Research Workshop Report - What's Digital about Fashion Design? / by Mary Jane Edwards

FIRE and AAM collaborated to explore how technology is used within the designer fashion community. We wanted to identify how traditional fashion design is being transformed by digital technology, and to see how willing designers are to adopt new digital methods and models.


We invited established fashion and textile designers, academics and industry experts to take part in a workshop, and asked them to interrogate the question ‘What’s Digital about Fashion Design?’. We wanted the workshop to be a space where industry professionals could discuss how the fashion industry currently operates within the digital economy, and discover where opportunities for new models in both product and business development could come from. Here’s what we found.

“The fashion industry likes how it works, it has an entrenched way of operating – the seasonality is very difficult to change.”

The first theme that emerged was The Challenge to Tradition. We deconstructed the traditional fashion design cycle and questioned how the transition from wholesale to direct consumer retail is changing fashion design. It was agreed that whilst digital activity is mainly focused on sales, there is an unexplored opportunity to introduce digital in the earlier stages of the design process, which could have the potential to transform both a designer’s practice and business. We acknowledged that while it is important to challenge fashion traditions, we didn’t want see digital entirely replace craft methodologies, but to be integrated in a way that would enhance a designer's practice and raison d'être.

“Digital technology obviously isn’t going to be a replacement for craft-based design practices, it should be more about how it can enhance what I want to achieve.”

Our second theme outcome, Digital and the Design Process, challenged the potential of digital interventions to help save time and costs in day-to-day processes. It is a well known fact that fashion designers are time-poor, fast-paced, and on a tight budget, and these concerns were strongly shared at our workshop. Conversations explored how designers could potentially invest more time and money into creative research and development processes if physical overhead costs were cut and replaced with digital services.

“What does it mean to embed digital into operations for the designer fashion community? Especially when you no longer need a physical store?”

The idea of removing the physical store was just one proposed solution, and by all means not for everyone. However, by removing the high cost of company stores, designers would be able to embark on new journeys and perhaps bring in new team members such as consultants and developers. Replacing the physical with digital would greatly affect budgets and free up spending for embedding digital into day-to-day operations. The thought of this seemed fairly plausible and exciting!

“We need to collaborate, open research that is the only way things will change and designers will start to define their place in the digital economy.”

We discussed how collaborations between fashion, technology and manufacturing are needed to successfully integrate technology into design and process, and how the potential to house designers and tech start-ups in the same building might organically spark these types of collaborations and knowledge sharing. We speculated about a more ‘start-up’ culture in fashion, borrowing working practices from the entrepreneurial tech industry who, unlike fashion designers, are not wedded to the traditional fashion design cycle and are seen to be driving the development of new revenue models.

Developing new models was our final theme. By the end of the workshop we felt that fashion designers were considered to be in a unique position, with specialist knowledge and understanding of design to help shape developments in digital technology. There was a shared cautiousness about adopting digital business operations as there is a lack of prevalent technology in fashion supporting the transformation. We are still left with the question as to what extent digital engagement could be integrated into the entire product development lifecycle within the present fast-paced business and slow cash flow models.

“There’s a lot of ‘We know digital is important, but…’- Not many designers are able to invest time, energy and money in understanding what digital services would work for them. They’re too busy getting ready for the next season!”

Our workshop felt like just the beginning of questioning, understanding and breaking down the barriers and exploring opportunities for new models of practice with digital technologies during this period of significant growth in the digital economy. Digital will continue to play an increasingly important part of our lives and the workshop showed how willing the SME designer community is to use technology to serve both the design process and product and business model development.

Below is a link to our report, which goes into our research in a lot more detail.


F.I.R.E and AAM funded by NEMODE Network+ (New Economic Models for the Digital Economy). 

Gabrielle Miller, Mary Jane Edwards, Prof. Sandy Black