For fashion to work, creative design and product development have always required a steady flow of both new ideas and new fabrics to execute them in. So for digital fashion to work, it should come as no surprise that digital ideation, design and development – as practised in popular solutions like CLO3D – will demand a constant source of digital fabrics.
But the speed and scope of that demand has taken the industry by surprise. And today fashion has been left with a gap between its ambitions for 3D and digital product creation, and the fabric and materials ecosystem available to support it.
In this collaborative feature, The Interline and SwatchOn – creators of both a platform for physical fabric sourcing and a new service and library for turnkey access to genuine digital fabric twins – explore why the bi-directional journey from digital (URL, as in a web address) to physical (IRL, or “in real life”) is set to define every brand’s trajectory, why digital fabrics matter, and why the ability to weave from URL to IRL, physical to digital, and back again will be essential to the future of fashion.
How digital product creation builds demand, in both directions
Wherever you sit on the continuum of 3D and digital product creation, your work will have assumed a new importance lately.
During COVID, with physical prototyping and sampling out of the question, the people who were capable of conceiving new ideas and bringing them to life digitally became vital to keeping fashion moving forward.
And post-pandemic, as use cases for digital assets have exploded – everywhere from in-house decision-making to online advertising and real-time Metaverse experiences – the extended teams that understood how to make creative and commercial choices based on digital twins of garments, footwear, and accessories, have been essential to improving efficiency in a difficult economic climate.
But with that new recognition has also come a new set of expectations. Fresh graduates are expected to come complete with digital skills, and existing creative and technical CAD users are being asked to quickly upskill to learn CLO or other 3D tools – both for core creative design and as a method of aligning creativity more closely with brands’ commercial objectives and their sustainability goals. Manufacturers, too, are being tasked with working from 3D specifications, and executives are actively scoping out a new era for fashion where the future hopes of their brands are pinned to the myriad use cases for digital assets up and downstream.
To put it bluntly, fashion is about to pass the tipping point for digital product creation. The Interline’s DPC Report revealed that DPC as a software-only category (excluding services) is already approaching the size of enterprise solution categories such as PLM. And it won’t stop there; 3D and digital product creation are shooting to the top of the investment agenda for fashion businesses of all shapes and sizes.
As that acceleration continues, the number and the diversity of the people who will be involved in the DPC journey grows with it – especially since it’s a journey that runs in two directions, with considerable crossover between the two.
The first of those is URL to IRL, which, as the label suggests, means use cases that require the creation of a feature-complete digital asset that then goes on to become a physical product. Along this journey, brands, garment manufacturers, and fabric suppliers need to work together to ensure that the majority of what would historically have been physical production samples are instead made digitally – so the different stakeholders involved can create a digital pattern, then dress a digital avatar in digital fabrics to assess fit, drape, and silhouette before making a commitment. This workflow makes use of digital toolsets and assets to streamline and enhance the creation of a physical end product.
The second is the reverse: IRL to URL. This trajectory is less prevalent, since it involves the recreation or conversion of a physical product into a digital asset for sales and marketing purposes, but both have a few key things in common: they require the digital representation to be complete twin of the physical product for in-house or consumer decisions to be made with confidence; and they rely on not just geometric detail but accurate digital materials.
Critically, these two different trajectories are not mutually exclusive, and the tools and assets needed to operate them successfully often overlap. Whether you’re looking for new ways to design natively in 3D for a physical output, experimenting with the idea of making and selling digital-only fashion, or seeking to create digital representations of finished products, you’ll find common processes, tools, and pipelines.
And, by extension, you’ll also find that each route has the same, fast-growing need for digital fabrics. Because no digital twin can be considered accurate or complete without its constituent parts also being digital.
Digital fabrics matter, so the way you make them matters, too
Monitoring these different trajectories and use cases tells us two things. That digital fabricsare already the fuel for a new era of creativity – one where the value of that fuel is increasing rapidly. And that digital fabrics are also critical to value chain collaboration and commercial decision-making, everywhere from fit and performance to costing and procurement.
To support both use cases, it’s essential that the digital material is a fully accurate representation of the physical fabric both visually and in its physical properties. For the creation of a physical product to be streamlined by the use of a digital twin of the product itself, the fabric must also be a complete twin – without compromise – so that creative and commercial decisions can be made accurately, and with confidence.
But as clear as that mandate for complete accuracy is, fabric digitisation is not an initiative that any brand, retailer, or manufacturer can afford to devote unlimited time, money, or resources to. Turning a physical fabric swatch into a digital twin is something that has to fit into fashion’s fast product lifecycles, as well as needing to be affordable. Digital product creation might be top of brands’ and retailers’ shopping lists, but those budgets remain narrow for most organisations.
As a consequence, there are four key parameters to consider when we look forward at what the future of fabric digitisation should be. The creation of a digital fabric has to be:
And, crucially, the output of fabric digitisation also has to be standardised. As different brands and their partners make their way along their URL to IRL, and IRL to URL, trajectories, they will encounter a range of both current and future scenarios where digital fabrics are foundational to the end result – whether that result is a physical or digital output. As a result, every digital material should be portable and interoperable, to maximise its utility across the fashion value chain – today and tomorrow.
For most brands, fabric digitisation does not meet these standards. Despite the importance that’s now being assigned to 3D, digital material initiatives have often lagged behind. Today, the average brand is likely to either rely on its suppliers scanning in physical fabrics – giving them little direct control over the results – or to have chosen, instead, to perform the capturing in-house with a small (often single-person) team, placing limits on both throughput and time.
As it’s practised at an industry level, then, fabric digitisation falls short on essentially all of those key parameters. Whether it’s performed in the supply chain or in-house, capturing fabrics is time-consuming. And in both scenarios the ability to scale is limited – constrained by either capacity in the supply chain, or by resources and hardware in-house.
Accuracy and interoperability, too, are variable; where suppliers are tasked with scanning fabrics the fidelity and format are typically non-standard, while fabrics scanned in-house are usually captured on lower quality hardware and in a narrower range of formats, limiting their future potential.
In practice, neither scenario is likely to be cost-effective. For brands, asking suppliers to capture materials is an added cost (and one with an inbuilt margin for the vendor), whereas scanning at brand HQ requires dedicated resources and the purchase of specific hardware – neither of which come cheap. For fabric suppliers, the overheads of establishing and growing a digitisation service will also be high.
As someone involved in digital product creation – whether you work as a designer using CLO or another 3D solution, whether you’re in a 3D-adjacent role, deeply involved in fabric development and sourcing, or whether you’re working at the ecosystem level, downstream, to showcase digital assets in a new light – your company’s existing approach to fabric digitisation may not fall short in all these areas, but it’s likely to fall short in at least one of them.
And improving just one of those parameters – speed, scale, accuracy, or cost – will translate into direct benefits to your creative journey, which builds a strong case for investing in the creation of digital fabrics for design alone.
But every digital also has value in the many different use cases for digital assets that come after design – from merchandising to virtual photography and virtual try-on – meaning that better access to digital materials should also be accompanied by investment at the platform level, to uncover new ways of managing not just the materials themselves, but the workflows, processes, and solutions that use them.
Ask yourself: do you plan to invest in building both capture and collaboration capabilities yourself, securing both high-grade fabric digitisation hardware and building out a process and a system to catalogue, manage, share, and interact with the fabrics you digitise? Or is there an easier route to get both at once?
Why DIY and digital fabrics might not mix
Our partner for this story, SwatchOn are proposing a two-part solution to all of those issues with its new VMOD 3D Library (pronounced “V-MODE”) and its turnkey Fabric Digitisation Service, both of which are designed to provide quick, easy, access to futureproof digital fabric twins – and both of which have deep hooks into its established physical sourcing platform.
The easiest onramp to quick, high-throughput, low-cost access to future-ready, interoperable digital materials is, of course, to skip the digitisation phase entirely and to tap into a ready-made source – allowing designers to instantly kick-start their creativity.
VMOD 3D Library fabrics are compatible with leading DPC solutions, with full support for CLO and Marvelous Designer – who are also partners and key investors in SwatchOn, ensuring continuity – along with Adobe Substance 3D file formats.
3D Library Service
Today, VMOD is advertised as being one of the largest digital fabrics libraries in the world, comprising close to 6,000 diverse fabrics from both South Korean and global suppliers. Every fabric that appears in the VMOD library has been captured to a future-ready standard – comprising all the required aesthetic and performance properties for use in design, development, and across the emerging horizon of digital advertising and virtual fashion.
And thanks to integration between the VMOD 3D Library and SwatchOn’s long-running platform for physical fabric sourcing, designers can create with the confidence that the digital fabrics they pull down and apply to their designs also correspond directly to a physical counterpart. Every digital fabric twin in the VMOD library can be ordered in physical swatch form with a click, creating a smooth “phygital” pathway from digital visualisation to physical sourcing – and enabling the best possible speed from digital to physical.
Fabric Digitization Service
But sourcing off the shelf is just part of the picture: VMOD also offers a service approach to fabric digitisation at the best possible speed, scale, cost, and quality. For designers and brands that prefer to build their own private, bespoke digital material libraries, VMOD’s approach (which blends a modular fabric capture line with a cloud-based administration system to maintain efficiency) is built to replace costly, time-consuming manual labour with a competitively-priced turnkey service.
Just like the company’s digital fabric library, every new material captured with VMOD is designed to be a true digital fabric twin, encompassing all the requisite physical properties to enable accurate simulation at the garment level (colour, stretch, bend, drape) alongside the full suite of texture, colour, roughness, specular, and other vital visual characteristics.
The VMOD platform is set up to make it as simple as possible to start a digitisation request, to monitor its progress, and to access bespoke digital fabrics within a dedicated area, hidden from other users and from the general library.
And since VMOD started scanning fabrics in 2019 proactively, before the pandemic, its digitisation pipeline has been progressively refined to target speed, scale, and cost reduction, as well as unlocking the capture of complicated fabric types that other services have so far steered clear of.
Looking at this all with a URL to IRL trajectory in mind, the benefits over manual digitisation (either in-house or in partnership with mill suppliers) seem compelling. A low-cost, no-compromise material capture service could represent a marked improvement over self-serve approaches, while a growing, global digital library provides a way for creators to supercharge their ideation process, with little overhead.
But when we consider the IRL to URL direction, or even the emerging “digital for digital” journey (URL to URL), and the possibility space of digital-only fashion, many of the same principles apply. Designing for an end consumer to wear digitally (either using body projection mapping or manual fitting, or in one or more real-time worlds) may offer more creative freedom, but the same demand for digital fabrics at the right quality level, price point, and volume will dictate how quickly that segment, which thrives on unfettered self-expression, is able to grow.
What’s clear is that, whatever route you take to digital product creation, digital and physical routes to market are becoming more closely intertwined over time. Against that backdrop, being able to design digitally for physical and digital products, or to digitally recreate physical products for other purposes, could quickly become a baseline capability for designers and brands that want to thrive in a fast-changing world where different channels will all rely on a common source of digital fabric twins.
In that world, everyone involved in 3D and DPC needs to be able to operate with confidence that their fabrics can travel in whatever direction the unpredictable winds of the future blow. Which means finding a platform and a partner that can create those materials at the right speed, the right scale, the right quality, and the right cost to support your new trajectory – whether it runs from URL to IRL, IRL to URL, or any combination of the two.
About our partner: SwatchOn is an online fabric sourcing platform that connects fashion brands with textile suppliers worldwide. SwatchOn streamlined fabric sourcing by simplifying the supply chain and providing designers with fast access to 150,000+ fabric options, including 200+ eco-friendly choices, from 800+ suppliers.
VMOD 3D Library is a sister service to SwatchOn.VMOD 3D Library is a 3D fabric solution, offering the top fabric digitization service and the world’s largest 3D fabric library. Digital fabrics are compatible with CLO, Marvelous Designer, Substance 3D and more. VMOD is CLO’s first enterprise fabric partner. See more at vmod.xyz