Innovation: Fashion in Creative Economy

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Innovation is the ‘buzz word’ today. It takes more everyday to not only survive in the market but also to offer new products that sometimes are purely aesthetic and at others, need of the hour.

India, in the next 10 years, is going to be another trillion dollar economy, and with this envisioned growth and economic development it is essential to focus on the future now. Historically, the world economy has evolved from agrarian to manufacturing, manufacturing to service, service to knowledge and is now entering into a creative economy with patents, IPRs, and innovations as the key economic drivers. Fashion too, needs creative and innovative thinking to become a part of this new culture. Post independence, unlike the wellness industry and automobile sector, fashion and textiles has registered the least number of patents and design registrations. The innovations in these sectors are comparatively low.

Indian Apparel Exports have recently achieved the benchmark of USD 10.8 billion and the domestic industry reached USD 35.6 billion. The apparel industry, largely comprising small and medium enterprises, needs innovative strategies to reach USD 25 billion mark in the next five years. Even smaller neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, have achieved USD 12.0 billion in apparel exports due to innovative manufacturing approaches adopted by their companies. Simultaneously, Copenhagen talks failing on climate change brings new focus on ‘eco-friendly’ fashion that can reduce carbon footprints significantly and cut the emission drastically. The largest retailers like Walmart, Nike, Carrefour and other leading brands have already started tying up with companies/manufacturers who can adapt these changing systems, processes and practices to create sustainable ecology and environment.

The changing global business equation post quota and with the emergence of Asia as economic superpower, calls for innovative strategies and futuristic outlook to create ‘new ecosystems’ that will drive the future of the Fashion Business. The Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India, under its Technopreneur Promotion Programme (TePP) scheme has established new policies to support innovation, research and development for all the sectors. This programme also offers immense tax benefits to the companies/entrepreneurs engaged in the ‘business of innovation’. The 21st century has seen recent innovations that changed the way the world handled knowledge and information, mostly contributed by market leaders like Google, Apple, YouTube, Wikipedia and Twitter as frontrunners in  the business of innovation. In 2009, the brand valuation of Google was more than USD 280 billion, even ahead of the largest fast-food chain – McDonald’s!

The strategic difference has been the continuous ‘innovation. Best practices have been replaced by the ‘Next Practices’ and innovation-led approaches have changed to ‘Concept to Consumer’ supply chain. All these years Zara has been a classic example of providing ‘fast fashion’ to its consumers. Unlike other sectors, fashion has always been highly aesthetics driven, there is now a clear need to integrate the technical know how in order to create new supply chain models for the fashion industry.

The emerging context requires new labs like Fashion Innovation Labs at the ‘Institute of Apparel Management’, that is going to serve as future proof learning centres for students and industry professionals. These labs will offer digital platforms for virtual prototyping that covers ideation, storyboarding, pattern engineering, marker making, virtual prototyping and virtual fashion shows in a seamless flow, using Tukatech and other softwares. These labs will redefine the way design and merchandising will be done in the times to come.

The innovations in the apparel sector shall deal with multi-faceted issues, which can derive new meaning for fashion and lifestyle products in the future. These issues need wider perspectives, new methods and practices, and an altogether new approach to contemporary product development. Some emerging trends for the future are:

Innovating Design – ‘Tradition vs Modernity’

Design has become a key factor in determining the life cycle of products today. With the changing taste and preferences of the consumer, the life span of consumption of fashion products has changed dramatically. Therefore, to evolve design in a fiercely competitive market, new techniques and technologies are needed. Design in fashion products, today, will deal with two factors primarily:

  • Value added factors that enhance the ‘aesthetics’.
  • Function/comfort that enhances the performance.

The focus of the designers has been largely on aesthetics but the function and comfort remains stagnant. The new technologies too have brought numerous innovations in yarns, fibers and end finishes like Dupont’s two-way stretch that allows expandability in woven fabrics like knits. New development in technical, medical and intelligent textiles has unleashed fabric’s new ‘avatar’. These textiles can store information, control temperature, provide protection from unwanted bacteria and viruses etc., and these innovations in recent years have become the most popular global trends.

Fashion designers are adding wires, circuits, and optical fibers to traditional textiles, creating garments that glow in the dark or keep the wearer warm. Meanwhile, electronic engineers are sewing conductive threads and sensors into body suits that map user’s whereabouts and respond to environmental stimuli. Technology has certainly taken a leap forward. Bio-degradable textiles, Geo-textiles, Herbal and Organic textiles and re-usability have become the consumer desire, challenging apparel and fashion products to be more innovative. During the design and development of Gujarat’s Police Uniform, as well as the Indian Army Uniform, there has been a key focus on integrating Plasma and Nano technology in SUT (Special Utility Textiles). We had also introduced finishes like Fragrance finish to reduce stress, Anti-microbil finish for protection against unwanted bacteria, Anti-dust finish for easy maintenance, UV-protection from direct sun burn etc., in the uniform designs for these specialised sectors.

Such technological intervention can enhance the design and performance of fashion and lifestyle products. Products like the Dragon Skin Bullet Proof Jackets have penetrated the new functional requirements of the times. The new lifestyle requirements for the millennium generation need a pragmatic approach in printing techniques through digital technologies and new surface designs where crafts can be blended with latest machinery. It also requires styling of garments, which will have universal design sensibilities to match with the new context, personalities and market segmentations, creating a bouquet of looks for the blended consumers such as traditional, visibly modern and absolute modern. Intelligent clothing will hold the key to ‘Future of Fashion’. Two students of IAM- Kranti Kiran Vistakula and Prasanjeet Kundu, recently developed ‘ClimaGearTM’, temperature controlling clothing, which can control desirable temperature at extreme climates (-40 degrees to +50 degrees) and weigh nothing more than 750 pounds. Wearable computing is the generation-next fashion statement, even brands like NOKIA has been developing intelligent clothing that is multipurpose. Therefore, design needs a paradigm shift to look at future aspirations and context in order to adapt best to emerging needs.

Sizes vs Fit – Fashion has moved significantly from voluminous/draped garments to second skin, and the ‘Visual Torso’ of the human body has changed significantly.

‘Waist’ popularly known as the empire line (or closer to it), during the 18th century, became more functional in early 19th Century to accommodate the working habits and neoculture. Waist came down from the traditional empire line to a more anatomically correct waist. Post the world war, with the evolution of the New Look by ace fashion designer Christian Dior, the narrowest area in the torso became the modern waist. The ‘Hippy Look’ in the 1960’s, further added the spice to the waist story and what we see today in most of the trousers and bottoms are the adaptation of Hipsters.

Such sea changes enabled garment details like pockets, hems, belts etc. to modify. The drop of waist, over the past centuries has affected the use of pockets, especially the back pockets. Even in the present context, how many people still put their wallet and belongings into the back pocket? It has remained a style feature but no more a functional unit in trousers. The modern consumer aspires to look attractive and the changing ‘self-image’ of the millennium generation wants to pick up ‘Fit’ rather than ‘Size’.

The choices and the purchase decisions are driven by fit factors. Even the brand loyalty is largely determined by the fit factor rather than offering a range of sizes. Thus, making it imperative to look at fit in a new manner for sizing the garments rather than continuing as S, M, L, XL, XXL etc. India’s first Fashion Innovation Lab provides digital platforms like ‘e-fit’ to develop the new sizes for the fashion industry. Such new age digital platforms enhance the visualisation skills, and offer virtual prototyping that enables ergonomically correct fits and forms. These platforms are extremely cost effective, offer immense flexibility to the user and save time and effort dramatically for a new product development.

Digital platforms like these are a key to the future of digital design and merchandising. Such technologies will only help evolve the genre of fashionable forms/fits for the fashion aware consumers.

Ergonomic vs. Quality – Quality in garments is always evaluated by physical characteristics such as wear and tear, stress test, colour fastening, seam strength, abrasion resistance, endurance etc. Quality now has a direct relation with the comfort of the wearer. The future belongs to clothing that is more ergonomically correct and only ergonomic variants will determine the quality and comfort of the user. Fit, quality and comfort are essential for changing user needs and their interface with personal belongings like electronic money, wallets, sun glasses, key chains, cell phones, PDA, iPODS etc. Such factors have encouraged even the leading companies to integrate communication devices, GPS, weight- division seams, expandable seam, stretch textiles, anti-wrinkle, multi-purpose pockets and more features that work in different contexts, environments and climatic conditions.

Paunch ProofTM for obese and overweight consumers includes all aspects of physical and mental comfort and is ergonomically functional. One of the famous examples of functionality is the research on the design and development of a Georgia Tech Wearable Motherboard™ (Smart Shirt) for Combat Casualty Care that led to the realisation of the world’s first Wearable Motherboard™ or an ‘intelligent’ garment for the 21st century. The Georgia Tech Wearable Motherboard uses optical fibers to detect bullet wounds and special sensors, and interconnects to monitor the body’s vital signs during combat conditions. Quality is no longer a physical characteristic but has become an ergonomic (physical and perceptual) variant.

Looks vs. Lifestyle – Ace fashion designer, Christian Dior changed the entire perception of the new women by introducing the ‘New Look’ in 1947. The ‘look’ has morphed into a ‘lifestyle’, from ‘how it looks’ to the ‘way it looks’. Fashion is no more just clothing but apparel, accessories, beauty, health and all factors constituting lifestyle that are part of human needs and desire. These consumers are being identified by their lifestyle pattern. Their choices are not only governed by their physical profile but also by the lifestyle variables surrounding them. Whether it’s metrosexual status or GenNext youth within the consumers, the ‘self image’ is based on the lifestyle factors. The changing aspiration of the new age consumer needs a ‘lifestyle look’ to be catered by the brands and companies.

The fashion forward need innovation and the only way to build in innovative ideas is to provide creative platforms and thoughtful leadership, which can contribute to this movement. The creative economy must see plenty of innovations not inspirations or imitations for developing fashionably- advanced products. The future of fashion and apparel has to begin with ‘lateral thinking’ rather than ‘literal thinking’.

Somesh Singh is the Joint Director of Institute of Apparel Management (under the aegis of Apparel Export Promotion Council, India) & Senior Consultant to Co-Creando Inc., an international strategic company for fashion goods. He is a graduate of National Institute of Fashion Technology, Faculty Development Programme from National Institute of Design with expertise in Trend Forecasting, Strategic Fashion & Apparel Management, Fashion Merchandising & New Product Development and Retail Design and other strategic areas of International Apparel Business.

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