How smart is your jacket?
Tommy Hilfiger, FIT, and IBM usher AI into the fashion industry
As long as Tommy Hilfiger has been selling clothes, he’s been adapting to disruptions — those developments in business, culture and technology that can send even the most sturdy enterprise scrambling. In Hilfiger’s mind, however, disruption isn’t merely a hurdle to jump over, but rather an opportunity for discovery. It’s a catalyst, he said, that ensures his brand stays forever young and cool.
“I really believe whether you’re a retailer, a manufacturer, a designer or a brand, you have to evolve without losing your base,” the fashion mogul told IBM’s Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Michelle Peluso at NRF 2018: Retail’s Big Show. “We’re always striving to find the right balance between tradition and innovation. Reinvention and disruption have served us very well.”
If Tommy Hilfiger’s NRF presentation is any indication, AI may very well power the brand’s next chapter. At the three-day event, Tommy Hilfiger unveiled a partnership with IBM, The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) Infor Design and Tech Lab exploring ways the brand can use AI and machine learning to inspire design and enhance experiences across the entire fashion value chain.
As part of the Reimagine Retail project, several FIT Fashion design students were introduced to a range of IBM Research’s AI and machine learning capabilities. They learned about visual and voice recognition, social media listening, tone analysis, personality insights and natural language understanding. And then they used that knowledge to come up with original designs and customer experience optimizations.
“It’s unexpected. You’d think machine learning would stifle creativity, but in fact it actually opens up different things that you might not have expected,” said IBM project director Erin McElroy.
The results are a testament to AI’s power to enhance human creativity. Amy Eun’s SolarActive dress uses solar-active yarns that appear when exposed to sunlight. Luis Hernandez’s bomber jacket is produced using a 3D knitting machine and styled based on social media feeds and uploaded images. Stefka De Ruiter’s avatar jacket is customized to reflect the wearer’s personality. Grace McCarty’s cognitive print jacket and sweatshirt features prints generated by analyzing hundreds of thousands of Hilfiger archival images.
“What it proved to us was all the information that is out there can be reachable with a click,” Hilfiger told Peluso. “When the FIT students took our archives …they were able to access everything we have done in the past from a design standpoint and apply it to today’s design concept. For me, that is a tremendous breakthrough.”
Over the past few years, even while maintaining the brand’s signature look and style, Hilfiger has integrated a variety of next-generation technologies across his business. Ultimately, these innovations have helped shorten the company’s production process and exponentially increase its engagement on social media.
In 2016, it rolled out an AI-powered conversational commerce bot for Facebook Messenger. Last year, it created a shoppable live stream and image recognition app, TommyNow SNAP, which includes augmented reality features allowing customers to create their own digital catwalk. 
Just as Tommy Hilfiger is no stranger to technology, IBM is no stranger to the fashion industry. In 2016, IBM partnered with Marchesa to create a dress designed with help from AI that lit up according to sentiment of tweets about the dress. And last year, it worked with Falguni Shane Peacock to create India’s first AI-driven fashion collection.
AI is an invaluable partner in the fashion design process, and its creative potential is just beginning to be realized. Today, McElroy said, more retailers than ever before are also realizing the value of the technology across an entire product lifecycle, from conception to production to the end consumer.
“It’s going to impact every aspect of the value chain, from design to supply to merchandising to the customer experience to revenue,” she said.
See more of IBM’s innovations featured at NRF 2018: Retail’s Big Show and find out more about how we’re transforming retail.