Even the biggest advocates of 3D will admit that it took a long time for fashion to pick up the ball and run with it.

Compared to other industries, where creating, visualising, and selling products with three-dimensional simulation and rendering has been mature for some time, fashion has only really seen large-scale adoption of 3D methods and tools relatively recently.

Some of that was down to simple inertia. Away from the high-profile experimenters and early adopters who really pushed the envelope of digital product creation, the fashion industry was slow to change. And although the barrier to entry has arguably never been lower, and ease of use for 3D platforms has never been better, moving from two dimensions to three is still quite significant, as changes go.

A lot more of that hesitance was – at least for a while – down to the actual fidelity of 3D simulation for soft goods and apparel. Making virtual clothing behave predictably and naturally, especially in real-time, was not an easy problem to solve. Beyond incredibly exacting material characteristics, 3D clothing simulation also needs to account for construction methods and the measurements and movements of the digital avatar you choose to dress in it.

But as complex as all of that was to get right, 3D vendors on the whole had simulation of soft materials as good as solved in 2015 if not earlier, and in rigid products like handbags and shoes it was solved decades before that. The results behaved correctly, and they looked good enough to pass for the real thing – at least for design and development activities. And vendors had already, at that point, begun to focus on improving accessibility and usability as their most immediate priorities.

In fact, in WhichPLM’s 2015 deep-dive report on 3D, I wrote:

“Vendors have now begun to market intuitive 3D solutions that meet – and often exceed – the exacting expectations of retail, footwear and apparel industry professionals in the areas of design, prototyping, sampling, store planning, marketing, and even manufacturing.”

So what happened between then and the very recent past, when 3D adoption has really kicked into gear and the conversation has changed from “how can we solve a specific problem with 3D?” to “how can we shift to a 3D workflow entirely?”. Where was the tipping point?

As an observer, that period between 2015 and now has been interesting to see. Throughout those five years, it was clear the technology worked (and had worked for quite a long time) and it was obvious the industry needed it, given the sheer inefficiency and creative constraints imposed by traditional design, development, and collaboration methods. But the way 3D was then embedded in brands’ and retailer’s operations was still quite conservative.

From as far back as 2015, the immediate value of 3D has been clear: replacing physical samples with digital equivalents. Clearly, this was compelling enough for 3D sales to pick up in a big way: back in 2015, the estimate was that fashion was spending up to $8 billion per year on the creation and shipping of physical samples, and the suggestion was that 3D could replace up to 75% of those at a fraction of the cost. Spurred on by this, there have been, by The Interline’s estimations, in excess of 1,200 3D implementations in fashion worldwide.

But beyond that immediate value, things have been a little hazier in terms of implementation strategies. In many cases, 3D was implemented in discrete chunks, as a way to solve singular, isolated problems: sampling, fit, marketing and so on. Realising the true, revolutionary potential of 3D, on the other hand, demands that it be used in a totally holistic way, and today that vision could be ready to be realised.

Not to use my work in 2015 as a crutch – although I’ll admit that it’s nice to be able to quote myself for a change – but back then I said that:

“I consider 3D as the foremost technology capable of revolutionising the long-standard paradigms of design, development, manufacture and consumer engagement. And all of that transformative potential lies in the creation and manipulation of a single, high-fidelity digital asset – a 3D dress, hat, shoe or handbag – at multiple stages of the product lifecycle.”

And this, in my opinion, is where 3D has to go next. Rather than being seen as a lever to solve a single challenge, 3D should be extended with a “create once and use-many” strategy, where the same 3D asset – associated with key product data and metadata, and seamlessly integrated with 2D pattern pieces – can be deployed across the value chain to its full potential. But getting there is going to require a lot of pieces – from material digitisation to digital asset management – to fit together.

Fortunately, there are already people building this bigger picture – starting with the digitisation of materials, components, trims, and avatars, then moving all the way to completely virtual material design and on to new kinds of all-digital market testing, marketing, and consumer engagement.

Throughout April and May, readers of The Interline are going to learn from the vendors, brands, and industry figures who’ve been moving in this end-to-end direction for some time.

Last month, I wrote that fashion now has no choice other than to finish its digital transformation. This month, it’s time we looked at how that’s going to happen.

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