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.

Shifting dead stock through smart warehouses, or selling no stock at all. Fashion could be approaching a fork in the road.

The Interline has had what could be described as a healthy scepticism towards digital-only fashion – but not from the demand side. The appetite for transformation and expression in non-physical platforms is, at this stage, almost universal. From simple stylised avatars and chunky accessories to fully-fledged, finely-filigreed, verifiably scarce works of the digital couturier’s art, there can be no doubt that people want digital clothing – whether the self they’re dressing looks like their physical form or not.

A well-meaning but naive article from this week describing virtual fashion as “the next big thing” (and introducing the UK’s first degree qualification in the subject) demonstrates how far the idea has penetrated the public consciousness.

Rather than objecting to the concept, The Interline‘s hesitance has always had its roots in practical and commercial considerations.

At the simpler end of the market – dressing a simplified avatar in a branded collaboration that only needs to come in one or two sizes – digital fashion is relatively straightforward. Not least because it can borrow the business model of cosmetic microtransactions from videogames, where player lifetime revenue is now calculated as much by spending on visual items as it is by actual game purchases.

But when the fashions involved become more complex, and the target is a real body, the commercial model changes dramatically. Rather than buying a plug-and-play item that can be dropped on a common avatar size, purchasers of digital garments are often buying a service – commissioning an artist to tailor a product to their exact proportions and poses, to match the lighting to the target photo(s), and to make other alterations for the sake of believability or artistic effect.

It’s tailoring, then – and tailoring in a market that, in order to scale, is going to demand ready to wear. And while this is fine for the devotee that knows what they are buying – a service rather than a product – the way digital fashion has been pitched until recently has often obfuscated that fact, holding itself out as the one-click solution to all fashion’s overstock woes.

Lately, though, The Interline‘s opinion on this subject has changed: real-time digital humans have approached a level of fidelity that could easily remove the requirement for avatar stylisation, and from the opposite end of the spectrum, augmented reality projection mapping has reached the stage where oversized, baggy garments (and potentially more fitted items) can be worn for real-time video applications. From opposite ends, these two advances are soon likely to meet in the middle, making real-time wearing of virtual fashions much more viable, and opening the doors even further to the burgeoning market in NFT (non-fungible token,) cryptographically scarce – one-off fashions. And for the sceptics, NFT fashion could quickly and easily eclipse the NFT art market, which was worth in excess of $8 billion in December 2020 alone.

And this soon-to-be-realised potential could scarcely come at a more opportune time for fashion in the West. This week saw the announcement that Primark (which has no online sales channel) would reopen in April with the goal of selling off more than £400 million worth of 2020 stock. And retailers that were seemingly consigned to the history books are targeting a likely-short-lived rebound by shifting excess stock from elsewhere, in a similar rush to create a new business model out of the ashes of the pandemic. Compare this to China where, for the first time, eCommerce sales account for the majority of all retail sales, and the difference in approach to post-COVID retail is stark.

image courtesy of locus robotics

Quite how the post-COVID fashion landscape is going to look more generally, nobody can really predict. But given that large organisations are predicting the end of the 9-5 office day, it seems likely that fashion retailers will have to compete not just against one another, but against brands that deal in digital fashion have no stock to move at all. And in that environment, where technology investments are being targeted towards expanding the fulfilment side of eCommerce, and where warehouse robotics are being seen as an essential tool for competing on an even footing with the convenience of Amazon, there are two very different futures for fashion emerging.

In one of them, success will be based on how smartly and profitably inventory can be moved through automation and “robotics as a service“. In the other, it will be measured by how far a commercial model for selling products with no physical form can go when it’s released from being a manually-intensive service itself. Neither is intrinsically more viable than the other, but where one applies new innovations to speed up a time-tested strategy, the other turns technology into an enabler for something completely new.

And the best from The Interline this week:

Our focus on digital design and development continued this week, with new and exclusive features from senior contributors, guests, and our own in-house team:

We have a final capstone on our digital design coverage to come next week, after which The Interline will be turning its attention to material innovation during March.