Clothing as a service: The future of connected apparel
“What’s your tire?” is a question I asked in my previous blog post on transforming products into services via IoT. One trend to watch within the clothing industry is the innovation happening in smart fabrics. With some 10 billion products in the apparel, accessories and footwear industries currently going digital, it’s no longer a question of the feasibility of connected apparel. What’s important now is creating meaningful applications that provide real end value for the user. This is the fashion industry’s “tire.”
Technology has become increasingly personal, scaling down from large rooms to people’s laps and then into their pockets. The next logical evolution is wearable technology. Today, smart apparel is created by embedding sensors into items of clothing, but the mills of tomorrow will directly weave smart fabric. This fabric will have the look and fit of the clothes we wear today, with capabilities to collect and send data and react to physical or environmental conditions. They will be woven from a material base of electrically conductive fibers, combined with microprocessors and miniaturized sensors. Companies like DuPont, Adidas, Schoeller Textiles and Toray Industries are actively developing products, contributing to the growth of the smart textile industry.
As the textile industry embraces the opportunities and challenges of digitization, fashion companies should focus on how consumers currently value their products — and how this can be transformed in new ways. Understanding consumer expectations toward smart clothing is vital. After all, consumers are now saturated with digital products that generate astronomical amounts of data. The opportunity for fashion companies is to produce compelling experiences, through thoughtful technologies, that build an emotional connection with consumers. The apparel industry can now evolve from a business based on one-off garment purchases to one that offers an associated ecosystem of services — a fashion platform.
So, what could these connective services look like?
Made to measure
As the adoption and demand for smart textiles grow, what can fashion brands offer so they don’t become only hardware manufacturers in our future connected world?
It’s important to integrate the diversity, personal expression and emotion — the life force of fashion industry value system — into the connected apparel of tomorrow. To accomplish this, fashion tech must deliver specific functionalities that niche target audiences want and need. These specific consumers will only undergo a behaviors shift and fully adopt a new product if it meets a specific need or overcomes a specific challenge. Specificity is key. Today, companies like my hometown-based Ministry of Supply are creating personalized clothing using thermal imaging, 3D printing and 3D knitting technologies. These clothes are not only tailored to a person’s body measurements, but are also customized to an individual customer’s body heat mechanics. They even produce zero-waste material during production.
This acceleration toward mass personalization of connected apparel will evolve as the clothes of tomorrow dynamically change as context, or even mood, does. Imagine tomorrow’s clothes dynamically changing as you go through your day, becoming more tailored for an important event or meetings and then relaxing for your commute or weekend. Patterns and color shifts can emerge, when triggered, to provide diversity of looks and expressions throughout your day.
The post-retail future
Building off the made-to-measure evolution, retail stores will become smaller, more efficient showrooms that will not house a large amount of inventory, but showcase the latest collections. They will feature fewer items, and those items will be able to be altered in the dressing room to suit your needs. As consumers try on pieces of connected merchandise, sensors in the garments collect their exact measurements. Smart mirrors in front of them allow them to make the changes to garments they’re trying on: size, color, pattern. Maybe they want to add length to a skirt or change the lining pattern of a jacket. Consumers will easily create their own bespoke alterations. A few minutes later, they order the fully tailored garment and the next day they are wearing it to work. Even purchasing these items will be done in the dressing room, since that’s the place where most of decision-making is happening.
In the future, the relationship with your apparel will be extended from the moment you shop to the moment you pass the piece of clothing on to someone else. You’ll get a lot closer to your clothes than you ever thought. You will better understand the origins of the clothing that you’re wearing. Barcodes woven right into the fabric will tell you where the material came from, how it was created and by whom.
You can see examples of how companies are beginning to create this post-retail future. Amazon, for instance, has been developing IP around home smart mirrors, devices that create 3D models of clothing and an automated on-demand clothing factory. Combining the right recipe of this tech could easily lead to a post-retail future in which automated smart apparel factories would process bespoke items of clothing enabled with the tailored components each consumer desires.
Setting the right growth trajectory for connected apparel will help enable all these probable future scenarios. It’s not just about combining fashion and technological capabilities, but instead discovering more meaningful interactions to create something that’s valued by consumers in a holistic way. As connected apparel becomes more tailored to the owners, there’s an opportunity to offer services in conjunction with the garments. Different articles of clothing could, say, unlock different aspects of a service model — just think of the way apps work on your phone.
My favorite team jersey can be linked, for example, to my season tickets at the stadium. My pay-as-you-go gym membership model can be embedded in my workout gear. Ideas like this show how revenues for connected clothing could be generated over the entire lifecycle of the garment. This service model would subsidize garment costs while fostering long-term relationships and communication between customers and brands. Larger brands can open their platform to other smaller brands and curate the content for their consumer. This will bring a greater variety of contributions and ideas pushing the demand for complementary products.
True connected apparel success will be stitched into products that generate value through technical and digital characteristics by establishing strong emotional relationships with consumers. Fashion brands aren’t there yet — but if they take the challenges seriously, they will be able to try service model innovation on for size. That’ll be a good look.
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