Clothing as Platform

Garments have always been a social media, but adding tracking sensors brings it under more direct corporate control

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Long before the Covid-19 pandemic halted fashion shows and shuttered malls, the harsh realities of the fashion industry’s race-to-the-bottom production practices were becoming all too clear: unsustainable for the environment and lethally dangerous for textile producers and garment workers. Yet despite news stories of dangerous working conditions and tragedies such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse, tons of garments continued to enter the market, resulting in record amounts of textile waste. In fact, according to the EPA, Americans buried 10.5 million tons of clothing in landfills each year. And it’s not just the mass-market H&Ms and Zaras of the retail world who are implicated; the luxury segment of the market is flooded with unwanted products too: Burberry was discovered to have burned £90 million worth of unsold stock over a five-year period rather than see it devalue its brand image in discount stores.

In tandem, responsible retail alternatives have also boomed, and America’s bloated clothes retail sector has led to a burgeoning resale market. Fueled by online opportunities for peer-to-peer commerce, companies such as Thredup (which bills itself as the largest online consignment and thrift store), Depop, and Vestiaire Collective have multiplied — so much so that according to a 2020 report, the resale market is estimated to grow 21 times faster than that of regular apparel, with the secondhand market reaching a projected value of $51 billion within five years. Add to this the luxury-rental options (Rent the Runway) as well as monthly rental subscriptions (such as Le Tote for bags and Armoire for designer fashion) and it becomes clear that clothes have begun to circulate beyond the traditional control of luxury-fashion conglomerates.

The benefits of digital identity tags pale in comparison to what companies stand to gain from implementing ubiquitous fashion surveillance

Unsurprisingly, traditional fashion brands perceive these new distribution models as a threat, jeopardizing revenue and their well-honed prestige, cachet, and financial value. In an attempt regain monopoly over the sale of their goods, some have made efforts to discredit non-affiliated resale. Recently, Chanel sued resale sites The Real Real and What Goes Around Comes Around on the grounds that they falsely suggested some “kind of approval from or affiliation” with the brand. Other labels meanwhile have looked to more creative approaches. In February, for example, Mulberry launched a program that incentivized customers with offers of discount coupons to sell the brand’s purses back to the company rather than into a secondhand market.

In addition, some luxury brands have started adding surveillance to their arsenal, turning to blockchains to undermine the emergence of secondary markets in a way that pays lip service to sustainability and labor ethics concerns. LVMH launched Aura in 2019, a blockchain-enabled platform for authenticating products from the Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Marc Jacobs, and Fenty brands, among others. Meanwhile, fashion label Stella McCartney began a transparency and data-monitoring partnership with Google for tracking garment provenance, discouraging fakes and promising to ensure the ethical integrity of supply chains. Elsewhere, a host of fashion blockchain startups, including Loomia, Vechain, and Faizod, have emerged, offering tracking technologies to assuage customer concerns over poor labor conditions and manufacturing-related pollution by providing transparency on precisely where products are made and by which subcontractors.

However, as promising as these technologies may be for holding a mirror to the industry’s production methods, their impact on consumers won’t simply be to reassure them. When it comes to garments, surveillance isn’t simply a matter of placing the supply chain under new scrutiny. Companies such as Arianee, Dentsu and Evrythng also aim to track clothes on consumers’ bodies and in their closets. At the forefront of this trend is Eon, which with backing from Microsoft and buy-in from mainstream fashion brands such as H&M and Target, has begun rolling out the embedding of small, unobtrusive RFID tags — currently used for everything from tracking inventory to runners on a marathon course — in garments designed to transmit data without human intervention.

Eon’s primary stated goal sits squarely within the realm of sustainability: It wants to help implement a global digital-identity protocol so the information from everybody who touches or owns the product is uploaded in a standardized way, potentially encouraging better labor practices through transparency and increased rental and resale opportunities. Tracking sensors (along with apps developed to make use of them) could feasibly be used to extend the life of a garment, ensuring its provenance and making it a better long-term investment, encouraging resale, and allowing for proper recycling.

But its technology would also connect products and their wearers to the internet of things. According to the future depicted by Eon and its partners, garments would become datafied brand assets administering access to surveillance-enabled services, benefits, and experiences. The people who put on these clothes would become “users” rather than wearers. In some respects, this would simply extend some of the functionality of niche wearables to garments in general. Think: swimsuits able to detect UV light and prevent overexposure to the sun, yoga pants that prompt the wearer to hold the right pose, socks that monitor for disease risks, and fitness trackers embedded into sports shirts. At the same time, it would extend the symbolic functions of clothing to one’s online networks, offering consumers the potential cultural capital and social currency of having one’s outfit and location broadcast automatically to their social circle and beyond. Digital identity tags would also allow consumers to purchase physical and augmented-reality products simultaneously: i.e. the owner of a pair of Nike Cryptokicks could wear them on the street and as an avatar in a video game.

The assetization of garments puts fashion brands on the same economic path as big tech

These benefits, such as they are, pale in comparison to what companies stand to gain from implementing ubiquitous fashion surveillance. As described by consultant Chris Grantham, this “new dynamic channel for marketing … and even new customer acquisition” would afford “seamless and personalized marketing strategies,” “continued conversation with the consumer post-sale,” “new business models such as subscription, rental and second-market offerings,” and even “tailored shopping/outfit planning services effectively incentivizing customers to share their data.” Simply put, clothes would become a digital platform for engaging consumers in branded, monetized experiences and tapping them as recurring revenue streams.

It’s unclear what consumers would get from so much “engagement,” other than a constant seep of ads. According to one potential scenario outlined by Eon partners, a running shoe could send a stream of usage data to the manufacturer so that it could notify the consumer when the shoe “nears the end of its life.” In another, sensors would determine when a garment needs repairing and trigger an online auction among competing menders. Finally, according to another, sensors syncing with smart mirrors would offer style advice and personalized advertising. All these open the door to myriad behavioral nudges, frictionless repeat orders, push notifications, and exhortations to update, repurchase, or repair on the manufacturer’s timetable — like a Check Engine light for a garment.

Given these ambitions, mainstream “smart” fashion (as with most things “smart”) appears as little more than an alibi for collecting personal behavioral data — not to mention a form of greenwashed techno-solutionism that ignores the realities of today’s surveillance economy. After all, sensor-laden garments would become part of the economic system described by Shoshana Zuboff as “surveillance capitalism,” or what digital theorist Mark Andrejevic has called the “digital enclosure,” an entanglement of “free” services from the likes of Facebook and Google and household products with networking capabilities, for which access “requires willing submission to increasingly detailed forms of data collection and online monitoring.”

As Zuboff illustrates, even well-intentioned privacy guidelines and “stylized disclosure agreements” don’t entirely protect users— opaque, exploitative terms of service still allow for data sharing and, for example, the monetization of patients’ private information from mobile health apps. Within this greater picture, the assetization of garments puts fashion brands on the same economic path as big tech, employing a monopolistic business rationale Nick Srnicek calls “platform capitalism,” or “ecosystems of goods and services that close off competitors: apps that only work with Android, services that require Facebook logins.” It would be inescapable unless you make your own clothes or remove embedded tags — potentially at a penalty. Using the economic playbook developed by Google, Facebook, Spotify, and Netflix, fashion brands would be poised to leverage users for financial gain, either selling them as audiences to other brands or collecting subscription revenue from them directly. In either case, a conventional material good (clothing) becomes reimagined as a service for which use is contingent upon regular payment, with either data or cash.

In commercial terms, data collected from clothes would present an array of opportunities for companies to set prices according to their perception of the customer, gain control of product resale, decide which consumers are able to resell garments or receive discounts, and wield algorithmic power in forecasting “user” behavior. Integrating users’ online profiles with clothing sensors would allow brands to “onboard” forms of in-person data and interactions they currently can get only from pop-up events and in-store tracking, bridging a material gap between the brand and the consumer in ways phones and apps cannot. Apps designed to be used with smart mirrors wouldn’t just scrape visual information in ever more seamless ways; the sensors could flag products and transmit granular details about where it was purchased, for how much, and how often it had been worn. Snapchat, for instance, having inured users to AR filters, is now establishing itself as a virtual shopping space where users can try on and then buy shoes (as in this summer’s Snapchat X Gucci partnership) and where advertisers can measure consumer behavior and identify other brands in consumers’ homes. Clothing data too could reveal how an individual is caring for a garment, if they are wearing it with other non-branded clothes, or how or where they purchased it. This could enable coercive scenarios in which users are compelled to trade personal data for discounts or, for instance, use a certain dry cleaner to protect a garment as a brand asset.

Clothing is more intimately connected to the body than any phone. And because fashion depends on perceptions of exclusivity and access, the temptation to abuse the forecasting powers of data may be stronger. Such data would allow brands to sort consumers — and their bodies — according to their value to the brand image. This may sound alarmist, but given the corporate racism, transphobia, and fatphobia brought to light by fashion activists such as Diet Prada, such exclusionary practices have precedence. Just consider designer Stefano Gabbana’s highly publicized racist rants against Asian consumers, Prada’s 2018 “pradamalia” collection with its racist iconography, Gucci’s 2019 sweater with a blackface design, and Marni’s “Jungle Mood” advertising featuring racist tropes, not to mention the longstanding lack of diversity in runway models or the pervasive issues in fashion magazines’ presentation, such as lightening the skin and Photoshopping the hair of Black models and celebrities (for which Grazia U.K., InStyle U.S., and Elle U.S., among others, have been criticized).

Such data would allow brands to sort consumers — and their bodies — according to their value to the brand image

On social media platforms, fashion surveillance can make issues of access and visibility even more problematic. These platforms already provide the stage for creating sales pushes, fostering notions of exclusivity, hyping drop culture, and manufacturing scarcity. With user data from garments, companies such as ROI Influencer Score could produce metrics for how much social media engagement individuals get from wearing an item, as if putting it on were equivalent to making a social media post. Then, if a customer is deemed insufficiently popular, they might not receive certain promotions or invitations. Sneaker brands have become practiced at creating urgency around product drops with geofenced releases restricting access. Surveillance-fueled consumer ranking and rating could further ring-fence products in ways that manufacture scarcity, inflate pricing, and pit consumers against one another.

This reorientation of clothing as a rationalized tool to prove rank and worth disrupts the aesthetic performativity long encoded within fashion. Fashion has been used for centuries to tell stories about ourselves and our identities, share political viewpoints, demonstrate wealth (as argued by Veblen), class (as discussed by Bourdieu), or demonstrate allegiance to a subculture like punk (as theorized by Hebdige). In Dressed, fashion historian Shahidha Bari describes clothes as “wordless witnesses to our lives.” The literal datafication of the memory embedded in clothes, however, threatens to shift this relationship with garments. Wearing clothes ceases to be an aesthetic performance of identity and becomes more a form of alienated aesthetic labor: The wearer becomes a “user,” and the “user” becomes an object to be manipulated and traded among brands and corporations.

Embedding surveillance into fashion would extend its reach and predictive powers, binding us further to an unprecedented array of interconnected, overlapping systems and data streams which are able to map, locate, identify, and predict. Seen through the lens of state-sponsored surveillance, this exposes us to broader harms than being nudged into brand-conscious behavior. There is vast potential for the abuse of ubiquitous mapped data, as illustrated by the Trump administration’s use of private data broker Venntel’s phone data to locate and deport immigrants. What for fashion brands might be simple silos of consumer information are for governments ways to rank and manage populations.

In our current political climate, red-flagging somebody who has been to a protest and preventing them from checking into a flight or attending a political event certainly does not seem far-fetched. And given the wrongful June 2020 arrest of Robert Julian-Borchak Williams via erroneous facial recognition matching, the ramifications of scraping constantly proliferating layers of data is chilling. If we are to adopt garments as platforms, we must therefore also consider the words of theorist David Lyon, who in Surveillance Power and Everyday Life asserted:  “Surveillance occurs in the most high-tech ways and at the pinnacles of power, but depends on the humdrum, mundane communications and exchanges.” Because when woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, pervasive surveillance holds the potential not just to optimize the production processes that creates garments but the wearers themselves. The result is not the perfect sustainable fashion product but the perfect fashion end user whose selfhood is marked by acts of digital labor and self-branding for corporate profit and political expediency.

Rachel Huber is a British freelance writer and editorial translator now based in California. She has been published by Bust magazine and Restless, and more recently in the book Communication in the Era of Attention Scarcity.