My first big purchase shortly upon moving into a beautiful apartment in Brookline and starting my first post-bachelors full time job was a set of antique bedroom furniture. The 1930’s flowing lines, the intricately carved flowers, the walnut inlays, cedar lined draws and the Bakelite draw pulls were enough for me to overlook the major drawback of the set – the dresser/armoire had only about a foot of space for hanging clothing.
This was in 2006, the high reign of fast fashion, and my closet was overstuffed with clothing from Zara, H&M, Nordstrom Rack, Filene’s Basement and TJ Maxx. The multi-fiber agreement expired a year prior, online clothing sales were gaining speed and increasingly competing with b&m, and the ever-multiplying number of stores was flooded with a dizzying variety of inexpensive, trendy clothing. It seemed like the golden age of fashion: even with a modest entry-level salary I still hardly wore a party dress more than once per season, and the plethora of my perfectly coordinated outfits could have launched a lifestyle blog. The 1930’s, with the hand-produced wardrobe enough to fit into a foot of hanging space seemed very far away indeed.
Yet as could be expected in retrospect, the bubble burst. I’m not fully sure yet if it was the exposure to the socially aware and innovative spirit of Cambridge, the financial crisis of 2008 and the recession that followed, or the greater awareness of the world that grew from my addiction to the iPhone and all the news/blogs apps. The endless choices of soft printed shirts, ruffled blouses, skinny jeans, fitted dresses and a shoe collection to fit every passing fancy, were all beginning to feel stifling – more so with each and every news article about the sweatshop labor and the environmental impact of throw away fashions.
The basic way that clothing is made has not changed much since the introduction of the sewing machine. Apparel manufacturing has remained a low technology, labor-intensive process. The decreasing tariffs of the 1990’s encouraged the shift of the most labor-intensive part of clothing production to industrializing countries with abundant low-cost labor and typically fewer safety regulations and government oversight. Incidentally, this also brought apparel production geographically closer to raw material manufactures, such as Uzbekistan’s cotton and China’s leather. Shifting production from the developed to industrialized countries continued to bring the cost of garments down, while at the same time discouraging technological innovation on the production side.
The Fashion innovations of the 2000’s mainly came in a form of using technology to optimize company operations. Following Zara’s breakthroughs in responding to customers and bringing new concepts to the stores in as little as 3 weeks, fashion companies focused on quick turn around, increasing variety and lowering production costs. The growth of the fast-fashion retailers, in combination with further lowered import barriers, gave these companies the leverage to push for faster turn around and lower prices from the apparel manufacturers in, among other countries, China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Tunisia.
The disaster in Bangladesh stresses the need for change in the Fashion Industry. Clothing production should never be a deadly business. Fashion, and fashion production, simply can not stay the way that it is now. While people are becoming increasingly aware of the real costs of disposable fashions, and in response are changing the ways they approach and consume fashion, the demand for clothing will continue to grow with the growing populations and improving living standards. This need for growth challenges us to envision a better fashion future.
What will be the fashion innovations of the next decade? These innovations can not simply be in design – with the globalization of the fashion industry and a fashion week happening every single week somewhere in the world, the true innovations with an impact to change the industry are unlikely to come from new designs using the existing materials. Simply stated, everything has been tried, and there hasn’t been anything new in fashion design in ages.
Will the fashion innovation then come from using new materials? Recently I’ve come across a video featuring Bradley Quinn discussing the Fashion Future, and the material innovations currently in development. Self-cleaning clothing, clothing with embedded technology, garments that protect and make us stronger seem just around the corner. Yet how will these be produced? Perhaps they will be self-assembled, or painted-on, as some have suggested. However exciting, these ideas still seem far away from implementation.
Even if the fabrics of tomorrow are ready to be introduced in the next season, material innovations alone will not address the all of the problems currently faced by the Fashion industry. While it is easy to envision new fabrics and material technologies as supplementing the choices we have now, they are unlikely to replace them. You might wear a self-cleaning high-tech communication suit during the day, but your most comfy pj’s are still going to be flannel.
3D printing, as a concept, gives us the promise of customization. This certainly could be the answer to the desire for trendy, new pieces that capture a certain mood or tone of the moment – the very soul of fashion. Recycling 3D printed items, something that is currently being explored by some innovators, could help to address the environmental impact of quickly-changing trends. One could easily envision a future where fashion is produced using 3D printers, while ‘consumer items’ such as socks, pj’s, t-shirts and other basics are ethically and responsibly produced in industrializing or even back in industrialized countries.
Yet until every single household has a 3D printer, the challenge with 3D printing, besides the current lack of clothing appropriate materials, lies in the question of mass-production. Could 3D Printing technology evolve to allow for mass-customization? Will this mass-customization happen in mini-factories, or directly in the home? Or will another technology arise to solve the problem of fashion production? Its an interesting future we are in for, and I can’t wait to find out.