industry. Spanning a more than four-decade long career in fashion, he also draws on the previous ‘digital chapters’ our industry has seen.

WhichPLM has now been around for over ten years, but I’ve been in the industry over four times longer, since the mid 1970s. Now, anyone who knows me knows how proud I am to have spent most of that time helping to bring new, digital technologies to fashion brands, retailers, and extended supply chain partners – both upstream in the form of CAD, CAM, PDM, PLM and 3D, and more recently downstream toward the consumers with Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Blockchain, Digital Printing and more.

The first digital chapter in fashion came in the late 1970s with the Commodore PET (for factory floor, real-time payment systems), followed by the second chapter in the mid-1980s, when computer aided design came in as a brand new acronym and a graphics card took up an enclosure the size of your dining table today. My (MicroDynamics) colleagues and I were on the vanguard of a real digital change in the way our industry worked, using the latest IBM XT personal computers. We saw serious challenges with the way fashion was operating, and we believed we’d found the solution(s) – in the form of 2D CAD/CAM and PDM – to help connect the dots within a brand, retailer or manufacturer, based upon an enclosed client server architecture supported by telefax to help share requirements with the suppliers.

And in most of the ways that mattered, we were right. When we introduced the first shop floor monitoring solution along with PDM, we helped apparel businesses to take back control of their core product design and development processes, and to keep all their data in one place. When we introduced PLM in the late 90s, at a time when the world was only just beginning to move beyond fax machines to email, we opened the next chapter of digital and with it a level of data consolidation and control to the entire enterprise. We used the recently commercialised Internet to create new connections between brands and retailers and their supply chain partners – who were usually situated on the other side of the world.

Looking back through those digital chapters, I’ve always thought we did great work, and I was proud to have played my part in helping to make fashion run quicker and more smoothly than ever before. And, although PLM has evolved and totally replaced PDM in the intervening decades, companies of all shapes and sizes were able to obtain real value from both generations of solution. During these early digital chapters, we also started to create new APIs (Application Protocol Interface) to extend the digital reach between CAD/CAM and ERP solutions. And another chapter of integration and collaboration solutions was born.

But recently I’ve started to wonder if, in the processes of making product development and offshore sourcing speedier, those of us happily responsible since the beginning shouldn’t also share in some responsibility for the negative consequences we’ve unconvered – the disposable, offshore model that’s been created.

Over the years, as we’ve helped to make fashion run faster we’ve unknowingly opened the door for that well-known model, fast fashion – where PDM was/is linked to CAD/CAM and CMT units are connected based upon local manufacturing models that could deliver great volume and speed. This fast fashion model has completely redefined the marketplace and, with it, the expectations for how fashion should operate. Not that long ago, people shopped for timeless styles, and opted for quality that promised years rather than months, but over time we’ve been conditioned to want the lowest prices, the newest pieces, and not to ‘feel bad’ when we throw away a cheap garment only to buy another one.

But this shift didn’t happen spontaneously; the market conditions were, of course, ripe for the change to fast fashion. The commercialisation of the Internet brought new media channels resulting in more people exposed to a wider variety of styles and influences, and the rise of multi-channel meant that companies that could adapt catwalk styles quickly, price them affordably, then repeat the process even faster the next time, had a captive market. And the ones who managed that became household names – the likes of Inditex, H&M, Boohoo, and ASOS.

But this very model – one that has dominated the industry for the best part of two decades – is now experiencing a major backlash. And it’s because the compelling proposition the consumer saw – trendy, cheap clothes on constant rotation – came with huge unspoken costs that are only now being dragged into the spotlight.

To create cheap, on-trend clothing, brands and retailers had to either sacrifice their own margins, or find ways of optimising costs elsewhere in the lifecycle. And those savings came from the sort of obviously unpleasant sources that the apparel industry used to go to great lengths to hide: low-wage or even unpaid labour, significant carbon footprint, huge landfill contributions, and little or no transparency when it came to understanding the specific impact of these metrics.

It’s unfair to place all blame on the fast fashion market, because the same trend happened in other areas too. Spurred on by the big names in affordable style, almost every segment turned fashion into a commodity – where sheer volume and speed are crucial for success.

What’s more: offshoring was necessary for most products. And our industry alone certainly didn’t create the inequalities that exist between countries where shopping for clothes is an easy luxury, and countries where making clothes is the only work available and wages are suppressed. As much as it pains me to admit it, fashion alone can’t drive social change.

It’s important to focus on some positives here. For example, for every volume-based retailer that’s now being reprimanded for the negative impacts of their business model, there are ten or more smaller emerging brands and e-tailers trying a different angle. From small, scheduled product “drops”, to so-called “radical transparency” linked to supply chains, smart material, prints and products, companies are successfully experimenting with either minimising their negative impact on the world, or opening their new digital doors to let consumers decide for themselves. Even some of the biggest companies are experimenting with positive solutions. And for me, this is the next chapter in fashion’s infinite loop – one that we should be helping to embrace. Many are trying their hand at something different – something that can only be delivered by connecting the ‘digital dots’ and investing in a new chapter of new and exciting disruptive technologies helping to shape new models for fashion’s future.

Our supply chain is going through a revolutionary chapter that is more complex and connected than ever before. Customers expect trust, fairness and loyalty (my personal data comes at a price). They are searching for a personalised buying experience and a new loyalty program that can only be delivered via the digital connected landscape. They expect almost instantaneous service and response and, with the coming age of 5G, the industry will enable almost-instant responses across all channels to and from the consumer. Customers will want products that have been designed specifically to meet their wishes, and that will fit based upon their own unique dimensions. Individual, creative designs and tailor made garments will become the new norm driven by new, disruptive technologies that will all become connected in an infinite digital loop. This will be accompanied by new, digital services that support a different lifestyle and experience linked to smart materials, digital prints and embroidery with products that will be extended beyond selling to the service, community experience, ownership and authenticity enabled by the introduction of the blockchain.

The next chapter of disruptive digital technologies is already here and is helping to revolutionise business models as we know them. During a recent trip to Israel I visited six digital disruptives that I firmly believe will help to play a big part of fashion’s next digital chapter; and at the same time will change the competitive landscape for the better. I’m talking about: intelligent supply chain platforms; creativity and flexibility that will offer greater choice and options for less cost; speed getting even faster; greater efficiency delivered by advanced ecosystem collaboration; engineered hardware and smart connected software enabled by IoET (Internet of Everything); cost reductions driven via efficiency of newly connected hardware and software. All of this will make a far greater positive impact on the environment with reduced material waste when using the “stack it high, sell it cheap” model versus the new made to order model, using direct to roll or direct to garment printing that is using new chemistry (digital inks) and fixing agents. So, unlike in the past, when we unknowingly caused problems and massive pollutants, this chapter will help reduce the negative impact on our environment as a whole.

The smart thinking digital natives driving this new chapter are looking at the traditional challenges with a completely new set of eyes and are, unknowingly in some cases, helping to shape the next chapter of connected supply chains that will constantly deliver experiences that the next customer-centric digital chapter will require.

Mark Harrop Mark Harrop is the founder and Managing Director of WhichPLM. During a career that has spanned more than four decades, Mark has worked tirelessly to further the cause of PLM – providing the unbiased, expert advice that has enabled some of the world’s best known retailers, brands and manufacturers achieve efficiency savings across their entire supply chain through informed technology investments.