How we can leverage fashion tech to drive sustainability

Jessie Imakoji

Jessie Imakoji

Co-founder and CFO at Girlsourced

Summary: At the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore-based start-up Girlsourced Tech launched its mobile app that offers on-demand professional styling services for ladies and a fashion community platform for crowdsourcing style votes. It is first in the region to do so, after spotting a gap in the market. Personalisation of style advice can help fashion consumers reform their shopping patterns to buy only what suits them best and what they really need. By leveraging on technology and digitising bespoke personal styling on a remote platform, the future of personal styling will not only be free to operate anytime and anywhere in the world, but also doing its part in the value chain of fashion sustainability.


Sustainability of Sustainable Fashion

In the last decade of fashion business, the demise of brick and mortar retail stores phased out brands which did not evolve with changing times. Retail demise has taken a new meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zara-owner Inditex SA just announced the permanent closure of as many as 1,200 stores — and will pivot more aggressively toward selling online (WSJ, Jun 2020). This took place shortly after popular lingerie brand Victoria Secrets announced its permanent closure of 250 stores across the US and Canada due to dire sales losses of 46% (Forbes, May 2020). Having online presence was insufficient in keeping these brands from taking the hit. Whilst loyal customers grief with struggling brands during these hard times, fashion sustainability advocates might celebrate this as a rite of passage to a true circular economy.

Yet the sustainability of sustainable fashion is a conundrum to solve. Brands that responded to the increasing market demand for a more circular fashion economy are now curtailing sustainability projects to keep above the red amidst the health pandemic (Business of Fashion, May 2020). What can be done, then, to ensure the sustainability of sustainable fashion?

The answer lies not just in textile and apparels production but also in what is done with the existing clothes produced and sold in excess that eventually end up in the landfills. Industry value chain sustainability per se does not make fashion consumers sustainable. What brands might be blind-sighted to see is that sustainability is a lifestyle, not a product. Lifestyle habits and behavioural patterns need more inculcation for lasting change than a quick fix through purchasing sustainably manufactured products.

Reports show that 72% of all returns in fashion were due to poor buying decisions; 73% of consumers threw unfitting clothes away while 25% threw away more than 10 items. These demonstrate unsustainable shopping patterns. Moreover, rising return rates hurt retailers’ profitability. Shopify reported that in 2018, the amount of unwanted purchases returned was worth US$369 billion. Information is required to educate consumers on how to change their online fashion consumption patterns to effect lasting impact on the future of fashion sustainability. A large part of sustainability in fashion can be initiated by consumers themselves not just through purist ideals of buying only from sustainable clothing manufacturers but also by not buying items that do not suit them in the first place.


The Lack of Online Personalised Style Advice is a Problem

In our modern age of information overload, existing solutions for fashion styling are fragmented, sales-focused and not personalised to meet the individual consumer’s needs. Passive methods of getting online fashion style inspirations through social media, magazines, lookbooks etc. are mostly free but are not customised and are time consuming to browse. “Free” styling services by retailers usually require purchase or subscription. The trend of following fashion influencers is growing exponentially but is not anywhere near promoting the concept of personalisation; quite the contrary.

Conventional personal styling services come with high service fees (ranging on average from S$200- S$2000), marginalising consumers who cannot afford them. Furthermore, most of these services require physical presence, hardly possible during the current and post- health pandemic. Yet the access to quality information that can determine well-informed buying decisions is the key to personalising items to the individual customer. Personalisation of style advice can help fashion consumers reform their shopping patterns to buy only what suits them best and what they really need.


On-demand Personal Styling for Personalisation

At the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, we launched the Girlsourced mobile app to offer on-demand styling services for ladies and a fashion community platform for crowdsourcing style votes. The app is the first of its kind in the region, aimed at filling a gap in the market. The Girlsourced app allows the consumer to style from both her wardrobe and retailers, encouraging the mindset of sustainability — buying only what you need.

Existing fashion styling apps are predominantly based in the United States, such as Stitch-Fix, a US-based fashion technology company that IPOed in 2017. The success of Stitch Fix has demonstrated the viability and demand for online personal styling services, a call to the digital transformation of fashion.

Enter the new breed of personal stylists ready to go beyond conventional ways of servicing customers, and who embrace connecting with consumers across geographical boundaries digitally. Girlsourced stylists are from Asia Pacific and Europe and have each gone through a strict selection process before being onboarded as the pioneer batch of on-demand personal stylists. These fashion experts are assisted further by Girlsourced technology which matches their specialisations to each unique customer profile. This model aligns with Capgemini’s view on digital clienteling, “Being able to identify what customers are looking for and the digitisation of customer experience driven by advanced analytics and AI will be the key area of opportunity for retailers.”

The solution is in the service. Clothing wastage can be significantly reduced by styling items from existing wardrobes and making conscious choices for new purchases after decluttering.


COVID-19 Resilient Businesses

Businesses that are able to digitise and automate their operations see a significant resilience to the pandemic. WWD observed the following:

  • The digital channel was largely left unscathed and operational during the pandemic — a lifeline for fashion companies e.g. virtual showrooms and widened online sales bandwidth.
  • Hybrid fashion and tech startups with low expenditure on physical assets have the advantage of leveraging on AI and AR to scale digital operations.
  • Brands that invested in areas to increase client knowledge and consumer understanding reaped the benefits during retail lockdown.

Today’s technology offers us infinite opportunities to find solutions and shape the future especially during such economic situations. By leveraging on technology and digitising bespoke personal styling on a remote platform, the future of personal styling will not only be free to operate anytime and anywhere in the world, but also doing its part in the value chain of fashion sustainability.

The Girlsourced App is available for download in over 80 countries on the Apple and Google Play stores.


References

1. Chaudhuri, S. 2020, ‘Zara Owner to Close 1,200 Stores as It Outlines Post-Coronavirus Future’, The Wall Street Journal, 10 June, accessed 12 June 2020,<https://www.wsj.com/articles/zara-to-close-1-200-stores-as-it-outlines-post-coronavirus-future-11591794618>

2. Sandler, R. 2020, ‘Victoria’s Secret To Close 250 U.S. And Canadian Stores As Sales Plummet Due To The Coronavirus’, Forbes, 20 May, accessed 12 June 2020,<https://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelsandler/2020/05/20/victorias-secret-to-close-250-us-and-canadian-stores-as-sales-plummet-due-to-the-coronavirus/#4a4127532d08>

3. Kent, S. 2020, ‘Fashion’s Sustainability Goals Threatened By the Crisis’, Business of Fashion, 7 May, accessed 10 June 2020,< https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/professional/can-fashions-sustainability-drive-survive-the-covid-19-crisis>

4. Lieber, C. 2019, ‘Customers Love Free Returns. Here’s How Brands Are Navigating the Costs’, Business of Fashion, 31 May, accessed 10 June 2020,<https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/professional/customers-love-free-returns-heres-how-brands-are-navigating-the-costs>

5. Bee Khim, K. 2019, ‘Uniqlo is cutting water usage by 99% so your jeans don’t kill the planet’, CNA Lifestyle, 06 Sep, accessed 10 June 2020 <https://cnalifestyle.channelnewsasia.com/style/how-are-vintage-jeans-made-uniqlo-11836724>

6. Orendorff, A. 2019, ‘The Plague of Ecommerce Return Rates and How to Maintain Profitability’, Shopify, 27 Feb, accessed 10 June 2020 <https://www.shopify.com/enterprise/ecommerce-returns>

7. Socha,M. 2020, ‘Tipping Point: Will Fashion Finally Complete Its Digital Transformation?’, WWD, 28 May, accessed 10 June 2020, <https://wwd.com/business-news/technology/fashion-must-complete-its-digital-transformation-1203633908/>

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