Digital transformation of fashion design and manufacturing is viewed as both an opportunity and a threat, depending on who you ask. The perceived threats include job security, creativity, and loss of the “human touch” in fashion design and garment-making. The opportunities span time and cost savings, vast and swift sustainability gains (including removing textile waste and reducing the need for dyeing, water use and the carbon emissions generated by physical sampling) and the ability to manufacture small quantities of products profitably.
Other creative industries, such as gaming and film, have adopted digital tools and subsequently platforms that link design, the beating heart of all the products created for human consumption, with every other person and process necessary to bring that design to life (whether that be on a screen or in physical form). It follows that these industries have therefore provided a blueprint for the digitization of fashion—or have they?
To put this debate into the current context, the sustainability pressures facing the fashion industry point to digital transformation being necessary, rather than optional. The rising cost of raw materials as the planet’s resources dwindle, the carbon and financial costs of manual garment sampling and shipping back and forth from manufacturers in Asia to Europe and the U.S., and the switch from two seasons per year to monthly (or weekly) product launches to keep up with social media trends, mean that the only way to meet global consumer demand is to digitize and streamline manual processes. Indeed, the question seems to be how can the industry progress in a manner that is sustainable, ethical and profitable without digitalization?
To draw parallels and find out what fashion can learn from the gaming and film industries, I spoke to Remo Gettini, a serial innovator who is ex-Dreamworks, and DWA NOVA, and now the CTO of the human-centric app-based community of 16 million buyers and sellers of fashion, Depop. What is holding fashion back? Why has digital transformation been so slow? What steps should the industry take to transform expensive, slow, manual, unethical, unfair and unsustainable practices into processes fit for today’s consumers, who want a paradox of constant newness (often personalized) within the planetary bounds?
As CTO at DWA NOVA, Gettini worked with brands ranging from Tommy Hilfiger to Nike and Burberry to navigate the digital landscape and define and implement digital solutions for product design, development and merchandising. “The fashion industry has the opportunity to increase its creativity way beyond what it can currently imagine,” says Gettini. What it lacks is access to human-centric technologies fit for the creative nuances and ephemerality of fashion design. “How do you express the value of a Burberry scarf in a 3D render?” asked Gettini. This is a tough question and one that is being asked by fashion brands, too.
Why has 3D digital design fallen so far short for fashion, I asked? The answer, according to Gettini, having spent decades orchestrating digital transformation as a solutions architect, technical director, and CTO, is that digital design has been borne out of engineering and is based on CAD/CAM solutions, which are “not creative or intuitive in a way that empowers designers.” His view is that the solutions on the market right now, CLO3D (one of the newest CAD solutions for fashion) included, are driven by technical specifications that still do not bridge the gap between creative design and product creation.
The width of this gap is astonishing if you think about the current turnover of styles and speed of fashion, paired with dwindling order volumes as e-commerce has ushered in a shorter shelf-life for styles that are driven by fleeting Instagram trends. This is a phenomenon Depop knows only too well as they provide a seamless platform that integrates social-media trends, e-commerce, and online communities.
The second barrier, he believes, is that solutions providers approach fashion like it was any other industry. They present the same tools to fashion as they do to automotive, aerospace and architecture. “This just won’t work with fashion,” he says. “Fashion needs a platform that plugs creative design into the supply chain painlessly and without designers having to change the way they work. This is fundamental. Designers should not be asked to drop their manual design and illustration techniques in favor of a mouse and keyboard.” To Gettini’s mind, this is where digital transformation “falls at the first hurdle.” So what is the solution?
Reflecting on the strategy of digital transformation at Dreamworks, he explained that they gave designers a tablet and pen so that whatever they drew was digitized—the action was the same, but the options for color, texture, and effects were greater. They expanded the designers’ toolkit, rather than changing it. This unleashed their creativity and the rest of the digital solutions were built around translating these digital sketches into products that could be manufactured via CAD/CAM solutions, seamlessly.
He stressed throughout our conversation that the technology “needs to disappear” and leave only the impression that the work is easier, better and more creative. “Human-centricity is the key to digital success.” In fact, at Depop, the users never talk about the app. They talk about “the experience, the friends they make, the communities they join, the clothes they buy—never the technology,” says Gettini.
What else would Gettini do to fast-track digital transformation in fashion? From a C-level perspective, he would hire new talent graduating from fashion colleges with 3D design skills and an appetite for creative digital design in place of traditional methods of fashion design. He would place these new recruits with the current crop of designers and task them with developing the next collections collaboratively, to leverage both approaches. Fundamental here is the integration of digital design in the actual design and development of products, rather than as an isolated “project.” “
There is no point running a separate pilot to dip your toe in—digital-native designers need to be introduced into the process as part of the business, not as an experiment,” he says. This triggers memories of views shared with me by digital designers working in siloed departments at global brands, who express frustration that digital solutions are adopted within their departments, but do not influence or integrate with other departments, or the supply chain. The very “project” approach that Gettini warns against is a common approach, it seems.
So what does the digitization of fashion design mean for the future of Depop? Depop currently has 16 million buyers and sellers of fashion on its app (the tip of the iceberg, according to Gettini), and in all likelihood, they have the next generation of fashion designers on their platform, too. What would happen if the Depop community could create and share digital fashion designs for crowd-vetting, that are connected to digital manufacturing facilities allowing production on demand, to the quantity determined by the seller (and demanded by the Depop community)—a kind of “Unity for fashion,” as Gettini calls it? This is something that Depop is currently looking into as a possible evolution of their fashion platform. This example further illustrates how 3D digital design has the power to provide fashion-on-demand in a more sustainable manner than the current model of overproduction and inevitable deadstock creation.
During a recent conversation with Kees Jacobs, head of insights and data, global sector consumer products and retail at consultancy firm Capgemini, he explained that in the past decade, digital fashion solutions have been prioritized in consumer-facing domains (website, mobile, in-store experiences) where tech solutions can increase customer engagement and facilitate customer services. On the subject of 3D digital design adoption, his experience has demonstrated that “the urgency to do this is less. The top line (for digital solutions) is retail.”
He went on to state that “we see a big shift happening with digital twins of consumer and products and where the two meet.” Regarding the top two investments fashion retailers should make that promise good ROI, the first was data analytics solutions, and the second area was “consumer engagement and the digital avatar (to allow) the use of CGI to be able to have digital experiences around the products.” Who should retailers look to for these solutions, I asked? Capgemini is working with large players (including Microsoft) and a number of smaller, highly specialized startups to deliver on digital avatars, products, and experiences.
It seems that a potential future direction for the fashion industry is implementing digitized fashion illustration at the first stage of design to connect to 3D CAD/CAM software and equipment for on-demand manufacturing, then eventually the digital product presentation tools at the consumer end. Of course, this is dependent on 3D design tools being adopted by designers and brands, which still proves to be a challenge, based on the views of Gettini and a number of designers I have spoken to at global brands. The challenge is largely due to the technical nature of the interfaces currently on offer to fashion designers via 3D design software.
In addition, the preference for hand-drawing and painstaking manual design techniques still dominates amongst senior designers and creative directors (for whom the design and development processes are often structured to accommodate). Indeed, 3D digital design is still notably absent from the curriculums of top fashion colleges, with many 3D digital designers being self-taught (or from a gaming or film background). The fashion design students I have spoken to who are exploring 3D digital design are learning from online tutorials and forums in place of being taught formally at university. If a “Unity for fashion” does emerge, a new generation of fashion designers who buck the tradition of a fashion college education may yet define, and design, the fashion of our future.