How AI has Become the New September in Fashion

Fashion used to change every September, but artificial intelligence is helping the industry slip into something a little longer-lasting

are but a bobbin’s throw from September. Anyone who’s ever seen R.J. Cutler’s fascinating behind-the-scenes look at American Vogue, The September Issue, will understand that “September is the January in fashion.” Thanks to the couture bible’s Candy Pratts Price, we now know this is the month — and issue of the magazine — that heralds a glossy annual reset for the multi-billion pound industry:

“This is when I change, this is when I’m going to try and get back into high heels, ‘cos that’s the look,” the striking fashion editor tells us.

But who will help Candy and her renowned Editor-in-Chief, the frosty, shades-wearing Anna Wintour, pick those heels in time for autumn? And all their other garments too, for that matter. Actually, these days, it’s less who and more what will help these women and their fashion-hungry disciples make the right clothing choices. The industry is currently undergoing a greater rejuvenation than it sees at the end of each summer, increasingly leaning on artificial intelligence to overhaul its entire look and vibe.

It’s out with the old and in with the new as AI not only assists consumers to follow the latest trends and sidestep those nasty fashion blunders, but also improves the way this fast-growing and dynamic industry does…well, pretty much everything: how designers create their pieces in the first place, how manufacturers bring those pieces to life, how brands and retailers sell them to shoppers, and much more.

Fashion companies started adopting artificial intelligence long before the pandemic, but according to Google’s 2020 Transforming Specialty Retail with AI whitepaper, Covid-19 considerably accelerated the process. No surprise there. Its effects have forced fashion companies to make reams of difficult but crucial operational decisions, just one of which is tapping into the significant potential of new tools and technologies.

This is happening especially in a number of key areas across a few parts of the value chain, including inventory optimisation, demand planning, and personalised promotions. The Google report says these application areas could drive upwards of a not-to-be-sniffed-at £165 billion in value. Wow!

In a Forbes article earlier this year, artificial intelligence guru Bernard Marr looked at a few different ways businesses are embracing AI-based technologies to “push the limits of design, manufacturing, and production.” The biggest uses transforming the fashion industry right now, he says, are:

  • Trend forecasting — this is a previously labour-intensive process involving the prediction of what customers will want to wear in the future.
  • Digital models — these showcase existing and forthcoming collections, which was particularly useful recently when fashion shows were prohibited.
  • Sustainable & eco-friendly fashion — AI is helping the industry to minimise waste and reduce its carbon footprint in various ways.

In particular, I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz around virtual fitting rooms, where consumers can try on garments without having to swap their cosy loungewear for something more respectable for a physical store visit. These virtual spaces are a bit like those decorating sites where you can digitally test paint colours before buying, or even those hair sites where you can digitally trial new styles before heading out for the chop — only they’re infinitely more advanced.

The question is, are virtual fitting rooms here to stay? We’ll likely see other applications of AI stick around for the long term because they increase efficiency and reduce costs among other benefits. But as people start returning to the high street in droves, will they continue enjoying shopping methods that don’t involve peeling themselves off the sofa — methods that will never really measure up to actually trying on clothes in a real fitting room? We shall see, I’m sure.

Whatever the prospects for virtual fitting rooms and other AI-based shopping tools, it’s clear that absolutely anyone who’s anyone in fashion sees AI as the latest must-have accessory, helping them strut down the runway more like Prada than Primark.

But not everyone…yet. Before they wind up last season’s clearance-bin wares in “some tragic casual corner” (points if you get the Devil Wears Prada ‘cerulean’ reference), these sceptics need to realise that AI is to be welcomed with open arms and not feared — unlike the formidable Anna Wintour and her terrifying movie likeness Miranda Priestly.

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position.