How Will Digitalization Influence Fashion and the Way We Shop?
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How Will Digitalization Influence Fashion and the Way We Shop?

Until recently, the fashion industry has been all about looking good – with feeling good as a psychological by-product of successfully projecting a particular image. But with the advent of smart garments and fabrics, "feeling good" takes on a new dimension: into the field of physical health and wellness. The fashion industry has been slow off the mark to integrate technology, but we are now just beginning to see what may prove to be the ultimate union of both form and function.

The impact of technology on fashion is nothing new at all – it already has a long tradition. The timeline of clothing and textiles technology includes major changes in the manufacture and distribution of clothing. Innovations include manmade materials such as polyester, nylon, and vinyl, as well as features like zippers and Velcro. In 1969, Gore-Tex was invented, admittedly driven by chemicals. Nowadays, the digitization of the economy and society impacts fashion more and more. A very simple example is an RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip built into the garment, which enables you to track the path of the garment from production to the retail store, and shows you that you bought a brand product and not a fake. An additional benefit is you can easily retrieve it if you misplace it.

Fashion Industry Not Quick Enough to Embrace Technology

Nowadays, the compatibility of technology and fashion provides more food for thought and a vision for the future spanning from e-retail through e-textiles or smart fabrics to 3D printing. Computer design is already being used in the production of clothing, and prototypes of 3D-printed fashion can be seen at fashion shows or in online videos.

E-commerce is already effectively in place, but could experience another boost. Replacement items such as underwear and jeans are already being bought via the Internet, mainly driven by cheaper prices and, to a lesser extent, shopping time saved. It is an easy process, especially if you know your size. But imagine you have a specific brand in mind, or are even thinking about having something tailor-made. The future holds a solution: Have your body scanned and use the measurements when visiting the virtual retail store online. The items you purchase will then be sent straight to your door.

Robotic Mannequins to Take Your Body Measurements

A pioneer in innovative biorobotics and the virtual fitting room is Fits.me, founded in 2010 and acquired by Rakuten Inc. (a global leader in e-commerce) in July 2015. The company is receiving lots of publicity these days after launching a partnership with the retailer Hawes & Curtis. Its virtual fitting room helps to solve the single biggest problem for apparel e-commerce, i.e. that consumers cannot try the clothes on before they buy them. The site’s shape-shifting robotic mannequin takes your body measurements and mimics your shape so that you can see exactly how clothing would fit you. The site has been such a success that clothing sales at online German retailer Quelle increased by three times, and the number of clothing returns fell by 28 percent.

Revolutionary E-textiles

Another revolutionary development is e-textiles, also known as smart garments or fabrics, which enable digital components to be embedded in them to provide added value to the wearer. In an article on Forbes.com dated 7 May 2014, on the future of fabric, author Rebecca Gaddis quoted Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman of the Pratt Institute as saying that “what makes smart fabrics revolutionary is that they have the ability to do many things that traditional fabrics cannot, including communicate, transform, conduct energy and even grow.” One example is therapeutic textiles. Skin is the only organ of the body that comes directly in contact with garments. Since clothes stay in contact with the skin for the longest time, developing fabrics that can heal or protect the skin or even the body would add more value to them. Therapeutic textiles provide new approaches and are slowly gaining importance because of their many benefits and positive results.

The compatibility of technology and fashion provides more food for thought and a vision for the future spanning from e-retail to e-textiles…

A coating of herbal extracts on the fabric can provide a remedial value. These fabrics play an important role in relieving stress, rejuvenating or curing skin ailments, and can even help you sleep better.

Your Underwear Tells You When You Are Not Well

Your underwear is an integral part of your wardrobe, and you are probably very selective when you buy it. In the future, you will become even more selective once you learn what your underwear and other garments can do for you in addition to making you feel comfortable and well dressed. One day, instead of looking into the mirror, you will be able to ask your clothes how you feel. For example, your underwear may tell you if you are coming down with something before you know it yourself, or notify others if you have fallen over or help doctors diagnose and treat illnesses. The next generation of wearable technology aims to embed sensors in your clothes so that you only need to get dressed to start monitoring your health.

What makes smart fabrics revolutionary is that they have the ability to do many things that traditional fabrics cannot, such as communicating, transforming, conducting energy and even growing.

The functions required for personal health have a strong overlap with those of sports and sports training. In general, the idea is that information on the wearers’ physiology, e.g. heart rates, respiration rates, body temperature, biochemistry and activities are recorded and stored or continuously transmitted to a clinic in order to help monitor their health. In this way, people with long-term health issues can work on gradually improving their health. Other people with chronic illnesses could stay at home instead of in hospital, but still have high-quality health supervision. How does it work? Smart fibers with sensors are knitted straight into the fabrics. With conductive or optical sensors woven into T-shirts, shorts and underwear, smart clothes will be able to pick up a greater range of body signals at much higher sensitivities than rigid sensors, such as clip-on sensors or wristbands.

In the future, technology will change the way we perceive fashion and the way we shop. The sooner we grow accustomed to these innovations and inventions the better. But never fear – at the end of the day we will presumably continue to wear fashionable clothes – just from different materials.