Inspired by my recent presentation on thredUP, I thought I’d spend this week’s blog post looking a little deeper into the future of apparel, fashion, and retail. As it turns out, many clothing companies are using technology such as artificial intelligence to improve the customer’s shopping experience.
As I discussed in my presentation, thredUP is an online secondhand retailer, where individuals can both purchase secondhand clothing and sell the clothes that they may no longer wear. The company’s executives predict that the apparel industry will trend towards secondhand in the coming years. Though it is specialized within the secondhand market, thredUP’s strategy can give insight into the future of fashion and apparel retail.
ThredUP has big plans for the future. Following growth in the size of their online platform, they are doing their best to get more consumers to commit to shopping secondhand. As an online-first retailer, they can streamline their product line to fit what customers want. Though their supply is obviously determined by what clothes people sell to the company, they have more than enough volume of apparel moving through the marketplace to meet demand for the latest trends and fashions. ThredUP offers themed boxes, giving customers suggestions on what trends are best for them. The introduction of thredUP boxes, as I talked about on Wednesday, allows customers to get an assortment of clothes supposedly matched by a stylist.
This kind of product might remind you of other popular companies that provide fashion consultation through subscription-style boxes. One prominent player in this field, Stitch Fix, allows customers to fill out a survey to gather information about their fashion style and measurements, and then mails a box of apparel based on the customer’s preferences. For someone looking to expand their wardrobe and to become more ‘fashionable’, putting decisions regarding what clothes to buy in the hands of someone else can be a welcome change. Consistent with this trend, the thredUP website has a section of blogs about fashion trends.
But are the ‘stylists’ choosing your clothes actually real people? These new trends introduce a new way for artificial intelligence to integrate into the retail industry. If AI can evaluate customer’s shopping trends, it may be able to efficiently predict what kinds of clothes they would be likely to wear and enjoy. According to this 2018 article, Stitch Fix is using algorithms in tandem with human stylists to most efficiently recommend styles to customers. As this sector of the industry continues to grow and develop, it seems likely that AI will be able to go beyond giving customers suggestions for similar kinds of clothes; it could become a true personal stylist, resulting in better-fitting, more fashionable clothes — and happier consumers.
Stitch Fix uses AI in other ways as well. Their “Hybrid Designs” program allows artificial intelligence to evaluate the abundance of consumer data the company has from its website, and to actually recommend completely new clothing designs. The system takes into account Stitch Fix’s current inventory, and designs clothes based on consumer trends that might be unfulfilled by their current apparel offerings. According to CB Insights, Stitch Fix has developed “at least” 30 pieces of apparel using this technology.
Some startups specifically dedicated to using algorithms and artificial intelligence to augment the fashion industry have also started to pop up. Finery is an app that helps users to plan out their wardrobe, offering suggestions of clothes to buy as well as recommending trendy outfits based on the clothes the user already has in their closet. Though they offer very different services, Finery and thredUP can address a similar problem: most people don’t wear most of the clothes sitting in their closets. Finery focuses more on computer-generated recommendations for outfits while thredUP offers a marketplace for buying and selling apparel, but both are making the fashion industry more efficient for customers.
It’s obvious that artificial intelligence has already started to revolutionize the way we shop for clothes. It will be well worth it to watch and see how far it can go in integrating into apparel shopping experiences on an even bigger scale.
Other apparel companies have been making adjustments and doing their best to innovate for the future; new technologies, business strategies, and social and ethical considerations will continue to play increasingly large roles in the success of these companies.
The fashion industry, and the massive scale of production that goes along with it, has serious negative environmental implications. Customers realize this, and many already make decisions on what clothes they buy based on their impact on the environment. Retail and fashion companies will likely make even more efforts to mitigate the environmental degradation caused by their industry as both an ethical duty and a response to changing consumer demands.
Many clothing companies laud themselves for employing sustainable practices. It’s become a popular part of company missions and marketing strategies for businesses like Patagonia. Some startups also focus on this issue, such as circular.fashion. Put simply, circular.fashion creates software for fashion retailers that makes “circular retail models and closed loop recycling technologies” logistically available for their clients. Several other small companies focus on sustainable materials for clothing. However, their practices might be slightly more difficult to integrate on a large scale — sustainable production and recycling practices will go a longer way towards making the industry more sustainable. Another means of making the fashion industry less of a pollutant takes a different approach — one that focuses on maximizing the lives of clothes that are already out there rather than figuring out how to produce new clothes in an environmentally friendly way.
This is the approach that companies like thredUP are employing. By creating a secondhand marketplace, they reduce the amount of waste that comes from buying clothes. Rather than throwing away older garments and going to buy clothes that had to be newly produced, people can by used clothes and sell their old clothes for other people to use.
The future of retail is obviously a whole lot more complicated than the few applications of artificial intelligence described above. However, in this blog I highlighted a few companies using innovative strategies and technologies to change the way we buy apparel. AI will be able to make the process of buying fashionable clothes much more efficient. Companies like Stitch Fix are already using computers to design and recommend styles of clothing to consumers. The fashion industry will also have to figure out how it can become more environmentally sustainable. Companies like circular.fashion are already working towards that goal, and a shift in consumer preferences seems to be moving the industry in a sustainable direction as well.