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December 12, 2017
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The N12 bikini by Continuum. Source: continuumfashion.com. Photograph by Ariel Efron.
From Iris Van Herpen's 2011 Escapism collection.
Source: irisvanherpen.com.

It's late Saturday afternoon. You have a date tonight. Nothing in your closet is saying, "wow." No time to shop. So you sit down at your computer, log on to your favourite designer's website, click on an outfit from their latest collection and press "print," sending it to your 3D printer. Before long, you're dressed and out the door.

Sound futuristic? Maybe, but it's not as far off as it seems. Designers and labels such as Continuum and Iris Van Herpen are already using digital 3D-printing technologies and websites to push beyond the once-rigid boundaries of fashion promotion and production.

In 2011, Continuum released for sale the world's first completely 3D-printed, affordable and ready-to-wear item of clothing: a bikini. The N12 Bikini is made of nylon, with thousands of circular plates knitted together along thin strings by a material printer and digital technology. Meanwhile, avant-garde designer Iris Van Herpen's 2011 Escapism collection was entirely 3D-printed, and fashioned from materials such as silk and yarn.

Although emerging, these initiatives reflect a dramatic change to the fashion marketing industry: the introduction of digital technology into fashion promotion has transformed how brands engage with the market, turning the traditional one-way street into a two-way. Labels are targeting a new and growing audience of social media-savvy shoppers using digital technology to create innovative and interactive customer experiences. Passive consumers are becoming active co-creators, as the line blurs between fashion producers and fashion consumers.

"These concessions to the consumer are requirements to any luxury brand that wants to reach the consumer in the digital age," explains Joseph Medaglia, a professor at The School of Fashion at Ryerson University. A survey conducted by accounting firm Ernst & Young in 2012 indicates that, more than ever before, customers want a greater say in their experience of a brand: how their products are designed, purchased, delivered - even promoted. "Worked properly, it's a marketer's dream," says Mike Mulvey, a University of Ottawa marketing professor. "The sharing aspect of social media lets enthusiasts show and tell with the click of a button. They do the marketing on your behalf."

...log on to your favourite designer's website, click on an outfit from their latest collection and press "print," sending it to your 3D printer. Before long, you're dressed and out the door.

Even the reigning houses of the high street are allowing measured access to their elite kingdoms. Iconic label Burberry, fashion's digital darling, launched their dynamic platform, The Art of the Trench, in 2009, which has earned them countless accolades and younger fans. More recently, in September 2012, the label announced the introduction of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology in its stores. Digital chips are embedded within each article of clothing, that are then recognised by mirrors or changing rooms throughout the store. Once the item is identified, the mirror becomes a screen detailing product information, manufacturing process, magazine advertisements and footage of how it was worn on the catwalk.

Digitisation also allows promotion-minded fashion houses to grant consumers a small place in the actual design process. Prominent brands like Modcloth and Topshop are jumping aboard the co-design bandwagon of websites like Threadless. "Digital technology is a huge facilitator of the do-it-yourself trend," explains Mulvey. Brands are providing the basic product structure and leaving it to consumers to fill in the blanks with their own flare.

The popular NikeiD was launched online over ten years ago and has since been revamped and updated several times, so that now, buyers can completely customise the look of a selected item, be it apparel, footwear or sports equipment. In May 2012, online retailer Modcloth unveiled its first crowdsourced private-label collection, Make the Cut: Premiere Collection. The line was created primarily by fans, who submitted designs as part of Modcloth's Make the Cut contest. Finalists were chosen by the brand's co-founder and chief creative officer, Susan Gregg Koger, and the top ten were then voted by fans over Facebook. In August of the same year, the second of such collections, Retro Honor Roll, was released after the same format of design contest. In October 2012, the newest adaptation of the competition was launched, Make the Cut: Swatch It Up. Fans were given only a swatch of fabric from which to create their designs. Winning entries were posted on the label's Facebook page, with one fan-chosen champion to be released as part of their S/S 2013 collection. By allowing their consumers a stake in the creation process, Modcloth has been steadily building a strong and loyal community of followers.

The N12 bikini by Continuum.
Source: continuumfashion.com.
Photograph by Ariel Efron.

"Customers still consider brands to be social symbols," says Robert Hocking, founder of advertising agency Hocking Consulting Services. "But now they want those symbols to be customised and different from everyone else wearing them, too." It's now possible to both reflect and define your status symbols.

Fashion empire Topshop took this interactive experience to a new level this September during London Fashion Week with its Customize the Catwalk event. The British label made headlines by offering fans a live, sharable, customisable and shoppable runway experience. Followers could not only watch the show in real-time via Topshop's website, but also change the colours, accessories and even makeup of the models strutting down the catwalk. Looks could be shared over Facebook and purchased months before they hit stores.

Customize the Catwalk delivered more than just a fun shopping experience; interactivity with consumers has important consequences for business strategies. Multiple Topshop dresses sold out before the show ended, and all runway looks were gone within 24 hours. Traffic to the label's American site hit record levels. And, what's more, the enhanced experience was a gold mine of user data for the brand, indicating which looks, colours and combinations sparked the biggest online response among different audiences.

"We monitor where our consumers are coming from, how they shop, what they are buying, and when they make purchases," House of Holland designer Henry Holland told The Guardian after his brand opened a virtual pop-up shop on eBay during London Fashion Week. This information is gathered digitally and used to tailor marketing to certain demographics.

Brands are finding a balance between content creation and customer engagement to draw in the modern consumer. These constantly connected, information-hungry customers want to feel like they are part of a brand's inner circle, participating in how a brand takes shape and marketing its products. In other words, they want to feel like the brand knows who they are, and vice versa.

 

So who exactly are they? Modern consumers are well-connected and well-informed, with a wealth of information at their fingertips through smartphones and tablets. Millennials are the key target for digital marketing: under 30, and adept multi-taskers of digital devices and social media.

Marketers need to consider this if they hope to stay relevant, says Hocking. "Studies show that the Millennial generation cycles through 27 different media outlets every non-working hour. There is so much potential to capture attention, engage and receive feedback. Twenty-first century consumers are giving away more information than ever before about themselves to anyone who will listen."

Will these digital initiatives democratise the luxury industry, now that consumers can collaborate in marketing, design and production? No, according to Medaglia: high fashion will always be defined by its exclusivity. "Can luxury exist if more people have access? Is fashion luxurious if most people can afford to participate? The nature of luxury might depend on the misfortune of others."

So while the gilded gates of these fashion empires are not about to swing open anytime soon, digital innovation will continue to allow global audiences to buy into not just fashion products, but unique and personal experiences with brands.

And it's not about to slow down, says Mulvey. "Yesterday's science fiction is today's reality; digital technology has allowed marketing to develop in unfathomable ways. We could never have predicted ten years ago where we would be today, and who knows where we'll be in the next ten."

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