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The new tech-led jobs transforming the fashion industry

By Jackie Mallon


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Credits: Alicia Reyes Sarmiento // FashionUnited. This image was created using an artificial intelligence tool.

Jobs in fashion don’t look like they used to. And fashion professionals no longer follow traditional paths to enter the industry. With last year being the breakout year for generative AI, 2024 will see its accelerated and widespread use within our future-driven industry impacting the workforce in unforeseen ways. It’s an exciting time for those looking to forge a career in fashion who had previously felt excluded from the field. On the flip side, the potential of the rapidly evolving technology casts a shadow over young professionals or graduates from a more traditional fashion background who worry AI might push them out.

According to the Business of Fashion State of Fashion report, 73 percent of fashion executives said generative AI will be a priority for their businesses in 2024, while the NRF reports that AI is top of mind for venture capitalists in 2024. Equity funding for generative AI-focused start-ups skyrocketed in 2023, reaching 14.1 billion dollars in the first half alone. The BoF report predicts a quarter of generative AI use will be in design and product development. One of the newest experts in the field is Nikki Salami, co-founder of startup VopplAR who is preparing for a launch in the coming months.

Generative AI researcher

“I come from a technology background, but I think in fashion or any form of art you still need the creative person,” Salami tells FashionUnited. “I have a background in technical engineering, did a lot of 3D printing for my thesis, and from there learned 3D modeling, while my co-founder who is a graphic designer was into sustainability. We wanted to do something practical and thought it would make sense with our combined expertise to focus on fashion, and that's how this company started. We liked fashion as a form of self expression and we loved the technology.”

Nikki Salami, co-founder of VopplAR Credits: Courtesy photo.

By working with machine learning algorithms, VopplAR offers clients myriad design solutions based on their brand aesthetics and commercial needs at speed while reducing the cost and waste previously associated with sampling. Offerings include virtual try on, designing multiple colorways, 3D rendering. With a handbag brand, for example, VopplAR’s services involve changing out handles, details and hardware, materials and color, then placing the product in a photoshoot setting.

Currently in the bootstrapping phase the young company has a wait list but is working with small and medium sized companies to understand how to best serve them and implementing feedback into the business before a private beta release in the coming months followed by a full launch.

At one of these companies Salami’s point person wasn’t a designer by trade but had a head designer reporting to her. Communication between the two colleagues had previously been problematic but, says Salami, when the client was able to give her designer VopplAR’s AI-generated sketch to work with, it facilitated a new understanding between them. Meanwhile a sustainable shoe brand, unsure about making a style in a different color for fear it would be expensive, wouldn’t sell and would be wasteful of resources, successfully used VopplAR’s services to create a test advertisement featuring the shoe prior to manufacturing, to gauge if the customers would click to buy.

Many of the professionals Salami works with didn't go to school for design, but they have what she identifies as a creative mind. The creative side of VopplAR relies on on her co-founder’s graphic design foundation and Salami forecasts her first post-launch hires will come from the tech field, but as the company grows she hopes to look to the design world for talent. “You really need to know how the fashion industry works and how the designers think, what elements they want and how their mind works.”

Salami acknowledges that money, interest and talent is flooding the sector. There are more startups in fashion than ever and not all of them will succeed “Sometimes the hype hurts,” she says, and cautions customers against the belief that AI can do absolutely everything, from beginning to end, instantly. While she notices increased curiosity around the technology, there is still some hesitancy to adopt by some in the fashion industry. “You shouldn't be afraid of it, but embrace it, because it's here and it's only evolving and really quickly,” she says. “I don't think it will replace the design process, nor eliminate the designer. It's just a tool that the designer can use as part of their workflow to design better, faster, more efficiently.”

Credits: Alicia Reyes Sarmiento // FashionUnited. This image was created using an artificial intelligence tool.

Creative Technologist

There are two types of professionals who work in this rapidly transforming field, one focused on enhanced customer experience, the other on brand engagement. Brands looking to propel themselves ahead of the competition seek the skills of a creative technologist to enliven every environment from the shop floor to the New York Fashion Week runway.

David Polinchock of Brand Experience Lab describes his company as “a playground for emerging technologies,” and its HQ in Jersey City is designed for exploring augmented reality and the Metaverse. The technology is transportable and can be installed in stores, pop-ups and event spaces anywhere. He invites clients there to experiment and understand how the technology can serve them: “Are you doing something because you want media attention, or are you doing something because you need to generate actual revenue directly from it. Those are two different set of goals.” Brand Experience Lab has worked with high end beauty brands but believes 2024 will be the year for fashion brands.

David Polinchock of Brand Experience Lab. Credits: Courtesy photo.

“I have always been in New Tech, and started doing virtual reality and what we used to call cyberspace before Meta co-opted the word and called it metaverse,” Polinchock tells us. “I spent most of the 90s literally traveling around the world with heavy VR gear in trucks because that was the way to do it.” Brand Experience Lab launched during the pandemic just as, he says, “All the stuff we'd been talking about for 20 years that retailers needed to do but would never do, they suddenly found they had to in order to survive, such as BOPUS which is buy online, pick up in store.” Brand Experience Lab provides in-store solutions to make the customer experience as frictionless as possible, eliminating barriers to purchase, particularly in unattended retail technology and cashierless stores. One area of fashion tech that Polinchock is watching with increasing interest is that of digital twinning which he considers critical for brands to engage with the younger generation. “If you were to say to anybody five years ago you can make a lot of money selling something that doesn't exist, that people who aren't real will wear in a place that's not real, they would have laughed. But there we are!””

Creative Technologist for retailtainment

The second Creative Technologist role deals more with brands interested in engaging an audience differently, whether an existing customer base or appealing to a new, potentially younger demographic. Brands like Coach and Timberland have embraced these kind of media “retailtainment” events featuring augmented reality activations and experiential installations through large-scale immersive content which marry technology, art and design.

Lightbox is a midtown Manhattan space with 360 degree projection technology built into the rigging that allows brands the opportunity to customize the walls with shifting imagery in tandem with providing space for analog experiences such as showcasing product. The space hosted an immersive dinner to celebrate the collaboration between designer LaQuan Smith and CashApp, an event representing what Charlie Meshchaninov, Head of Enterprise Sales at Lightbox, describes as one of their most popular and unique offerings. “We run a table down the center of the main box, which is where the projection is, and we will map content to the wall that's theme-specific, client-generated, product-related,” says Meshchaninov. “We have a kitchen onsite and our own in-house chef to create a menu using ingredients that are reflective of the content, themed cocktails, and we design an aesthetic, we'll layer in smell or other herbal essences, develop atmospheric lights and sound via our AV systems. The result becomes this kind of full olfactory spectacle where each one of your senses is being met and it allows you as an attendee to access a product or story in more of a multi-layered way.”

Charlie Meshchaninov, Head of Enterprise Sales at Lightbox Credits: Courtesy photo.

As a consequence of the explosion of virtual experiences that allowed life to continue semi-normally during the pandemic, in-person events when they returned suddenly had to have an added ineffable element which led to the demand for immersive interactivity. In Meshchaninov’s words, “We needed to take in-person experiences and level them up to whatever the next stage was.” Fashion events can become repetitive to a jaded NYC fashion audience, but the ability to fully customize a space, with food, visuals, smells, and audio can create a new level of buzz around a brand and facilitate storytelling in a dynamic way. “It’s like you’re inside of the brand,” says Meshchaninov.

The Lightbox space comes equipped with a natural runway down the center of its main rectangular room. It was the location for September’s Kent State University/IFA Paris graduate fashion show and the immersive displays reflected the architectural elegance of Paris with the dynamism and speed of New York City. Lightbox works directly with creatives within fashion and beauty brands as well as with their PR companies. Says Meshchaninov, “There's this kind of inherent sustainability built into the structure of the space because you don't have to build things out in the same way that you would in a typical space because so much of it is done digitally.”

In order for the projection mapping to blend seamlessly with the event experience, in contrast to the services provided by Brand Experience Lab, the technology is not designed to be portable as the Lightbox space was purpose-built. Meshchaninov has observed not only a steady increase in demand for immersive events over the past year but larger budgets. “I can just tell from the conversations we're having with brands directly or with the agencies, there's almost an expectation that brands have something that has this dimension to it.”

Members of the Lightbox team are trained in design, some have technology backgrounds, and there is a traditional hospitality component also. Creative hires have been primarily from the graphic design world. “But we're leaning on the clients to generate some of that and then we work with the graphics and brand content to transform the space itself.”

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