Ripe For Disruption By AI: The Fashion Industry


Artificial intelligence. These two words – also often referred to by the acronym AI – have been ingrained into the vernacular of every 21st century businessperson, every millenial, every remotely technological person on planet earth today. AI technology has potential for application across a vast number of fields, including agriculture, healthcare, energy and mining, IT, manufacturing and intellectual property, but there is one particular area where we are only beginning to see the rumblings of disruption brought about by AI. The fashion world.

It currently sits as one of the world’s largest industries, representing around 4 percent of global gross domestic profit (GDP) and estimated to be worth about three trillion dollars in value as of 2018. Not only that, but fashion remains one of the past decade’s rare economic success stories, growing at roughly 5.5 percent annually, according to the McKinsey Global Fashion Index. The fashion industry would in fact be the world’s seventh-largest economy if ranked alongside individual countries’ GDP. The market value and the opportunities this presents are simply enormous. It’s no wonder then, that we are beginning to see signs that people are putting some serious thought into how artificial intelligence can pump new life into the industry. From enhancing design, aiding creativity, making the manufacturing process more efficient than ever, to helping with the retail side of things and enhancing customer support after purchase, we are certainly beginning to see the ripple effect of AI’s application in other industries as it begins to shape the future of fashion.

With respect to customer service, AI certainly has the power to redefine how fashion businesses engage and interact with their customers. Perhaps the most value AI offers business owners is the ability to gain rich customer insight through datasets, dynamic pricing and AI-led customer relationship management. Any business owner be it of a small, medium or large enterprise can benefit from the latter, in fact. Take an online boutique selling modest dresses for women, for example. Using AI technology, it could have chatbots interact with potential customers online to gather data and generate responses based on cues provided by the customer. Not only does this collect meaningful information about what customers want but at the same time it gives immediate answers to customers, ensuring a satisfactory buying experience for them. Tommy Hilfiger is just one example of a bigger brand name already doing this, with bots managing conversations with live people and tailoring response content to their interests.

But the online store isn’t the only place where the shopping experience can be revolutionised by AI: inside the physical store, AI-derived data can also inform layout choices and in-store experience. Using tools like automatic customer recognition, digital mirrors that allow customers to compare different colour and style combinations, and AI-enabled technology to improve inventory management, the in-store experience can become a whole lot less confusing and a lot more streamlined for everyone involved. Inventory management is perhaps a key area where AI has visible benefits for retail outlets. AI-enabled technology and programs can forecast anticipated trends, detect where items are running low in stock and automatically reorder those items, and ease the burden of the entire inventory process by automating everything. 

One non-retail brand playing with the idea of  AI-enabled digital mirrors is Facebook. It’s latest feature, Fashion++, uses a deep image-generation network to make customised suggestions for peoples’ outfits using algorithms that focus on small improvements to existing outfits. With suggestions including add a belt, tuck in shirt and pair with a black and gold bag, the feature has the power to put even the most unlikely fashionistas on the right track. 

Throughout the design and manufacturing process, AI technology can help retailers predict upcoming trends and future consumer preferences by analysing data floating around the internet and using algorithms to determine which looks or styles are getting the most hits. This particular application is a gamechanger for those in the fashion industry, with demand projections fuelled by AI able to reduce forecasting errors by up to 50 percent. Throughout manufacturing processes, AI technologies can improve the efficiency and quality of manufacturing, through detecting errors in finished textiles and generally automating the process wherever possible, allowing humans to focus on any higher value decision-making that needs doing. Following this, supply chain tracking and inventory management can also be revolutionised through AI, with AI already being used to manage and optimize supply chains, reduce shipping costs and minimise transit time. 

2019 has been deemed ‘the year of awakening’ for the fashion world by worldwide management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which earlier this year released a statement saying “The ones that will succeed will have come to terms with the fact that in the new paradigm taking shape around them, some of the old rules simply don’t work”. Industry foresight shows that regardless of size and segment, players of the fashion world now need to be nimble, think digital-first, and achieve ever-faster speed to market. It looks as though now would be a very good time for fashion retailers to jump aboard the AI bandwagon, in that case…

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