A young fashion designer at work

Why Fashion Designers are Pursuing STEAM Education

Every Job is a STEAM Job is our series looking at why your kids will need tech literacy and coding skills to succeed in their future careers, no matter where those careers take them. Previously, we looked at how technology is changing architects, journalistssmall business owners, and the professionals protecting our national parks.

We tend to view fashion only through the lens of art. Many of the pieces that grace the runway could live in a museum — and many do.

However, what looks effortless and beautiful as a finished product requires the work of dozens of people. Today, more of those people come from STEAM backgrounds, especially the designers themselves.

Here is how technology is revolutionizing fashion, and how tomorrow’s designers can change the industry with tech skills.

Technology is an Integral Part of Fashion

Technology plays a role in fashion even before the first cut is made.

Companies are constantly trying to find the best materials for the job while improving the creation process. Today, we expect our fabrics to do more, which brings scientists, developers, and mathematicians into the field.

Fabrics Are Expected to Do More

The team at Youth Digital writes that smart fabrics and e-textiles are the future of retail — particularly for athletic apparel. Customers expect their fabrics to dry quickly, repel water, protect them from the sun, and keep them cool. This has led textile manufacturers to hire scientists and engineers to design the best fabrics possible.

Designers also work with engineers to add smart technology and other gadgets — like a solar-powered backpack for phone charging — to their creations. Those engineers also help work out the logistics of production, distribution, and profit margins.

Creating a textile has become a lot more complicated than feeling a material and choosing colors or patterns.

A runner wearing high tech workout gear

Sustainable Manufacturing

Along with engineers, the fashion industry has also found an unexpected group of people to help improve their garments: environmentalists. Hannah Gould at The Guardian reports that the fashion industry is responsible for polluting rivers with hazardous chemicals and becoming a major contributor to landfills.

She lists a few companies who are using technology to fight back and create clothes in a sustainable manner:

  • Evrnu is working on a patent to turn old fibers into new clothing, reducing landfill use.
  • Bionic Yarn is making denim from ocean plastic.
  • DyeCoo is developing a water-free and chemical-free dyeing solution.

Not only can sustainable apparel companies market their products to environmentally conscious customers (and therefore boost their sales through a new audience), many can also save money in the production process because they’re wasting less and using fewer resources.

Wearable Tech and Fashion

New York Fashion Week is one of the biggest events of the year for designers, but Fashion Tech Week, which runs parallel to the event, is growing in size and popularity as well. This event allows brands to show off wearable tech as well as inventions that can improve fashion and function as a whole.

For example, the team at Byte Academy in New York met with the designers at Felix Gray eyewear during the 2016 Fashion Tech Week to demo their products. Felix Gray wants to design eyewear for people who stare at computer screens all day so they can work without straining their eyes. While fashion is a huge consideration for eyewear designers, this tech could change the industry and help millions of office workers.

Most early adopters have already invested in wearable tech because of their interest in the devices, and now brands have to appeal to the fashionable nature of the devices if they hope to further expand their markets.

The Fashion Industry is Changing Production

Along with manufacturing the types of garments customers want, fashion houses are changing their production schedules to meet the demands of digital consumers.

Over the past few years, fashion capitals have become increasingly digital, reports Michele Petruzziello at the World Economic Forum. New York, Paris, London, and Milan aren’t the only hubs for fashion. An amazing design can come from just about anywhere and get shared instantly through Snapchat, Periscope, or Facebook Live.

However, this digital exposure isn’t necessarily a bad thing for fashion houses — even for high-end brands. Lindsay Christinee at LEAFtv explains that social sharing has increased potential audiences from hundreds to thousands — and even millions. Fans of a brand can instantly see an entire collection and determine what they love.

To keep the excitement going, a few brands have started to release their garments to the public immediately after their shows, while fans are still interested in them, instead of waiting to launch a line after the season — and buzz — is over.

Burberry is the quintessential example. Bianca Salonga at ForbesLife explains:

Fashion shows used to tease out a collection, and designers would meet with suppliers afterward to determine what pieces should be manufactured and what quantity was needed. This required a six-month turnaround time.

To pancake that timeline, Burberry has created “season-less” runway shows with a See Now/Buy Now strategy, where customers can buy items in store the next day. Other retailers are already testing this model to capitalize on the buzz of Fashion Week.

Releasing a line requires myriad STEAM skills and expertise. Brands have to engineer processes to increase production based on demand, and use audience sampling and logistics to predict the best items.

All of these pieces work together to create a flawless runway show, followed by a sales bump over the next few days.

Even the Most Elite Fashion Houses Are Embracing Ecommerce

In many ways, the past decade has been an easy time for ecommerce retailers, Rajesh Kumar writes at Entrepreneur India. Setting up an online store creates a new distribution channel and makes it easier to sell apparel. However, if brands hope to grow every year, having an online store will not be enough. They will have to improve their user experiences to compete in an already-saturated market.

One way they can do this is by addressing customer questions and concerns that keep them from buying. Just a few of the questions customers have when shopping online include:

  • What similar items could I find in the store?
  • Will these garments fit me well?
  • What should I wear with these pieces?

We’re already seeing some retailers tapping into virtual dressing rooms and suggestion platforms in order to become digital personal shoppers. In this way, the websites become fashion gurus for their customers.

A couture fashion show

Virtual Reality in Retail

Rachel Arthur at Forbes highlights how virtual reality and augmented reality are already changing how fashion brands approach marketing and design.

Customers will have the option to attend fashion shows, try on clothes to see how they look, and experiment with makeup to test various shades on their skin before they buy. This makes customers better informed before they buy, increasing sales while decreasing returns.

Local Designers and Ecommerce

The ecommerce revolution isn’t limited to major brands. It’s also a crucial tool for local designers who are trying to build their names.

“It’s really about bringing the fashion and tech sectors together and providing opportunities to help young designers get online,” Caroline Rush, CEO of the British Fashion Council, says about succeeding in the business of fashion. “Helping them to do it in the right way, to make sure there’s mentors around them so that it is successful and they’re learning.”

Rush explains that many designers struggle to keep up with technological evolutions. An amateur designer might start selling on Etsy and then have to move where the demand is. Even if they have their own websites, they need to keep up with mobile optimization and site development trends to make it easy for the user.

As amateur designers tap into global markets via the internet, the need for digital experts with fashion industry experience is going to grow. While it’s exciting that a local designer can make an international splash, it also means they’re competing with millions of other designers around the world.

Those who can stay modern and competitive will have the highest odds for success.

Students Need to Know More Than Basic Design Principles

With every element of the design process incorporating technology, many industry experts have called on fashion schools to modernize their curricula while advising students to take business and technology classes, as well.

“The biggest problem as an independent designer is that we’re not taught the basics of running a business in school,” Bob Bland, CEO and founder of Manufacture New York, tells Techpacker. “If you have a fashion degree, apart from learning basic designs, pattern making, draping, you’ve really not learned anything more than how to be a good employee.”

Bland emphasizes the importance of developing management skills while learning about the production side of fashion, like supply chain management and cost estimations.

This is a common thread among designers. Students who have a basic understanding of technology — even those who sketch on iPads and have designed fabric digitally before — will have a leg up when they enter the fashion world.

“Fashion is a unique blend of business, science, art, and technology,” Mark Liu writes at SciTech Connect. “It requires a polymath, a person who can understand all of these skills.”

Liu mentions several examples of the fashion industry embracing STEAM concepts, including:

  • Lululemon’s anti-bacterial nano-whiskers
  • The Nike and Adidas arms race in athletic footwear
  • Supermodel Karlie Kloss’ scholarship Kode With Klossy, which teaches young girls computer programming.

To get a feel for the level of demand in the fashion industry for these skills: More than 60,000 digital and analytical roles will be created in the fashion industry by the year 2020, according to a study by OC&C Strategy Consultants and the Fashion Retail Academy.

If the next generation of designers wants to succeed and stand out in the industry, they need to adapt to the growing use of technology in the field.

Fashion school students discussing a garment

Fashion Schools Are Answering the Calls for Change

Some universities have already changed their curricula to answer this call for STEAM skills in the fashion industry.

The Iowa State University College of Human Sciences is infusing STEAM skills into fashion and encouraging students to experiment with tech such as biosensors and zero-waste garments to elevate how they approach design.

“Everything you put on your body will make a statement, but there’s also a lot that went into it, from the fibers to the cut of the garment,” Sara Marcketti, associate director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, says. “All of these things can be drawn back to STEM.”

Colorado State University is also combining STEAM with fashion, this time as a way to recruit women in the field. The school recently launched its Fashion FUNdamentals STEM enrichment program, which worked with more than 70 middle-school girls through two weeks in June.

“Along the way, the girls learned about textile science, merchandising math, apparel engineering, and created a store layout in Google SketchUp,” Gretchen Gerding reports. “These technical programming activities engaged the girls in hands-on application of STEM concepts to develop solutions to real-world problems in the fashion industry.”

Each of the girls created a garment, while experimenting with various advancements in the tech industry, like 3D body scanners and textile design software.

By ingraining technology and fashion, the next generation of fashion designers can use these skills interchangeably, instead of playing catch-up to meet the needs of the industry. They will be prepared to approach design as a process — from design, to manufacturing, to distribution — which can pave the way to managing a fashion house, not just working in one.

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