How Technology is Hindering (and can save) Creativity

Analyzing how software solutions for the high-fashion industry can put creativity back in style.

A few weeks back, the fashion industry obsessed over Prada’s announcement that Raf Simons, previously creative director at Dior and Calvin Klein, would be joining the brand as its co-creative director. His to-be partner, Miuccia Prada, has been at her family’s company since 1978, and in 2018 received the Outstanding Achievement Award presented by the British Fashion Council. Why, then, must already-successful Miuccia joining forces with Simons?

The Prada co-creative director decision is particularly remarkable due to how Simons will be the first person from outside the Prada family to work at the helm of the brand. The merger is an indicator that the house is looking to rejuvenate its creativity, and keep its trends fresh, new, and interesting.

A Brief History

Thirty years ago, the world of high-fashion revolved around creatives manically pushing the bounds of fashion every season. Dana Thomas, NYT bestselling author of “Fashionopolis,” highlights this creative madness in her book “Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.”

McQueen and Galliano made headlines in the 90s and early 2000s for the ways in which their dark creativity led to spectacular clothing during their time as creative directors of Givenchy and Dior, respectively. Working for brands under the LVMH conglomerate umbrella, the two handled the creative aspects while CEO Bernard Arnault provided the business expertise.

Eventually, McQueen and Galliano’s constant competition & search for darker, deeper creativity fostered extremely stressful environments, resulted in excessive drug usage, and, eventually, led to their demise. “Gods and Kings,” in fact, is seen more as a chronicle of what not do to as a creative in the high-fashion industry.

Fashion, consequently, started to revolve less around the designers behind the clothes and more around branding and business.

Business in the Front, Creatives in the Back

The rise of conglomerates in fashion revolutionized the way the industry works to date. Arnault knows that, while he can leave the McQueens and Gallianos to design clothing, someone’s got to handle the business side. The business side, in turn, keeps getting bigger.

Today, it’s very difficult to exist as a privately owned company in an industry dominated by the big-guys when, as The Economist puts it, “brands can do better with a conglomerate.” 

Not only do conglomerates provide diversification, ensuring that whatever resources are made available to child company X can be offered to child company Y, but they also open the door for more streamlined collaborations (see: Dior x Rimowa). Only a select few brands, notably Chanel, are surviving without the control of conglomerates.

Changing the industry further is the rise of e-commerce and a consumer shift to online shopping, turning the knob from creativity to business and now towards technology

Particularly, an abundance of fast-fashion brands operating entirely online is introducing a whole new playbook of what high-fashion needs to survive.

Knock it Off

Fast-fashion brands, notorious for quick trend turnaround and low-price offerings, have sparked legal controversy over how they “steal” trends from high-fashion houses, and offer them at exponentially cheaper prices.

Additionally, fast-fashion is leveraging technology at higher rates than century-old, high-fashion houses. Particularly, companies like H&M and Zara are using artificial intelligence software to detect trends in what consumers are purchasing, allowing them to feed off of the trends that high-fashion makes popular.

This so-called ‘Copycat Economy’ is disrupting high-fashion brand loyalty, as customers will be naturally (and, in fact, biologically) inclined to purchase what is cheaper and more accessible.

Suddenly, creatives’ work is seeing a higher rate and risk of infringement, and has become harder to protect among this growing, fast-fashion online clothing economy. 

If fast-fashion companies can easily knock off trends and get away with it, what does this mean for the skills a creative director at a high-fashion brand must bring to the table?

Keeping Creativity Alive

Fast-fashion puts a significant amount of inventory out on its shelves every season, ensuring that whatever consumers want, they’ll get. These companies produce thousands of new items every month, driving up consumption, and keeping the lifespan of a trend short.

The number of clothing items produced per year is at an all-time high of 20 billion, while the total expenditure on clothing is at an all-time low. Why? Because now, with fast-fashion and online shopping, not only is it easier to buy, but it’s easier to buy more for far less.

In high-fashion, where a brand’s purpose is to set trends instead of play off of them, offering consumers new, refreshing runway collections is the only way to stay relevant amongst a sea of fast-fashion, e-commerce-driven brands. And they know it.

With regards to his recent appointment, Simons stated that this will be an opportunity for high-fashion to reconsider how “creativity can evolve in today’s system,” since “lots of creatives… feel that the fashion industry is moving more and more towards an industry that might end up excluding creatives.”

Tommy Hilfiger has similarly demonstrated a need to keep his brand’s look and trends fresh, particularly through his infamous collaborations with celebrities (namely Gigi Hadid, Zendaya, and Lewis Hamilton). Regarding these partnerships, Hilfiger states, “In keeping the brand relevant, we always have to do something next that is different to what has been done in the past.”

So, it seems that high-fashion brands have become aware of their increasing responsibility to generate refreshing trends that haven’t yet been seen on fast-fashion sites. 

However, while high-fashion may be getting the creativity aspect down, they still need to be able to compete with fast-fashion’s biggest weapon: software.

Software Solutions

There exist a great deal of software solutions available to fast-fashion brands, allowing them to analyze data to determine what items to produce. In fact, most e-commerce brands are thriving solely with software and data analysis experience, and zero experience in fashion. 

Software for high-fashion, though, needs to reflect the difference in how the two corners of the industry perceive trends.

A high-fashion house such as Prada prides itself on being able to set trends, and push the bounds of fashion creativity; trends which will undoubtedly fall onto the racks at Zara at cheaper prices later that season.

High-fashion brands shouldn’t necessarily be concerned with tracking what is already out there. Instead, they need image recognition models which detect specific trends they show on the runway, and track their popularity in real-time. Thus, the sorts of trends which each software is attempting to detect must also greatly differ. 

Training a computer to detect a specific product (instead of a general trend) can additionally help inform brands where similar, perhaps-counterfeit versions are being sold elsewhere online. High-fashion companies must recognize which of their items are most commonly being replicated among fast-fashion retailers, allowing them to perhaps revisit, and further distinguish, such designs.

For example, while “clothing or accessory designs are typically not covered by copyright law,” logo-replication counts as trademark infringement. Slapping a logo onto a high-fashion item, consequently, makes it more difficult for consumers to find an exact replica at a fast-fashion retailer. Some companies, namely Tiffany’s and Louboutin, have gone so far as to trademark their iconic colors

Take Bottega Venetta’s iconic “padded cassette bag”, which retails for just under three thousand dollars. This signature braided leather design is easy to copy and hard to protect. In fact, here’s an identical bag you can buy at Mango and another at TopShop, each for under fifty euros. 

If you train an image recognition model to detect the intricacies of this bag–the leather material, the quilted pattern, the relative size, its color palette–you can detect quickly and in real-time where that bag, or something similar, is being posted across other channels. 

Beginning these analytics the second this bag hits the Bottega Venetta runway, the brand will be able to quickly determine its rising popularity among viewers, and potentially visit — sooner rather than later — how its design can be creatively altered to protect itself from further counterfeits. 

Software in this sense will allow designers to maintain the creative visions upon which their brands were built, as well as offer them the opportunity to quickly and efficiently detect which of their works need greater protection. 

Hilfiger’s collaborations are a fantastic example of how his brand is leveraging creativity to keep consumers coming back to Hilfiger, instead of opting for similar products elsewhere. I mean, where else would I be able to find a racer jacket in Hilfiger’s signature colors, specifically embroidered with his and Gigi Hadid’s initials? Smart move, Tommy. 

A Sustainable Plus

Lastly, a significant case in which software solutions greatly differ among fast- versus high-fashion is with regards to managing inventory.

In fast-fashion, if a product doesn’t sell, it goes on sale; its price is marked down until it is finally purchased. In high-fashion, if a product doesn’t sell at its listed price, its lifetime is over; it either ends up in a landfill or, in Louis Vuitton’s case, is burned. Louis Vuitton: turning money into CO2 emissions.

Thus, if a product goes unsold, the environmental implications are much worse at a high-fashion brand than at a fast-fashion company. While fast-fashion is notorious for environmentally detrimental production cycles, the sustainable issues for high-fashion stem from specifically determining which products should be created. The real-time urgency in data analysis solutions for high-fashion, consequently, must be prioritized far more than in software made for fast-fashion. 

I’ve written about this idea  — specified image recognition models for high-fashion  — previously, especially as it pertains to the sustainability efforts of the fashion industry. Real-time data for high-fashion, then, is not solely about detecting trends and altering designs; it offers a significant environmental impact. 

Hi-Tech, High-Fashion

Thirty years ago, the fashion industry started turning away from creativity and towards business. Today, business is becoming more and more rooted in technology, particularly in the realm of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

In order to stay afloat in an economy where branding is disrupted and lower prices for nearly-identical items are made constantly available, high-fashion must shift its focus from solely business solutions to leveraging software solutions. 

These software solutions, in turn, cannot act like anything the rest of the fashion industry is using, or has ever seen, before.

Artwork by Raymond Jow.

Authors

Made Lapuerta
Writer for the Harvard Technology Review.

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