NEW YORK, United States —Back in March 2008, when Fast Company published a report on "The World's Most Innovative Companies," not one fashion or luxury brand (or their parent companies) made the list. This is unfortunate, not least because many of the world's most successful fashion and luxury brands have a strong heritage of experimentation and innovation. (Louis Vuitton, for example, began by creating a lightweight, airtight trunk of a kind the world had never seen). Only a few months ago, this lack of innovation may have looked like a missed opportunity. But in 2009, it seems positively suicidal.
In today's tough economy, many fashion brands face an existential choice: innovate radically and re-energise consumers with new thinking, new ideas and new products — or risk failure. Radical innovation means reinventing what fashion can be. And nowhere is radical innovation needed more than in fashion's approach to new digital technologies.
Over the last few seasons, forward-thinking designers like Basso & Brooke and Carri Cassette Playa have embraced the captivating visual possibilities of digital printing. But one of the most interesting things about digital printing is its ability to create unique, individualized designs through minor variations in the print, so no one piece is exactly the same as another.
Indeed, Hintmag recently blogged about a new label called No Editions: "designers Christian Niessen (who hails from Helmut Lang and Prada) and Nicole Lachelle (Helmut Lang) have devised a system of digital printing where each piece in a series (i.e. T-shirts, tunics, ponchos or kimonos) looks deceptively similar, but subtle differences are revealed upon closer inspection." Clothing that is individualized, but remains true to a designer's vision, is a compelling concept. But there's something even bigger here. Could an individualised, digitally printed piece do more than just look individual? Could it say something personal about the wearer? Could clothing actually communicate?
With this question in mind, I stopped by the Stephen Sprouse retrospective at Deitch Projects. On a wall of the artist-designer's illustrations was a sketch of a broad-shouldered, hooded jacket with a print that referenced a supermarket barcode. That got me thinking. More than stripy things for supermarket scanners, today's barcodes (known as "Quick Response" or QR codes) function like online links. To "click" on them, you just point and shoot them with your camera phone and they retrieve relevant information on your phone's web browser.
In Japan, McDonald’s customers can point and shoot the barcodes on their hamburger wrapping and get nutritional information on their screens, while barcodes on advertising for H&M let impulse buyers shop straight from billboards. Even highly design-sensitive brands like Gucci are using customised codes to link print advertising in Japanese fashion magazines to mobile websites.
While the technology is most popular in Japan, where code-reading software comes pre-installed on mobile phones, last spring London department store Harrod's ran a campaign using QR codes to promote its "Design Icons" exhibition (featuring Vivienne Westwood) and for Fall 2008, New York-based retailer Ralph Lauren put QR codes on print ads to drive people to their new mobile commerce site.
Now, a Dutch company called W-41 has put QR codes on clothing. Each shirt they make is printed with a unique code that links to a webpage the wearer selects. It could be your Facebook page, your Flickr photos, or a song on Apple's iTunes — any URL you choose. This way, your clothing can actually communicate something about you — something personal that you choose and can change as often as you wish, just like your Facebook status. In their own words, "W-41 is techfashion." But unfortunately, both the codes and the clothing are aesthetically unappealing.
That's where digital printing comes in.
Since 2006, a Silicon Valley start-up called SnapTell has been experimenting with image recognition technology that lets people use camera phones to point and shoot print advertising, outdoor billboards, product packaging, logos and other visuals — and retrieve information — without clunky barcodes. Using the same technology, it's not hard to imagine an application that lets you point and shoot individualized, digitally printed fashion and accessories (like the pieces produced by No Editions) and link through to a URL that communicates something personal about the wearer, or lets you connect with them on a social network.
Fashion is a powerful and playful form of self-expression. Now, through a radical application of digital printing and mobile technology, the opportunity exists for brands to do something revolutionary: create clothes and accessories with a layer of interactivity ("virtual layering" anyone?) that offers new possibilities for expressing individuality and mood. While it can be argued that this makes less sense at the high end of the market, for high street brands like Topshop, Uniqlo and H&M, whose target audience is young and active online, it's an exciting opportunity to create a whole new product category that lets customers make a fashion statement that's fit for the wired world they inhabit.
Now, that's the kind of radical innovation I hope to see from forward-thinking fashion brands in 2009.
Vikram Alexei Kansara is a digital strategist and writer based in New York.