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For better or for worse, how is fashion changing in the digital age?

From innovative 3D-printed designs, to a complete shift in marketing techniques, we take a look at how fashion is changing in the digital age – for better or for worse.

As in all sectors, technology is revolutionising how businesses operate. Embracing artificial intelligence, data analytics, digital manufacturing, and so on, the fashion industry is drastically evolving to adapt to the new landscape.

This transformation saves time and cost, has extensive sustainability benefits, and successfully appeals to tech-savvy consumers. But it also threatens creativity, job security, and eliminates the ‘human touch’ that’s an integral part of garment-making and design.

The merging of fashion and technology was inevitably a long time coming, but should it be an optional transition, rather than a necessary one?

Given our current climate situation, the pressures facing the fashion industry to be more sustainable certainly point towards a digital transformation as extremely necessary. If you consider the rising cost of raw materials (while the planet’s resources continue to decline), the vast carbon footprint associated with shipping goods back and forth from countries around the world, and the countless product launches attempting to keep up with social media trends, change is unavoidable.

Fashion, however, has been incredibly late to the game compared to other sectors such as healthcare, media, and education. The only way to meet the needs of global consumers is to update – and therefore digitise – manual processes. But how can this be achieved without losing authenticity? You can’t exactly express the value or craftsmanship of a Hermès silk scarf through 3D rendering, now can you? At least that’s what the industry seems to think.

What this opinion comes down to is the fact that digital design is a form of engineering using CAD/CAM software that isn’t typically that intuitive or creative (in a way that inspires designers). At its core, fashion has long been viewed as an art form. A way in which creative visions can become a reality and then used to express individuality – whether it’s the designers, or that of whoever wears it. Consequently, the industry has been slow to welcome such a significant change, wary of the impact it may have on how consumers connect with brand image, per say.

The ephemerality of fashion design is what makes it unique. In order to match the fast-paced nature of our interests, designers must continuously evolve, mirroring the transition. When you look at the current turnover of styles and the speed at which fashion moves to keep consumers’ attention, it’s simply not feasible to reject transformation, especially when it’s related to technology, a change that has totally inserted itself into modern day life with substantial force.

Take marketing, for example. In this digital age, the fashion industry has wholeheartedly come to terms with the necessity of using the internet to sell products. It’s a phenomenon that Depop knows only too well, providing a flawless platform for the integration of e-commerce, online communities, and social media trends. If it’s not advertising campaigns that pop up as we scroll through Facebook, or celebrities and influencers targeted to promote clothes and accessories on Instagram, it’s giving us an exclusive insider perspective into what goes on behind closed doors.

Never before have we been privy to witnessing the entire design process. Now, we have the option to follow supermodels as they saunter down the runway or watch in awe as Kendall Jenner poses in front of a camera wearing haute couture.

It’s these revelations that lead us to cultivate some sort of informal (yet equally personal) relationship with designers and their ideas. And perhaps the reason they’re so reluctant to introduce technology to their ateliers.

Fashion is authentic, raw, artistic in its foundation. We’ve fallen in love with visions moving from their original form as sketches in a notepad, to carefully embroidered things of beauty. ‘How can a computer possibly mimic this?’ you may be wondering.

‘Fashion needs a platform that plugs creative design into the supply chain painlessly and without designers having to change the way they work,’ says Remo Gettini, Chief Technology Officer at Depop. ‘They shouldn’t be asked to drop their manual design and illustration techniques in favour of a mouse and keyboard. We can’t present them with the same tools as we do with automotive, aerospace and architecture. It won’t work.’

So, what’s the solution to this notion that technology might not have the same human appeal as traditional methods? Essentially, it needs to seem as though the technology isn’t there during the design process. That, alternatively, it leaves an impression of the work as better, more refined, and – most importantly – easier to create; without making designers feel like they’ve lost their touch along the way. So, yes, the transition is necessary – but not in the way that you might initially think. ‘Human-centricity is the key to digital success,’ says Gettini, and he’s right. Technology needs to be introduced as a positive addition, not an isolated project or something that threatens creativity.

The answer? 3D printed designs. With the power to provide on-demand-fashion in a much more sustainable way than the current mode of overproduction which inexorably involves the manufacture of deadstock items, it’s the future. Although the penchant for painstaking, hand-drawn designs still dominates amongst creative directors and senior designers, it’s progressively making its way into fashion as a means of cutting down on material waste and eliminating irresponsible sampling, with designers like Iris Van Herpens at the helm.

Lately, the use of 3D printing (building a three-dimensional object from a computer aided design by successively adding material layer by layer) in the fashion industry has been increasing dramatically because it generates no waste, it only uses what’s necessary. Also referred to as ‘additive manufacturing,’ that’s exactly what it is: an addition to, rather than complete alteration of the process. It’s not taking over, it’s simply improving upon it, saving fashion a great deal of money in development samples, not to mention enhanced productivity and reduced pressure on landfill.

Alongside these irrefutable benefits, it can also significantly expand creative possibilities. Without needing moulds to create shapes anymore, designers can produce elements of ultimate intricacy with high-quality textiles that may otherwise be too fine to use. It’s for this reason that 3D printing would alleviate concerns surrounding the integration of the human and the technical, as it’s both forward thinking and authentic at the same time.

This is just what Van Herpens believes. Her high-tech couture combines 3D-printing with hand-stitching to build strangely gorgeous dresses unlike anything I’ve ever seen before; a brilliant example of how – when done correctly – the unity of fashion and technology can be truly amazing. The pieces in her collection, which are made from laser-cut acrylic mesh, establish her as one of the most consequential and innovative fashion designers of the 21st century, an embodiment of the relationship between maker and machine. She is proving to the world that artisanal craftsmanship can be united with the most forward-looking technology because – in the words of Karl Lagerfeld – ‘even if you don’t like the idea: technology rules the world because it changed the world.’

I acknowledge that it’s been a somewhat ‘shock to the system,’ this intersection between something that was completely alien to us mere decades ago and an industry so symbolic of culture and history, but it’s already the beginning of the new normal.

And I don’t think it’s going to be much longer before every designer is clamouring to get their hands on the same technology that Van Herpens has been using for years. The world has changed and so too, must fashion.