Updated: May 27
With COVID affecting our ability to visit stores and physically interact with the products, how are fashion brands adapting and what does the future hold for the industry?
Indeed, we live in the 'insta-age'. Social media is changing how fashion is consumed and has trained customers to want instant access to the latest trends as soon as they hit the catwalks. At the same time, younger generations who want to stand out from the crowd, seek products that can be tailored to their needs and preferences. Moreover, 'mass-made' clothing as we know it, seems to be gradually losing its appeal.
Why Fashion is Going Digital
As this trend continues to rise, it makes less and less sense for companies and brands to keep producing large quantities of apparel, months in advance, with no certainty of how well it will sell. Those brands that pick up the pace and become more responsive to market needs will be the likely winners in this fast-changing modern environment.
Numerous fashion brands have foregone real-life catwalk presentations and instead begun leveraging short films or virtual showroom visits to demonstrate their seasonal visions. However, even before COVID-19, many in the fashion space noticed glimpses of how physical fashion could be translated creatively to the Internet.
It’s no secret that data is driving the fashion industry more than ever, and e-commerce websites are changing the way shoppers interact with pieces and garments, all without ever having to see or touch it in-person. Consumers are now able to window shop on Zoom. These new dynamics and experiences within the fashion space are now made possible through innovations in social media engagement. There is a real movement towards digital clothing and the phenomenon is redefining the fashion industry.
And it's no secret that the fast fashion trend has caused damage - the fashion industry contributes more to climate change than the yearly emissions of air travel and sea travel combined. But the shift to digital is certainly a way to help buck this trend.
While the notion of virtual fashion may seem futuristic, the fashion industry is considered to be a late-mover to the digital revolution. It is clear that gamers have been investing into digital assets for years. As Matthew Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion points out in an article from Elle, Fortnite fans rack up millions of dollars on skins for their avatars.
“The money being spent on virtual content in the gaming industry is huge,” continued Drinkwater, “and the fashion industry is only just beginning to realize that there might be an opportunity there.”
Virtual Brands are Gaining Momentum
Brands that create virtual content are starting to gain traction. Just take a look at Tribute, which is the foremost platform for contactless fashion. “You have these characters and clothing shops where you can dress them up. That was always the most exciting part of the game for me,” says Gala Marija Vrbanic, the founder and creative director of Tribute in a discussion with Vogue.
Vrbanic originally founded Tribute with Filip Vajda, who is the head of digital fashion. Prior to innovating at Tribute, the Vrbanic and Vajda worked on a traditional clothing brand, but always had their sights set on a digital brand. A passion for sustainability and design ignited the pair to translate their digital ideas to the extreme with Tribute, which now claims to be “zero-waste” because the clothes are made wholly from digital pixels, not fabrics or textiles.
“We truly believe this is something that is going to shape the future of fashion, and it's something that is totally zero-waste,” Vrbanic added.
With sustainability and waste being a glaring, ongoing issue within the fashion industry, pioneers like Vrbanic and Vajda believe their digital approach will continue to gain support. “If you recycle many plastic bottles or produce many organic cotton, it’s still going to be a problem - even a greater one, because when you produce organic cotton, there’s a lot of more water used,” says Vrbanic. “In this case, there are no external resources used. In a couple of years, everything is going to be digital.”
By generating garments and pieces that are available only on the Internet, Tribute has carved out a creative space that allows individuals to wear things that can only be described as otherworldly. “We add new things that are impossible in the real world, like new materials - things that just couldn’t function in the real word due to the laws of physics,” Vrbanic told Vogue.
Meanwhile, the Scandinavian brand Carlings employs a similar concept to Tribute, and its core team of 3D designers have been reinventing digital streetwear since 2018. In addition, the Fabricant digital fashion house released a marketing campaign that demonstrated an entire digital denim line.
Brands like Tribute and Carlings are likely not popular for everybody. And of course, there will always be a discussion about the way physical clothing translates to our own well-being, positivity, and day-to-day experiences. But make no mistake - this trend is here to stay.
Translating Digital to Physical
And while the virtual world is making an impact, in the physical one, digital is having quite a large impact on the process of design. Originally, the purpose of using digital 3D tools in fashion was to serve as a complement to traditional methods, increase the speed at which items could hit the market, and slash costs. The goal was to first gather all physical components of a piece and to then create a mirror image digitally - a “digital twin” - out of it. However, as digital fashion design tools advance and become more mature, we are beginning to see a new pattern, in which the ideation and design process occurs predominantly in the 3D environment. Said differently, instead of physical to digital, we’re seeing a shift of digital to physical. Having a fully digital asset with digital components makes it easier to share an item across the full supply chain, ensuring that there is consistency and transparency throughout the process.
And because digital design is now the first step in the process, fashion designers are experiencing much more creative freedom. As designers explore new tools integrated into 3D systems like Adobe Substance, they are able to create totally new materials that can only be constructed within digital elements (based on varying combinations of unique geometries, texture maps, and lighting HDR environments) And thus, there is a new opportunity in the fashion space - how to translate digital materials and designs into the physical world. The process of creating a “digital twin” is no more - the future is about creating the physical twin for its original digital counterpart.
Making Fashion Sustainable
As we previously mentioned, fashion, specifically fast fashion, has historically been detrimental to the environment. But as consumers become more aware of what goes into products they are buying, from where materials are being sourced from to the working conditions within the industry, there is more of a demand for sustainable practices. Fashion is no longer about the quality of the cloth; rather, it has transformed into a narrative - customers want to know an item’s story, from ideation to its arrival on the shelf (or your doorstep).
And the fashion industry is moving in the right direction, thanks to its focus on going digital. Shifting the designing process to be primarily digitally driven is, without a shred of doubt, the most sustainable way to create and ultimately purchase clothing.
The digital design process will only continue to improve as 3D, AR, and VR technologies become more mature and evolve in the next several years. We can expect to see large fashion brands shift their business models to customized, made-to-order items, where customers will be able to pick and choose tailored clothing in a fully immersive e-commerce experience.
We can also expect to see aforementioned brands such as Tribute continue to garner growing interest in its digital fashion items, and mainstream fashion brands will begin selling digital garments as well. It is entirely possible that in the next several years, the amount of physical items that are sold will decrease, while the number of digital items sold could soar.
The Bottom Line
The fashion world is going digital, and that’s a better model for everyone. Consumers will have more (and superior) choices, designers will have more creative freedom, and the fashion industry will be on its way to becoming far more sustainable.
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