Digital product creation (or DPC) has quickly become the hottest behind-the-scenes process in fashion.  In a world where physical production was put on pause, the brands and retailers that were able to continue designing and developing new styles and collections digitally and remotely, using 3D tools, were able to pull ahead.

Central to the success of any DPC workflow are digital materials: virtual fabrics that correspond to real materials, and that allow designers and technical teams to prototype and review new concepts, conduct virtual fitting sessions through 3D simulation, and generally use a digital sample the way they would a physical one.

But as essential as digital materials have become to the way fashion businesses need to work today, nobody has yet agreed the right way to take them forward.

There’s no technical reason for this.  The hardware exists to allow almost anyone to scan a physical material, depending on the degree of accuracy they need.  For rapid visualisation, grabbing a picture with a smartphone and a lightbox can suffice.  For deeply technical simulation that captures translucency, transparency and other fine characteristics in uncompromising resolution, high-grade material scanners are readily available.

Instead, the reason digital materials are stalling when it comes to adoption and standardisation is more mundane: competing interests.

For a DPC workflow to be viable, it needs to run more effectively than the alternative – physical prototyping and sampling – for every stakeholder.  The designer, the technical developer, and the manufacturer all need to benefit.  And for that same workflow to be commercially sustainable, it needs to include value for the mill that creates the physical fabrics, the party that digitises it, and the platform that then hosts it for discovery, download, and import into the brand’s 3D solution of choice.

This is the same value equation that has shaped the successes and the sticking points in the digitisation of another industry: entertainment.  Streaming video and music are now the main way that most people watch movies and listen to music, because the value for the consumer was clear – variety, cost, and accessibility – and that value outweighed the benefits of the physical alternative for all but the most die-hard video and audiophiles.  And just like material scanning, the technology that powers video and music encoding and decoding has been proven for years – from standard definition right up to 4K.

But despite the fact that the streaming model dominates consumer entertainment, the commercial side of that industry is a battlefield.  For movies and television, there are too many streaming services to count, and new, more specialised ones are being launched all the time.  Each of these services seeks to draw people in with exclusive content, trying to give viewers an incentive to subscribe to multiple services every month.

In the process, a lot of the original reasons for you, as a viewer, to stream your entertainment rather than buying it outright have been eroded.  Where it was cheaper, more convenient, and more compelling to subscribe to one service, one standard and one platform, subscribing to five or ten different platforms is none of those things.  This is what consumer technology analysts refer to as “the streaming wars”.

And this could be where the digital materials market is heading.  Already, some digital material platforms advertise exclusive partnerships with fabric designers, mills, and suppliers – locking those creators to their proprietary ecosystems by offering digitisation and scanning as a service in return for exclusivity.

This matters because a material bought through one platform is not always guaranteed to work with the full suite of today and tomorrow’s 3D design software. Future-proofing is difficult because there is still no single, agreed-upon standard shared between the creators and users of digital materials.  So not only are you, as a designer, potentially required to use multiple different digital materials platforms to find the fabrics you want, questions still remains around long-term interoperability between them.

A logical alternative, of course, would be for the mills and fabric suppliers to cut out the intermediaries and go straight to the brand and retail buyers with their own digital channels.  But the barrier for doing so is set extremely high: while the supplier can probably afford their own material scanner to create viable captures of their catalogues, they’re unlikely to be able to build the kind of platform infrastructure needed to categorise, advertise, and sell their fabrics straight to brands.

In normal circumstances, when in-person material shows were still running, this would be still be a problem, but workarounds and alternative channels would still exist.  Today, with COVID having sabotaged the future of trade events – possibly forever – material suppliers’ sole option for reaching new customers or promoting new fabrics to existing ones is to sign with a digital materials platform. And while this approach will broaden their reach in the short term, in the longer term it could possibly serve to lock them out of opportunities.

The democratic difference

Things don’t have to develop this way, though.  While the streaming wars rage on, digital entertainment has a different standard-bearer – one that’s a lot more democratic than Netflix or Hulu.  YouTube.

Since it was acquired by Google, YouTube has had one driving principle: anyone should be able to create and publish content, and everyone should be equally capable of being discovered.  And that’s a model that I believe can, and should, work for digital materials as well.

Today, creating a high-resolution material scan (to the 600dpi baseline that brand and retail buyers are going to need) is a lot like the early days of YouTube, when camera hardware, a powerful computer, and editing software were expensive propositions.  But as everyone knows, professional early adopters and hobbyists quickly overcame those barriers, found success, and over time the cost of entry fell.  And it fell quickly.  Today, almost anyone can shoot a video on a smartphone, and edit it with cheap, professional-grade subscription software on an affordable laptop.

I believe the same is destined to happen to high-fidelity material digitisation.  Dedicated scanning hardware will become cheaper and more accessible, giving suppliers and mills of all sizes the chance to bring their wares online without needing to contract out the scanning work in a way that comes with a lot of strings attached.

How will retail and brand buyers then find that digital materials content? That’s where a different kind of digital materials platform comes in.

Today, YouTube fills a well-defined role: it gives content creators, who can be anyone, an open channel to distribute to viewers, and it gives viewers the tools – manual and automated – to find more of the things they like and need.  This is, in my opinion, the value that a digital materials platform should be providing.  Rather than strong-arming suppliers into using their digitisation services, and building libraries and standards that only really serve them, the platform holder’s job should be to give material suppliers the same kind of open channels and tools, and to provide users – in this case brands and retailers – with the ability to find the content that’s right for them.

This is the approach we’ve taken at Frontier.  Any supplier that can digitise their own catalogue to that 600dpi baseline standard is welcome to upload their materials to our platform, after which we manage processing and discoverability.  We take the raw output from the material scanner and conduct noise reduction, tagging, clustering and taxonomy labelling in the cloud – all the steps that then enable brand and retail buyers to discover new suppliers and pull down their materials in a universal, usable format.

Like YouTube, there’s a significant technology aspect to our role.  From pattern recognition to convolutional neural networks that can detect fabric construction, our platform can automatically categorise a scanned image based on its properties and on similar search results.  Over time, this will improve discoverability of new materials to a degree whereby a designer can input the approximate properties of the material they’re looking for – colour, recipe and so on – and receive detailed, automated recommendations in seconds. 

Crucially, the designer will know that the fabrics they’re recommended represent the broadest selection of best fits for their requirements – rather than being a preferential list of the content exclusive to one particular platform, or a subset of the total catalogue available physically.  Because as long as platform exclusivity is allowed to drive digital materials adoption, any push for standardisation will be flawed – because the same people promoting openness are the ones who benefit from restrictions.

Digital product creation is, without question, the future of fashion, but there is a very real possibility that a key component of that workflow could descend into the equivalent of a streaming war that will undermine many of its benefits. Unless we do things differently.


About the sponsor: Frontier.cool is a new kind of digital textile collaboration platform that leverages machine learning to build the world’s most powerful textile and fabric image exchange for the apparel and fashion industries. We run on AWS cloud and can be integrated seamlessly into existing PLM, ERP, and 3D design software, or your fabric library.

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