Fashion Forward: How the promise of A.I. will disrupt the apparel industry

Picture this. You receive a calendar notification on your phone. It’s that networking event you RSVP’d to a few months back. Crap, it’s next week, you think to yourself. You had envisioned shaking hands with your future contacts while wearing a sharp blazer and a fresh pair of slacks and your old standby ensemble, which was beginning to show wear three events ago, isn’t exactly projecting the magnetism you need to emanate at this function.

You’d stumbled upon a blurb about the opening of an artificial intelligence (A.I.) retail store while scrolling through LinkedIn a while back, and vaguely considered making the trip out to the mall on the other side of town to see it. Two birds, one stone – a new outfit and a good anecdote for the convention, you think to yourself. Upon arriving at the mall, you enter the store with the a unique QR code Alibaba’s Taobao app has generated.

The glass-walled store is intimidating in its simplicity and its meticulous, sparse layout. You spot a dress shirt that looks tasteful, pick it up by the hanger and approach a nearby mirror to examine it. Holding the shirt in front of your body, the A.I.-enabled “magic mirror” registers the item and proceeds to help you complete the outfit with suggested pairings. An attendant meets you at the fitting room with the outfit. What a time to be alive, you think. If only this kind of automation could be applied on a grander scale…

This is the future of logistics that Alibaba envisions. In partnership with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the e-tail juggernaut premiered its first A.I.-enabled store in Hong Kong, where it opened its doors this past July. Companies like Alibaba are leading what some are referring to as the fourth wave of the industrial revolution – the merging of the physical, digital and biological spheres encompassing A.I., robotics and the internet of things (IoT).

Some argue that A.I. is just another example of a flashy innovation-for-the-sake-of-innovation concept that is more trouble than it’s worth, but its true value lies below the surface of its obvious initial appeal. In retracing the threads of fast fashion’s intricate supply chain from high-tech store shelves back to its distant origins, increasingly intelligent systems are already favoring airfreight.

Steen Christensen, president and CEO of Germany-based 3PL Hellmann Logistics, is experiencing this shift toward demand for airfreight in needs from clients. “It has to do with the requirement of the customer. Within fast-fashion, there is now a tendency to lean more toward airfreight,” he said, adding that “on a shipment-by-shipment basis, at Hellmann, we’re almost a 50/50 level,” referring to the ratio of airfreight versus seafreight booked by fast-fashion clients.

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