(The 3D garment in the featured image used in this article is courtesy of PlatformE, Valaclava, DDIGITT.)

Through 2022 and 2023, The Digital Fashion Group is authoring a series of exclusive articles for The Interline, designed to help brand and retail businesses make sense of the possibilities in the space of Metaverse and Web3 fashion. In this instalment, Leslie Holden, Co-Founder, examines the blurring of the lines between physical and digital processes, and considers the role that phygital fashion could play in circularity and sustainability.

Fashion’s digital transformation is challenging the industry’s status quo. It is impacting not only the design and production processes, but the entire supply chain and those involved in it. The term ’phygital’ relates to, quite simply, a blend of the physical and digital worlds, and is a new reality for the supply chain in which brands design, produce, merchandise and sell fashion in new and innovative ways.  From a circular perspective, phygital fashion is considered as apparel that is designed, produced and promoted to not only last but also be reused. Digital transformation, combined with a phygital approach, has the potential to re-imagine fashion as a true ‘Force for Good’ for the planet and humankind. 

Fashion is reputedly one of the most polluting industries in the world. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, less than one percent of clothing is recycled and every second the equivalent of a truck load of textile waste is sent to landfill or burnt. And according to the European Parliament Research Service, textile production alone is responsible for 10% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. Needless to say, the fashion industry requires radical and urgent change to ensure less consumption of resources, and lower waste emissions. Despite efforts to reduce emissions, according to The McKinsey and Company’s ‘Fashion on Climate’ Report, August 2020, the industry is on a trajectory that will exceed its 2030 targets set out by the 2015 Paris agreement by a billion tonnes.

A 3D render of Valaclava garments being worn by digital models - an example of phygital fashion in action.
Image provided by PlatformE, Valaclava, DDIGITT

More recently, at the European Digital Alliance General Assembly (November 2022) the Director General of DG GROW, Hubert Gambs, commented on behalf of the European Commission, “Digital solutions are not only useful to be competitive and provide better value to European customers, they are also key to making our economy greener and European businesses more resilient to future shocks. “

Changing The Entire Process

There are three main archetypes of digital circular business models: service-based; blockchain-based supply chain;  and on-demand manufacturing. The on-demand model, otherwise known as customised production, has the potential to shift the economy from scales to scopes, and change the entire process of how fashion items are forecasted, produced, and used.

The growing demand by consumers for more sustainable clothing has increased and normalized our industries’ interest in blockchain technologies and solutions like NFTs and digital passports – which can share product information concerning transparency, sustainability and circular authenticity. Physical garments are paired with NFTs as digital twins and consumers then have access to information regarding the  journey of their garment(s) throughout the supply chain. Physical garments and their digital twins (or NFTs) facilitate access to the Metaverse. Traditionally, the fashion industry has no system to follow products after the point of sale, but a phygital approach can boost the products’ value, longevity and material value supporting a circular economy. The data gathered helps to improve quality and recycling processes by maintaining a connection with the product after it leaves the store, and digital twins also allow brands to earn royalties and secondary sales.  

PlatformE is a technology company based in Porto and is a clear phygital business case of a digital circular model incorporating  blockchain, a service-based model, and on-demand manufacturing.

Image provided by PlatformE, Valaclava, DDIGITT

Founded in 2015 by Gonçalo Cruz, PlatfomE’s mission is to drastically reduce overproduction and waste in the fashion industry, providing luxury fashion brands with the tools (the technology) to shift from a mass production model to a made-to-order model. This involves producing and selling virtual garments and producing the physical version on demand.

We interviewed Gonçalo Cruz, CEO of PlatformE, for The Digital Fashion Group Academy’s 101 course:

“The traditional business model of the fashion industry is a negative working capital model; money is invested in producing stock inventory which is then pushed into the market.”

He went on to explain that Digital Product Creation (DPC) and digital selling can ensure that garments only require manufacturing once they are sold, so the money comes up-front. This means the traditional ‘push system’ (stock model) is transformed into a ‘pull system’ (stockless model) of just-in-time, on-demand, made-to-order manufacturing, ensuring a sustainable approach and a positive working capital process.

Gonçalo believes that, to achieve an on-demand pull system, brands (as well as manufacturers) need to work with 3D software for  real-time feedback and communication. Apart from training their design team to use the software, brands will also need to onboard their manufacturers and partners to ensure interoperability throughout their supply and value chain(s). PlatformE works with each brand to digitize collections and support the brand in the process of selling the digital assets and producing garments on-demand. Their technology has been developed in order to connect the 3D asset at the point of sale, meaning they can also offer brands opportunities for customization/personalization which enables the customer to experience the creative process of selecting details, colours or patterns.

Image provided by PlatformE, Valaclava, DDIGITT

In this on-demand structure, once the brand’s client buys the design, production begins and PlatformE can ensure delivery within nine days – which easily competes with the stock model. They have established a network of manufacturers in Portugal who are able to produce on-demand. They see the challenge here is that for traditional garment manufacturing it is difficult to shift from a mass manufacturing business model because of the process, the infrastructure and the manufacturing capacity. Machines and operators organised for mass production is a very different set-up. On-demand is highly customizable. In this stockless model the factory may be producing one-offs, and a machinist would have to adapt from one machining process to constructing the entire garment.

PlatformE has recently developed a new collection, Valaclava: a phygital, on-demand collection which proves how a primarily physical brand can engage effectively with the Metaverse and at the same time ensure a circular approach. Valaclava was born as an innovation project and a case study. It is structured on end-to-end solutions connecting everything PlatformE does best:  3D digital product creation, on-demand manufacturing, across a connected network of technology providers.

We talked with Lui Iarocheski, VP of Marketing and New Ventures at PlatformE. Lui is a pioneer of 3D on-demand fashion design and, in 2017, re-considered the business model of his own brand label and embraced his customers in the creative process. He was an early adopter of the DAO concept. He worked with 3D body scans of his customers and created on-demand apparel which was not only directed to his customers’ aesthetic but also custom fit to their sizes.

Phygital fashion promises to unify the benefits of digital processes, tool, and workflows with a combined digital and physical output.
Image provided by PlatformE, Valaclava, DDIGITT

Valaclava is focusing on how NFTs are employed to enhance the user experience. The NFT strategy of Valaclava is to create experiences or access to a physical product. Their approach is to make the onboarding very user-friendly for people that are outside the NFT or web space. The experience of buying a garment in Valaclava is akin to any other e-commerce experience.

Lui explained how our industry’s traditional sampling process is highly unsustainable. According to Lui, each design has 7 iterations for approvals before reaching the final sample. In Valaclava there is only one fitting sample because the design development process is digital. The sampling process is then reduced in both time and scale. The 3D assets which are developed at the beginning of the digital value chain are then also used for marketing campaigns and other marketing activities such as social media.

Community is a key aspect of the Valaclava brand. The roots of the brand are in the gaming space and in gaming culture. Valaclava is partnering with Call of Duty, one of the biggest game franchises, and  the design team has produced a high-end streetwear collection. The collection is a limited edition of a normal minimum physical stock run of 300 units per design.

Lui points out that launching a brand in the Metaverse is a challenge as these are still early days and the vision of what the Metaverse could/should be is not yet clearly defined or agreed upon by all stakeholders. For some it is an opportunity to develop a creator’s economy, and for others it’s about marketing for physical or gaming commodifying fashion. Valaclava is a pioneer in this area and Lui believes the Metaverse should always have a connection to the physical world.

He describes the Metaverse as, “A universe which exists both digitally and physically. Physical experiences which trigger digital. and digital experiences which trigger physical. Where you can activate an AR experience on top of your physical garment, or you can buy a physical garment and its digital twin.”

Image provided by PlatformE, Valaclava, DDIGITT

Planning For A Circular Future 

PlatformE acknowledges that a phygital approach still needs considerable work in solution designing and process technology development to ensure the best system to distribute digital fashion and activate on-demand manufacturing upstream. As Gonçalo Cruz states, “One thing is clear: one without the other will not work. There is no point having great 3D assets, if nothing changes down the line.”

The goal is to create 3D models of such high quality that tech packs can be eliminated altogether, allowing manufacturers to cut and sew products using only the 3D models as input. This leads to a ‘first-time right’ approach, eliminating the production of prototypes and samples entirely, creating efficiencies and benefits for all the supply chain partners.

Sustainability is at the core of digital fashion because it allows designers and the entire supply chain to develop zero waste processes and on-demand production, as other opportunities for commercial processes. It also opens major possibilities to empower fashion designers to better direct and oversee the creative workflow, from concept to product presentation, to validate their ideas and protect their work. Technologies like blockchain enable the designer to protect their work in a way we’ve never seen before, stopping fast fashion’s opportunities to copy with a simple NFT certificate, connecting the creator and the asset.

The digital revolution and a phygital approach have the power to transform the fashion industry for a circular future.

One of the core benefits of phygital fashion is the blurring of lines between digital assets and physical products.
Image provided by PlatformE, Valaclava, DDIGITT