Custom Fashion 2.0: How a new Korean project wants to lift mass customization in the apparel business to a new level

IfashionlogoOn Monday this week, the i-Fashion project was launched in Seoul, Korea. I was invited to speak at the opening event of this interesting initiative. Its objective is to create an entire infrastructure for mass customization in the fashion industry by integrating a number of technologies which today have not been applied in larger scale. Sponsored by the Korean Ministry of Commerce & Energy with about US $7 mil., it combines a consortium of 9 apparel companies and a few technology providers.

IfashionmcstoreAs you would expect from a high-tech country like Korea, the exhibition on the opening even was dominated by numerous huge flat panel screens. These screens were, however, no sheer illustration but actual part of a totally new selling process. The entire process builds on virtual models which are generated by a 3D body scan of a consumer. The customer can then create on a touch-screen kiosk her new apparel, including the design of the fabric. Designs are illustrated real-time on the customer’s avatar. This avatar and virtual garments shall be also used in mobile applications (where South Korea is famous for) and traditional online shopping environments. Also this idea is not new, but has – to my knowledge – never been integrated in a real shopping infrastructure. One of the project partners, the Hyundai conglomerate, will open a test store in its department store chain already this year.

A co-speaker on an international seminar for this project was Prof. Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann, a leading expert in virtual modeling and the Director of University of Geneva’s MIRALab. I had heard of this lab before, but was astonished to see the scope of its activities. Prof. Magnenat-Thalmann reported from her work as part of the LEAPFROG project, an European project with the objective to modernize and ultimately transform the European clothing sector into a flexible knowledge-driven high-tech industry. Drivers of the project are a radical move towards rapid customized manufacturing through flexiblization and integration of cost-effective and sustainable processes from fabric processing to customer delivery and a new focus on customer service. MIRALab contributed to this project with the development of a 3D virtual try-on platform, including real-time body sizing and cloth simulation.

Projects like i-Fashion and LEAPFROG are very important for the realization of mass customization in the clothing industry as they go beyond automatic pattern generation (based on 3D scans) or flexible manufacturing technologies, but try to create an integrated platform where most of the traditional physical design, manufacturing, and sales processes are shifted to the digital domain.

Digital Printing of FabricsOne of the interesting parts of the project i-Fashion project in this regards is the large scale application of digital-printing for high-end fashion items. This enables the efficient productions of individual patterns and may solve the problem of huge inventories which are required for customization on the component level. i-Fashion Project partner Yuhan-Kimberley demonstrated their latest existing technology during the opening event. I was surprised by the quality of the printing process, but also its speed and cost efficiency (comparable to normal paper photo printing). Also, the garments do not need any further processing or finishing after the printing process. This technology, which shall be improved even further in the project, but first of all integrated in a complete business model, could allow also the legions of custom t-shirt printer a more sustainable production technology compared to today’s heat transfer process.

More project info in case you speak Korean: http://textile.konkuk.ac.kr/englishhome/index.html

Or contact the project;s director, Prof. Chang Kyu PARK from the Department of Textile Engineering at Konkuk University, Seoul (cezar@konkuk.ac.kr).

About the Author:

Frank T. Piller is a Co-Director of the MIT Smart Customization Group at the MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, and a chair professor of management at the Technology & Innovation Management Group of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, one of Europe’s leading institutes of technology. Before entering his recent position in Aachen, he worked at the MIT Sloan School of Management (2004-2007) and has been an associate professor of management at TUM Business School, Technische Universitaet Muenchen. Frequently quoted in The New York Times, The Economist, and Business Week, amongst others, Frank is regarded as one of the leading experts on strategies for customer-centric value creation, like mass customization, personalization, and innovation co-creation. His recent analysis of the crowdsourcing business model “Threadless” (co-authored with Susumu Ogawa), an innovative crowdsourcing business model in the fashion industry, has been elected as one of the Top-20 articles in MIT Sloan Management Review.