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When It Comes To Fashion, Shouldn't There Be An App For That?

By NPR Staff | 02/14/2013

Thursday is the last day of New York Fashion Week, and some cutting-edge design will be presented in the tents at Lincoln Center — literally. Standing on the runway will be computer programmer types rather than models. This follows an event that kicked off Fashion Week — something called a "hackathon."

A hackathon, explains Liz Bacelar, is a "fast-paced competition in which graphic designers, software developers and people with ideas, they come together to build an app in 24 hours. "

Bacelar is the founder of Decoded Fashion, a company that brings together people working in the tech industry with people working in the fashion industry.

"We brought together 550 registered people, and 78 apps were created in the matter of a day," Bacelar tells NPR's Renee Montagne.

Winners and runners-up win prize money. But what does this have to do with big companies strutting their stuff at Fashion Week? According to Bacelar, the industry is less tech-savvy than it could be.

"The interesting thing about fashion is they [the companies] are trendsetters, right?" says Bacelar. "But right now the industry could really use some innovation. They have kind of lagged behind in technology and how to run a business in a lean way using the power of tech. So we came up with the idea of leveraging technology in a very quick way, to pitch them ideas for them to consider trying."

And, Bacelar says, the biggest and oldest companies have a lot to learn from new fashion startups.

"What happens with the fashion industry is you have the designers showing their collections, you have the buyers placing their orders, and you'd be surprised that a lot of top, top brands, they use very little to no technology. And you have startups, like small companies, they are launching brands online and reaching revenue much faster."

Bacelar says that she sees two trends emerging from the tech industry that could prove very useful in the world of fashion: 3-D printing and visual search.

"We know that in the past 10 years, [3-D printing] has been used for machine parts, for airplanes, and now in the past couple years ... jewelry and metal. We see keys, we see rings being printed."

And something else is being printed, now, too: fabric. Bacelar has seen designers begin to incorporate 3-D printing into their designs — something that she says bodes well for U.S. manufacturing.

"I think [designers] are going to go to hardware — the buttons, the zippers, and consequently, more and more of this manufacturing comes back to the U.S., because it's very complex manufacturing."

With 3-D printing, printers will essentially become tiny factories. "You can have a dress with no seams," says Bacelar. "You design the dress in your computer, you hook it up to the printer, you put [material] that you want the dress to be made of, if it's silk or whatever it is. It's so crazy to talk about it this way, but when you see it, the visuals are just incredible."

Another trend that Bacelar is excited about is visual search.

"Right now, the search is word-based, and more and more, search is becoming image-based," she says. "So, we're going to see browsers, we're going to see websites that we can go to and add an image, and be presented all the images that look just like it."

Bacelar says this year's Fashion Week, and the hackathon, finally bring fashion and technology together. "There's a lot of misunderstanding on both sides," she says. "On the tech side, we keep building solutions that we think the industry needs, but we don't quite know exactly how the fashion industry works. So from the fashion side, they have these problems, and they just don't know how to solve them, and the conversation never happens. So it's happening for the first time, and it's quite exciting."
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