Fashion has come a long way with 3D. The instant impact of the pandemic brought digital product creation to the front of investment strategies in a hurry, but even pre-COVID brands and their suppliers had already taken some big strides.  Physical samples were routinely being replaced with 3D assets for the purposes of prototyping and fit simulation.  Designers were being empowered to change materials, components, and trims on the fly, and to see instantaneous results.  Merchandising and retail teams were planning assortments in virtual spaces, and eCommerce catalogues were increasingly being populated with renders that could be indistinguishable from genuine product photography. 

But as far as each of these individual areas has come, fashion has yet to reckon with the implications of becoming a digital industry – not just a physical industry with digital back-end processes, but a sector that outputs digital goods.  And as much value as the industry has been able to obtain from the use of 3D in design, pattern development, supplier collaboration and virtual photography, these discrete applications of 3D could be approaching the point of diminishing returns – especially when we compare them to the gigantic possibility space that truly digital fashion offers.

To look at it another way, 3D initiatives have so far been focused on delivering physical fashion faster – streamlining in-house and supply chain processes – and more sustainably. The next step is to also apply the same simulation engines, the same tools, processes, and workflows to a different output – one that’s wholly or partly digital.

Why digital fashion developed so quickly.

The concept of digital fashion can conjure up scepticism.  As proven as the market for videogame cosmetic items is – a conservative, pre-pandemic estimate has it pegged at $50 billion by next year – brands might see selling digital versions of their clothes, to be worn by player avatars or, in augmented reality applications, by the buyer themselves, to be a distraction from their core business and the way they currently make money.

Similarly, the success of virtual makeup (a more literal sort of digital cosmetic) during periods of enforced remote working could easily be pigeonholed as a timely marketing exercise and nothing more.

Anyone who shares either concern could easily ask whether digital fashion, and the much-vaunted Metaverse, is a passing obsession destined to end now that physical products are starting to flow again, or an attempt by fashion to clutch at straws as COVID threatened the industry’s survival.

It’s important to understand that nobody expects the fashion industry to stop making physical garments. Although the past eighteen months have obviously seen dramatic disruptions to how and where shoppers make their purchases – with six years’ worth of eCommerce growth crammed into 2020 alone – every demographic is still buying clothes.  And while younger shoppers are leaning into sustainability in a serious way, evidence from this spring and summer suggests that even Generation Z consumers find it hard to resist the allure of low-cost fashions, because they no longer remember a world without “plentiful, cheaply produced clothes”.

This matters because, as of last year, Gen Z shoppers make up close to half of the global consumer base, with around $150 billion in spending power. These are, to put it bluntly, the consumers of today, not a target market for an indeterminate point in the future. And they are accustomed to variety, volume, and high-velocity gratification – even when, on the face of it, those things go against their principles.

Unsurprisingly, these are also the shoppers who are driving the downstream digitisation of fashion commerce. A significant portion of the overall eCommerce market in the United States now originates from a mobile device, and close to a third of younger consumers want online shopping to incorporate more augmented and virtual reality experiential elements.  

Brands who respond to these trends are seeing results: statistics gathered by The Interline’s partner in this piece, z-emotion, from the brands that use its suite of 3D solutions, indicate that consumers who see a 3D asset rather than a flat image of a product are 44% more likely to add it to their cart, and are nearly 30% more likely to purchase it.  This figure rises to a 65% increase in conversion when the shopper can visualise and interact with a product in AR.

The world’s analysts are also taking note: a detailed report written by PWC in 2019 suggests that VR and AR applications (which rely on 3D assets) could add $1.5 trillion to the global economy before the decade is over.  And the simple act of having products to sell and experiences to partake in online determined a very different fortune for digital-native retailers at a time when their counterparts who were tied to shuttered physical stores were struggling to tread water.

As with many pre-pandemic predictions, the unforeseen, sudden shift to digital channels and experiences caused by COVID is likely to have made even these bold estimates seem conservative.  Digitisation is happening faster and more comprehensively than ever, and as the pandemic begins to fade into the background, one of the most critical challenges facing any industry (fashion included) will be maintaining that momentum.

Here is where the real opportunity of fashion having a truly digital output opens up. The pandemic demonstrated the power of having digital channels to sell physical garments, but what if brands could cater to Generation Z’s desire for newness and self expression through new all-digital channels with exclusively digital products? 

This is the core principle behind digital fashion, which we can define simply as the sale (or free distribution) of digital garments intended to be worn in digital settings.  Those settings might be augmented versions of real life, using real-time body projection mapping to allow a user to “wear” a garment in an Instagram or Snapchat story, or in a future AR application. They might be more stylised scenarios, where garments are intended to be worn by avatars and player characters in interactive experiences and videogames.

Both use cases have their roots in the same place: the design and development of garments in digital formats, using digital tools.  And this is an area where, as we’ve established, fashion has already made real progress, prototyping, simulating, refining, and even selling products before they become physical.  The key difference with digital fashion is that those products are never intended to become physical (or at least not exclusively), and this seemingly-simple distinction opens up a world of possibilities as well as the pressing question of whether fashion’s existing 3D solutions are ready to deliver digital end products – which is something we’ll circle back to shortly.

Crucially, right here, right now, the fashion industry is already forging ahead to meet consumers at the new digital frontier. One-off digital garments to be worn in AR are a reality, and the fashion industry has just seen an incredibly high profile collaboration between one of the world’s most recognisable luxury brands, and the cross-media platform Fornite, which has long since transcended its roots in gaming.  Today, consumers can already buy digital versions of luxury goods, designed to fit in-universe characters, and, for those shoppers who can access them, physical counterparts of those garments as well.

In the shadow of the headlines that collaboration has created, even brands who might once have dismissed digital fashion are taking notice again. More importantly, brands who already create in 3D, conduct line reviews in 3D, send 3D files to their suppliers, and promote new products to shoppers in 3D, are asking themselves how they take their styles from those discrete use cases and bring them to one of the biggest interactive worlds there is, and the splashiest advertising spaces the world’s capitals have to offer.

Same inputs; different output.

What those brands – and the industry as a whole – need is a way to create a new output from the same set of inputs.  So for digital fashion to truly make sense as a revenue stream, brands will need to be able to rely on the 3D tools and talent they have already built to streamline the creation of physical garments, rather than being required to build new processes from scratch.

This is a problem that The Interline our partner, z-emotion, believe can be tackled in two stages – part-digital and all-digital – which can each extend the value of pre-existing solutions, integrations, and in-house expertise at the same time as capitalising on the chance to create entirely new experiences for consumers.

What is a part-digital experience? A way of extending the power of 3D simulation and digital assets to the end user in an interactive way.  Unlike virtual photography, where the brand is working with 3D assets and a 3D scene but delivering a static end result, a part-digital experience would allow the customer to make active use of the digital garment prior to purchasing its physical counterpart.

A strong example of a part-digital experience would be z-emotion’s virtual fitting engine, which was recently deployed by South Korean brand Covernat to achieve a 300% uplift in conversation rates, a 12X increase in product exposure, and a significant decrease in return rates.  Unlike a traditional eCommerce application of 3D, where the consumer would be limited to rotating a pre-rendered .OBJ file alongside a set of fit guidelines, z-emotion’s approach allows the customer to adjust various data points to set their height, weight, body type and key measurements, and then visualises garment tension and pressure in a way that the shopper can clearly understand.

This is, in essence, a dynamic experience that replaces a static one and engages the consumer in a digital native way.  Crucially, it also permits the shopper to make adjustments on the fly, swapping colourways and adjusting their avatar in real-time, and seeing how those changes will be reflected in the end result.  This is a level of interactivity and insight that was previously reserved for behind-the-scenes brand users of 3D, now extended to give the shopper the utmost confidence in their buying decisions.

Crucially, for the brand, this confidence can be enabled without the need to create any new asset – instead enabling a new audience to interact with existing assets in a novel way by extending the technology ecosystem.

The same principles also underpin all-digital applications.  Just as a shopper can create and drape an avatar for the purposes of simulating and testing the fit of a physical product, a consumer can clothe a more detailed (or more stylised) avatar in a garment that will be sold in digital-only form.  And in both cases the garment can – with the support of the right technology ecosystem – be seamlessly ported from the design tool it was created in to the digital representation of the customer who’s buying it.

This is a workflow that z-emotion is now preparing to showcase with one of the largest virtual social spaces and Metaverses in the Asian market. In the near future, designers will be able to create styles in z-emotion’s widely-used Z-Weave design and patternmaking tool, and then to export these styles directly for hyper-stylised personal avatars – neatly capturing the power of generating new outputs without changing the input.  Those styles will then be able to be freely distributed as part of a promotional strategy, or sold for a fraction of the cost of the physical garment, for users to wear in the virtual world.

But this upcoming partnership is by no means the only Metaverse out there, which is why z-emotion has also built similar export paths for the Unreal Engine, and for the most popular computer modelling application, Maya.  This additional flexibility is geared towards allowing brands the ability to target consumers in nearly any real-time application, and with the digital fashion market predicted to grow more than 11% per year to nearly 5 billion users by 2025, there are going to be a lot of different Metaverse applications to reach them in – across various different global markets.

Moving fashion forward.

The Interline now firmly believes that the initial phase of fashion’s adoption of 3D is finished, at least insofar as its shape and scope is well-defined, with established best practices, clear value propositions, mature technology, and the ability for new brands and retailers to follow in the pioneers’ footsteps.

Now, as the idea of a Metaverse crystallises more rapidly than even the boldest predictions, the next phase is already upon us.  Beyond using digital assets as aids for physical product design, development, and marketing, fashion has the opportunity to make use of those same assets in everything from part-digital consumer experiences to promotion and revenue generation from virtual worlds.

But this is not a transition that fashion should take lightly. Whether a brand is looking to create photoreal digital garments for use in augmented reality, or stylised versions of existing products for integration into a videogame franchise or virtual world, it will find itself up against the best that other, longer-established digital industries have to offer.

As the industry prepares for this transition, becoming a digital industry in earnest, there is a clear requirement for workflows and pipelines that can support brand and retail businesses in their digital ambitions.  Until recently, those workflows have been exclusively homegrown.  Despite the industry’s progress with 3D in individual areas, there has been no clear pathway from initial digital design to final digital output.

This pathway is precisely what z-emotion set out to create, with seamless integrations between its 3D design and pattern simulation tools, its consumer-facing virtual fit engine, and the most common real-time engines used in digital marketing, interactive experiences, videogames, and more.  After identifying a real concern among brands that the work they had put into implementing and scaling 3D might not translate into the ability to capitalise on the new digital frontier, z-emotion zeroed in on continuity – aiming to give fashion the ability to tweak 2D patterns and adjust fit in a 3D simulation, and then to take the same assets and push them to a wide range of digital use cases without rework or interpretation.

This vision for a more seamless digital future was compelling enough to attract investment in z-emotion from LG Electronics and other major names – all of whom share the belief, as The Interline does, that the more effectively fashion can become a digital industry, the more futureproof and profitable it can become.

And for brands and retailers that have seen more disruption in the past two years than at any almost any point prior, the possibility of creating digital outputs – and being able to target all the opportunities they bring – without reinventing the creative and technical inputs they have already spent years digitising will feel like a fast-track to the new digital frontier.

About our partner: z-emotion provides innovative 3D based digital solutions to help the fashion industry forward its digital transformation process. Based in South Korea with offices in Seoul and Hong Kong, z-emotion is a team with global talents over Asia, US and Europe. Over multiple rounds of product success, renowned strategic investors LG Electronics, Naver, VIVEX HTC and Shima Seiki also joined the exciting investment journey.