Fashion Tech: How Saudi Arabia Could Take The Lead In This Untapped Sector
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Boosting Saudi Arabia’s cultural landscape in order to showcase the Kingdom’s rich national artistic and creative heritage has been highlighted as a key cornerstone of the country’s Vision 2030. In its attempt to support an enabling environment for the cultural landscape to glow and inclusiveness to grow, an all-encompassing transformation plan was recently announced by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture. In particular, new details were revealed about the introduction of a Fashion Commission to oversee the country's emerging design scene, a hugely untapped market which represents immense opportunities for fashion-forward and innovation-savvy youths in the Kingdom.
Yet, as digital transformation and tech-centric innovations have become increasingly important in the world of fashion by contributing to enhanced user experiences, improved efficiency along the supply chain and shifting trends in customer behavior, it is fashion tech that represents a rare opportunity for Saudi Arabia to forge itself a unique position at the center of the global fashion scene. Indeed, the Future Investment Initiative (FII), as a key forum for coordination of policy and action within the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals, has a strategic role to play in shaping Saudi Arabia’s path towards becoming a global fashion tech hub.
The opportunities are aplenty. For instance, internet of things (IoT) to create a more personalized shopping experience. Artificial intelligence (AI) to enable brands to predict trends and significantly reduce the gap between what is being produced and sold. Mobile commerce and live video shopping for a sleeker form of shopping. Virtual or augmented reality (VR/AR) and digital clothing to enable shoppers to try outfits on an avatar –customized to the correct measurements– before purchasing an item. Blockchain to provide a unique digital identity to items and help authenticate luxury goods or anonymously transfer ownership of pre-owned fashion items. Cryptocurrency to enable payment of luxury items.
All of these represent an exceptional opportunity for Saudi Arabia, while B2B startups that provide behind the scenes technologies for customer service and logistics make up for low-hanging fruits that have the potential to catapult the Kingdom to the forefront of the fashion tech scene. But most importantly, culture and fashion are the biggest democratizers in terms of “taking from the few, and giving to the many,” within an inclusive society model.
So, by combining fashion and technology, the Kingdom has the chance to unleash a world of opportunities for the Saudi women and men of today, the doctors, entrepreneurs, and everything in between. These are the women and men who are keen and eager to narrate their own story through their choice of fashion while remaining loyal to their roots and traditions. The Kingdom has, therefore, the opportunity to create its own story of technology supporting inclusiveness through fashion and culture.
But while technological innovations have opened up huge opportunities aimed to better deliver what customers want, including smarter omnichannel shopping journeys, advanced clientele servicing, and data-informed product development and merchandising, Saudi Arabia will also need to tailor its fashion agenda to its own circumstances and embrace its traditions. A success story will need to be built around promoting and celebrating national champions. The Kingdom already has a handful of designers who together and individually are changing the face of fashion, not only within the Kingdom but also beyond.
Take for example Arwa Al Banawi, who uses Arabic calligraphy that speaks to young women from the Arab world as part of its identity. Her designs look to Saudi Arabia’s culture to spotlight and celebrate customs the public doesn’t typically see. Or Naeema and Shad Alshuhail, who launched Herfah by Naeema -now called Abadia- in 2015 to celebrate Saudi craftsmanship and heritage in a contemporary way. Their signature farwas –floor-length oversized coats Bedouins wear in the desert– embellished with sadu and embroidery details by artisans in Qassim, are among the pieces intended to “defy trends.”
FII, an annual conference which has now become an institute for innovation, had a strong message at last year’s global summit: We are open for culture and entertainment; we are open for innovation. Fashion tech is an opportunity to do something that is 21st century fashion, and my proposal is for an annual event that brings fashion and technology under the same roof as a key date in the global fashion calendar: the Saudi Fashion Tech Week. Here’s hoping.