Fashion in the Digital Age

The future of fashion is sustainable and AI-driven

Author: Mathias Ullrich, Managing Director LIGANOVA

Fashion has come to a turning point – in business and in perception. From sustainability concerns and inclusion challenges right to the interchangeability of most brands today, the business of fashion retail needs a big overhaul. But what could that look like?


The business of fashion is big – a whooping 1.53 trillion U.S. dollars turnover in 2022 worldwide. But the cost for the shiny world of endless possibilities and styles is high:
Fast fashion demands huge volumes of production that might end up in land-fills. “Fashion and its supply chain is the third largest polluting industry, after food and construction. It emitted 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, releasing 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, more than the shipping and the aviation industry combined.” ( 2022) Not only our planet and people in other countries are suffering; our fast fashion consumerism is hurting us all. In fact, there is already enough clothing available today to dress the next 6 generations. Still, new collections are churned out on a monthly basis.

Inclusivity and diversity also have been long absent from the fashion business and progress is very slow. First, models and representatives of color, then plus-sized and older role models were sparingly included in campaigns and targeting. Inclusion now needs to focus on including everybody on a representative scale – BIPOC, people with disabilities, non-binary and all other minorities that have been absent from the public fashion discourse for so long. Trailblazers like Victoria Jenkins aim to change the perception and the portrayal of people with disabilities and their inclusion into the fashion discussion, this must also be considered in all steps of the fashion retail process – from design right to the storefront.

Just as much as new consumers want to see a more diverse representation, they also demand a more diversified brand representation and multi-level brand experiences that goes beyond a cookie-cutter look & feel. Highstreets in most cities are just as interchangeable as are most fashion shops on these very streets. Websites and online shops are streamlined with maximum user experience and ease of use in mind. Most fashion brands and fashion retailers have lost their emotional spark, their core values and their close connection with their original target groups in the search of more turnover and return. This strategy starts to backfire with inner cities becoming more deserted than ever, high street retailers and brands closing down and a seemingly endless line of bankruptcy declarations taking a hold of the headlines in fashion news.


At the core of this discussion should be sustainability in all its facettes – from ethical management to transparent supply chains, from renewable and circular store materials to inclusive access and products. More than for any other industry, it is important for the fashion industry to be able to respond to these pressing needs of the markets. But most importantly, in order to have a sustainable brand footprint, brands need to focus on their core values, their Sinek-ian “Why”. In times of interchangeability, it is more important than ever to be clear on what a brand stands for, what truly differentiates it from its competitors and who really is the target audience. The old marketing adage “If you are talking to everybody, you are talking to nobody” has never been truer than right now. Brands without a clear differentiation from the competition will get obsolete in the mid to long run.

And that is a good thing!

Fashion brands and retailers have to seize the opportunity that emerges from this difficult situation and re-define what they stand for and where they see themselves in the future. Being crystal-clear on their core values and who they are serving opens up a world of new possibilities and long-term success. Content, campaigns and media formats have the opportunity to become laser-focused and create a loyal customer base and community.

AI to open up new avenues for product optimization

AI might help with this promise by providing efficient ways to design, manufacture and market products that are a perfect match for its client base. A human-machine symbiosis in which AI takes on the role of software that thrives on the creative skills of designers, but does not replace them is the envisioned scenario. Products then are not only based on creative ideas, but the generative summary of information of the clients. Customization at scale would be just as much a possibility as individually tailored ways to return and reuse products. Also, the designing and running of stores could be optimized with the help of AI, thus eliminating inefficiencies that cost time, money and valuable resources. But the store, today, is more than just a sales channel in need of optimization.

How to stage and connect for the future

Apart from the need to rethink supply chains, management and production standards, there are three major developments that will help fashion brands tackle the challenges of sustainability and interchangeability in their retail business.

First, retail and urban spaces are less about sales these days. Online stores have perfected the process of easy and comfortable shopping. The need for millions of pieces of clothing distributed to shops has diminished as stores have become the primary estate for immersive brand experiences. Clients come to shops to experience what the brand is all about, meet a like-minded community and get educated in workshops and talks that help create a branded world. These programmatic brand stores will become the norm and help brands to differentiate themselves, create a distinguishable brand identity, to connect with their perfect customers and build long-term loyalty.

(if Examples are required: Nike, Odeonsplatz )

Second, fast retail with visual merchandising being built up, torn down and thrown out on a monthly basis is slowly getting replaced. Being “on brand”, yet sustainable is no longer a dichotomy – it will soon become the new norm. Customers are more likely to buy from a brand that is acting responsibly, communicates its efforts diligently and can back it with tracking important KPIs. As stores need brand- and community updates, visual merchandisers and agencies should be aware of this new and important pillar of sustainable retail and implement it step by step.

Third, the Metaverse as well as digital fashion are still very much a thing. Big fashion and lifestyle brands have already invested money in this new medium that is still very much a playground for which the rules and boundaries have not been set. Yet, the opportunities are vast for fashion businesses. Digital fashion allows for brands to have their styles tried on by customers without actually producing them. Accurate analytics in the backend can provide the data that will allow to decide which styles to produce in which volume – thus reducing over-production. Digital fashion also allows influencers, creators and users to use different styles within digital communication without actually needing to buy and later dispose of or resell them. The most amazing part of digital fashion and the Metaverse is the possibility of brand experience as the digital world does not adhere to the physical laws of our world. Brand worlds can be different and really bring a core identity to the surface that is more engaging and more on point than is possible in the real world. The possibilities of integrating community and ecommerce features as well as infotainment connects the physical brand stores and communities to the digital and, therefore, mobile brand worlds become endless. This is just the beginning and brands need to see the whole picture of where and how their consumers will be able to experience the brand.

Fashion retail is at a turning point to respond to the needs of a new generation of customers, and a new generation of technology. It is a great opportunity to make an impact and set the sails for success.

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