TECH­NOL­O­GY IS THE KEY DRI­VER OF CHANGE IN THE FASH­ION INDUSTRY”

How will consumers shop in the future? What will become the newest sustainable technology? On November 20, Flanders DC brought, in the framework of FashionTech Works and United Fashion, 24 promising companies from 11 countries to Antwerp to share their vision and their thoughts on the future of circular fashion, shopping and wearable tech. A recap

It’s no secret that retail and sus­tain­abil­i­ty present quite a chal­lenge to the fash­ion indus­try. More­over, fierce com­pe­ti­tion forces brands to reflect on how change can help them stand out or even com­plete­ly rein­vent them­selves. Through­out, tech­nol­o­gy is a dri­ving force as well as the per­fect means for com­pa­nies look­ing to over­come today’s and tomorrow’s obsta­cles. This also became appar­ent from the inter­na­tion­al pro­gram Fash­ion­Tech Works, host­ed by Flan­ders DC in Antwerp last month.

24 par­tic­i­pants from 11 coun­tries each got 3 min­utes to pitch their project to a six-mem­ber jury. In the evening, they could con­tin­ue shar­ing their vision as well as expand their net­work at Fash­ion­Tech (Net)Works, a cock­tail par­ty attend­ed by the local fash­ion and tech com­mu­ni­ty, too. Press­ing prob­lems and their solu­tions were always the start­ing point.

Empha­sis on ser­vice over product

The future of shop­ping and retail is one of the major issues the fash­ion indus­try is cur­rent­ly grap­pling with. Espe­cial­ly in our west­ern soci­ety, the con­sumer has every­thing his heart desires.

The con­sumer is not look­ing for more prod­ucts, but for ser­vices to make his life eas­i­er. This phe­nom­e­non of servi­ti­za­tion is rapid­ly gain­ing impor­tance. The Bel­gian start­up Sha­vatar, a spin­off of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Antwerp and research cen­ter Imec, pro­vides us with a beau­ti­ful exam­ple. ​Our ambi­tion is to reduce all size-relat­ed returns in e‑commerce”, says Geert Mertens, the dri­ving force behind Sha­vatar. ​We’ve devel­oped a mod­el that can accu­rate­ly pre­dict the 3D body shape, based not on scans but on eight sim­ple para­me­ters the con­sumer has to fill out. This not only enables us to offer size rec­om­men­da­tions; the data we col­lect also con­sti­tutes valu­able feed­back that the company’s design team can use to opti­mize their fit.” Sha­vatar hopes to get its launch ver­sion ready by the first
quar­ter of 2020.

Fash­ion­Tech Works allows young star­tups like Sha­vatar to get in touch with oth­er play­ers who are open to cross-fer­til­iza­tion – a huge plus, obvi­ous­ly. One of these play­ers is MAC­TY, a Bel­gian com­pa­ny that relies on arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence to facil­i­tate the consumer’s search for the right items on e‑commerce plat­forms. The shop­per no longer types in key­words but uploads a pic­ture. MAC­TY com­pares this image to the web shop’s offer and dis­plays match­ing prod­ucts. A win-win for every­one involved, because the retailer’s con­ver­sion rates are also sure to increase.

RetailDetail’s busi­ness unit man­ag­er Katrien Huy­gens over­saw the work­shop on the future of shop­ping that was next on the pro­gram. Accord­ing to her, inno­va­tion is the mes­sage, but every­thing depends on pub­lic sup­port. After all, no mat­ter how hard a com­pa­ny push­es a cer­tain tech­nol­o­gy, ulti­mate­ly it’s the end con­sumer who decides whether it will catch on or not. Is he ready for those wild ideas to begin with? All par­tic­i­pants agreed that this cer­tain­ly is a valid ques­tion to ask.

Cir­cu­lar sys­tems look­ing to scale up

When it comes to sus­tain­abil­i­ty, the role of fash­ion tech should not be under­es­ti­mat­ed either. The Fash­ion­Tech Works par­tic­i­pants who are active in this area main­ly focus on find­ing solu­tions to cut the envi­ron­men­tal impact of the lin­ear fash­ion sys­tem that has been in place for years now, as well as on set­ting up cir­cu­lar ecosys­tems instead. w.r.yuma is an inter­est­ing case in point. This Bel­gian brand trans­forms post-con­sumer recy­cled plas­tics into 3D print­ed sun­glass­es that can, in turn, be dis­as­sem­bled at the end of their lives. ​Now we con­cen­trate on col­lab­o­rat­ing with inter­na­tion­al fash­ion giants,” co-part­ner Len­ja Doms reveals, ​so we can bring the prin­ci­ples of the cir­cu­lar econ­o­my to those lin­ear fast fash­ion com­pa­nies as well.”

Dye­Coo deliv­ered the win­ning pitch, con­vinc­ing the 850-strong audi­ence dur­ing a pitch bat­tle with APA Intem­po­ral dur­ing Fash­ion Talks the day after. The Dutch com­pa­ny devel­oped a non-tox­ic, safe, cir­cu­lar and inex­pen­sive tech­nol­o­gy to dye poly­ester with reclaimed CO2. The icing on the cake? The process involves not a sin­gle drop of water. ​It is high time we turned the sup­ply chain of the tex­tile pro­duc­tion around and switched from wet to dry process­es”, says DyeCoo’s Femke Zijl­stra. ​We should join forces before it’s too late.”

Loud call for col­lab­o­ra­tion and transparency

Mod­er­a­tor Eve­lyn Mora, who found­ed the sus­tain­able Helsin­ki Fash­ion Week and works as a con­sul­tant for Tes­la and the Euro­pean Space Agency, among oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, thinks the key ques­tion is: how to bal­ance busi­ness and sus­tain­abil­i­ty? Servi­ti­za­tion holds the answer, she believes. ​We don’t need more prod­ucts. We need to focus on the real, big issues and devel­op ser­vices that cater to these needs. There’s a demand for that, both in B2B and B2C mar­kets.” COSH!under­stood that per­fect­ly. The Bel­gian plat­form helps cus­tomers who can’t see the wood for the trees, guid­ing them towards sus­tain­able shops. Using numer­ous fil­ters, you can plot your per­son­al­ized shop­ping route with COSH!. Anoth­er beau­ti­ful exam­ple: Ger­man com­pa­ny LUK­SO used blockchain tech­nol­o­gy to cre­ate a dig­i­tal pass­port for phys­i­cal prod­ucts. The ID con­tains infor­ma­tion on the ori­gin of the resources, the fac­to­ry where the item was made, its pre­vi­ous own­er, and so on. Tech­nol­o­gy has an impor­tant role to play in mak­ing fash­ion more trans­par­ent – which in turn is a pre­req­ui­site for sus­tain­abil­i­ty and respect­ing human rights.

Invis­i­ble wear­able tech

This doesn’t mean that prod­ucts can’t be a dri­ving force to solv­ing the mod­ern consumer’s prob­lems, though. Take Tessender­lo-based com­pa­ny Bio­rac­er, which spe­cial­izes in aero­dy­nam­ic and ther­moreg­u­lat­ing sports­wear for skiers, cyclists and triathletes

Or think of APA Intem­po­ral, a Brus­sels brand that teamed up with a Swiss lab to cre­ate rain­coats that can be per­fect­ly worn on sun­ny days, too. The coats fea­ture a com­bi­na­tion of tech­nolo­gies that were hith­er­to only used to ser­vice Olympic ath­letes: on the one hand, a water­proof coat­ing that behaves like a leaf, repelling water and dust, and on the oth­er, a ther­moreg­u­lat­ing mem­brane that adapts to the wearer’s body temperature.

No one pos­sess­es the truth and no one knows what the future will bring – and these 24 com­pa­nies are obvi­ous­ly no excep­tion. But they do give us a glimpse of how it might evolve, in a pos­i­tive way, and per­haps they each hold a cru­cial piece of an incred­i­bly com­plex puz­zle. Their task? Keep talk­ing to each oth­er, com­bin­ing the smartest ideas and cre­at­ing new plat­forms, for instance to inform the con­sumer. So, plen­ty of work to be done! Or to quote the final words of an inspir­ing pitch: ​The future is creation.”

Words by David Devriendt

Images by Juan Wyns