6 March 2018
As Production Gets More Frantic, Style Sets Out to Provide a Refuge
With automation, robotics and digitisation set to vastly accelerate the pace of garment manufacturing, according to exhibitors at Magic, fashion itself is set to provide something of a soothing refuge from the pace of 21st century life.
While it might well have been freezing outside during the February edition of Magic – the world's largest fashion and apparel trade event – jumpsuits and sheer trenchcoats were still very much in vogue within the show's many display halls. As ever, this biannual Las Vegas event brought together sourcing specialists, fashion retailers and apparel manufacturers, all of them convening across 13 concurrent shows, each curated on distinct showfloors.
With speed to market and high-tech innovation reshaping every aspect of the apparel world, the winter edition of Sourcing at Magic – the Magic sub-brand that focuses on the global supply chain – showcased the devices and trends seen as leading this particular revolution. Most notably, it provided a window on the ways that e-commerce, social media and robotics are transforming the apparel sector.
Many of these changes were encapsulated within a working micro-factory set on the showfloor. This gave showgoers the opportunity to observe at firsthand the integrated, interactive opportunities on offer as the installation demonstrated its concept-to-creation capabilities.
Explaining the thinking behind this particular exhibit, Christopher Griffin, Sourcing at Magic's President, said: "We built a 2,000-square-foot-plus factory on the showfloor. This allowed us to highlight the latest in cutting-edge automation, including robotic-grabbing, autonomous transfer to the next production stage and print digitisation."
Although clearly something of a technological evangelist, Griffin didn't expect apparel brands to embrace the technology overnight, instantly becoming vertical operations. Instead, he sees it more as an asset for medium-sized businesses, with such a micro-factory facility allowing them to quickly complete small runs in-house.
Similar thinking was on show at the Hugo Boss stand, with Joachim Hensch, Managing Director of the German luxury fashion brand's Textile Industries division, keen to showcase the company's own take on the smart factory concept. With single-piece flow and accelerated turnaround at its heart, the company's Suit Machine 2020 system is already being trialed at the company's Turkish production facility, with everything from manufacturing to space-planning set to be automated.
One of the first processes to be delegated to the company's designer clothing droids was cuff-making, an innovation said to have eliminated several lengthy and labour-intensive stages. Looking at the wider picture, the adoption of 3D space-planning at the facility has optimsed the lay-out of the site, with machinery, raw materials and finished products all now positioned with maximum efficiency in mind.
Acknowledging that the move has obliged the company to rethink its staffing policy, Hensch said: "We're having to employ completely new people. Previously, we'd never considered taking on robotics engineers or big data analysts.
"Although a lot of standardised tasks will be automated, we're not planning on running an entirely lights-out factory, with many of our operations still requiring human intervention. As we produce 10 collections per year, as well as a range of custom products, we still need to maintain a lot of flexibility."
A key element in the company's automation strategy is the wider use of co-robots, machines that work alongside and in conjunction with human operators. Utilising speech-recognition technology and Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, many expect such partnerships to become commonplace in the garments sector. This would see a future where operators verbally interact with sewing equipment and where drone delivery technology has superseded the use of trolleys.
While production may be increasingly about speed and harnessing technology, the actual styles set to be produced will embrace a very different philosophy, at least according to Melissa Moylan, Vice-president of Fashion Snoops, the New York-headquartered specialist trend forecaster. Turning her attention to the spring-summer 2019 season, she said: "It's going to be all about refuge and finding a way to counter everything that the global landscape has thrown at us."
In a session dedicated to upcoming trends, she highlighted four particular looks that she sees as set to dominate the fashion world in 2019 – Mesa, Origins, Suburbia Disturbia and Catalyst.
The first, Mesa, is said to embrace the American Southwest, with Moylan describing its feel as: "searching for a deeper connection while embracing the journey." Typical colours here will be copper rose, terracotta, yellows and pinks, while the favoured materials will be dip-dyed suede, crochet knits and printed patchwork.
Origins, by comparison, will have more of a spiritual feel, taking its inspiration from indigenous tribes and consisting of earthy greens, rustic wovens, tribal embroidery and naturally-dyed knits. The must-have accessories here will be embellished socks, oversized chandelier earrings and bucket bags with mixed materials and graphic adornments.
Nostalgia for the 1950s is the prompt for Suburbia Disturbia, a look captured in vinyl, retro denim, plaids and cheery pastels. Among the key pieces will be midi-dresses, matched sets with retro notions, bra tops and cat-eye glasses with futuristic silhouettes.
According to Moylan, Catalyst is set to be the dominant trend, a look she defines as centring on "the rise of refined neo-nerd culture", a style very much inspired by Silicon Valley and tech-startup culture. It will be typified by corporate blues, saturated greens, "silicon" greys and warm neutrals, while laser-cut silk, paperweight cotton and acrylic knits will be the materials of choice.
She sees the look as particularly appealing to high-achieving women, many of whom will welcome the return of power suiting and pronounced shoulders. For men, she sees the style as focusing more on "how tech intercepts daily lives", while relying on hybrid materials, add-on pockets and sports influences. As to the most on-trend item in this particular category, she champions the transparent trenchcoat.
Quality jeans tend to weather just about any trend, with their durability and perennial status establishing the denim category as a virtual petri-dish of innovation, one that unites automation, enhanced performance and environmental responsibility. In line with this, Levi Strauss, the San Francisco-headquartered jeans giant, has announced plans to use laser technology to engineer the holes, fraying and fading that gives its garments their ever-popular distressed look.
Previously, this traditionally labour-intensive process required sanding, chemical treatments and hand-finishing. The introduction of lasers, however, has cut the production time in half, while also reducing the number of chemicals required from more than a thousand to just a few dozen.
This desire for reduced chemical usage, as well as the growing emphasis on sustainability and responsible production processes, had played a key role in the success of one of the event's other exhibitors – North-Carolina-based Repreve. The company specialises in producing high-performance fibres from a range of recycled materials, including plastic bottles. Among the brands that have now incorporated this fibre into their range are Levi's, United by Blue and Yukon Outfitters.
Outlining the factors behind the company's success, Marketing Coordinator Lynn Ball said: "We've grown exponentially, largely on account of greater public support for recycled materials and the desire by many leading brands to take a more sustainable approach to production.
"This year, we have been looking to educate attendees as to how plastic bottles can be recycled into polyester yarn. This can then be added in to a variety of fabrics, giving them extra stretchability."
The Winter 2018 edition of Magic Las Vegas took place from 11-14 February across multiple Las Vegas venues.
Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas