A new £5.5m research programme aims to improve speed, productivity and sustainability in the UK’s clothing supply chain.
Imagine a world in which tech-savvy fashion designers use data and artificial intelligence (AI) to support their decision making, samples are developed digitally through the use of immersive virtual reality, and new business models make sustainability and recycling a commercial imperative. The amount of waste produced by the fashion industry would dramatically reduce.
A new research programme has been launched that aims to make this vision of the future a reality. The industry-led programme, called Future Fashion Factory, is exploring ways to introduce new technology into the design process, to shorten lead times and reduce waste.
Based in Leeds, at the heart of Yorkshire’s textile manufacturing industry, Future Fashion Factory has received £5.5m funding from non-governmental public body the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and another £3m commitment from industry.
Future Fashion Factory will transform the UK industry’s capacity for new product innovation
Adam Mansell, UKFT
Underpinning the programme is the AHRC’s remit to improve the productivity and competitiveness of the creative industries, and by extension their contribution to the UK economy. It comes as new figures from the British Fashion Council (BFC) show the fashion industry contributes £32bn to the economy and employs around 900,000 people.
“It is part of a wider £80m AHRC programme that was set up to drive the UK’s economic growth, not just by talking about it but by developing new products and services, creating new jobs and developing skills,” explains Stephen Russell, director of Future Fashion Factory and professor of textile materials and technology at the University of Leeds’ School of Design.
Future Fashion Factory is set to run until 2023 and has industry-wide backing, from the companies making British yarns and fabrics – such as cashmere manufacturer Joshua Ellis and woollen mill AW Hainsworth – to some of the big retailers and brands, including Burberry. It is also supported by the universities of Leeds and Huddersfield, the Royal College of Art in London, the Textile Centre of Excellence in Yorkshire, and industry bodies the UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT) and BFC.
“Future Fashion Factory will transform the UK industry’s capacity for new product innovation and create circular fashion technologies that reduce lead times and waste within the design process,” says Adam Mansell, CEO of UKFT and chair of the Future Fashion Factory.
The Future Fashion Factory creates a platform through which we can develop and implement new technologies and processes
Jalaj Hora, senior vice-president of engineering and quality at Burberry,
The programme’s focus includes developing data analytics and AI tools, not to replace designers’ creative input but to help them with decision making. It will also look at where waste is created in the production cycle, and examine ways to close the loop, developing new product designs that minimise waste at the end of product life, and making recycling easier and more effective.
Another area of focus will be on using digital technologies to improve the production process – for example, using immersive virtual reality to remove the need to send swatches in the post. Digital processes could also make it easier to change the surface aesthetics and design of an item at a later stage, again reducing waste.
Jalaj Hora, senior vice-president of engineering and quality at Burberry, says: “By bringing together players from industry and academia, the Future Fashion Factory creates a platform through which we can develop and implement new technologies and processes for everyone’s benefit, from product development cycles and lead times to agility through collaborative manufacturing and the environmental impact of fashion.”
Future Fashion Factory will also look at how to educate a new generation of tech-savvy designers.
“Rather than it being bolted on, we will develop new programmes at apprentice and degree level so the new technology we’re developing is properly embedded in the design process,” says Russell.
Oliver Platts, managing director of Joshua Ellis, says: ”Despite being a 250-year-old company steeped in tradition, innovation has always been crucial to the success of Joshua Ellis and it is what our discerning customers demand from us on an annual basis. As part of this drive for improvement in efficiency and sustainability in what we make and how we make it, we are very happy to be working as part of the Future Fashion Factory programme here in Yorkshire.
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Learn from Antibad, Asos, Bestseller, Burberry, Farfetch, Filippa K, Ganni, H&M, Isko, Kering, Marks & Spencer, The North Face, Timberland and many more stars of sustainability at the Drapers Sustainable Fashion event on 14 March at Studio Spaces in London.
“By working with academic partners through the programme we hope to look internally as well as externally at the way in which we run our mill as well as hopefully finding new and innovative products that will appeal to the global luxury market.”
Cathy Dickson, director of British womenswear brand and fashion consultancy Cabba, who sits on the Future Fashion Factory steering group, adds: “As an independent designer and fashion consultant, I’m interested in how this investment could have an economic impact on smaller design labels and whether it will create more opportunities for growth – as well as how communication and education can develop a workforce with the skills needed to excel in the industry tomorrow, and produce multidisciplinary designers that drive the fashion industry forwards.”
In addition to the core research, Future Fashion Factory will have a responsive stream, through which it will work with companies that need help with their own, shorter-term projects – as long as they meet the programme’s wider objectives.
“We’re very keen for companies to engage with us,” says Russell. “This is not a bunch of academics telling industry what to do, this is industry-led R&D – it is designed around what our partners need.”
With Brexit looming, British manufacturers, designers and brands need more help than ever to innovate and grow. Meanwhile, there has never been a stronger business case for sustainability. Future Fashion Factory’s emphasis on harnessing emerging digital technologies could galvanise the industry, shortening lead times and giving the UK an advantage on the world stage.
Future Fashion Factory’s key objectives
- Shorten product development cycles and lead times to increase agility
- Design the right product, for the right customer at the right time, reducing waste
- Shift from linear to circular economies, reducing waste costs and creating new business models
- Develop designers capable of exploiting new textile and digital technologies as part of the creative process
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