Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This roundup is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

Diverging economic recoveries set the stage for continued remote working.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the path out of the pandemic looks very different depending on which side of various international boundaries you stand. Outside China, where statistics are unreliable, the USA and UK look to be the first large countries set to complete their vaccination programmes in the first half of 2021. (Israel and the Arab Emirates will finish sooner, but have sub 10 million populations each.) But despite sharing that optimistic outlook from a public health point of view, the economies of the US and EU, to which the UK is still tied in many respects, look to be diverging dramatically.

Statistics published yesterday by JP Morgan (not yet part of its always-informative Guide To The Markets) suggest that retail recovery in the USA is beginning to outpace retail recovery in Europe, and that further stimulus measures in America will drive a deeper wedge between the two.

Some of this is easy to account for: the USA has far more lax restrictions on domestic movement and trade than many EU countries, and certainly the UK, which remains in a lockdown it entered at the start of January. Comparing retail that has been forcibly closed to retail that’s been largely allowed to remain open, but within different confines on a state by state basis, seems unfair. But the fact remains that, regardless of the impact on public health and mortality – which could be significant – economies that have remained operational are going to have a headstart on post-pandemic recovery compared to those that are still shuttered. And that’s before we even consider the potential effects of third waves that are now dawning in countries like Brazil.

This disparity is going to be one of the major forces that shape the state of the world in the second half of this year and beyond. And for an international business such as fashion retail, the differences in restrictions on trade and movement, and the diverging consumer spending outlooks are going to conspire to create a patchwork global environment that will be difficult to target from the point of view of overseas production and international wholesale and retail.

Crucially, too, this environment will also sustain the requirement for remote working and collaboration – something that some people have predicted would return to pre-pandemic levels, and others are expecting to remain permanent – and even double this year alone. Planning a collection with a colleague in a region where she can’t get into the office and is targeting shoppers who can’t enter a brick and mortar store, while you are under much milder restrictions could become a familiar scenario.

Microsoft this week unveiled its new Mesh mixed reality collaboration platform, betting on precisely that kind of scenario: where an uneven economic recovery permanently or semi-permanently changes both our working patterns and consumer appetites.

The level of “presence” that Microsoft are touting for Mesh separates it from existing video and even VR collaboration platforms, and a separate demonstration of volumetric body capture reopens the tentatively-sci-fi world of holographic “transportation” that others have tried in the past. Right now it seems unlikely that Mesh will be used to bring a holographic representation of a model in a fit session on one side of the world into a designer’s studio on the other – given the limitations of the capture method – but the potential for a different, more grounded sort of remote collaboration is compelling.

And in a retail industry that seems as though it will continue to be characterised by remote working – whether that’s everywhere or just in pockets where lockdowns persist and vaccination programmes are ongoing – the ability to makes oneself feel present and understood digitally, at a distance, is going to remain valuable.

Fashion must not get too far ahead of itself in trying to tackle the thorny problem of digital ownership.

Only rarely does a technology topic emerge to such a divisive reception in a such short time as the compressed furore that has surrounded NFTs this week. An incredibly complex topic, technically speaking, NFTs (which stands for non-fungible tokens) have extremely rapidly become synonymous with “digital art,” which has led, of course, to a huge up-tick in interest in digital fashion.

In last week’s news roundup, The Interline explained why our perspective on digital fashion has evolved (because the technology is improving, essentially), at the same time as setting out the commercial and practical considerations that we felt still stood in its way. All of those pale next to the sheer cliff that NFTs are going to have to climb in order to become the viable longterm proposition their proponents want them to be.

The quick definition of an NFT is that it’s an indivisible token that resides on a blockchain, and that is tied inextricably to a digital asset of some kind: video, 2D art, 3D garment, music, the list goes on. An NFT can be traded with another person in exchange for something else – including money – through a broker, but it each is unique in a way that a single Bitcoin, say, is not.

In practical terms, that makes it almost akin to an incorruptible certificate of digital ownership, which, in and of itself, is not a bad idea. A lighthearted primer by The Verge is a good place to start for anyone with a passing interest in understanding the underlying technology and the culture that has quickly sprung up around it.

original artwork copyright grimes / CLaire boucher

Where NFTs falter is in their applications and, crucially, their implications. In the article linked above, an art collector who paid an exorbitant amount of money for a piece of digital art tries to draw an analogy between the Mona Lisa itself and a photo of the Mona Lisa, arguing that one has more intrinsic value than the other. At first glance this checks out, and clearly any of us would rather own Da Vinci’s original than a picture of it. But on deeper examination the comparison falls flat because NFT’s as currently minted, packaged, and sold through blockchain brokers have no mechanism of authenticity prior to the point they are entered into the blockchain record. Which means that buying NFT art is better compared to paying over the odds for a photo of the Mona Lisa because you value knowing that it’s verifiably a copy of the ersatz image rather than the original.

To be clear: much of the art sold through NFT marketplaces like Nifty Gateway is likely original and as unique as anything born binary can be. And the most famous digital artists have established a reservoir of trust. But if we are to run a blockchain application that relies on trust as its input, then in The Interline‘s view there is little point in it being a blockchain application at all, because the chain starts with a broken link.

Take two of the most prominent recent examples of NFTs as case studies.

The first is a short, CG video clip sold by musician Grimes for close to $400,000 through Nifty Gateway. Its value is contingent on three things: the buyer’s trust that Grimes herself does not also hold a copy; the buyer’s trust that the studio that created the video does not have it archived in a data centre somewhere, which they almost certainly do; and the community’s trust that if and when the buyer decides to trade that NFT for value of some other kind, it can be transacted in a manner and in a format that remains useful.

A lot in that equation is riding on trust. And a lot else is still subject to traditional copyright rules – which are highly likely to override any claims made through a blockchain record of ownership.

The second example is NBA Top Shot, which is a collectible experience somewhat akin to a trading card game, clothed in the trappings of videogame loot boxes. The NBA’s own site does a perfectly adequate job of explaining how Top Shot works, but the justification for it is inescapably flimsy. Because, yes, it’s possible to find a verifiably rare “moment” in one of the packs the platform runs on, with its scarcity substantiated by a blockchain, but that moment is rare in the most artificial sense, since the source was an NBA game that has already aired on television, and for which recordings exist outside the Top Shot platform.

In both of these cases, it’s clear that NFTs have been successful at creating communities in very short spans of time. But for any fashion brand eyeing the idea as a way of blending digital fashion with blockchain ambitions, much remains unanswered about the viability of this approach in even the medium term – let alone as a system of permanent authenticity.

As digital fashion achieves something like maturity, The Interline suspects that ownership is likely to be managed in a far more prosaic way – such as with traditional accounts. Because while NFTs have grabbed a lot of column inches this week, many of the problems they purport to solve (including material waste, overproduction, asset portability, and IP protection) are far outside their current grasp.

And the best of The Interline from this week:

This week saw the publication of the key findings from our pre-Christmas 3D and digital product creation research project, conducted by Kalypso, in partnership with The Interline. Any brand, retailer, or supplier looking to benchmark their 3D / DPC strategy will find it valuable reading.

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