Every week, The Interline analyses one or more vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This analysis is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.
Big moves continue to be made to realise the vision for the Metaverse on an accelerated timeline.
The Interline is certainly not staffed by Luddites. Everyone who writes for this publication considers themself a technology advocate (or even an evangelist). But all the same, even we have been surprised by the speed with which the Metaverse has evolved from an abstract concept that was at least a decade distant, to being a near-term possibility on the two-to-three year horizon.
(We have previously written about the ongoing fragmentation of digital platforms, and that piece also included an overview of what the Metaverse is proposed to be, but we also encourage readers to investigate Matthew Ball’s succinct and compelling Metaverse primers for much more detail.)
Two noteworthy new stories emerged this week that add weight to the sheer speed with which major players are moving towards the Metaverse vision.
First was the announcement that Epic Games – owners of the Unreal Engine and overseers of the cultural juggernaut that is Fortnite, and therefore perhaps the primary force steering the future of real-time rendering and interactivity – had brought SketchFab, inarguably a leader in bringing real-time 3D to the web, into their fold.
On the face of it, this is a story that has only a tangential link to fashion, but it’s important to realise that – today more than ever – fashion is becoming the beneficiary of huge technological strides that are being taken in other industries. Sketchfab has, for some time, been the de facto standard for embedding real-time 3D objects in web content. And while that reputation was built in the world of professional and hobbyist 3D modelling for sectors like videogames, VFX, environment art, and architectural visualisation, it provided a ready-made platform, technology stack, and frontend that allowed fashion brands who found themselves with 3D assets to make use of them in-browser.
The same is also true of Epic. Unreal Engine was not designed for fashion visualisation, but the tools, pipelines, platforms and communities that have been built around its pervasive use in videogames, architecture, and automotive design have allowed fashion to step into established, mature solutions and ways of working.
This is not to say that there is not work to be done to make these technologies – and others – better-calibrated for use in fashion, but broadly speaking fashion remains late to the game when it comes to both extending the use of 3D assets, and seizing the numerous opportunities presented by real-time rendering and interactive experiences.
So needless to say: the fact that the two pre-eminent forces in those spaces are coming together holds huge potential for fashion to, for all intents and purposes, leapfrog into the Metaverse.
At the same time, though, this week’s other Metaverse story is more sobering.
Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg gave a series of interviews where he articulated a vision for Facebook becoming a Metaverse company very soon. This is, in many ways, a natural evolution: for all the good and ill that Facebook has done (an equation to debate another time) on a social level, its name is nevertheless synonymous with the second age of the web, which ushered in our current state of user-generated content. It’s logical, then, that Facebook would see a role for itself in the Metaverse, where the same open tools and platforms that are allowing fashion brands to make a big initial splash are also set to power the stage between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 where the creator economy takes hold (this video overview of that economy is essential viewing) and user generated content becomes a more accessible form of expression and independent commerce.
Where this story has a potentially more sinister edge is in its potential to replicate Amazon’s dominance of eCommerce and its ambitions for general retail (something, again, that The Interline has covered in depth before) but in the Metaverse space.
Consider this: the Metaverse is a vision for ubiquitous, universal, interoperable and totally portable content, both commercial and user-generated. The essence of a free and open market in that setting is exactly that: openness. There is an open question, however, as to whether Facebook (which already owns huge tranches of social media, virtual reality, instant messaging, and social commerce) has earned the right to be the custodian of that landscape.
And, like the speed with which the Metaverse is now being realised, there is a shrinking window of opportunity within which fashion – as well as other industries – can answer that question. Because in a world where physical shipping (even using cheaper and ostensibly more sustainable air freight) is being shown to contribute to climate change in a marked way, and where retailers are making product decisions based on ongoing supply chain uncertainty and cost spikes, the attraction of selling in a digital space without borders is becoming stronger by the day.
Traditional skills are being safeguarded; digital could be joining them.
This week saw the LVMH group unveil the latest stage of its “Métiers d’Excellence” initiative, aimed at protecting what the group sees as luxury’s edge: a reserve of uncompromising, artisanal skills honed over generations, that could conceivably run dry in their domestic markets in the foreseeable future.
Interestingly, the same initiative also includes extensive provision for “reskilling,” which may not explicitly mention digital and technology skills, but The Interline would argue needs to. As an increasing variety of traditional disciplines become digitised, it will be critical for brands to not only shore up their hiring processes, and to encourage the reskilling of existing in-house experts, but to protect their digital edge.
And the best from The Interline this week:
Anyone who missed the live session can now watch the entire briefing and discussion. The Interline will also be covering post-COVID retail in greater depth at the end of this year.