Physical to Digital: Future Disruption In the Fashion Industry
3D visualisation and virtual reality technology become the standard over physical products and samples when presenting to consumers, especially in B2B environments. From physical to digital. Let’s dive into the technologies and concepts that go a step further than what we consider innovative today and look at what is possible tomorrow.
The fashion industry has been known to being a laggard when it comes to the adoption of innovations, especially the luxury segment of the apparel industry that tends to cling to their pens and paper, tradition and heritage. They fail to realize that using a computer instead of a pencil does not dilute the sense of craftsmanship but it reflects the vision, purpose and level of adaptation of a company. There is a reason we are no longer writing each other letters and instead use video calls and e-mail to communicate.
Everyone who is currently 23 years of age, or younger, is considered a true digital native. The rest of us are mere digital immigrants, not quite as savvy as them. Digital natives are born into a digital world where they have grown up surrounded by technology and have interacted with them from an early age, which gives them a better understanding of the digital landscape around them. This means that the younger, and coming generations, expect more from the brands they buy from. With more than a quarter of people worldwide falling in that category, digital adaptation and adoption are going to be more important than ever.
Luckily more and more fashion brands are paying attention to what is happening in the digitization and innovation landscape. With further advancements and innovations, the scene is getting more saturated and solutions more abundant and disruptive, all designed to significantly alter the way brands and consumers operate in their respective landscapes.
Let’s dive into the technologies and concepts that go one step further than what we consider innovative today and look at what is possible tomorrow. The additions and upgrades to ‘simply’ creating and designing garments in 3D. The technologies that are on the horizon and can make companies future proof, providing them with a competitive advantage. Virtual stores that merchandize themselves, virtual reality focus groups to gauge your 3D assortments and clothing that you will only be able to wear in the virtual space. It’s time to make the transition from physical to digital.
Disruption 1: Immersive Selling
When new technologies are discovered and implemented we tend to start out conservative. Brands create 1:1 identical virtual copies of their store environments and their clothing collections. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Game engines and 3D software allow you to create environments that defy gravity and go beyond your wildest dreams. Anything is possible when you go from physical to digital.
So why are we still only creating exact 3D replicas of existing store environments? Why not create a customer experience that will truly blow clients away? Numerous brands are already utilizing virtual 3D store environments in their B2B wholesale process, cutting down on physical mock-up stores and physical samples. If we take Nike as an example, they have almost completely gotten rid of their physical, dedicated mock-up stores, when selling to the B2B wholesale accounts. Instead of the usual physical fixtures, filled with physical garments, you will find large television screens that show interactive virtual flagship stores, merchandised to the exact needs of the specific accounts.
The traditional physical stores are becoming less significant with the rise of online shopping. More sales are happening online, digitally and virtually. So let’s break free from brick and mortar and traditional way of selling apparel. Or for that matter of fact, even the traditional way of selling virtually and let your imagination run free. Why would you not want to imagine your sunglass collection on a beach in Brazil, or on a yacht in the Mediterranean Sea?
A company that knows how to make the 3D look good is digital fashion house, The Fabricant, who has created life-like and high-quality 3D renders and animations of high fashion garments worn by hollow body mannequins in any location you can imagine. This year they have even sold a 3D garment for a whopping US $9,500 dollars. Bear in mind that this piece of clothing cannot be worn, touched or even seen. Unless you are looking at a screen of course. If this concept seems foreign or strange, ask any 12-year old if they have ever spent any of their allowance on virtual clothing, or so called ‘skins’, in one of their favorite video games. It will probably surprise you that, most likely, everyone has bought a digital piece of clothing for their online characters. The start of the B2C transition from physical to digital.
One of the biggest games at the moment, Fortnite, earns millions of dollars selling virtual clothing, shoes and accessories for online characters. Italian fashion house Moschino has designed a clothing collection that can be worn in real life as well as in the popular life simulation video game ‘Sims’. The latest fashion and gaming partnership was made between two of the biggest players in their respective industries — Louis Vuitton designed custom skins and the trophy case for the League of Legends e-sports world championship.
Providing consumers with a virtual buying experience that is up to par with their expectations is a must nowadays. This is because, today’s consumers are well connected to the internet and they expect the same from the brands they buy from.
Even luxury fashion brands are now exploring the possibilities of using 3D visualization to their advantage. The smart brands utilizing the creative freedom that gaming engines and 3D software offer, in order to leverage their creativity and wildest fantasies. High fashion brands create couture that often serves as art at the same time. How do you properly visualize a store environment that has never been created before and matches the avant-garde look and feel of the garments shown on the runway of fashion shows around the world? Engines like Unreal and Unity, or software like 3D studio Max, provide creatives with endless possibilities to create store environments that defy all logic and fully capture the creative genius of the brand. When even the most traditional and conservative sector of the fashion industry is exploring the innovation landscape and discovering the possibilities of moving from physical to digital, sentiments are really shifting. Remember the time when we thought we did not need cell phones? Sometimes it takes a while to recognize the value of something and adopting it.
Disruption 2: Virtual Reality Neuroscience
3D and virtual reality technologies are taking giant strides with each passing year. The virtual reality headsets that are omnipresent today are becoming more detailed, powerful and capable. Oculus, the biggest producer of VR goggles in the world, has recently come out with their latest model — the Oculus Quest. The Quest allows users to ditch their controllers and use their hands. Four tiny wide-angle cameras on the outside of the headset track the hands and the environment of its users rendering any external sensors and joysticks irrelevant and unneeded — once again lowering the threshold for virtual reality.
Another manufacturer of virtual reality headsets, HTC, takes things a step further with their new goggles — the HTC Vive Pro Eye. The Vive Pro is the first mass market VR headset that comes with standard eye tracking which opens up a world of possibilities for game design studios, companies and consumers. But what if we take things one step further and add neuroscience to the mix?
What if you could give members of a focus group a VR headset, set them free in one of your virtual stores, filled with your latest collection and track where they look, walk and what responses are triggered in the brain. E.g., are you sure that your latest shirt, in that color works best in that position in the store? Just send in a customer and see what responses your merchandising elicits. Merging sales and marketing data with pure emotional data from human beings, should be a researchers dream.
Virtual reality is used with increased frequency when studying the brain of humans and rodents. Right now researches are conducted in neuroscience labs around the world aimed at unlocking the complexity of our brain. In the future, if and when, neuroscientific measurement equipment related to brain activity and response, becomes more readily available, it will be a perfect tool to accurately and honestly gauge responses from customers and colleagues. This will come handy in all stages — whether in the design stage of a single garment or when perfecting a sales set-up for one of your biggest wholesale accounts. Combining neuroscience with 3D and virtual reality is indeed a very powerful combination that the fashion industry cannot overlook in the near future.
Disruption 3: AI Merchandising
Whether you are trying to find a ride on Uber, figuring out how to get to a certain location using Google maps, or sitting on an airplane artificial intelligence (AI) is all around us today. Did you know that one the average flight, only seven minutes are reserved for the human pilots. Besides the take-off and landing, the autopilot directs the plane to its destination. What if we dedicated this intelligence to, let’s say, your merchandising efforts.
Imagine that you no longer would have to physically merchandise a complete store to get an understanding of what works and what does not. Let’s say that by setting the parameters to an algorithm and clicking a button, you would receive a fully merchandised store — digitally and in 3D. You will be able to walk through, interact with and adjust your custom virtual environment. This might sound like an innovation of tomorrow, but it is already here. A platform like Dtail is already using algorythms and artificial intelligence to help their clients auto-merchandise their digitized 3D stores.
Let’s walk through the different digital innovations needed to streamline the merchandising process in the fashion industry.
At the basis of every fashion brand’s transition from physical to digital lies a solid 3D foundation. Building a 3D library of your garments is at the heart of digitizing your workflow. Adopting software that allows you to design collections in 3D is becoming a must, since the whole industry is shifting from physical to digital. Manufacturers, suppliers and fashion brands are all moving towards 3D. There are companies that have the experience and capacity to create large volume 3D collections and libraries for you, but more and more fashion brands choose to do everything in-house.
Most fashion schools and universities offering fashion courses, offer 3D design in their curriculum or even as a bachelor or master program. Most of the fashion designer that are introduced to the job market have a background in 3D and are ready to start working for any fashion band that wants to have them. Take advantage of the wave of young and eager professional that are being released, to assist you in your transition from physical to digital.
After your 3D library is in place, you can start thinking about store environments. Game engines like Unreal or Unity or often used to create store interior and exteriors. Just like in the video game your children are playing, everything can be manipulated. So whether you want a straightforward square retail space, or a more custom and experimental environment, all is possible. Please note that your 3D garment library, as well as your store environment including fixtures, could all be generic to save cost. Especially in the beginning, when your company might not have the sufficient budget available to have everything made custom, having a generic 3D garment library and store environment, might be a smart move. Convincing management and getting used to 3D takes time.
So far, this should all sound straightforward to early adopters. The combination of 3D garments and store environments allow companies, like Nike, to completely digitize their B2B sales process and merchandising efforts. Shifting almost entirely from physical to digital. Nike recognized the value of 3D early on and went all in. They have now completely transformed the way they sell and merchandise. Instead of physical mock-up stores filled with physical samples of their new collection, merchandised by hand to cater to their specific accounts’ needs, all is done digitally now. Large touch screens showing interactive virtual store environments filled with their latest 3D collection. All merchandised swiftly and digitally to cater best to the specific needs of their individual accounts. No more fixtures with expensive physical samples, that are being fought over by different teams within the company. Clean, sustainable, fast, economic and future-proof.
And now for the best part — auto merchandising. What if you could upload your 3D garment library onto a platform that would allow you to form assortments, auto merchandise entire digital stores with the click of a button and present in life-like quality. Whether you are communicating internally, creating mock-up stores for your wholesale accounts or merchandising your latest global collection, the more data you attach to garments and collections, the more accurate and effective the algorithm gets. What garment should be folded, what color jacket should be in the front of the store and what percentage of you assortment needs to be sportswear? Attach the data to your algorithm or to specific garments, request the merchandised environment and within seconds you will receive life-like, virtual store environment. Merchandised for maximum impact.
Implementating Physical to Digital
All new technologies and workflows need to be implemented at some point. The more innovative a company is, the easier a transition will be due to experience and knowledge. When adopting a new disruptive technology, and moving from physical to digital, there are a few factors that can make or break the implementation.
Based on a focus group attended by industry insider veterans, hosted by PixelPool and held at PI Apparel in New York City in June 2019. We discovered what challenges brands encountered when implementing innovations into their company.
From a managerial perspective, it is paramount to recognize the importance of giving your employees time to learn. Familiarizing yourself with new technologies and software does not happen overnight. Allow your employees the time necessary to get to know the new implementation. Allow them to make mistakes and be prepared for trial and error. That is the best way to learn and retain information.
Another common misconception with fashion brands who are exploring the innovation scene is the believe they will find one tool that will solve all their problems. The fashion innovation landscape consists of so many vendors, who all specialize in a different area of your workflow. There surely is overlap, but you will have to look for the right innovations, catered to the specific needs of each part of your workflow. With 3D vendors starting to work more closely together, allowing for future integrations, it will become easier to make multiple solution work together effortlessly.
This one might sound counter intuitive, but do not strive for perfection. Not just yet. Awareness and adoption of innovative solutions in the fashion industry are gaining traction and will result in more widely available, less costly offerings. As technology progresses and more and more fashion brands hop on the innovation train we will see more cost-effective solutions being readily available. Most innovations today, are adopted by big brands that are effectively pioneers in the fashion industry. Laying the foundation for the rest to follow. On top of that, as a brand that is most likely just dipping its toe in the innovation pool, budget will be tight. Just like everything else in life, the same goes for 3D renders and technology — the more you pay, the more you get. And let’s not forget that most brands are looking at 3D to replace non-visual tools and processes. A 3D model, of any quality, is already a huge step-up from a sheet any kind. With experience, budget and knowledge, comes higher quality and more specific innovations. So don’t let the fact that the first 3D models don’t look photo realistic, hold you back.
Lastly, brands should not rush into overhauling their entire pipeline. Gradually introducing pilot programs and implementing them, will ease the transition. Familiarize yourself with one tool or platform, before moving on to others. Setting a solid foundation for innovation will drastically help any future endeavors.
The entire industry is slowly moving to predominantly digital workflow, embracing advanced innovations and solutions. Saving time, money and being competitive has never been more important. Innovative companies dedicated to digitizing the fashion industry are more abundant than ever and there is always a solution that fits into your workflow. Even luxury brands like Gucci and Givenchy are dipping their toes in the innovation pool. When even the most conservative and traditional fashion houses are looking to digitize, you know a change in attitude is coming.
It is never too late to start your innovation journey and do not be overwhelmed by the multitude of different software’s and solutions. Take a good look at your current workflow and see where you could improve by digitizing and where you would like to start. Whether you are a multinational or a boutique style vendor, there will always be a perfect match for you.
One last big hurdle that stands in the way of tranformation from physical to digital within the fashion industry is the fear of transparency and sharing knowledge. Keeping one’s cards close to one’s chest is a proverb not wasted on the fashion industry. The main motivation for wanting to innovate right now, is staying ahead of the curve — not just with competing brands, but sometimes even with other division within one company. If no one is willing to reach out and join hands, we all remain on our own little island, slowing down innovation and sustainability of the fashion industry as a whole. Luckily there are initiatives that try to turn the tide. The 3D Retail Coalition (3DRC) is a great example that brings global retailers and brands together to collaborate, set industry standards and share knowledge. It is on the industry to embrace innovation and unlock its full potential. We can all come to agree, that together we can drive the fashion industry forward, into the future.