The fashion industry is broken. It’s been truly broken since about 1998 and it doesn’t look like it’s getting much better. Oddly, the fixes have been around nearly as long as the malaise, so why hasn’t the industry responded? That’s a question I’m not sure can be fully answered, but before we try, let’s look at the problems. I’ve grouped them into three areas which we’ll explore: Customization, The Fit Experience, and Sustainability.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s, fashion was all about the big brands. People were into logos and buying franchise styles that would sell in enormous quantities. Everyone wanted the “cool” shirt or the “dress of the moment”. Brands responded by pumping out huge volumes of these individual franchise styles.
But with the internet has come a desire for shoppers to differentiate themselves from the masses. Exclusivity and uniqueness is the new norm and brands are struggling to find a balance between styles that will sell in the desired volume while offering enough uniqueness to excite consumers. However, this is where the industry has a massive problem. A vast majority of the fashion industry is built on the premise of producing large volumes of styles, cheaply, and far away from their western consumers. The current factory model isn’t built for customization and isn’t flexible enough to respond quickly. In fact, many brands take 15 – 18 months to bring product to market which means that they are planning their lines with sales and trend data that is nearly two years out of date. Companies like Nike, Adidas, and Vans have offered online product customization, but it typically doubles the price of the product. Even for the very few brands who get it mostly right, like Vans with their Customs site, you still have the problem that most shoppers aren’t designers and aren’t confident enough in their design ability to waste twice the amount of money on something that may look like a disaster. It’s also interesting to note that, for the large brands who offer customization, they offer it largely for footwear. Could it be that most people are far more confident in their shoe size than their dress size? This brings me to the next problem with the industry.
The Fit Experience
The Brick and Mortar Problem
How many times have you walked into a dressing room with a pair of jeans, realized that they were the wrong size or color, and then tried to figure out how to hail a salesperson to fetch you another size without exposing yourself? Once you managed to wave one down, how many times have they come back (after some time) empty-handed; out of stock in your color or size? I have a theory that all sales happen in the fitting room and, the more difficult a brand makes the experience, the less they will sell. Rebecca Minkoff and a few other retailers have addressed this problem by offering digital touch screens within the fitting room that allow you to request a different size and or color. The screen even tells you who will be bringing you the new clothes. But sadly, these systems are more the exception rather than the rule, forcing us to continue to suffer along with poor fit experiences in the majority of fit rooms.
The Online Shopping Problem
This problem is magnified exponentially online. There is no fit room to speak of and, therefore, no ability to fit. There is no ability to try on outfits. There is no way how to see how a shape or color will look on YOU. Most of the time, you can’t even tell if a style is available in your size without clicking through to a product page. It’s maddening. This is why the industry has an astronomical return rate of around 50%; a one trillion-dollar global problem that is actually harder on the environment than it is on companies’ bottom lines.
The “Amazon” Problem
The fact of the matter is that our current e-commerce platform was never intended to sell fashion; it was intended to sell books. You have to give a lot of credit to Amazon; they have been incredibly successful in growing from “The World’s Largest Bookstore” to the world’s largest store, period. But the e-commerce model that was built to be very effective at selling “Title, Subject, Author” is very, very poor at selling a differentiated brand experience required for fashion. If you go to nearly any apparel website and search for “Men’s Jeans”, you will get back-ordered rows of jeans; “item 1-15, page 1-150”. You will get back something that looks nothing like a Levi’s Flagship Store, or a Prada store, or even an H&M; it looks like a library. So, while we have the technology to deliver an UltraHD video stream to your TV in real-time, we’re still looking at a list of small thumbnails designed for the bandwidth grandpa used to read newsgroups on AOL back in 1998. “You’ve got mail!”
The end result of this situation is an industry that has configured itself to sell massive volumes of a product but is actually very poor at doing so. This leads to large amounts of waste in 3 areas: 1) Large numbers of upfront product “samples” that brands use to decide what they want to sell. 2) Large volumes of shipped product that are never sold; thus, having to be marked down or eventually destroyed. 3) Large numbers of returns that also must be destroyed.
This is one of the reasons that the Apparel industry is one of the top 10 most polluting industries on the planet. Potentially even in the top 5. To make a single cotton t-shirt, it takes the same amount of water that one person will drink in an entire year. There are a number of ways to quantify this; either as a total impact as the Higg index does or as specific quantifiable metrics as Thought Provoking Consulting’s own sustainability calculator does. But regardless of how it is quantified, the industry needs to change. The amount of wasted product is in the tens of millions per year or more of unsold or destroyed product; all leading to dramatic damage to the planet.
The Challenge to the Industry
Back in the year 2000, I was at the Bobbin trade show looking for fashion industry-specific design tools. At the time, the vast majority of designers were either designing products by hand, on pencil and paper or using Adobe software such as Illustrator. The problem was that the designs produced in this method didn’t look much like the end product and didn’t communicate any manufacturable information to the factory. So, while the tools of the time were great at expressing the “feel” of the product, they were very poor at expressing the shape and construction of the product.
While exploring the booths at the show, I came across a small Israeli company with a funny name; Browzwear. The product, VStitcher, was revolutionary; it allowed a garment to be built from 2D apparel patterns, stitched together in a virtual sewing room, then draped over a configurable avatar producing a technically accurate 3D simulation of the garment. It even allowed the measurement of fabric physics for accurate representation of specific materials.
In addition, the company had built an internet-connected application, C-Me, that would allow consumers to create a 3D avatar specific to their own measurements, take it online, and shop for entire outfits at a brand website! Remember, this was the year 2000; the original iPod hadn’t even been released.
All at once, I figured that all problems were solved. We could design and develop clothes with nearly zero physical footprint, customize for fit, and try on entire outfits in a virtual online fitting room. I was confident that this was absolutely the future of the industry; the only challenge was scaling fast enough.
I ended up being incredibly naïve about the industry. Designers hated the tool, product developers were skeptical of the fit accuracy, then the internet bubble burst and no brand had any interest in an online 3D Fit start-up. Remember HomeGrocer? Neither do most people.
But here we are, almost a full 20 years later and this “digital creation” concept is finally starting to get traction. Browzwear is still with us and offers a highly mature version of VStitcher and has also added a designer-friendly cousin called Lotta that connects with, and has an ease of use approaching, Adobe Illustrator. They have strong competition from new-kid-on-the-block, but highly modern, CLO3D. From a “Digital Product Creation” perspective, most brands that are getting their feet wet with these 3D tools and processes or others like them. The biggest challenge facing these 3D product processes is both a lack of industry standards as well as a lack of experience in implementing a product process based on a “virtualized” 3D product. But I feel that these problems are highly solvable and are being solved daily by companies across the industry; often, with beautiful results.
The bigger issue is the adoption of digital samples produced by these tools—essential for reducing the industry’s physical footprint—and the adoption of an online virtual fitting and customization experience. Making these concepts a reality could fundamentally change the way the industry brings product to market and, in doing so, solving the three major problems we face.
This comes back to the original question; “Why hasn’t the industry moved more quickly to adopt this virtualized 3D business process?” Why are we still struggling to gain adoption in an industry that could use these technologies to, literally, save themselves?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading.