Lorenzo Cantoni is professor at the USI Faculty of Communication Sciences, where he served as Dean from 2010 to 2014 and is now director of the Institute of Communication Technologies. His teaching and research focus on the impact of digital media on specific communication contexts, including education, tourism, fashion, and government. He is chair-holder of a UNESCO chair in ICT to develop and promote sustainable tourism in World Heritage Sites, and former President of IFITT – International Federation for IT in Travel and Tourism.
Professor Cantoni, what is digital fashion, precisely?
In general, it is the overlapping area, or the inter-relation between on the one hand Fashion and on the other hand Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).
ICTs are nowadays playing a fundamental role both within the fashion industry as well as when it comes to our personal experience of feeling at ease with a specific outfit or of judging something as “fashionable” or not. We can distinguish three major levels of interaction.
First, ICTs have deeply permeated the production life cycle of fashion and apparel: from its design using computer assisted tools, to the automation of production processes, up to emerging trends of 3D printing or wearable technologies. Also, distribution processes are extensively being supported by ICT-enhanced logistics.
Second, ICTs are extensively used to market fashion products: fashion companies provide more and more information and services through websites, mobile apps, social media, virtual and augmented reality. Items are sold via eCommerce, and ICTs are implemented as well in physical shops (e.g.: magic mirrors, possibility of configuring/personalizing items, and so on). In general, being “always on” through mobile devices offers endless opportunities to blend off- and online experiences, hence the necessity for fashion brands to operate in an “omnichannel” way.
Third, digital communication is also playing a major role when it comes to co-create the very idea of what it means being “fashionable” or not, “in” or “out”. Not only do fashion companies and dedicated media outlets publish online, but so do influencers, passionate people and practically everybody, thus contributing in this active dialogue, by publishing images and reviews, liking/disliking, co-creating trends and socializing individual tastes. In this context, artificial intelligence and digital analytics will become particularly important to interpret and anticipate trends.
At the USI Faculty of Communication Sciences, we are researching the second and third dimensions, and have just launched – in collaboration with Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne (Paris) – a dedicated Master in “Digital Fashion Communication”. In addition, colleagues in the Faculty of Informatics are covering aspects of the first dimension (e.g. 3D recognition and wearable technologies).
What are the major challenges the fashion industry will be faced with in the near future?
As suggested by the very authoritative report “The State of Fashion 2018” published by Business of Fashion and McKinsey are: (i) Dealing with volatility, uncertainty and shifts in the global economy; (ii) Competition from online and omnichannel; (iii) Value chain improvement and digitization; (iv) Decreasing foot traffic and offline retailing pressure.
While the first one relates to major global changes – in fashion, for instance, as they report, in 2018 “more than half of apparel and footwear sales will originate outside of Europe and North America” – all the others are closely linked to ICTs.
In general, I would say that ICTs are disrupting the fashion industry through making it even more global, through accelerating its processes, and through challenging the status quo of current business models and/or of powerful players.
More and more creative and hybrid solutions will be needed, which will combine the very analogical experience of touching a fabric and dressing a suit, with the many involved digital processes – from marketing to selling, from evaluating to launching new trends, styles, players.
Digital communications have deeply impacted other industries as well, namely the tourism sector. With fashion, are we looking at a similar evolution?
I strongly believe so. If we consider, for instance, the eCommerce sector in Switzerland, the three most important industries in terms of transactions, according to the Netcom Suisse Report 2017, are fashion, transportation, and holidays/travel. Very similar trends can be found in Europe and elsewhere.
Both are experience-based sectors: ICTs are particularly apt to help anticipating the experience – through images, videos, and virtual reality. ICTs can help to start dreaming, sharing experiences and reviews, setting trends, launching new styles, etc. This is true for tourism destinations and attractions, as well as for fashion items and trends.
ICTs have enabled the emergence of new business models as well: for instance, the possibility of extensive customization can be found in the travel industry, with endless opportunities to design your own travel experience, or in fashion, where you can configure online your shoes choosing shapes, colors, materials, ad-hoc elements. Bloggers and other social media influencers are particularly relevant in both sectors: think for instance of the case of Chiara Ferragni, who has moved from being just a popular fashion blogger up to launching her own brand.
Furthermore, in both domains we observe the emergence of major digital platforms, either dedicated or generalist, which are becoming more and more important. Let us not forget also the rise of Chinese and Asia-Pacific markets, which are re-shaping the overall context.
Let me here mention just a few more cases to further stress the similarities between the two sectors. First, tourism and fashion are closely linked when it comes to events: fashion-weeks are highly relevant also from a touristic point of view, because they enable the branding of a destination and attract new audiences. Likewise, major music festivals (e.g. Coachella or the Burning Man) are branded and perceived as both touristic and fashion events and, if anything else, they represent contexts where new styles and trends do emerge. Second, think of specific activities, such as sports or winter tourism with their respective equipment, or consider the close link between seaside tourism and swimwear, where low-cost airlines and globalization of travel destinations have meant that more and more western travelers are visiting seaside destinations in winter, and what used to be a very seasonal fashion market has become deeply de-seasonalized.
How rooted is the cultural element in the digital age of fashion communication?
All of us were born unclad, but spend most of our life somehow dressed. What we wear is not only functional in order to protect and cover our body, but also to express who we are. In a way, we dress (also) to unveil our interiority – values, lifestyles, desires, etc.
Fashion is definitely a very important part of culture. The pay-off of a major project of the Google Cultural Institute says: “We Wear Culture”. In fact, the possibility to extensively digitize archives is offering new opportunities to document fashion history and trends. A similar project, freely available online, is curated by the Europeana Fashion International Association.
In my opinion, whoever wants to understand (and manage) digital fashion communication needs to root it into long-term cultural processes.
What could be a plausible future scenario for the fashion sector in the year 2030?
All above-mentioned trends connected with smart mobile technologies are likely to remain in the following years and to become even more important.
Moreover, we might predict an increase of eCommerce in this field, through global platforms as well as operated directly by fashion brands. In addition to selling, renting and sharing are likely to find their place within the fashion sector. In the future, many people might prefer to subscribe to services that offer the possibility to rotate and renovate their wardrobe on a monthly or weekly basis – through a renting model – rather than buying (fewer) new items. An increased attention to sustainability issues might be an additional driver for this. With smaller families, what used to be quite common in the past, especially for children’s fashion – exchanging, borrowing, rotating second-hand items – will be more and more intermediated online through dedicated platforms. Most of us will have a 3D scan of their body, so to ensure a perfect fitting of items bought/rented online.
As it is now in the field of music with services like Shazam, which recognizes a piece of music after a few seconds of “listening”, in the fashion domain we will be able to use services that recognize in a picture most items a person is wearing. Such services will provide additional information: reviews, best offers for new or second-hand buying, whom is using them among our friends...
In addition, the so-called “recommending systems” are likely to emerge in the fashion domain, as it has been the case for tourism. For instance, Amazon has recently released in the American market a camera called Echo Look, which can be put in your wardrobe, and can be operated vocally to take selfies and videos so you can share your outfit with friends on social media. But this is just one functionality. Echo Look also offers a “Style Check”: you take two pictures of two different outfits, and the system will recommend the most suitable one based on artificial intelligence and expert recommendation. Last, but not least, Amazon will be able to get a first-hand access to your wardrobe, hence being able to recommend further items to be combined (and bought). As it emerges from this last case, future scenarios will require not only experts in ICTs and digital fashion communication, but also a clear attention to privacy and other ethical and sustainability issues.
Information of the new USI Master in Digital Fashion Communication at: www.usi.ch/mdfc
The original version of the interview is published in Ticino Welcome magazine n.57 (March-May 2018), pages 22-24.