Aesthetics innovation: an exploratory study into the nature of innovation in the fashion industry
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date31/07/2022
This research investigates the nature and dynamics of aesthetics innovation in the fashion industry by studying the role of stakeholders and processes at organisational and industry levels. Aesthetics has been a significant area of interest within the field of arts and design, exploring facets of beauty and styles in music, poetry and physical product or structures. Additionally, aesthetics has intrigued philosophers from the time of Aristotle to modern philosopher Immanuel Kant, who have explained its experiential meaning and its existence in society. With specific reference to the fashion industry, many sociologists such as Blumer (1969) and Bourdieu (1984) have explained the mechanism of the emergence of new design and aesthetics in fashion goods as sociological phenomena. Aesthetics may be defined narrowly as the theory of beauty; however, in a much broader way, aesthetics is the philosophy of art (Slater, 2018). A judgment of beauty is a predominantly affect-driven evaluative response to the visual gestalt of an object. Nevertheless, aesthetics can be categorised in at least three ways - normative, experiential, and judgmental (Hassenzahl, 2008). Since affective responses are integral to defining the aesthetics value of a product, the consumption process and the consumers, along with the producers, become vital to the process. The design and production of new aesthetics is a collective process, where the producers, the consumers and the intermediaries play a crucial role. Specifically, regarding aesthetics and innovation, Hirschman and Holbrook (1982) have discussed aesthetics in relation to product innovation, while newer concepts such as design innovation (Verganti, 2009), soft innovation (Stoneman, 2006) and aesthetic innovation (Eisenman, 2013) have also been proposed. While studying design and other social dimensions of technology, Fleck and Howell's (2001) The technology complex, Pacey's culture of technology (1983) and 'Ten types of innovation' (Keeley, 2013) suggest that an artefact is just a physical manifestation of technology. To understand the emergence, existence and use of the artefact, we must include the other constituents that are the softer or social constituents of the technology complex. The interaction between society, market and within organisations is crucial to the innovation process or strategy (Verganti and Dell' Era, 2014). The wide array of stakeholders, processes and interpretations results in a dominant product that is the dominant manifestation of not just a specific technology but also the aesthetics (Eisenman, 2013). Nevertheless, there is still a lack of research addressing the socio-cultural context in which the products are situated. Even though aesthetics is vital to the innovation process and the success of a product, there has not been sufficient investigation into the aesthetics in the product, the stakeholders involved, and the dynamics of how it affects the innovation process. The lack of research may be attributed to the fact that concepts related to non-technical functions are not easily measurable and challenging to explain in 'rational and scientific' ways (Tether, 2005). This is because it is relatively easy to measure consumer responses to the shape, size and other physical parameters of a product. However, it is difficult to measure, using objective parameters, every design feature, visual performance and preference (Walsh, 1996). Consequently, style, aesthetics and symbolism are although discussed and theorised in practising arts discipline, they are still under-researched in the innovation and new product development literature. Yet these product aspects are crucial factors in a product's commercial success as products increasingly compete on how they look and what they mean to their consumers. There are instances of research exploring innovation in aesthetics by many researchers using evidence from cultural industries, including the fashion industries. However, the application of the concept of 'aesthetics' for empirical analysis is limited to the shell of the product. Thus, the discussion is centred around the relation of innovation to the exterior or the shell of a product and is difficult to justify being of any consequence to its technical improvement. Consequently, it is difficult to classify these changes as significant at the strategic level or to classify the new product as significantly improved and label these changes as innovation. Secondly, for most research in this area, aesthetics innovation can mean changes in the aesthetic dimensions of the product. However, the aesthetic dimensions of the product can itself be improved by technical improvements. Nevertheless, this aspect is overlooked in studies on innovation. By dismissing the means or the sources of achieving aesthetic innovation, these discussions limit their scope and quality of inquiry into aesthetic innovation as well as the issues associated with the concept. This begs the question- what should innovation in aesthetics or innovating with aesthetics mean to business managers? How should they define and understand the role and influence of aesthetics in the innovation process? This is a core issue that researchers in innovation studies have ignored or not clearly explained, requiring further attention. In creative or cultural industries such as fashion, how do the processes of design and development get organised to achieve aesthetics innovation? In other words, how can we achieve commercially successful products using improved aesthetic values, or use aesthetics to enhance the technical and social values of a product significantly? Since aesthetics is the primary driver in the fashion industry, by exploring the nature of innovation in the fashion industry, the overarching aim was to understand and define the dynamics of aesthetic innovation. An empirical and exploratory qualitative study was carried out, making use of 30 semi-structured interviews with members from design, technical, marketing and merchandising teams in the mid-segment fashion companies in the UK and outsourcing suppliers in India. In the later phase of data collection, retail store managers and social media fashion influencers were also included as participants to map the journey of fashion products from their ideation to commercialisation. Observation of the design and production floor was also conducted. By mapping the entire supply chain, the design, the production and the marketing of fashion products, this research studies the production of symbolic value in a product at the various locations and stages and observes the contribution of each stakeholder. It emerges that aesthetics is used by multiple stakeholders as a resource to understand and interpret the physical artefact, its meaning and purpose of existence. These communities of stakeholders collectively (re)imagine, (re)negotiate and (re)produce the physical dimension, the cultural meanings and the nature and scope of practices possible with the artefact. The designers, suppliers, marketers, intermediaries and the consumers each engage in various activities to influence the final Manifestation of Product (MoP). The most important of these activities include interpretation, appropriation and (e)valuation.