Like many industries, the fashion industry is going digital - it has been for years. But in recent months, with the outbreak of Covid-19 causing unprecedented disruption to global supply chains, wreaking havoc on physical retail and making the traditionally intimate world of fashion shows seem an alien remnant of a bygone era, that process has accelerated. In this article, FashionUnited takes a look at some of the interesting ways the fashion industry is going digital - in a broad sense that spans products, processes and events - as well as some of the companies leading the charge.
It would be amiss, when talking about the ways the industry is going digital, not to begin with fashion itself. That is, the digitisation of clothing, which fundamentally enables all the other points we will touch on in this article. Once a far-fetched concept, the idea of digital fashion - or fashion that never physically exists but instead is made only to be seen in digital spaces - is gaining ground in the industry. One of the companies at the forefront of that movement is Amsterdam-based digital fashion house The Fabricant.
The company uses film visual effects such as motion capture, 3D animation software and body scanning to create hyper-realistic animations of fashion garments without ever physically creating them. And there is a growing appetite for this new type of fashion. Since it began operating in 2018, The Fabricant has established an impressive portfolio working with fashion heavyweights such as US label Tommy Hilfiger and German sportswear brand Puma. In 2019, the company sold its first digital couture dress, called Iridescence, at an auction in New York for 9,500 US dollars.
Read our earlier interview with The Fabricant here:
Founder Kerry Murphy envisions a world in the not-too-distant future where people will buy and rent digital clothing to be worn by avatars of themselves - or ‘digital twins’ - who will occupy online spaces such as social media and interact with others. “There is a massive opportunity to sell digital-only clothing and that is the space we're moving towards,” Murphy told FashionUnited. “We are true believers that digital fashion will be more creative and profitable in the future than physical.”
Design and manufacturing
The way our clothing is designed and made is experiencing a shift away from traditional manual processes. 3D fashion design software programmes like Clo3D and Optitex are allowing people to design in a more streamlined and sustainable way, cutting down on the waste and carbon emissions traditionally generated in the sampling process. In November 2019, Tommy Hilfiger’s then-CEO Daniel Grieder announced something radical - that from spring 2022, all the label’s collections would be designed digitally using digital fabric, a pattern and color asset library, digital 3D presentation tools and rendering technology.
“The potential of 3D design is limitless, allowing us to meet consumer needs faster and in a more sustainable way,” Grieder said when announcing the plans. “The technology has become a fundamental tool in our collection design and has the potential to significantly accelerate our speed to market and replace traditional product photography entirely.”
In recent months, brands have cancelled billions of dollars worth of clothing orders with manufacturers, and factories across the world have been forced to close. Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the supply chain by exposing pre-existing weaknesses within it, such as the fragility of the supply and demand model. But as the dust settles for many countries across the world, companies have an opportunity to find new solutions to those issues. One potential solution - and something that has been growing traction in recent years - is on-demand fashion.
Made-to-order automated production cycles have a number of benefits over existing models. Firstly, they cut down on overstock, as only garments that have already been bought are being produced. They also allow for streamlined timelines and offer new levels of personalisation, allowing consumers to customise garments before purchasing them.
London-based tech company Unmade creates on-demand fashion software that allows brands to offer made-to-order customisable garments. The company has worked with the likes of New Balance and Christopher Raeburn. CEO Hal Watts said in an April panel talk with Fashion Revolution that during the Covid-19 pandemic, when factories were being forced to shut, its software allowed existing customers to quickly and easily switch production between factories. He also said he had noticed more immediate interest from companies which had originally planned to work with Unmade further down the line. “I think they’re seeing that their supply chains are very brittle, they are slow and they involve large amounts of stock,” Watts said. “Something like coronavirus just really exposes that reality. It hasn't actually created a new problem, it’s just made the problems they’ve had really visible.”
Fashion weeks and catwalks
Fashion weeks have always been an innately physical affair - theatrical spectacles where masses of industry professionals flock to fashion capitals, packing intimate locations to the brim, sitting shoulder to shoulder while gawking at the latest trends. On a list of things not to do in the new socially-distanced world, it would rank near the top. So of course, the industry had to adapt.
This month, London Fashion Week (LFW) became the first of the four major fashion capitals to showcase its fully-digital iteration - a three-day schedule of films, video discussions and workshops, among other things. But something was missing. Traditionally the crown jewel of any fashion week, the runway shows, for the most part, were nowhere to be seen. It was a sensible omission in light of Covid-19, though nonetheless a drawback. But one brand found a workaround. Taiwanese-born luxury fashion designer Malan Breton showcased his SS21 collection, called ‘Immortal’, through a virtual catwalk show featuring CGI-designed 3D models.
And Breton isn’t the first to reimagine the runway show in recent months. Back in April, Congolese designer Anifa Mvuemba took to Instagram to showcase the latest collection of her contemporary ready-to-wear label, Hanifa. The brand created a video featuring photorealistic digital versions of dresses from its Pink Label Congo collection moving down a catwalk on invisible torsos, showcasing how the garments would move on a real body.
Mvuemba told Teen Vogue that prior to the pandemic she had already been using 3D mockups as a way to showcase ideas to her team and was planning to eventually take her catwalk shows digital. With the future of physical shows cast into uncertainty, perhaps this is the first glimpse of what one day could be the norm. After All, we’ve already seen the increasing presence in recent years of avatars like Lil Miquela - a digital Gen-Z influencer with an eye-watering 2.4 million followers on Instagram who has starred in campaigns by the likes of Calvin Klein, Prada and Givenchy.
But back to LFW. Though the event was undoubtedly far less spectacular and theatrical than past international fashion weeks (you didn’t see Chanel models circling a towering stone statue of a jacket, nor Saint Laurent models walking on water in front of the Eiffel Tower), the free online show undoubtedly offered a more democratised edition of the traditionally exclusive event.
Similarly, Shanghai Fashion Week (SHFW) went digital back in March, delivering a highly-interactive event that pivoted away from its traditional industry audience and towards a consumer one. Visitors watched real-life models walk down virtual catwalks with CGI backgrounds, could ask realtime questions to designers about their collections and, tapping into the growing trend of ‘see now, buy now’, could see which items were immediately available for purchase. SHFW brought together over 150 designers and brands to showcase their collections via livestream and reportedly drew 11 million viewers and sold 2.75 million dollars worth of clothes and accessories.
Move your mouse over the images and click on the round yellow icon with the 'i' for more information. Click on the arrows to navigate through the slideshow. Image: Screenshot Tmall Shanghai Fashion Week. Multimedia created by Weixin Zha for FashionUnited
Trade fairs and showrooms
Physical trade fairs have also been cancelled in recent months. The events, which traditionally see large crowds of exhibitors, retailers, agents, designers and the press congregating to network and showcase the latest products and services, have instead been forced to pivot to entirely digital formats. The world’s leading trade fairs such as Florence’s Pitti Uomo and Berlin’s Premium have announced upcoming digital iterations, while denim trade fair Kingpins has already debuted its first fully-digital show.
The logistics of the feat were impressive. Organisers of the event managed to transform the fair into an online format in just 30 days and 75 percent of its original exhibitors attended. But the digital edition of course had its flaws. Aside from all-too-familiar issues with internet connection, attendees said they struggled to make meaningful contacts like they could in person and the inability to feel and interact with the products and technologies on show was a drawback. But there were also upsides. Like we noted with fashion shows, the democratisation of the event allowed companies to attend who would otherwise not be able to budget for the trip. Other companies noted that the money they saved from the trip (or lack thereof) could then be directed elsewhere, on research or product development, for example.
The showroom is also getting a digital makeover. On Wednesday, OTB Group, which owns brands Diesel, Margiela, Marni and Viktor and Rolf, announced it was taking “a step forward in its digital acceleration” by launching an entirely digital showroom. From SS21 onwards, all the group’s collections will be digitalised with high-quality 360-degree images and videos and 2D close-ups. Buyers will be able to explore the virtual spaces and will be guided through remote buying sessions by vendors connected live.
A growing number of fashion companies are experimenting with this new format. French luxury label Balmain and Copenhagen International Fashion Fair (CIFF) have launched their own virtual showrooms in recent months to help buyers who face travel restrictions. Welsh tech firm Brandlab Fashion is one of the companies working to reimagine the showroom experience and envisions a future where trade fairs and showroom attendees will meet in a virtual reality world to do business.
“The post-Covid-19 world and the inevitable contraction of worldwide travel make virtual showrooms even more important in the future as a way of supplementing existing showroom business,” Brandlab Fashion founder Dan O’Connell told FashionUnited. “Brands can finally break free of the restrictive fashion calendar and do business with more retailers, more often.”
New ways of shopping
Even before Covid-19, people were progressively shifting to online, a trend that will likely only be accelerated by new and globally-shared concerns about social distancing. A recent study by ‘buy now, pay later’ provider Laybuy found that 38 percent of UK shoppers were feeling nervous about returning to stores prior to them reopening last week. But at the same time, people don’t want to turn their back on the exclusive in-store shopping experience. In this space between convenience and engagement, new opportunities for brands to reimagine the shopping experience are emerging.
At the end of May, Tommy Hilfiger unveiled its Summer 2020 collection during its first livestream shopping event in Europe and North America. The 30-minute broadcast featured special guests and influencers and allowed viewers to add their favourite styles to a virtual shopping bag and purchase them after the broadcast. Viewers could also ask live questions, vote on their favourite pieces and take part in trivia quizzes. Tommy Hilfiger has been pushing this ‘see now, buy now’ strategy for the past several seasons, and said this latest move “builds on the next generation’s increasing desire for more social and interactive digital shopping experiences”.
Similarly, Italian luxury label Gucci has reportedly launched a new virtual shopping service to give its customers a virtual in-store experience from the comfort of their own home. Called Gucci Live, the service works by connecting clients via video call to a Gucci employee working from a special store, called Gucci 9, in Florence. In fact, Gucci 9 isn’t a store at all, it’s a set made to look exactly like the luxurious inside of a Gucci store. The service is reportedly still in its trial stage, according to ChargedRetail, but the label intends to open five similar stores in New York, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney and Tokyo.
Another important aspect of the in-store experience that has been given a digital makeover in recent years is the fitting room. While trying on clothing might seem like an inherently physical process, more companies in the fashion industry are looking at ways to change that. And it makes sense when you consider consumers' growing tendency to shop online compounded by new concerns over the safety of using fitting rooms. In fact, a recent study by auditing firm EY found that 80 percent of UK shoppers said they were unwilling to try on new clothing in stores ahead of them reopening.
Yoox, part of the Yoox Net-a-Porter (YNAP) group, was one of the earlier fashion brands to work on a solution for this when it introduced its AI-powered virtual styling suite, called YooxMirror, in 2018. The feature allowed users to mix and match looks on a digital avatar called Daisy. Fast forward a year and Yoox launched a new version, this time allowing users to create an avatar of themselves by taking a selfie or uploading an image. A combination of artificial intelligence and augmented reality (AR) technology then converts that image to a personalised 3D avatar. Fashion companies like Asos and Gucci introduced similar AR try-on features in 2019, allowing shoppers to see what they’d look like wearing certain items of clothing.
Amazon is working on taking that idea to the next level. In January, it was revealed the US retail giant had created a patent, seen by The Telegraph, for its own 'virtual changing room'. The tool would reportedly create a ‘virtual mannequin’ of the user from images taken from their social media photographs. It could then dress the virtual avatar in clothing it has found online, similar to the way social media sites already show us products we might be interested in based on previous searches. The user can then swipe left or right depending on whether they like or dislike the look. The feature will also reportedly request access to the user's personal calendar and suggest outfits based on upcoming events such as weddings, job interviews or sports.
Education across the world has been massively disrupted by Covid-19. It has been especially problematic for inherently tactile subjects like fashion, whose move to remote teaching meant the focus was forced to shift away from the hands-on garment production side of the syllabus and toward things that can be done from home, like working on portfolios or illustration. But students and educators alike have found resourceful ways to persevere. Elisa Palomino, senior lecturer of BA Fashion Print at London’s Central Saint Martins, told FashionUnited in May that she challenged her students to create garments by upcycling materials they could find at home. The “Couture in Confinement” brief saw one student draping and sampling with two old shower curtains and another crafting her own version of the Japanese tradition of washi papermaking using bed slats, scavenged old tissue, dead insects, hair and pieces of soap.
End of year presentations - important opportunities for students to showcase their work to the industry - have also been massively disrupted, with universities scrambling to offer digital alternatives. Take Kent State University for example. Normally, its students would be heading to New York City for the annual Portfolio Showcase in the spring, but this year that ceremony was transformed into a digital showcase, where recent fashion graduates from the school could present their portfolios to alumni and industry leaders. Other schools have hosted virtual career days.
Fashion education for the most part still heavily relies on conventional methods such as hand-drawing and manual pattern cutting, though it has slowly been embracing digital tools. Digital design software programme Clo3D, for example, is used by some of the world’s leading fashion schools such as London College of Fashion (LCF) and New York’s Parsons School of Design. It allows users to design true-to-life 3D garment simulation, though it is only used in a small part of the curriculum in these schools. But that could change in the not-too-distant future, considering the sudden need for students to work remotely. Design lecturer at LCF Samuel Membery said in a panel show hosted by Fashion Revolution in April that before the Covid-19 outbreak, almost none of the 500 students at the college used Clo3D. “But now, around 50 percent or more are teaching themselves how to use it - and very quickly, with really impressive results,” he said.
Although it’s unlikely that the traditional manual side of fashion education will radically change in coming years, it stands to reason that as the fashion industry inevitably becomes more digital, fashion students should be provided with the resources to keep up, resulting in a future where digital tools and traditional manual methods are taught hand in hand.
The fashion industry began its digital shift long before the outbreak of Covid-19, but the pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated that process and forced the industry to quickly adapt. It's yet to be seen how big a role these digital innovations will play in the long-term future of the industry - perhaps the virtual trade fair experience will one day be practically indistinguishable from the real thing, perhaps digital fashion, like Murphy predicts, will be more profitable than physical fashion. Only time will tell. And while it's hard to see an upside in what has been a very bleak few months for the fashion industry - and the wider world - it is at least reassuring to know that these months have brought a sense of urgency to some of the biggest sustainability issues the fashion world has been tiptoeing around for years - issues these digital solutions could certainly help mitigate.
Main article image: The Fabricant x Puma, courtesy of The Fabricant