The retail apocalypse is real. New brands need to be more aware of consumer preferences and demands, and companies thinking of long-term benefits would certainly be at the helm of affairs. Companies would also need to continue to expand their research and scope in the future of regenerated fibres and create fabric with more desirable properties…
Fashion is an expression of oneself and creates a sense of belonging with the community around us. We wear clothing for functional as well as social reasons, so apart from the practical function of protecting our skin, wearing clothes also carries specific cultural and social meanings. Clothes used to be one of the best ways to distinguish social classes, sexes, occupation, marital status and ethnic or religious affiliation; however, with time and social structure what we knew as clothing is no longer true and clothing is fast becoming ‘who we are’ as opposed to ‘who we are supposed to be’.
This tectonic shift in clothing has also led to a shift in consumer behaviour and consumption patterns. Consumers are looking forward to wearing social media led trends rather than invest in garment for keeps. While this has given a thrust to the high-street brands and growth of the luxury segment, especially in the Asian markets, it has also put tremendous pressure on resources on either side of the fashion supply chain.
Fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world after the petrochemical industry. The production and finishing processes from fibres to fabric often comes at an environmental cost of the usage of chemicals and causing air pollutants which is especially critical around the areas of production. Dyes and incessant usage of water is another culprit in the textile industry. With oncoming global warming and climate change, water resources are steadily becoming scarce. The output of the textile industry often makes the water useless for human or agriculture use. The sourcing of resources, a part of the process, from various countries to reduce costs leaves a huge carbon footprint overall. The convenience of laundering and upkeep of the fabric and cheaper cost has made synthetic fibres and fibre blends the top choice for many fast fashion brands. However, the same synthetic fibres are also the main culprits behind the problem of disposal of discarded clothes as these fibres are not biodegradable.
Bel Jacobs’ article for BBC Culture titled ‘What will Fashion be like 20 years from now?’, dated April 2019, quotes fashion forecaster Geraldine Wharry who reflects that with supply scarcity of water and fabric, and costs going up, people will need to focus on what they really need to survive on.” According to Wharry, fast fashion is an “outdated model” and brands without a sustainability strategy are in trouble.
The industry and the consumers alike have taken notice of the current situation and have realised that the current industry trends need to change in order to create a more sustainable future. The shift is slowly shaping the future trends of the industry which has become delicately balanced between the demand for the ‘new’ and the sustenance of the environment as major factors for the future.
SHIFT IN CONSUMER TRENDS
The Experience Economy & Personalisation
Fashion journalist Alexander Fury in his Harper’s Bazaar article titled ‘The Future of Fashion’, dated October 30th, 2017 writes that the apparel and textile industry accepts that these issues exist and that corrections need to be implemented for any further use. And rightly so. The writer mentions that fashion is currently shifting perceptions of itself. Rather than stay with the bi-annual pattern of fashion shows, designers are showing their clothes between seasons and on men and women simultaneously. Fury goes on to write that perhaps it will be this change from following traditional rules of fashion that will help create its future direction. He goes further to write that thanks to innovation and technology in fashion, more fabrics with natural aesthetic and made of ecological fibres using regenerated renewable sources are being created.
Bel Jacobs also talks about the same in his aforementioned article. He writes about Norwegian retailer Carlings who has launched a digital collection of futuristic streetwear that could be bought online and e-fitted to users’ photos. Called Neo-Ex, the collection was created to discourage the ‘wear once, take a selfie, chuck it away’ philosophy of today’s online influencers. Hence, for this virtual generation, a digital fashion scenario is just a logical step forward.
The age group of 25-34 is the biggest spender currently in online clothing segment followed by the age group of 16-24. The lifestyle of these age groups is very different from the previous generations which were more comfortable with mass-manufactured store-bought fashion. The gender and traditional rules of dressing have been shattered and personalised approach to clothing has become a hallmark the Generation Z and Millennials alike. The overall experience matters more to them rather than the product itself. There is also a transition of these generations moving away from materialistic purchases to spending on more ‘meaningful’ experiences like travel. Concurrent to the demands of the generation therefore the strategy of the industry is clearly changing in the favour of making personalised experience matter to the consumer while making adjustments to the supply chain to fit in these changes.
The Rise of Athleisure
Athleisure started as prominent trend in 2010’s and does not seem to go away anytime in the future. Started as an offshoot of sportswear with clothes more suited to outdoor physical activity and having niche brands like Lululemon and Rhone, the trend gradually expanded into a full range of clothing category. Prominent luxury labels have also taken notice and have made the product range an active part of their product catalogue. The new conscious generation of buyers is quickly ditching the idea of traditional norms of work wear and is adopting a more relaxed approach to clothing. Subsequently the fabric of the future requires the breathability and flexibility of athletic fabrics while requiring the transitional qualities fit for an ‘office to yoga studio’ approach.
The rise of athleisure and sportswear previously led to an increase in demand for high-performance and endurance polyester-based apparels. The trend also led to rise of synthetic fibre-based stretch fibres being an essential element of product category. Colours and prints are vital additions to the category as well. However, the negative ecological impact of poly-based fabrics far exceeds its benefits. The young conscious consumer is looking at more innovative ways of combating pollution be mindful of consumption but at the same time are fashionable relevant. Comfort, durability, flexibility and luxury are the essence of athleisure fabrics. Features like moisture wicking and breathability are desired. Currently this sector is dominated by polyester and nylon but with increasing awareness of the core consumer using the product, there is a requirement of shift to more sustainable sources of fibre or creating appropriate blends.
Brands like Patagonia used recycled instead of virgin polyester and have made the culture of repairing of fabric relevant again.
Brands like Patagonia used recycled instead of virgin polyester and have made the culture of repairing of fabric
The Awakened Consumer & Sustainable Trends
Adidas with an association with Parley, a company which converts ocean trash into yarn which can be used in sportswear, have taken the baton forward. Brands like Patagonia used recycled instead of virgin polyester and have made the culture of repairing of fabric relevant again. Levi’s has introduced jeans made of recycled plastic waste. Regenerated fibre like Tencel made by Lenzing AG (lyocell fibre) is one of the eco-friendly fibres currently available which is biodegradable and has more absorbency than cotton fibre.
Sustainability and social responsibility are becoming a “must” for fashion brands and, once again, technology plays a special role in this area. Innovations in technology, such as a ground-breaking, water-free dyeing process, push the limits and provide more opportunities for sustainable fashion. In near future although the synthetic fibres cannot be eliminated completely but hybrid fibres with a mix of natural and synthetic material would be the need of the hour. Synthetic fibres are also giving way to the exploration of regenerated and recycled fibres as category of future fibres. Companies are increasingly adopting methods and innovative ways of increasing the performance of regenerated cellulosic fabrics to make them more performance oriented and user friendly and simultaneously also looking at making minimal changes to existing garment production facilities and supply chains.
Categories of fabrics which will see continuous decline are leather and fur. The cruelty of both the industries has long been debated and the newer generations are much in favour of ditching these trends in favour of newer products like vegan leather and faux fur. Few design houses like Gucci, Versace, etc., have stopped the usage of fur and thereby making fabrics much cleaner and cruelty free and others are following suit. Stores like Macy’s have also vowed to make their stores fur-free by 2021.
Creating a Road Map for the Future
Blake Morgan (customer experience futurist, author and keynote speaker) in her Forbes article ‘Fashion of the Future: What Retail Customer Experience Will Look Like in 5 Years’ has interesting predictions about customer experience, which she says will get more personalized and advanced in the next five years. Morgan predicts that future customer will look towards the convenience of subscription boxes. Customers keep and pay for the items they want and then send back what they don’t want.
The author speaks in favour of Experiential Showrooms where stores, like Nordstorm Local currently, don’t sell any merchandise themselves, but instead serve as a place for customers to pick up online orders, get clothing tailored and enjoy a spa treatment. Another prediction the author makes is about trying on clothes virtually with ‘Augmented Reality’. Using AR to try on clothes can help customers experiment with items they normally wouldn’t try and feel confident with how an item looks on their body before they place an order.
The retail apocalypse is real. New brands need to be more aware of their consumer preference and demands and companies thinking of long-term benefits would certainly be at the helm of affairs. The author rightly speaks about AI and data that makes it possible for companies to know more about their customers and thus greater personalization. It helps brands create profiles for each customer that include their purchase history. AI based algorithm to create these specialised preferences would have to be adopted by companies sooner to keep their businesses afloat.
A host of companies are now working towards specialized patented fabrics which serve the purpose of shifting lifestyle trends. While technology like dri-fit by Nike and Teflon finish by DuPont is here to stay and have been successfully commercialised by the fashion industry would continue to retail to their core customer base. Microbe resisting, Nano structure, UV protection are other technology the companies will have to look forward to in the longer run. Bio mimicking is another trend the companies would have to look forward to.
The companies would also need to continue to expand their research and scope in the future of regenerated fibres and create fabrics with more desirable properties. Use of recycled yarns as opposed to virgin yarn is another area for companies to concentrate upon along with more transparency in the supply chain systems as the young consumers are interested in knowing the origin and the source of their garments and are certainly wary of organisations which are not forthright with these declarations. This would also help the industry combat the pollution issue especially in context of discarded garments which adds on to the pollution woes of the planet.
Zoe Cormier in her article titled ‘Cradle to Cradle: Our Zero Waste Future’ for BBCEarth writes about fashion brand Teemill that has created the first fully circular t-shirt. The author writes about how the t-shirt is made by reusing discarded organic cotton garments mixed with certified cotton. The garment is designed to return to Teemill once the customer is done with it. There it can be broken down and turned back into another t-shirt. The brand has organised their production to recycle their t-shirts back into the exact same t-shirt. So, how do they ensure the used t-shirt comes back to them? The brand says they do the same by rewarding customers for sending their shirts back to them.
Reflecting this interest, a 2015 Nielsen report found 73 percent of millennials are willing to pay more for a product if it is marketed as sustainable. Kate Dwyer in her article titled ‘The Global Fashion Industry Designs a Sustainable Future’ for Fortune magazine writes “Despite the fact that millennials are coming of age in one of the most difficult economic climates in the past 100 years, they continue to be most willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings–almost three-out-of-four respondents,” the Nielsen report says.
Climate change and scarcity of resources will create shifts in the global economy and affect the world in ways we cannot even predict yet. The growing conscious customer will not turn a blind eye if brands have unethical or unsustainable practices. Fashion Brands will need to creatively innovate for more sustainable products and processes. Only when the fashion industry continues to change for the better will we be able to reduce both our waste and our carbon footprint.