Endless products and robots that make you want to buy them: How AI is changing fashion

Every year, the most influential managers, activists and gurus in the fashion industry come to the BoF VOICES forum. This year, they gathered in a private complex in the United Kingdom, where they discussed how AI is transforming consumption, advertising, creative processes and the role of the designer

Inteligencia Artificial
Anca Marola, data director of the LVMH group. during her presentation at the 2023 BoF VOICES forum.Samir Hussein (Getty Images for BoF)

During a meal, when he’s asked about how he sees the fashion industry unfolding in 2024, Imran Amed makes the gesture of a rubber band that is stretched too far. “There are too many risk factors. The wars in Israel and Ukraine, the challenge of artificial intelligence (AI), the recession, sustainability and the climate crisis... the market has grown quickly after the pandemic, but I believe that the rope is tightening. At some point, it could break,” he shrugs.

His tablemates nod along. They’re seated in one of the restaurants at Soho Farmhouse, a kind of small, private village that the exclusive hotel chain has in the Cotswolds region of the United Kingdom. For three days, just over 150 guests are listening to around 20 conferences, with about 6,000 registered people watching online. In their free time, the guests will dine, eat and have drinks in different rooms, networking and discussing various issues.

Amed created BoF VOICES in 2016 as a complement to his digital newspaper, The Business of Fashion. Today, it’s recognized as the reference publication for many professionals in the fashion sector. In these seven years, his “big thinkers” program – as he calls his guests – has been growing, along with his sponsors. “It’s my favorite time of the year,” he emphasizes. “And more and more interesting people are joining.”

On stage, Leena Nair – the CEO of Chanel – gives her first public interview. Other speakers include Richard Dickson, the new CEO of GAP and architect of the resurrection of Barbie at Mattel; John C. Jay, creative director at UNIQLO; designers Jonathan Anderson, Diane von Fürstenberg and Matthieu Blazy; the artists Billy Porter and Rita Ora, as well as the co-founder of Airbnb, Joe Gebbia. Then, there are others who are less well-known, but equally powerful in the cultural world: the Syrian documentary filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab, climate activists Vidhura Ralapanawe (India) and Sammy Oteng (Ghana), Anca Marola – the data director at the luxury conglomerate LVMH – and Sammy Basso, a young scientist who is fighting to stop progeria, the degenerative disease he suffers from.

This select audience – made up of communications directors from luxury brands, consultants, headhunters, owners of textile companies from different continents, CEOs and young start-up leaders – is what Amed and his team call “community.” In fact, the most repeated question to break the ice during leisure time is: “This your first time here?” Many faithfully attend the event year after year and already know each other, while others – the minority – walk through the spaces of the Soho Farmhouse in a state of shyness and amazement.

Imran Amed, director and founder of the BoF (the Business of Fashion), during his presentation at BoF VOICES 2023.
Imran Amed, director and founder of the BoF (the Business of Fashion), during his presentation at BoF VOICES 2023. John Phillips (Getty Images for BoF)

In this kind of Bilderberg fashion club, two phrases are frequently repeated during the first casual encounters: “This isn’t fashionable” and “Fashion is connected to everything that happens in the world” – two ideas that are actually related. The agents beyond the sector are the ones who know how to predict what’s going to happen in the near future. Hence, over the three days of the forum, in which resilience, creativity, sustainable solutions and the social economy are discussed, the ears of the attendees perk up whenever AI is mentioned. This tool — as cumbersome as it is effective — has already changed the world as we know it. The fashion industry is no different: in a sector that employs hundreds of thousands of workers while trying to bolster the desire for consumption among the largest number of people possible, AI is as necessary as it is controversial.

These are, according to several experts, some of the dynamics that have already changed forever, although most of us still don’t know it yet.

The 30% rule

It’s estimated that AI can result in a 30% increase in sales, as well as increased efficiency. Every product will be one-third easier to create and one-third easier to sell. “So far, we’re clear about the data and preferences of our main clients, but thanks to generative artificial intelligence (the one that creates its own content from the information entered by the user), we’ll know how to give each client what they want,” explains Anca Marola, the data director at LVMH, the world’s largest luxury conglomerate. Thanks to AI, prototypes are created in a matter of minutes. With greater precision than humans, estimates are made regarding how many units of each product are needed, while said units are distributed more efficiently. This is because everything “can be produced by predicting what each retail outlet needs,” Marola notes. She also adds that according to a study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co, the business of generative AI represents totals gains of $3 trillion for the companies that are implementing it.

Anca Marola, data director of the LVMH group, during her presentation.
Anca Marola, data director of the LVMH group, during her presentation.John Phillips (Getty Images for BoF)

“We’ve gone from an algorithmic model in which, based on data, we selected what to show the user, to a generative model in which customized content is created for the user,” affirms Mariam Chahin, the global director of Microsoft. To illustrate this, Rachel Higham from WPP, the world’s largest advertising company, shows a video of Jennifer Lopez congratulating an individual on their anniversary and inviting them on a cruise. Personalization – in this case, through voice generation – will change advertising forever. Another example – also created by WPP – shows an advertisement for Nestlé yogurt in which, through a selection of images, the machine is able to expand Vermeer’s famous painting The Milkmaid to show what isn’t seen in the work (the Nestlé brand).

Marola is clear that one of the main achievements of AI is the ability to surpass conventional advertising. She emphasizes how important it is to know “which specific [type of media] it’s best to invest money in.” The data director of LVHM, the French conglomerate that owns brands such as Dior, Celine and Givenchy, says that “with certain [AI] programs, it’s easy to know which audiences will consider you and which ones won’t, regardless of the volume of [advertising] in question.”

The end of the designer?

Matthieu Blazy, the artistic director of Bottega Veneta and one of the most acclaimed creatives at work today, used his time at BoF to explain that some of his incredible fabrics (always handmade) “couldn’t be carried out without the help of technology, which determines what is possible materially and what is not.” The intersection between creativity and AI, according to Mariam Chahi, lies in the almost-unlimited capacity for imagination. In fact, the global director of Microsoft showed a graph during her presentation at the forum, which points out how certain tasks such as marketing strategies and creativity require high empathy capacities “and, therefore, cannot be replaced by machines.” However, AI does manage to take care of the “tedious” tasks of collecting information or writing market research reports. “Thanks to artificial intelligence, I’ll have more time; I’ll be a better friend, a better partner and a better mother,” she vowed in her speech.

To reinforce the hypothesis that real creativity is authentically human and AI is a mere tool to develop it, the Argentine artist Andrés Reisinger used the 2023 BoF VOICES forum to explain his work process. The color pink is the common threat in all of his production, which ranges from the creation of furniture to the decoration of facades. He explained that, through AI, “the creation of prototypes is greatly simplified. The tedious process of knowing which ideas are [viable] and which are not is streamlined.”

Matthieu Blazy, artistic director of the Bottega Veneta brand.
Matthieu Blazy, artistic director of the Bottega Veneta brand.John Phillips (Getty Images for BoF)

However, as a result of AI, this tedious process is now in danger, a process that, until recently, was part of the results of the fashion industry (especially in certain luxurious lines). During his presentation, Blazy spoke about the beauty of the mistake “that makes each garment unique, knowing that there has been a hand behind it.” Anca Marola, meanwhile, showed off her Peekaboo bag by Fendi (a brand owned by the LVMH group): it’s part of a limited edition printed design. “To produce it, 130 pieces [of material were] needed. What used to take two weeks now takes us minutes,” she said.

When asked if these new methods would wipe out part of the workforce in the luxury industry, she replied: “We all have a workload. [AI] is simply taking away part of that burden, eliminating what’s most tedious.” There was no mention, however, of the fact that AI at the service of fashion gives the public what it wants at a much faster speed than the current one. Where’s the novelty in a world tailored to the consumer, without the personality of the designer?

Brands know everything

Firms not only know the personal data and preferences of each client. They also know, above all, what we think of them. A year ago, the firm Quilt.AI – in collaboration with the BoF – began working on reports about “brand magic.” This involved measuring the perception that a brand has of itself against the public’s perception of it. “The magic happens when they coincide,” experts from the consulting firm affirm, citing Coca-Cola as an example of the balance between what is communicated and what is sought. AI now makes it possible to collect thousands of comments on social media and websites about a specific brand and compare them, in seconds, with the content communicated by that same brand. This year, Miu Miu, Armani and Boss occupy the podium of those best aligned with their audiences. Once again, it’s about giving the public what it wants…. even if the public itself doesn’t know what it wants.

Making the world a better place

Artificial intelligence can also have a huge positive social impact. Manu Chopra, a young Indian engineer and entrepreneur, has embraced this approach. He is responsible for initiatives such as Project Janta, which identifies areas of extreme poverty in India and offers its inhabitants (mainly women) a way of making an income: by feeding data into various AI programs, which are used for other projects related to environmental sustainability. They do it as a job on the side and earn more than 10 times India’s minimum wage, which is the equivalent of $65 monthly. “The caste system means that it takes the equivalent of three generations for a person to [climb the socio-economic ladder]. This type of [data-entry] work makes them achieve it in a decade or less.”

Tech guru Aza Raskin in his BOF VOICES 2023 talk.
Tech guru Aza Raskin in his BOF VOICES 2023 talk.Samir Hussein (Getty Images for BoF)

Aza Raskin invented the infinite scroll that we all use today. He later regretted that and illustrated it in The Social Dilemma (2020), a documentary that explicitly shows how the dictatorship of the algorithm has changed our way of relating and has harmed our mental health. Today, he’s in charge of the Earth Species Project, which uses AI to decode certain communication mechanisms in animals. He’s also part of the Center for Humane Technology, which advocates for fair and mature use of technology. He knows better than anyone the damage that can result from the uncontrolled spread of AI tools. “The world has already changed, there’s no turning back. These tools have developed faster than expected,” he admits. The learning and generative content model means that “today, many [experts] don’t know what certain programs are capable of and, even worse, they don’t know what [negative] influence they can have in the hands of a certain group.”

Raskin offers an example by creating a fictitious friend — a tech journalist — and launching a hoax about her. It takes just a few minutes with tweets, fake news and various computer programs for a hypothetical audience to end up turning on her, convinced that she’s taken a bribe. It’s that easy. “The only thing that can be done about this is to ask those responsible for these tools to use and distribute them responsibly.” Achieving this, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult.

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