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As everything shifts towards online, virtual runway shows and digital fashions could be the future… but a lot needs to fall into place – technically and commercially – for them to be viable for everyone.

This week has provided further evidence – if further evidence was needed – that the fashion and retail industries are tilting even further towards being digital-first. H&M has committed to closing hundreds of physical stores to refocus online, and this is not a cost-cutting move prompted by poor performance; the company exceeded expectations for its Q3 performance, and is rebalancing its channel portfolio to eliminate around 250 physical locations and invest instead in growing its digital operations.

Taking account of broader market context, this would seem to be a sensible move. Here in the UK, a recent survey suggested that at least a third of all shoppers – across fashion and other verticals – were planning to actively avoid visiting physical stores over the holidays, and that more than half of consumers intend to spend more online than they have done historically. And yesterday saw another key indicator of this trend in The Interline’s home country: prominent online-only grocery delivery service Ocado is now valued higher than Tesco, which is the UK’s largest supermarket by market share, making the former now the UK’s most valuable retailer by market capitalisation, despite having much narrower, leaner operations than the competition.

This news is even more revealing when we consider that Tesco also has an online grocery delivery business – one that is much larger than Ocado’s – because it indicates a deeper trend. Rather than a retailer’s market value being based on actual digital reach, it is instead being calculated by its potential digital reach (Ocado is also a technology company in that it licenses its delivery platform to other retailers outside the UK) offset against the burden of physical premises.

So there should be little doubt at this point that the future of retail, at least in the near-term, will be dictated by how successfully a company can reach consumers through digital channels – even ersatz one like Amazon’s Explore platform, which now offers virtual shopping trips.

And the same trend is also readily apparent when we look beyond the transactional side of things. This week saw some physical runway shows returning after long absences, but in very different forms, with far fewer attendees and notable absences. And over the last few weeks, other designers have opted for virtual showcases with varying degrees of success and ambition.

As unique in style and scope as each of these virtual exhibitions has been, though, they have also all exhibited two common characteristics.

First: they are intended to push the envelope and demonstrating that digital avenues can successfully advertise physical products and tell thematic stories in a unique way. And when your digital runway show takes place in a heightened fantasy setting and features stylised front-row avatars of celebrities, or brings the audience in via dedicated monitors in every front row seat… “unique” is definitely the watchword.

image courtesy of balmain

Second: they are major undertakings. While a digital show clearly does not involve the same of level of logistical coordination of a physical one – there are no garments to ship and fit, no models to manage, and no physical audience to draw – that does not mean that these kinds of initiatives are easy to assemble.

The most obvious components of a virtual runway show are the garments and the models. Neither are trivial things. Any business that has experimented with 3D will know that, while fabric simulation has taken huge strides in the last few years, absolute photorealism in texture, animation, and physical behaviour is a difficult thing to achieve. So the garments you may have seen draped on digital avatars (or composited into real footage) will have required more extensive work than the virtual samples used for brands’ in-house line reviews, and the models used for the pre-rendered videos that make up most virtual runway shows are in a separate class from the ones used in design and development.

In reality, these virtual shows have far more in common with short CG films and videogame cutscenes than they do with in-house and supply chain use of 3D design tools. Product visualisation for eCommerce – whether rendered in the same solution that the garments were designed in, or pushed to an offline rendering pipeline – is closer, but even GCDS’s digital show from this week (video below) credits more than twenty modellers, animators, character riggers, and other digital talent. And this show pursued a consciously lo-fi aesthetic and ran in a game engine, rather than angling for total photorealism.

Speaking to Wallpaper magazine last month, Leanne Elliott Young (who co-founded the Institute of Digital Fashion, which has worked on several digital runway shows) summed this up by saying that “…brands often have no idea of the application involved, the timelines, or the processes.” 

The Interline does not mean to pour cold water on the idea of digital fashion shows, but it is concerning to see them spoken about in the press as though they are turnkey solutions to the industry’s pandemic-enforced lack of physical promotional events. Do we expect new turnkey services to emerge to cut that time and deliver better (if not necessarily photorealistic) results in less time? The Interline has reason to believe so, but right now these are months-long projects, assembled by highly-skilled hybrid teams of cinematographers, texture artists and animators. And this puts them out of the reach of all but luxury and couture businesses for the time being, because of their time and cost implications.

The same can also be said for virtual fashions – i.e. garments that are only sold in digital form, and used to dress either CG influencers or real people in Instagram posts and TikTok videos. This is again making headlines and being touted as a new potential revenue stream for fashion brands, allowing them to sell either digital version of existing styles – without the material cost – or entirely digital garments that use fantastic materials or physics-defying silhouettes.

This is an area that The Interline has covered before in interviews, but just like digital fashion shows, it is not – as it’s sometimes presented as being – a simple new channel for brands to tap into. Some of the same skills are required to fit a digital garment to a real body in still photography (and especially in video) in a way that looks believable online, and for any digital garment to appear natural, an artist is having to intervene between the 3D garment asset and the photo to generate acceptable results. So in this sense, selling digital products is – at least for now – a misnomer. It’s a matter of selling a digital service.

Again, we fully expect that AR try-on will improve what’s possible in terms of real-time rendering and presence soon. But as exciting and futuristic as a lot of these opportunities might seem right now, in an uncertain world where physical channels are getting more precarious by the day, there are a host of technical and commercial barriers to overcome before they are accessible to everyone.

And as we move into what’s destined to be a fraught holiday season, and onwards into 2021, the biggest opportunities for fashion retail are likely to be more mundane: better assortment planning and channel allocation, new options for fulfilment and engagement, and whatever logistical wrangling it takes to avoid disappointing shoppers who have high expectations for digital in other ways.

They’re sure to be less flashy, but fashion can take more measurable steps towards a stable future in the real world than it can in the hyper-real virtual one. At least until new solutions come along to carry at least some of the time and cost burden of pursuing new avenues that require entirely new skills and new systems.

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