Credit: Satore Studio
The fashion world is increasingly relying on virtual solutions to design and showcase creations in an immersive and sustainable way. And with shop windows out of action and fashion weeks cancelled due to the pandemic, extended realities allow engagement between brands, designers and consumers to continue. Zoe Mutter reports on the tech trends shaping fashion.
Advances in immersive and mixed reality technologies are presenting opportunities for fashion brands to conduct sustainable business, engage audiences and stay relevant. “From virtual catwalks and digital clothing through to the first digital supermodel, immersive media throws up radically creative and disruptive opportunities that are rapidly shaping the future of fashion,” says Yush Kalia, sales and marketing director at volumetric capture studio, Dimension Studio.
Content created for immersive media, using volumetric capture and virtual production techniques, allows designers to showcase their work and demonstrate fabric’s natural flow and movement. The realisation that 3D content creation can impact internal processes and consumer experiences has influenced the fashion community’s gradual adoption of immersive technologies, meaning narratives can be explored in new and exciting ways.
“There’s been an explosion of interest in virtual fashion in the last 18 months as brands and designers begin to realise the potential for the sector. There is a growing acceptance that alongside physical collections, designers will create digital collections and virtual fashion will become a core part of the fashion business model going forward,” says Matthew Drinkwater, head of London College of Fashion’s Innovation Agency.
Drinkwater’s team has accelerated virtual fashion’s adoption; from digitising designers’ collections showcasing cloth simulation to creating a full metaverse experience in collaboration with ILMxLAB that added VFX to a physical location and saw digital models wearing digital clothes on-stage with physical models in realtime.
As more designers launch virtual clothing lines as a form of beta testing, virtual technologies are set to continue influencing the manufacturing process. “Consumers and retail chains can try out designs on uploaded avatars of themselves. Based on feedback and popularity, designers get a sense of what will sell before committing to production. Customers also have a sense of agency in the process, deepening relationships with labels,” says Dorothy Di Stefano, founder/director at art collective, Molten Immersive Art.
As well as opening up new creative opportunities, digital-only fashion promotes sustainability and drives forward responsible design by minimising waste and streamlining supply chains. “A digital supply chain can not only decrease waste, it can increase production speed, offering a win-win for companies working to become more sustainable while cutting costs,” says Solomon Rogers, CEO and founder of immersive studio, REWIND.
As digital prototyping allows consumers to pre-order and customise this means producers target better sell-through rates and reduce the environmental impact.
For 3D designer and creative technologist Antonio Arocho – whose projects include an AR footwear collection and a virtual fashion experience set in space – the beauty of 3D and virtual technologies is that they allow you to explore concepts and create experiences without limits. “Now we start to see brands and companies embracing technology to create not only a great experience but to connect with their clients in a more personal, meaningful way,” he says.
Virtual and immersive technology is not simply evolving the fashion industry, it’s saving it, according to Nastassia Kuznetsova, senior strategist at brand experience agency, Jack Morton Worldwide. “It has provided flexibility and accessibility like never before, but most importantly it has sparked a new wave of creativity with designers responding to the virtualisation of runway shows.”
3D designer and creative technologist Antonio Arocho created virtual reality experience Symbiosis for Jonathan Rayson’s fashion collection (Credit: Antonio Arocho)
Exploring new creative mediums
Niall Thompson, CEO at Previz believes the fashion industry will change more in the next five years than it has in the last century, all driven by technology. “It’s a good opportunity to explore new creative mediums – the technology is developing at such a rapid pace and everyone has a different approach to digital fashion,” he says.
One such interesting approach is that of digital-only fashion houses such as The Fabricant which are already selling virtual clothes that do not actually exist, such as its iridescent virtual dress which sold at auction for £7,500.
“These 3D garments can be overlaid on an image of a person or dressed on a digital avatar. It might sound odd now, but it could be an interesting, sustainable solution to ‘fast fashion’ in the heavily digitised world we live in. Much like having your own Zoom background that speaks to your brand and your personality,” says Kuznetsova. “Fashion label Hanifa’s eerily beautiful virtual fashion show put on during lockdown, featuring invisible models and seamless 3D renderings, also really changed the game and set the pace for the future of runway.”
Elsewhere, REWIND worked with Three and Magic Leap creative consultant Connie Harrison on the first 5G mixed reality fashion show. The Central Saint Martin’s show at London Fashion Week was created by designer Gerrit Jacob using Magic Leap technology and mixed reality content.
“It was a first glimpse into how 5G will transform the future of fashion and how collections could be viewed with increased creativity on the catwalk. 5G delivers the speed and processing power that allows technology like Magic Leap to be optimised. In this instance we were able to render incredibly complex and responsive holographic animations in realtime,” says Rogers.
For another boundary-pushing fashion show Dimension Studio captured supermodel Adwoa Aboah volumetrically in the London studio and worked with agency Pretty Green and Harrison to project the capture onto a wall overlooking the front row while mobile handsets streamed an AR version of the supermodel walking down the catwalk.
Last month, Verizon Media’s in-house creative studio RYOT partnered with the Museum of Other Realities, the Fashion Innovation Agency, UAL and Kaleidoscope to create The Fabric of Reality – a first-of-its-kind immersive virtual fashion show and exhibition featuring designers collaborating with VR artists which invited viewers to explore the story behind collections and interact with garments.
A developing medium
Over the past few years, virtual fashion has progressed rapidly, evolving from the 360 video, interactive look books and dynamic ad campaigns that emerged during the last decade. Digital design is gaining traction in the industry because it allows brands to design quickly and, even more crucially during the current pandemic, remotely. “Traditional sampling and prototyping, for example, can take months, but 3D design can render a realistic-looking shirt in one day,” says Rogers.
Forging a link between the physical and the digital, local brands are using virtual showrooms to showcase collections on a global scale. “We’ve seen established brands come to life in virtual worlds, from Nike and Adidas creating exclusive collections for Fortnite to Valentino and Marc Jacobs dressing avatars in Animal Crossing. We also saw the world’s first piece of digital couture, a blockchain dress – no longer simply a garment, but a crypto currency asset,” says Kuznetsova.
High fidelity virtual versions of products and models can be produced using volumetric video and thanks to advanced processing these captures can be available to customers in virtual or augmented worlds. “Snapchat and Instagram filters put experiences into the hands of their customers, ideal for trying on cosmetics and footwear and creating fun moments to share,” says Kalia.
“And with 53 per cent of 18 to 34-year olds reporting they’re interested in AR apps to try fashion products before they buy – according to Facebook Business – and Shopify reporting a doubling in conversions when AR is used for product visualisation, it’s certainly not a fad.”
A shift in consumer attitude
With stores closed and physical shows halted by coronavirus the fashion industry has been forced to look towards digital activations more than ever to maintain consumer dialogue and interaction. Physical meetings and brainstorming between designers and creatives also ceased when the pandemic struck. “Digital became the centre of creation as teams contributed to projects remotely using 3D to produce products,” says Arocho. “Fashion adapts to the climate – it’s resilient and will re-invent itself. During the pandemic people are still interested in fashion, moreover, they crave it and digital re-connected the consumer whilst portraying fashion differently and engaging on a personal new level with the user.”
Technology not only has the potential to resolve challenges the fashion industry faced pre-Covid-19 such as waste, speed and inaccessibility, it will also allow the industry to be more resilient, relevant and smart in a post-pandemic world whilst presenting an opportunity for brands and tech companies to test new ideas.
As Rogers highlights, the fashion industry needs to re-think the processes and systems in place: “Immersive technologies can build a bridge between physical and digital spaces which is important when we can’t use physical changing rooms, watch a catwalk show, or handle products as we once did.”
While pandemic-induced social isolation has altered the relationship consumers have with technology, brands need to know how to apply it across the chain. “This requires the skills to execute it flawlessly and continuously. It’s not about adding a shiny new tool to the toolkit, it’s time for the entire system to change, including how merchandise, and the experience around it, is created, ordered and sold,” says Dickon Knowles, motion director at digital design and technology company, dandelion + burdock.
Digital design and technology company dandelion + burdock have experimented with a range of options around digital fashion, leveraging their skills as 3D artists, software developers and event producers (Credit: dandelion + burdock)
The rise in the use of 3D software to create clothing has seen virtual fashion grow exponentially with the user. Fashion schools such as The New School in New York have also started to implement these techniques and technologies into their syllabus.
“The technology has steadily become more accessible, encouraging fashion students to get excited about working in virtual fashion. Now we have fashion centred software that is user-friendly and open to anyone with a computer and internet,” says Arocho.
Garments can be created using 3D design software such as CLO3D, Browzwear or Optitex, supporting the creation of virtual, true-to life garment visualisation with cutting-edge simulation technologies. Alternatively, photogrammetry or volumetric capture enable already created garments and models to be scanned in 3D to a very high quality.
“CLO reduces the design preparation time and streamlines the process, allowing users to finalise styles far ahead of regular production lead times. With the ability to create unlimited graphic placements, colourways, and engineered print layouts, endless possibilities can be explored at zero cost,” says Rogers.
When dandelion + burdock began exploring the possibilities they quickly learned high-quality 2D patterns are essential, leading them to design their own. “We created textures in Adobe Substance Designer and once we had these two combined outputs – textures and animated geometry – we either imported into Notch or Unreal for realtime solutions, exported directly to Previz for interactive web-based presentation or for a more polished result into Houdini for pre-rendered animations,” says Knowles. “Fashion brands aren’t set up to support this type of workflow. It requires a diverse and capable 3D team with expertise in modelling, animation and interactivity.”
The extended reality experience is then viewed using a variety of headsets such as HTC Vive, Microsoft Hololens, Odyssey, Magic Leap or their phones or tablets. VR, the games engines it relies on for content and headsets continue to develop at such a pace that many early challenges of working in the medium are disappearing. “The hardware is becoming lighter and more efficient and the price point is lowering year on year. But even with those advancements only half of fashion retailers have adopted VR technology so far, according to Just Technology, as it can be seen as a significant investment for a niche audience,” says Kalia.
Moving fashion forward
One issue the fashion industry faces when creating virtual experiences is that the skill sets required are still not prevalent within the sector, highlights Drinkwater. “We need a new generation of talent more comfortable with these techniques to truly move the sector forward,” he says.
Rogers agrees immersive technology offers the industry a huge opportunity, but brands and designers need to overcome any fears, better understand the technology and then work out how to use it to its full potential. “For many fashion houses, the traditional cycle is still in place. However, the pandemic has shown us that now, more than ever, drastic change is needed,” he says.
Another hurdle to overcome is the fact that VR can make some people feel nauseous, meaning customers could have a negative experience with your brand. “It is up to all of us to ensure there is enough time to test and amend a VR experience before it goes live. VR, although similar, is not the same as a film experience and needs to be approached with care,” says Sanj Surati, digital atelier/founder, Tiger Heart.
Surati is currently working with an artificially intelligent robot that is designing fashion garments that have been presented to high-end ateliers in Paris who assume the garments were designed by humans. “We don’t believe this type of technology will take over the fashion design landscape but it can add value to the current production ecosystem for the right customer and business,” he says.
An important consideration when thinking about the event industry’s pivot to virtual and the fashion community adopting VR for catwalk shows, is how to create the spirit of community. “It’s the spontaneous, serendipitous moments which allow attendees to obtain true value from these experiences,” says Thompson. “We need to think about how we can build systems to support this human connection in and around virtual communities, encourage participation amongst attendees and create spaces for sharing before, during and after these digital events.”
The Fabric of Reality virtual fashion show invited viewers to explore collections and creations from designers and VR artists, such as Damara
A new era of experiential fashion
It seems inevitable that virtual reality will become a core part of fashion brands’ business models in the future. “Brands and designers will be able to create interactions that remove the limitations of the physical world and lead us to a new era of experiential fashion retail,” says Drinkwater.
The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of technology to offer new ways to design, showcase, and retail fashion – a trend Rogers sees continuing: “There is no going back. Brands that deliver meaningful digital experiences over multiple platforms will thrive.”
Tupac Martir, founder and creative director at creative studio Satore Studio, agrees embracing the digital will provide new forms of expression as assets created can be reworked in different ways to reach different audiences. “Through combining digital and real models, exclusive hybrid shows can be created offering new ways to release collections,” he says.
While there will always be a physical element to fashion, the pandemic has shown the industry an alternative and more sustainable way to operate. But the new phase fashion media is entering has been accelerated by the maturation of technologies as well as the lockdown.
“We consume content through a multitude of devices and are starting to demand it be delivered in ways that fit into our lives, our devices and our relationship with tech,” says Kalia. “As realistic digital humans and avatars become more prevalent and persistent virtual worlds develop, the lines between our virtual and physical worlds will increasingly blur, opening enormous creative potential and flexibility for brands to create ongoing stories and bring them to life in new ways online, across any channel. We’ll see fashion shows in Fortnite, AR runways and VR shows that feature ‘click to buy’. Uniquely creative and wonderful virtual fashion experiences are coming.”