How Digital Textile Printing is Changing the World of Fast Fashion
The term “fast fashion” didn’t always have the best connotations. In fact, says Sharon Donovich, product marketing manager for Kornit Digital, it was akin to a dirty word in certain circles.
“Fast fashion is all about a highly profitable business model that was based on replicating catwalk trends and high-fashion designs, and mass-producing them at low cost,” she says. “It is also a synonym for and being accused to be responsible for pollution — both in the production of clothes and in the decay of synthetic fabrics — poor workmanship, and emphasizing very brief trends over classic style.”
In fact, she notes, the United Nations estimates that the fashion industry is responsible for as much as 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions heating the planet, which has led many to look at digital technologies as the answer. “When digital textile printing started, it was more about one of prints and personalization but with the progress of technology and changes in consumer behavior … the fast fashion brands are looking more and more to adopt digital textile printing, which offers production on demand, with no inventory risks, no MOQs [minimum order quantities], minimal TTM [time to market], and the endless design variety. On top of that, it is a sustainable production with no pollution, and very low carbon footprint.”
A big part of being a more sustainable production process, which is appealing to many fashion brands, is the reduction — if not total elimination — of waste. Tim Check, product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America, notes that this is one of the bigger trends driving its adoption in this industry.
“Digital textile printing reduces excess waste in the design process by allowing designers to create smaller fabric test runs and waste less while finalizing the fabric,” he notes. “It also brings the textile design process onshore, therefore reducing turnaround time and shipping costs that designers and retailers can then pass on to the consumer.”
Lily Hunter, Roland DGA’s senior product manager, expands on that idea, noting, “Digital textile printing allows designers and manufacturers to quickly flow from concept to production. A designer can create a new design or modify an existing one — i.e., revising color schemes — print it out, produce a prototype, and get an approval before manufacturing. Once approved, producers can create one-offs, short runs, or medium runs immediately. Fashion changes quickly in response to changes in the season or new collections, and digital textile printing can facilitate this type of ‘just in time’ production.”
What this means for wide-format shops either producing digitally printed textiles or looking to add the equipment is that fast fashion is no longer a dirty word for brands — it is fast becoming a new way of producing pieces faster and more efficiently, and this is where digital textile printers can find opportunity.
Creating a New Market
Seeing an opportunity and knowing how to take advantage of it and create new business are two different things. To start, Hunter says, don’t feel like fast fashion is an all-or-nothing game. Printers, she notes, can start small.
“You don’t have to drop everything to be in the fashion industry,” she says. “Begin by offering sublimated jerseys, uniforms, or bathing suits. Pick one thing to make, learn the ins and outs of the workflow, and then expand. If you choose to invest in dye-sublimation equipment, you can do quite a few things beyond apparel, including soft signage, photo panels, promotional goods, and home décor.”
It is also about cultivating the right connections, notes Donovich, since fast fashion is more than just textile printing — it is being part of a production process with multiple moving parts, that printers need to be aware of, and know how to work with effectively. “Fast fashion is not only about production,” she says. “Marketing is the key driver of fast fashion. Marketing creates the desire for consumption of new designs as close as possible to the point of creation. Marketing closes the gap between creation and consumption, therefore, if a PSP wants to get into the fast fashion space, he needs to get connected to the brands.”
Another thing to keep in mind is the technology being used. Check says that what a shop decides to invest in will ultimately determine which types of fast fashion and brands can be targeted.
“Dye-sublimation is often selected for its overall versatility because it can provide a print shop with the ability to do projects outside of traditional clothing textiles,” he says. “With dye-sublimation it is crucial to select white or light-colored 100% polyester and primarily polyester blends to ensure a successful transfer with no change to the fabric feel. DTG is primarily used for creating t-shirts and sweatshirts. It can also be used to create socks, tote bags and apparel accessories. Unlike dye-sublimation, DTG printing is best suited for 100% cotton or predominantly cotton blend fabrics.”
There is also a third option in this space, according to Hitoshi Ujiie, the director of the Center for Excellence in Surface Imaging, School of Design and Engineering, Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Ujiie explains that pigments are an up-and-coming technology that he predicts will make a big difference.
Pigment technology, he notes, has been around for a long time, but hasn’t changed much since the 1990s. But, he sees that changing in the coming months, with technologies on the cusp of breaking the barriers that have previously held the space back. And pigments, he notes, will be a game changer for fast fashion. “If that takes off, then you don’t need to print on polyester, you can print on blends, which will expand the marketplace to not only sportswear and t-shirts, but also the fabrics and printing onto yardage itself, which is what everyone is looking for.”
Beyond the printing technology, Hunter notes that the software side of production is also changing rapidly, which will in turn help drive the fast fashion space. In particular, she notes that 3D design software is changing the way consumers think about and buy fashion online, which is a prime market for the benefits digital textile printing can bring to the table.
“Today, you can shop and customize clothes online — and try different hair styles, for that matter,” she says. “You can also enter your measurements or take a picture of yourself to ‘try on’ certain outfits to get an idea of how they’ll look on you. You can even customize your design. Software that can translate the finished outfit design into cut-and-sew patterns that manufacturers can load graphics onto will increase productivity.”
That, in turn, will lead to greater automation across the board, which is what Donovich believes will be a major driving force in the growth of digital textile printing and fast fashion in the next few years. “Digital textile printing is still located in a very labor intensive and manual production environment. More automation, less touch points, and more data driven production will allow faster, more predictable production of fashion.”
Barriers and Benefits to Keep in Mind
Like any other vertical, digital textile printing in general, and fast fashion in particular, comes with big benefits to those who succeed in it, but carries barriers to entry that shops looking to enter this space must overcome.
On the benefits side of the equation, Donovich notes that, “being part of the fast fashion fulfillment and supply chain is a huge benefit, as most of the impressions come from this market. Therefore even a niche in the market can bring many impressions and increase profitability.”
That sentiment is something Hunter echoed, noting, “Most of the PSPs I’ve spoken to have said that they appreciate having better control over the apparel products they sell – from the design, to production, to quality control. Offering apparel also allows PSPs to be a one-stop-shop for their customers who are already buying other signage, décor, or promotional products from them.”
That said, notes Check, “In some sense, the printing part is the easy part, as the manufacturers have improved the products to produce good results consistently. The final product that is being sold is a combination of a good design that is applied to fabric; having a good understanding of the fabric, and offering a wide range of fabric types is a critical part to success in fast fashion.”
While it can be daunting to jump into an entirely new market that has a significant learning curve, it shouldn’t discourage printers from exploring the options, or investing in the space, Hunter says. A few tips that were echoed across the board include taking the time to learn about the equipment, what it can do, and what brands are looking for when it comes to fast fashion, taking a lot of notes along the way and asking a lot of questions. Partnering with a wholesaler that already has some of this work is another way to get started, giving the shop a chance to test the waters of fast fashion and learn what investments would be absolutely necessary to get started.
And don’t just think about clothing, either. While “fast fashion” tends to refer to apparel, the reality is that digital textile printing can be applied to other elements of the fashion industry, such as sublimated accessories like buttons, belt buckles, or even eyeglass frames. “It’s just amazing what we can customize and print on!” says Hunter. Smart wearable technologies is another arm of fast fashion that is still in its infancy, with future opportunities for those who master the category.
Fast fashion isn’t a vertical for the faint of heart — it requires not just the equipment for digital textile printing, but a strong sense of what brands need, and the ability to work with them directly to create textiles quickly and efficiently on demand. But while it might not be as easy as “buy the machine and the work will come,” fast fashion — and digital textile printing — is still a relatively new frontier with unlimited opportunities for those willing to experiment and learn.