We are on the cusp of a new world order. The future is fearsome and fascinating. It looks entirely novel yet eerily familiar at the same time, representing visions of both utopia and dystopia paradoxically enough. It will simply depend on whose looking at it and from what perspective. Technology had already begun to slowly dismantle structures entrenched since the industrial revolution. The current global pandemic has only sealed the fate of the old world order; times they are a’changin’, to borrow from Bob Dylan. While fashion may seem like a frivolous concern at a time like this, clothing and our transforming relationship with them reveals a lot about the direction the world is heading in. Consumption is hard-wired into our brain; fashion fulfills psychogenic needs that cannot be overlooked.
Clothing has been a marker of civilization, social status, money, tradition and culture. It has been shaped by climate as much by aesthetic and developed from a utilitarian need to being imbued with other meanings and significance. As long as humans care about appearances, clothing will remain an integral form of non-verbal communication in our societal structures.
Given that our current societal structures themselves are being pulled apart at the seams makes it very difficult to predict what the new fabric will look once rewoven. However, technology is ensuring that the future of clothing looks less elitist with a veneer of impartiality. Whether that’s a good thing - democratizing fashion by shifting the power from the hands of designers to tech creative - or a bad move, which will bleed the fun and joy out of dressing up by taking away variety, is something only time can tell.
Reshaping Beauty and Material Consumption
As we currently exist, social media has transformed how we can look with no physical effort required. Not only does it dictate beauty standards, it has made it possible to look like an entirely new person each day at zero cost. Filters allowing you to change hair and eye colours, enlarging and brightening features, skin tone and even clothing to an extent already exist and cost nothing in the virtual world.
Why does this matter? Beauty and aesthetics that were only available to the privileged are now arguably more accessible to all. Having smooth skin and blue eyes in today’s world is as easy as swiping on an effect: being beautiful (at least online) is no longer just the domain of the wealthy or the glamorous.
This has also caused a shift in our material consumption. Where the trend in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s was to camouflage under layers of make-up, with the rise of social media, new, different kinds of beauty trends and ideals began to emerge. Not only has there been a shift from focusing on make-up to attaining great skin, it’s also led to mass introducing of the healing/blur tool into photo editing applications that allow you “clean-up” your skin virtually: fake it till you make it.
With the extreme rapidity of content cycles, virtual virtuosos discovered that immaterial, digital manipulations are not just cost effective but also have a lower carbon footprint. Material accumulation, compared to filters on your phone that reflect your mood and aesthetic that day, definitely seems like the lesser of the two evils for now. The other side is of course the rise in narcissism but if used in moderation, it is a game-changer.
Retailers in Europe, recognizing fast fashion’s dispensable clothing model, have even created futuristic streetwear collections that exist only virtually. Buy the collection online and simply have the clothes e-fitted on to an image. You get a brand new outfit for Instagram without wreaking havoc on the environment for disposable apparel. Immaterial and digital fashion offers opportunities for brands to exert creativity, and connect with consumers through a different medium.
Since the virtual world is slowing becoming our primary domain of existence, it isn’t hard to imagine a not too distant future when virtual beauty and fashion will replace physical products to a large extent. The implications of such a shift on our psyche, economy, environment and designs will be immense and currently unfathomable.
Fashion’s Transition into E-Commerce
Tech has transformed nearly every aspect of our physical industries, whether we look at production or consumption. Within the last 30 years we’ve witnessed the world fit into our hands and now we interact with the world through devices in our hands, controlling everything from the lights in our houses to the traffic lights at a busy intersection through an invisible network of binary digits.
Fashion and technology have so far enjoyed a beneficial relationship. Online retail is a massive economy to reckon with and if the hospitability of the outdoors is any indication of where the future of the marketplace is, very soon online retail may replace physical stores for the most part. Combining our penchant, for quick, lazy access with the need for a hyper-hygienic product bought through minimal human interaction, the very concept of shopping is changing.
To help us better understand how technology is transforming clothes, style and industries, we spoke to one of the few visionary fashion mavens that the country can currently boast of: Shahnawaz Chugtai from Pakistan’s premier digital fashion agency, Guddu Shani.
Having worked within the Pakistani fashion fraternity for over two decades Shani, as he is better known, has explored many capacities within the industry. A prolific, award-winning photographer, Shani’s love for tech and his forward-thinking approach to business meant that he was one of the first to recognize and conquer a glaring gap in the map: the need for a specialized agency that understands not only aesthetics but can also navigate the digital world. He has, since, taken over the digital communications for two textile and retail giants of the country – Nishat Linen and Khaadi, defining their online presence and making their online sales soar.
As he sees it, the business of clothing has already transformed on the global scale. “Production processes are being digitized and each decision a company will take is data driven now,” he comments. “Whether you’re talking about it from the conception, production, design, marketing or consumer aspect, everything is digital now. Companies have stopped producing physical prototypes, 3D rendering is now sufficient, which is great in terms of reducing waste and environmental costs but this also has a human cost. As more of the production is being digitized, humans are being replaced by machinery.
Visual merchandising is being dictated by heat sensor cameras in stores where the heat mapping will define pockets of high activity and products that aren’t doing well can simply be moved to a more visible location within the premises. The entire process is automated; a program analyzes the data, defines which products go where and an email alerts a store manager to make the requisite changes.
Talking about design, brands are moving towards co-creating collections. People want the ability to customize their apparel and businesses are learning to keep up. Whether you look at Zara, which has internationally used the live listening tech to gain real time feedback from customer observations on their collections, incorporating those changes into the next batch being produced or take a Pakistani brand like DYOT (Do Your Own Thing) that allows consumers to choose what they want their clothes to look like while sitting at home or anywhere else in the world for that matter,” he elaborates.
Shani also further explains that brands are also mining data to customize the experience for each individual. “Brands now have access to your preferences and dislikes through the data that has been extracted from your phone. A brand will know whether you’re someone who likes shopping for bargains or luxury goods, as soon as you enter their store, you’ll get a customized notification alerting you to either a sale or an indulgent new release. This is already happening on large scale in the first world and more technologically developed nations.
Currently marketing has switched hands from on-ground executions to entirely digital campaigns and more brands are realizing the viability of shifting from traditional mediums to virtual solutions. This is not to say that the virtual solutions are cheap. Digitizing your business system isn’t a minor undertaking and requires vision for the future rather than a business model based just on profit. It is a one-time investment and the brands that paid the cost initially are now reaping the benefits when our old world economy is failing.
Nishat Linen, Sapphire etc. have witnessed online sales sky-rocket. Where retailers have been worried about sustainability, these brands are capitalizing on the virtual marketplace. Take the new-ish local brand Lulusar for example, they have digital prototyping and a strong presence on social media with a clear marketing strategy that engages the audience as an individual. Their initial investment has a long term pay off,” he explains.
While there’s no denying that the fast fashion model is changing, where does couture stand in the current climate? According to Shani, the future for couture is bright. “What’s happening now is you see a change in business model. Couture or expensive clothing were monetized per unit previously. In order to make a profit you had to sell x number of units. Now however, a single unit will be monetized repeatedly.
The concept of renting garments is already being popularized but it is where the future lies. Imagine travelling to Japan with nothing but a carry-on because you can rent an entire wardrobe for your duration there, dress in more expensive clothes than you can actually afford, flaunt your style and come back with no collateral weighing you do.
If this model was to be understood in terms of the Pakistani market, the couture industry is looking at bridals for rent. The younger generation has no interest in investing the amount of money that can buy a car in an item of clothing, especially one that has no great daily utility,” says the Lahore based communications expert.
What’s good for the
environment might not be great for human
There are concerns, fears of human redundancy aplenty. While digitizing a lot of material based industries means less environmental impact (another urgent concern, sidelined by a global pandemic) it also seems to imply that tech will be taking over from humans.
There is no denying that over the years we’ve lost a lot of art and craft. The conformity of mass production cannot be matched by human irregularities that seep into hand made products: no two come out alike. Hand-made shoes, hand knotted carpets, painstakingly, sometimes blindly (quite literally) beautiful, intricate hand embroidery: hand-crafted is now a costly, discerning luxury and the decline in demand hasn’t been easy on the artisans.
Then there are smaller businesses on the peripheries of the fashion industry, especially in the sub-continent. The raffu wala, the cobblers, the lace and button stores, the plazas storied with loose fabric, the peco wala; with cheap disposable clothes, there is something soulful, sentimental that has been lost from the beauty of clothing. As the world moves more towards a virtual reality, there is no denying that there will loss of art, of livelihood and the human touch.
However, just like the industrial revolution sparked similar fears of human redundancy, the future isn’t a Manus x Machina battleground but rather depends on integrating the public into a new system. Can a machine conceptualize a stunning couture dress to match what a human mind can do? No, but it can and does aid in helping transform that concept into a perfectly finished, fitted garment.
To be quite honest though, these changes barely scratch the surface of how completely technology will be reshaping our lives. Third world countries like Pakistan that are already floundering economically will be hard-pressed to keep up with the innovation and changes sweeping across the globe, but the attempt to match stride for stride will also define our survival. Heedless, senseless, destructive consumption might not be curable but it is possible to manifest the product in an augmented reality for greater benefits and lesser environmental impact. The future is calling.