LONDON, United Kingdom — In the 18th and 19th centuries, the first and second industrial revolutions harnessed water, steam and electric power to mechanise the making of clothing, challenging the traditional system of craft-based production. In the mid-20th century, a third industrial revolution — in information technology and data analysis — radically changed the business of fashion once again, giving rise to fast fashion giants like Inditex and forcing the industry to rethink its ‘broken’ system for the age of Instagram.
Now, a fourth industrial revolution — powered by a constellation of new innovations across the physical, digital and biological worlds, from 3D printing and artificial intelligence to advances in biomaterials — is driving a new wave of change across the economy, with major implications for fashion.
"We have yet to grasp fully the speed and breadth of this new revolution. Consider the unlimited possibilities of having billions of people connected by mobile devices,” Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (which chose the fourth industrial revolution as the theme for its annual summit this year) wrote in a book on the subject. “Think about the staggering confluence of emerging technology breakthroughs, covering wide-ranging fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing.”
The fourth industrial revolution will transform all industries. But fashion, in particular, stands to benefit most from advances in materials science, opening up a wide range of new functional and aesthetic possibilities for garments.
BoF and fashion industry leaders explore what the fourth industrial revolution means for fashion at the VOICES New York event supported by QIC Global Real Estate in June 2016.
“That’s where this materials revolution is happening: we can start to demand interactivity from textiles and fibres themselves,” explained Amanda Parkes, co-founder and chief of technology and research at Manufacture NY, speaking at BoF’s VOICES event at New York’s Spring Studios in June. Some new fabrics will have computing embedded into their fibres at the microscopic level, resulting in garments that can do things like adapt to temperature changes or store energy like a battery.
In the last few years, materials science has yielded breakthroughs like Shrilk, a transparent, compostable material made from discarded shrimp shells and proteins derived from silk, which is as strong as aluminium but half the weight. Qmilk, a new kind of thread made out of sour milk, is resistant to bacteria and fire. What’s more, power-generating and power-storing materials “exist already at the laboratory scale,” says Aimee Rose, chief technology officer at the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America. “We’ve demonstrated we can create a fibre that stores energy and can act as a battery — but how do we get that into clothing?”
Getting these innovations out of labs and into the hands of consumers will require collaboration between scientists, manufacturers and designers with a specific understanding of what consumers want and how these inventions can deliver it. “How do we get the current tech wearables out of the hands of the technology people who have no idea other than if I can’t hit a billion people it’s not going to happen — quote Mark Zuckerberg — but into the hands of people who are thinking about how to create this unique application?” asked Alan Marcus, head of information, communication and technology agenda at the World Economic Forum.
“Thinking about the relationship around explicit functionality and the target audience you’re going after — that’s what fashion companies are so good at,” said Parkes, who predicts that the best companies will take these innovations and create a product that is personalised to the specific needs of a niche audience.
While a technology product like an iPhone can be marketed to 70-year-old men and 14-year-old girls alike, fashion designers “have your woman or man that you’re designing for — and that man isn’t everybody and that woman isn’t everybody,” says Todd Harple, director of pathfinding and innovation strategy at Intel.
We have yet to grasp fully the speed and breadth of this new revolution.
As well as giving birth to new consumer products, the technological innovations of the fourth industrial revolution have the potential to solve deeper systemic problems facing the fashion industry at large. For one, demand for raw materials like leather already outstrips global supply, and climate change is exacerbating materials scarcity by depleting the environments needed to produce materials on which fashion businesses depend, such as cashmere and silk.
According to Suzanne Lee, chief creative officer of Modern Meadow, a New York-based start-up that’s developing lab-grown leather (and other materials), biotechnology could help. “The way that animals are intensively farmed means that the quality of the hides is dropping,” she explained. “You’ve got more scars you need to cut around, so there’s more waste. There can be between 30 to 80 percent wastage on one animal hide. From an efficiency standpoint, from a manufacturing standpoint, that’s a massive problem.”
Materials innovation “will help us continue to ensure access and availability to the highest quality raw materials we rely on,” added Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs at Kering, which launched an in-house innovation lab in 2014 to research and develop “greener” materials solutions.
Materials science could also reconcile growing consumer demand for more products with the drive to clamp down on waste — in the US alone, about 10.5 million tons of clothing are sent to landfills each year. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are currently building a 3D printer that could print jewellery made from shrimp chitin (a waste product). “Wear it for the summer and at the end of the summer, throw it in the ocean and it dissolves in salt water,” suggested Parkes. “Market it as, ‘This really will be gone in three months, wear it now while you can.’ It’s what Snapchat is — it creates a buzz.”
Indeed, 3D printing — the process of making a physical object by printing it layer by layer from a digital drawing — could disrupt fashion’s current manufacturing methods by enabling companies to quickly create complex products without specialist machinery. This could radically shorten the design-to-manufacturing cycle, meaning companies can test more prototypes before rolling out a product or manufacture in a way that more closely responds to demand.
As the cost of 3D printers and the materials they require continues to fall — the cost of the average 3D-printed object will drop by 50 percent from 2013 to 2018 — producing products in small quantities will become more cost-effective, paving the way for more customisation in fashion. Already, brands like Adidas and Nike are using 3D printing to enable shoppers to customise the way their shoes fit.
Artificial intelligence will also play a key role in the fourth industrial revolution, by automating functions currently performed by people, radically altering industries from transportation to healthcare to finance. In a trend-driven industry like fashion, the ability to quickly make complex data-driven decisions could help companies predict whether a new product will become a bestseller, or how long a trend will last.
By analysing large amounts of data — such as customers’ online purchasing histories, social media trends and potentially even data gathered from new “smart garments” — AI could help designers predict what customers need and want from new fashion products. Furthermore, AI could use data from stores and e-commerce platforms to help retailers more accurately align supply and demand — thus reducing waste and retrieving lost sales.
Innovative fashion products could also solve problems in other industries, such as health — an area already being targeted by wearables like Fitbit and the Apple Watch. Last year, Intel partnered with Chromat, a New York label known for costuming stars including Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, to create a dress with an outer frame that changed its appearance in response to factors like the wearer’s breathing, sweat and body temperature. According to Todd Harple, this opens up a whole new conversation around clothing and health: “If I have my mother and she’s elderly, I want to know when she’s afraid or anxious — how might I do that without being bothersome? Or if I have a child that I’m providing care for who has autism, wouldn’t I like to know when he’s focused or not? These are all possible through the garments,” he said.
As for how long it will take for consumers to feel the impact of these breakthroughs, “You’re assuming there’s going to be this big ‘killer app’ — that’s the language of technology, and I don’t believe that that’s necessarily going to happen. I think slowly we’ll start to see these things slip into the things we do daily,” predicted Harple. Indeed, the fourth industrial revolution will yield new systems — which link up clothing with the body, its environment and other technology devices — rather than singular ‘killer’ inventions.
But barriers remain — particularly in the fashion industry. “One is mindset, which is, ‘We don’t need it, everything’s fine.’ That’s definitely changing,” said Suzanne Lee, who moved from working at a fashion company to Modern Meadow. “There is no R&D and innovation in fashion,” she added, pointing to Net-a-Porter’s early struggles to convince luxury brands to sell online as an example of the conservative nature of the industry. “Some brands are just lazy. They want to wait for someone else to go do it, or they’re just looking to use something as a quick marketing ploy.”
The speed at which fashion companies churn out new products — and the resulting short-term, trend-driven mindset of many in the industry — is another major hurdle. In biotechnology, the timeline to develop an idea and take it to market can be eight to 15 years. “Fashion doesn’t really have a history inside of its corporations of having R&D that goes two, five, 10 years out,” said Parkes.
“There’s a disconnect between the vision for what we’re doing and the expectation of when it’s going to happen,” added Lee. “I see this as a field of materials that really are going to evolve over the coming years and decades… In terms of taking a multi-year, complex science project and putting fashion money behind it, I can’t think of many examples of brands that can afford to do that.”
The Revolutionary Fibres and Textiles Manufacturing Institute, a private-public partnership in the US, has earmarked $300 million for grants for organisations working with new materials. According to Parkes, who is involved with the project, “we quite frankly want more fashion companies.” Designers need to be having conversations with technologists, and answering questions scientists have — even basic things like, if we put this fibre in your knitting machine, will it break? “We want you to be thinking more about the integration of textile engineering much more into owning your own supply chain around your yarns, fibres and textiles,” said Parkes.
Some partnerships between fashion and technology businesses are already springing up. Earlier this year, Levi’s released a jacket in collaboration with Google, which had Google’s Project jacquard technology woven into the fabric, so that the wearer can control their phone by touching the sleeve. “Google was essential in helping us merge the gap between the denim industry and the digital world,” Paul Dillinger, vice president of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., told BoF.
The technological shifts of the fourth industrial revolution will also throw up new challenges around design protections, security and ethics. 3D printing, by giving companies the tools to manufacture products quickly and cheaply, could make it even more difficult for luxury companies to protect their designs and stop knock-offs flooding the market.
“I think there’s a lot of things that need to be tackled with regards to how we treat patents and intellectual property in this space,” said Harple. “I could pull on a sweater that has solar [panels] on it that’s charging my phone — how do I patent that? Is that a garment?”
Garments that track the physical and emotional state of the wearer could provide companies with invaluable data about their consumers, but also raise issues around privacy and security. When developing new products, ethical questions like these need to be “principal features, rather than a potential bug,” said Marcus of the World Economic Forum. “Different governments are reacting in different ways to the ethics of some of these things… From a competitiveness standpoint, the fashion industry needs to be at the table in those conversations.”
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 22 August, 2016. An earlier version of this article misstated that Suzanne Lee's title is creative director of Modern Meadow. Her correct title is chief creative officer.
To learn more about VOICES, BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details and apply to attend our invitation-only global gathering in December, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, hosted at the Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire in the picturesque English countryside, one hour from London.