Digital technology vs. Mass Fashion – The Comeback of Customization

In the clothing industry, mass-produced goods are no longer unchallenged: Thanks to digitization and changing customer needs, both custom-made products and textile production in Europe could at least partially experience a renaissance in the coming years, experts say.

This would not only benefit customers, but also the manufacturers’ balance sheets – and the environment.

“It could be produced much less rejects,” says Christian Kaiser, Professor of Textile Technology at the University of Albstadt-Sigmaringen. “The environmental impact would be greatly reduced.”

Because textile factories consume a lot of water, also dyeing and impregnating pollutes the environment. Kaisers Hochschule cooperates closely with the German Institute for Textile and Fiber Research Denkendorf (DITF), a leading think tank for the German clothing industry.

“Many customers want something new every few weeks”

Digital production methods allow a rapid acceleration of production cycles. Technically, it would already be feasible today to take measurements from the customer in the shop using the body scanner and to transfer the data to the factory. Jacket, dress or pants could then be produced within a very short time in the desired colors.

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At the Munich sports fair Ispo, which ended on Wednesday, the university, DITF and cooperation partners from industry presented a digital sample system called “Micro Factory”.

The textile industry traditionally has long lead times: one collection in winter, one in summer. “That’s not enough today,” says Kaiser. “Many customers want something new every few weeks.” And the necessary quick reaction to customer wishes could, according to Kaiser’s assessment, lead to more clothing being manufactured in Europe in a few years’ time. Because the factory is in Bangladesh, the delivery takes longer.

Also interesting: Fashion from the 3D printer: “The aesthetics are unique”

“Customizing” as a future trend

In addition, the ready-made goods lose their appeal. In the sports industry individualized products on customer request are one of the big trends. So far this has been mostly limited to shoes, but apparel will follow.

Because digital production methods enable the production of even small or smallest series, down to the single piece. A major advantage for the textile industry would be reduced storage costs, as less goods are left in the dump or even destroyed in the end due to lack of buyers.

“This is a big topic for the future,” says Hortense Carlier, product manager at North Face, a US outdoor clothing manufacturer. In marketing jargon, the trend is “customizing”, the old-fashioned term made-to-measure rarely used today. Both are not exactly identical, “customizing” so far often means the choice of an individual design by the clientele.

North Face offers only ready-made goods. A manufacturing method adopted according to company information from medical technology should now allow to “tune” air permeability and water-repellent properties in jackets in future, ie to adapt them individually.

The first products with the new material are expected to hit the market in the fall, with Carlier expecting to manufacture on customer demand in the next decade – approximately from 2021 onwards.

Progress in this case is not synonymous with novelty. As far back as the 1950s, leading sports shops in the Alpine region offered bespoke mountain boots or coats until the costs became too high.

“The footwear industry is a bit ahead”

And today? “The footwear industry is a bit ahead,” says North Face manager Carlier. In fact, Adidas has been offering custom shoes since 2015, but has recently discontinued this without further explanation.

But that does not change the trend. The development is essentially driven by three factors: In addition to the changed customer behavior and digitization, the fierce competition in the clothing industry plays a major role.

The sports industry is a trailblazer because sportswear is usually expensive, customers demanding as well as willing to spend money. “The sports market is hotly contested,” says Mathias Böhnke, board member of the sports retailer Intersport.

The years of strong expansion in the outdoor market, according to the European Outdoor Group – the Association of European Industry – in 2018 slowed to a growth in the “low single digits”. “A number of brands reported falling numbers,” says EOG President Mark Held. This exacerbates the pressure for innovation.

Hope for the retail trade

Individualization also creates a glimmer of hope for the retail market, which is becoming increasingly troubled by online competition. “The topic of customizing is an absolute megatrend,” says Andreas Rudolf, managing director of the sports retail chain Sport 2000. For ski boots, for example, it is not the individual production that is standard, but rather the individual adaptation in the shop. That brings higher returns for the traders.

“As far as yield is concerned, the ski boot here is Cash Cow,” says Rudolf. Both dealers and manufacturers hope that this business model can be extended from the feet to the rest of the body.

Also interesting: The attraction of the jersey: Between cult and commerce

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