Using Artificial Intelligence to Revive Artisanal Craft
by Brooke Roberts-Islam, November 12, 2020
Photography by Mike Wilkinson
My recent claim that fashion needs more imagination when it comes to using artificial intelligence has been unexpectedly answered by a project combining e-commerce data and artisanship. Not an obvious pairing, but the brainchild of passionate 'dataphile' Yoox Net-A-Porter Group Chairman and CEO, Federico Marchetti, and HRH The Prince of Wales, whose appreciation and support of artisanal craftsmanship (and dedication to safeguarding its future) is decades-long. Marchetti and the Yoox Net-A-Porter team worked with The Prince’s Foundation to create a unique year-long apprenticeship to cultivate the next generation of luxury fashion artisans, informed and guided by customer shopping data and AI analysis of millions of images of historically successful products. The aim? To breathe life into artisanship as a viable and attractive career option, underpinned by data that empowers it to deliver the right product, for the right customer on the right sales platform, crucially sustaining the artisans’ craft methods and their livelihood.
The Modern Artisan project brought together six designers from Milan’s Politecnico Di Milano Fashion in Process (FiP) research laboratory and four apprentices undergoing certified training in small batch production and hand-craft skills at The Prince’s Foundation, Dumfries House, Scotland. Together they created a men's and womenswear collection informed by data presented to them by the Yoox Net-A-Porter buying team. This data included five years of images of comparable luxury product types sold across Yoox, Net-A-Porter, Mr Porter, and The Outnet. “Imagine 20 years of pictures—we’re talking about millions of pictures of fashion,” said Federico Marchetti during a Zoom interview. Add to this the group’s 4.3 million active customers and it amounts to a data set that can illustrate long-term trends and evergreen styles, colors, details, and silhouettes ideal for hand-crafted luxury items made to last a lifetime.
The project began with the artisans creating design mood boards inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci, followed by workshops addressing customer segmentation and the differentiation between the four Yoox Net-A-Porter brands, followed by data, shape, and color analysis. This is where the use of the AI tool (which the group use for their Mr P. and 8 By Yoox brands internally) came into play, offering insights into the ‘recipe of fashion successes’ along with a reduction in sizing and production volume errors that can befall non-data-informed products. “(We showed) pictures of bestsellers to the artisans, (who) could navigate them via an AI tool and fine-tune the designs,” said Marchetti. The artisans then worked together to design the garments in Italy and manufacture them in Scotland at Dumfries House and legendary knitwear manufacturer, Johnstons of Elgin in Hawick.
This project may herald a new era of artisans as designers, armed with data and AI tools to make smart design decisions and carve out viable businesses. This approach, however, sits in contrast to the prevailing approach of fashion designers and brands to follow designers’ sensibilities and creative tendencies in favor of data-driven design and decision making. This remains true even in an industry where taking a bet on new products, independent of data insights, can mean overstock and lead to heavy discounting, potentially contributing to costly deadstock and landfill waste. Perhaps this project illustrates the scope for convergence of the two approaches.
The collections, which launch today across all four Yoox Net-A-Porter online stores, contain 10 womenswear and 8 menswear styles, and all profits from the sale of the collection will be donated to The Prince’s Foundation. Each garment is equipped with a digital ID, providing the story behind the product, its materials, the artisans who designed and made it, and care and repair recommendations to ensure the long life of the product. The price points of these products are firmly in the luxury bracket, given the true cost of hand-crafted clothing, rendering this sustainably made collection inaccessible to most. However, when looking at the luxury fashion market in isolation, this is an interesting use case for data-driven luxury product design and begs the question: If the products sell-through, why wouldn’t such data be used by luxury designers and brands to improve sales and reduce deadstock and discounting?
On this subject, Marchetti offers industry insight stating that there is an “Acceleration of fashion brands hiring people who understand data,” and that all graduates from this project have since found a job, including at “Max Mara and Zegna”, while some of the British graduates are setting up their own businesses. “We have instilled the desire of using data in these artisans,” he said, making clear that their knowledge and ability is an asset in an ever more digital and e-commerce driven fashion landscape.
The Anglo-Italian focus of this initiative is reflective of the location of Yoox Net-A-Porter and The Prince’s Foundation. However, it would be a mistake to assume artisanal craftsmanship is synonymous only with Europe, given that modern incarnations of artisanal textile crafts originated further afield, including in ancient Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. This prompts me to ask Marchetti whether this initiative might extend to artisans around the world. Could it be expanded to include, for example, Dhaka Muslin or Inca textiles (highly influential to the European Bauhaus movement), given that this project is part of a long term partnership with the Prince’s Foundation? “The prince is British, I am Italian, so it made sense to start from this point (geographically). This is a contemporary take on artisanship (and) the mission is to modernize (it) and make it attractive to young people, career-wise.” He suggested there could be an opportunity to broaden the artisanal scope following the Modern Artisan project’s inclusion in the Michelangelo Foundation’s 2021 Homo Faber showcase of craftsmanship, which is inspired by Japan and will be attended by Japanese artisans.
The Modern Artisan project marks the final celebrations for the 20th birthday of the Yoox Net-A-Porter Group, and may also mark the origin of a new direction for the relationship between artisans and retailers. Given the number of global artisans with unique and highly valuable textile and garment-making skills, capable of commanding luxury price-points and simultaneously facing extinction due to exploitation and a lack of direct access to global markets, this project sets an interesting precedent for a global artisanship revival powered by data. Could the Prince’s safeguarding of artisanship extend beyond the U.K., commercially driven by the might of YNAP’s data insights from 4.3 million customers? This unlikely partnership may represent a perfect pairing of creative craftsmanship and artificial intelligence.
Originally published on Forbes