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AI: Artificial Innovation for The Apparel Industry?

An article authored by Laura Husband on just-style recently about artificial intelligence (AI) got me thinking about how the technology could affect our industry. She focused on a new study “published in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity, aimed to investigate the practical applicability of AI models to implement creative fashion designs and work with human designers.” My takeaway: the possibilities of AI are immense, but there could be costs.


Let me explain. The apparel industry is no stranger to change. It has coped with social strife, labor unrest, economic calamities, wars, and technological advancement for decades. Today is no different. So much is changing so rapidly -- particularly when it comes to technology. And I'm not just referring to some new manufacturing innovation.



Nothing seems to embody change more than Artificial Intelligence. Yeah, AI codgers up all sorts of feelings -- from fear to awe. For many, AI signals the dawn of a new age where autonomous, conscious machines think independently, solve problems independently, and steadily improve beyond human abilities.


That's the Hollywood version.


In reality, however, AI is a high-powered tool capable of compiling complex data into actionable information. It's more than a Google search but not something approaching consciousness. We're far from having self-aware machines; that's best left to science fiction.


Technological disruption: yesterday, today, and tomorrow


Indeed, as we've seen with all technological innovations over time, some people successfully embrace those innovations -- and some don't. Or can't, as their livelihoods are disrupted. More simply stated: with every technological innovation comes good and bad, costs and benefits.


For instance, with the widespread use of steam-powered weaving looms in the 19th century, many handloom operators lost their jobs as mechanized production required far fewer workers than before. The innovations were worth the cost of new equipment for mill owners, with higher productivity translating into greater profits. But for workers, technological innovation translated into fewer jobs and, as history showed, poorer working conditions.


In contemporary times, we have globalization, where design, procurement, production, distribution, and replenishment all work in a tightly choreographed system called the apparel industry. The system has its problems, but it also has its strengths. But through the churn of the industry, one thing stands out above all others: costs are constantly reduced, while improved efficiency remains the modus operandi.


In the 1980s, clothing companies shed manufacturing, focusing instead on brand building and value-added marketing, and outsourced stuff-making to developing nations. It was a good strategy. Costs were slashed. More products at lower prices could be offered to consumers around the globe. But such efficiencies came at the expense of manufacturing workers in developed countries.


Well, today, we may be at the cusp of a similar pattern of disruption -- only this time, the losers won't be blue-collar workers but the creative class of designers that have been so necessary to our industry. Up until now, that is, as there's an alternative: AI.


AI speaks


Company start-up, OpenAI, has created a beta AI (or chatbot) named ChatGPT. It has garnered extensive media coverage and cautious reactions from academia, government, and tech. ChatGPT challenges users by competently writing blurbs, essays, and other expositions. However, it does make mistakes occasionally. More on this later.


Let's ask ChatGPT what it thinks:


How could AI affect fashion designers?


ChatGPT: "AI can affect fashion designers in a variety of ways. For example, AI algorithms can be used to analyze consumer data and predict future trends, which can help designers create more popular and successful collections. AI can also be used to generate new designs and patterns, which can save designers time and increase their creativity. Additionally, AI can be used to optimize the manufacturing process, which can lead to cost savings and increased efficiency. However, there is also concern that AI could lead to job loss in the fashion industry, as automation could lead to fewer jobs for designers and other fashion industry professionals."


Some of this is insightful, but much of this is also rote. However, AI is programmed to learn as it is exposed to more inputs. It gets better. On the ChatGPT portal, developers explain that usage is through the roof as more people explore the technology's potential. Yet, by doing so, these interactions provide a rich learning environment for the AI to help overcome mistakes and holes in its knowledge base.


For now, though, the tech remains heavy on data it has gleaned off the internet, while it is still a work in progress regarding insight. AI is a disruptive tool as the tech can rapidly compile and synthesize data. For instance, we've all read how chatbots like ChatGPT are already being used by researchers (and students) to write polished essays, tricking unsuspecting professors. So in this sense, it's already good.


For white-collar workers, however, AI represents possible disruptive change. Moreover, in the case of the apparel industry, how would decision-makers respond to this? Well, if there's a way to save a buck, they'll look at it.


That may be a leap until we remember how technology can fundamentally change human activity. Or disrupt it. Indeed, were it not for the humble shipping container, would globalization as we know it could have been scalable? Probably not.


The same may be the case with AI and designers. But, of course, it's not just designers. Such technology could affect the industry overall (if not outright disrupted). Even globalization itself may change due to the widespread adoption of AI.


According to ChatGPT, "AI has the potential to both drive and hinder globalization. On one hand, AI can automate and streamline many processes, making it easier for companies to operate on a global scale and for individuals to communicate and collaborate across borders. On the other hand, AI can also lead to job displacement and increased economic inequality, which could exacerbate social and political tensions and slow the pace of globalization. It can also change the way countries interact with one another and could lead to new forms of competition or even conflict. Overall, the impact of AI on globalization will depend on how it is implemented and regulated."


So, we have change staring us in the face, disruption to make us uneasy, and potentially more significant stress in the world. We work in an industry preoccupied with costs. Ultimately, it's a low-margin, commoditized business. After walking a trade show, a friend recently commented that all displayed products were identical. It didn't matter where they were made, or which company made them. Nothing was unique, nothing innovative. It was stall after stall of the same stuff. Nothing more than commodities on hangers.


Which begs the question: Maybe the industry can't afford true innovation? Perhaps creative design isn't all that important in a world of mass-produced clothing. Gosh, that's something to think about.


What's more, will the industry take the opportunity to call in AI to squeeze that much more out of the business for extra few cents of margin? It's hard to rule out. The race to the bottom has stripped innovation out of the industry. Will the next step be to cannibalize its creatives? As it's often said: no one is indispensable.


A few decades ago, production workers in the developed world were sacrificed as a cost of innovation as the industry globalized. Tomorrow, it could be the industry's creatives — offered up in the name of technological innovation. And cost-cutting.


But widespread use of AI will pose challenges for other occupations, too. Take hacks like me.


Says ChatGPT: "AI has the potential to affect writers in several ways. On one hand, AI-powered automation can lead to faster writing cycles and more efficient use of resources for certain types of writing, such as content generation, news writing, and even book writing. On the other hand, AI-powered automation may lead to job displacement of some writers. Additionally, AI can be used to generate personalized content based on the reader's preferences, which could change the way writing is produced and consumed. AI can also be used to analyze data on reader preferences and engagement to help writers make more informed decisions about their writing and marketing strategies. However, AI may also raise questions about creativity, authorship, and the nature of writing itself."


Whoa. Another example of creativity under assault? Not yet. But if the technology can already fool college professors, then maybe I should be wary. After all, who needs a professional writer if a technological solution can replace him?


But there is one small consolation: technologies like ChatGPT are still in their infancy. It will take time for AI to mature enough to make a difference -- let alone disrupt an industry. So, for now, I'll stick to the typewriter, and fashion designers should keep creating. Yet, we should acknowledge that a technological revolution is headed our way.


Originally published February 2, 2023 on just-style.com.

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