How AI And Mass Customization Could Change The Fashion Industry

Yanie Durocher, founder of POMPOM, focused on fashion/lifestyle brands in China; PR, Social media and

Yanie Durocher, founder of POMPOM, focused on fashion/lifestyle brands in China; PR, Social media and Content production. IG @YanieYanson

With more than 2.14 billion people being digital buyers (almost 30% of the world’s population) and many companies offering extremely user-friendly shipping processes, our homes have turned into fitting rooms. We buy clothing online, we receive it and we try it on. If the expectation or fit isn’t right, we send it back.

Seems easy, right? Yet even if most of the time returns are free, someone is still paying: our planet

In China, logistics and shipping are extremely efficient and low-cost, making it ultra-convenient for e-commerce transactions and an unavoidable high amount of returns, disregarding whether the average price of a single purchased item may be less than the cost to ship it back. Of course, many people are taking advantage of this.

As someone who works with fashion brands, I’ve been keeping a close eye on possibilities for making retail returns less costly for our planet, and two that seem to have a lot of promise are artificial intelligence and digital mass customization. 

Potential Game-Changers

When we talk about AI and fashion, it’s really about increasing the efficiency of the consumer experience, reducing waste and creating more sophisticated just-in-time inventory systems that take into account consumers’ bodies and preferences when they’re selecting an item. Mass customization is creating something for a larger audience but customizing it to suit individuals’ needs or desires. 

At POMPOM, we’re exploring the potential of mass customization and 3-D rendering with virtual fitting technology through diverse interviews with specialists around the world along with internal research. We believe the future will involve the ability to have a virtual fitting experience at home, where you not only can visualize the item on yourself before purchasing it, but you also can know how it will fit you.

We’re also helping one company we work with, Kornit, communicate about its mass customization printing via direct-to-fabric technology. We will first start with localized designer collaborations paired with content and move forward with more technical information on sustainable, on-demand digital fashion and textile production technologies.

AI and mass customization could be game-changers not only for managing JIT inventory and lowering transportation costs and emissions but also for the whole electronic retailing system. Fast fashion wouldn’t necessarily have to be called “fast” anymore as items could be created based on a person’s needs.

From what I’ve seen, there are still several big challenges to overcome before achieving breakthroughs in these categories. 

First off, data is a core element. Brands will need more data: precise traceability details, specific human body measurements, color analysis, shape analysis, style analysis and of course, visual analysis and potential forecasts.

As we learned from an interview we conducted with someone who’s been working with AI for over half a decade, another major challenge is how a 2-D measurement can be converted into 3-D from a more technical standpoint. But this challenge is still unsolvable in the market for now.

A third challenge is overcoming worries about the volatility and disruptive effects of investing in AI tech. Key factors such as time, tech availability and return may not be clear, and many investors tend to seek safer investments with time-bound goals. 

Still, algorithms created to emulate human choices and changing data into a visual 3-D form are on the agenda. A number of companies are involved with such technologies. Take Balenciaga and Fortnite, which recently teamed up to launch a clothing collection that’s available both in real life and in a gaming environment. As WWD reports, “The Fortnite team replicated Balenciaga apparel through 3D scans to create prototype models.” 

Companies are running to save themselves a place in the AI champions league, too, especially in China, with Shanghai, Hangzhou and Shenzhen being the giants of digital investment, venture capital and governmental tech relations.

Alibaba, just to mention one, back in 2017 announced that it was investing $15 billion in researching quantum computing, AI and more. And last year, the company opened a smart apparel factory in Hangzhou.

Supporting The Technologies Through Communications

Although AI and mass customization in the fashion industry are still in the initial stages, brands have an opportunity to use communications to support efforts to improve and implement the technologies. Helping to educate members of the media about their importance is a good first step. As we’ve been focusing on the implementation of mass customization for some of our clients, we’ve found that the press often avoids covering these topics since they can be difficult to understand. We’ve tried diverse approaches to help overcome this problem. And we’ve found that it’s crucial to make time to help members of the media focus on these topics, and provide them with the right influencers to help them push the message through.

Brands also can work with designers and B2B technology brands to push out messages about mass customization and AI in a more digestible way to the rest of the fashion industry — this can be especially impactful during fashion weeks. Start off with a disruptive hook point to create curiosity about why mass customization and the future of AI are so important for the fashion industry. I also press on the B2B tech segment to not overlook the power of aesthetics when it comes to communication as most people won’t dig into a topic if they aren’t attracted to it within the first few seconds. Once you’ve piqued your audience’s interest, you can dive deeper into the topics through in-depth workshops, B2B activations and communications tactics.

Content creation, social media and public relations are key. Start small with three to four months of A/B testing of your messages, and then move forward with sharing them on a larger scale. The goal is to increase the communication about these topics and make them more accessible — not only to the B2B segment but also to consumers, as consumer demand drives everything.

While we still have a long way to go when it comes to employing mass customization and AI in the fashion industry, we can create building blocks, starting with the exploration of technologies such as direct-to-garment printing, 3-D printing, supply chain management involving the Internet of Things and more. We can use mass communications to shed light on the possibilities of these technologies so that others in the industry, as well as consumers, will understand their importance for our future.

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