The Fourth Industrial Revolution is Here – What Does it Mean for Fashion?

What is the 4th Industrial revolution or “Industry 4.0” actually? In the 18th and 19th centuries we had the first and second industrial revolutions which saw the manipulation and use of water, steam and electric power to mechanize the making of clothing. The third industrial revolution, in the mid 20th century, saw information technology giving rise to fast fashion and forcing the fashion industry to rethink its rapidly “breaking” system.

One of the more tangible ways to describe the 4th Industrial Revolution is the idea of “service oriented design.” So customers can control factory settings to produce their own garments, and companies can tailor individual products for individual customers.

For fashion, the fourth industrial revolution brings us new fabrics and new manufacturing techniques powered by a wave of new innovations across the physical,biological and digital worlds, such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence and bio materials. Fashion stands to benefit from these advances, opening up a wide range of new functional and aesthetic possibilities for clothes.

Amanda Parkes, co-founder and chief of technology and research at Manufacture NY explains ” That’s where this materials revolution is happening: we can start to demand interactivity from textiles and fibres themselves. Some new fabrics will have computing embedded into their fibres at the microscopic level, resulting in garments that can do things like adapt to temperature changes or store energy like a battery”.

Nancy Deihl, director of the Costume Studies Master of Arts program at New York University, says this about the longstanding relationship between fashion and technology, “while we might think about technology as being computers or digital or something like that, technology and fashion really go all the way back to the loom and the sewing machine, and the tremendous impact that the mechanization of those kind of processes had on fashion.”

3D-printed garments

Fashion really takes advantage of any new material that becomes available. When plastic was young, people said, “OK, we’re going to start making our sequins out of plastic. We’re going to start making jewellery out of plastic.” Or when whalebone became a commodity, it became incorporated into corsets.

Fashion designers are always on the lookout for new and stimulating processes, and materials, and ways of doing things. So I think there’s an enthusiastic relationship. And, well, some people say mass production of clothing might have killed high fashion. I would really very much disagree. Technology and fashion walk hand-in-hand down the runway.”

New materials have already been developed such as Shrilk, a transparent, compostable material made from discarded shrimp shells and proteins from silk. Shrilk is as strong as aluminum but weighs almost half. Qmilk is a new type of thread made out of sour milk and is resistant to bacteria and fire.

The rapidly decreasing price of 3D printing  could also disrupt fashion’s current manufacturing methods by enabling companies to quickly create complex products without specialist machinery. The cost of the average 3D printed object will half by the year 2018, which means producing small quantities of a product will become more cost effective. Adidas and Nike are already using 3D printing to allow shoppers to personalize the way their shoes fit. Chanel (in their Paris Fashion Week collection of 2015) had their material 3D printed and then turned over to their seamstresses who produced the traditional Chanel jacket-suits. This illustrates a really high-level adaptation of technology combined with traditional couture techniques. So technology has affected the whole chain of how we wear our clothes, and how they’re created, and even what we do with them after we’re done with them.

In a trend driven industry such as fashion, Artificial Intelligence will allow us to quickly make complex data driven decisions in order to predict how long a trend will last, or how well a garment is selling. By analyzing large amounts of data such as customers purchasing habits, social media trends and data garnered from ‘smart garments,’ AI could help designers predict what customers want and need more effectively, thereby reducing waste.

Innovations in fashion can also help other areas such as health. Last year, Intel partnered with Chromat to create a dress with an outer frame that changes its appearance in response to factors such as the wearer’s breathing, sweat and body temperature.

Partnerships between fashion and technology are already springing up. Levi’s collaborated with Google to create a jacket which had Google’s Project jacquard technology woven into the fabric, which allowed the wearer to control their phone by touching their sleeve. This could also provide companies with invaluable data about the wearer bring difficult ethical questions surrounding privacy into play. Interesting times ahead!

The Rise of Menswear

Five Questions for Simon Ward, COO of London Fashion Week