From 'smart' clothing to customisation: what the future of fashion might look like

A new report has highlighted the future trends driving the textile industry

Wearable technology by Anouk Wipprecht. 
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Sustainability, functionality, differentiation and personalisation are the “mega trends” that will drive the growth of the textile and clothing industry, according to a new report from Lux Research, a research and data company in New York.

As the report points out, human beings have been weaving cloth since the Paleolithic era, and "fabrics and textiles are rooted deep in human history". But the textile and clothing industries are at a crossroads, as brands and consumers seek out sustainable products with greater functionality and a cleaner manufacturing record.

Workers sew plaid shirts on the production line of the Fashion Enterprise garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Tuesday, April 30, 2013. Bangladesh authorities said they were accelerating rescue efforts at the factory complex that collapsed last week as hopes fade for more survivors after the nation’s biggest industrial disaster. Bangladesh’s labor law requires safety measures such as fire extinguishers and easily accessible exits at factories. Jeff Holt/Bloomberg

This creates new opportunities for innovation, and sustainability must be a key driver – from upstream sourcing and manufacturing to downstream reclamation and recycling. The report highlights how this is being achieved by individual brands such as Adidas and Patagonia, as well as collective efforts such as The Fashion Pact, the UN's Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action and Greenpeace's Detox 2020.

Functionality will become increasingly important as consumers demand “improved product performance, novelty or a unique aesthetic”. Desirable features of a new breed of fabrics include stain prevention, odour blocking, increased durability or “smart" elements such as functional coatings, additives or sensors.

The report presents a timeline of how quickly innovative textile technologies are likely to be adopted on a commercial scale. Functional coatings and finishes will be the first to be widely incorporated, within one to two years, while wide-scale recycling of polyester and cellulose is expected within a three to five-year period. Water-free dyeing processes, fibre innovations and smart textiles are not expected to become commonplace for at least another five years.

Smart textiles, which integrate electronic capabilities into common fabrics and can interact with the environment and/or the user, have some way to go before they will become widespread. “Washability, durability, and manufacturability are major challenges – most devices have removable electronic clips that cannot be washed,” the report maintains.

Designs, such as this dress by Hussein Chalayan, are harnessing technology, but are often not very wearable. Courtesy Hussein Chalayan

Enhanced personalisation is also key to the future growth of the industry, meaning that brands will have to offer more customised products and experiences, whether through targeted promotions, personalised apps or engravings on products.