[Featured image: Jayli Maxi dress, original design print. Clothing simulated and rendered in Style3D.]

This article was originally published in the first-ever DPC Report 2022. For more on digital product creation in fashion, and other perspectives on the sustainability impact of digital fashion, download the full DPC Report 2022 completely free of charge and ungated.

The past:

I have known since I was 5 years old that I wanted to be a fashion designer. I started designing and making doll clothing from a very early age. Being a stylist for Barbie was a favourite pastime, and I loved costume history and cultural dress. Not your average hobbies for a girl growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, but I had a real focus on what my career would be and there was no hesitation when it was time to go to university.

Situated in the midwest in a small town called Ames, Iowa State University was not the obvious choice for fashion school. However with their emphasis on classic skills in industrial sewing techniques and draping on the stand, there was a good foundation in the traditional methods to build upon with their focus in technology. Hearing what some of my industry peers learned at university compared to my education, I realized how unique my program still is to this day. To put it into perspective, I graduated in 2004 and my education included digital illustration, Adobe Creative Suite to design textiles, digital pattern plotting and digital fabric printing. Today it remains one of the few schools that includes 3D apparel design in their curriculum. My education at ISU was the start of my passion for combining technology with the apparel development process.

Capsule collection, original design prints. Clothing simulated and rendered in Style3D.

My 17-year career in the apparel industry has been a winding one. I have designed for most product categories across large and small companies, and now across international lines. I am well versed in designing based on seasons, following the fashion calendar, and I know from that experience that even with the addition of PLM systems and Adobe Illustrator, the process is often still very analog. No matter which product category I was designing for, the process and timing was always the same, which for me created a type of burnout, but at the same time boredom. This wasn’t because of the product necessarily, but because the process never changed over the years when it felt like there should be some kind of progress in the way we worked.

Why did I find our field so stagnant in practice? Why did fashion – an incredible industry that’s always so focused on the future – seem to be perpetually living in the past?

About 5 years ago I discovered 3D apparel design, and suddenly it all clicked. I had heard of this technology but – even though I had a good base of 2D digital design to build on – I had convinced myself it was something reserved for CG artists and game designers. I didn’t think I had the right background or skillset for something that looked so advanced. But then I discovered Marvelous Designer, and this would become a game-changing moment in my career and my creative journey. Through Youtube videos and some free trials I was able to teach myself this software and to take the leap into 3D clothing design. And to my surprise this advanced software required the use of all of my foundational skills of pattern making, sewing and fabric knowledge – bringing together traditional expertise and cutting-edge technology.

The present:

Over the next few years I increased my skill level and experience in 3D by adopting Clo3D, Browzwear Vstitcher, Style3D, SEDDI and Daz Studio. Working in 3D has completely changed the way I design, because I can see in real-time how my creation is draping on the body. And using different avatars I can see how the clothing will look on different body types.

Most of all, my work life has drastically changed thanks directly to technology. Working from my small home office out of my apartment, there is now no limitation on space because I don’t need to keep rolls of fabrics, cutting tables, dress forms or racks of samples on-hand. I can experiment with fabrics, prints and silhouettes – all digitally.

Raya jumpsuit, original design print, custom designed avatar. Clothing simulated in Clo 3D, rendered in Daz Studio

Ironically, this technology also empowers designers to hone in on their analog skills of patternmaking and sewing in a way where you feel empowered to try new shapes and designs you may not have with actual paper and fabric, for fear of wasting time, money and resources. Instead of taking away the need for these essential foundation skills, 3D technology encourages the refinement of classic flat pattern techniques to create clothing that fits the human body. In fact you now have game character designers who are learning pattern making, and apparel designers learning animation and texture map creation, and we have a crossover of industries we have not seen before.

Then the pandemic happened and it really changed not only my own career trajectory, but the course of the whole apparel industry and how we all work. I was furloughed from my job, and this gave me the courage to test the waters of freelancing in 3D clothing design – taking the combination of traditional and technological skills I’d learned, and applying them to the task of bringing brands’ creative visions to life.

The timing was incredible because pre-pandemic 3D was something very few apparel companies were seriously considering as a must-have tool. But now it was essential because access to samples and factories overseas was cut-off, yet development must continue.

Where traditional industry freelance work was hard to find before, opportunities came flooding in for 3D. With the adaptation of work-from-anywhere I can now use my skills to work for any company needing assistance in digitising their collections. Working together now just requires reliable internet and a powerful PC; location or timezone is no longer a factor. 3D has empowered independent designers to get recruited for their skills and experience and not be limited to where they live. For me personally it has opened the door for opportunities to work with companies I never would have had access to before.

Leah shirt and Exie wide leg pant, original design print. Clothing simulated and rendered in Style3D.

Today many companies have discovered the advantages of developing products in 3D and have continued to pursue digital design post-COVID. This goes beyond just creating nice images to use on ecommerce in lieu of photography when you are missing actual samples. It has instead become a tool to narrow decisions in buyers’ meetings with something more realistic than a flat 2D sketch but without the cost and resources used on making many samples that will never make it to market. Better decision making pre- production is leading to better products in store and quicker response to what the consumer is actually looking for.

With talk of the metaverse, NFTs, VR technology, virtual try-on and Web3.0, the interest and desire to use 3D assets has just about surpassed what the readily available software and hardware can accommodate today. The industry has gone from dismissing what was perceived as a gaming industry tool to pushing the boundaries of the technology for use in the apparel industry.

It is not uncommon for a project today to consist of not only creating the product line in 3D and creating still rendered images, but also delivering a 360 turntable video, walking animations with elaborate scenery, custom avatar development, and exporting files to be used on websites as interactive objects to be viewed from every angle by the consumer. Together, all of these demands have underlined the reality that we cannot work in silos anymore – something that is fantastic to see the fashion industry realise. Artists from all over the world with high skill levels in specific areas of 3D must collaborate. We have a fantastic community where we can collaborate and learn from each other – and it is less about competition and more about building a network that better serves the future of fashion.

The future:

As a designer working at the vanguard of digitisation, I believe the future is exciting for the fashion industry, and I’m confident huge changes are coming. With the adoption of 3D as an essential tool for the entire product development and marketing process, the possibilities will become endless as the technology, software and hardware become even more powerful and work seamlessly together. I see a future with universal file formats for use across all 3D programs that maintain the information of the product, fabric simulation data, textures and animation. Rendering will take seconds instead of hours, which will unleash the ability for almost anyone to create cinematic videos. Apparel manufacturing will be streamlined by connecting 3D and all the information contained in a file straight to the production floor for on-demand manufacturing. At-home body scanning and virtual try-on using smart mirrors, your own avatar or VR glasses will be the norm when shopping either online or in person. Made-to-measure garments for the average person will be common and standardised sizing will be reserved for basics like t-shirts and leisure wear.

Naira jumpsuit, original design print. Clothing simulated and rendered in Style3D.

This future is nearer than many people think, as there are multiple players in the fashion tech space developing and creating new tools as we speak.

The biggest takeaway today, though, is how much 3D technology is bringing the fashion industry together. Adopting new practices and going through new challenges has created beautiful collaboration across disciplines in a way we have not seen before. Sustainability has been supported through this technology by reducing waste before it becomes a problem that needs to be dealt with. There is a new energy in the fashion industry pushing the boundaries of technology and dreaming of a brand new retail landscape in a way not possible before. Digital product creation in 3D is here to stay for the apparel industry and opening new doors only dreamt in science fiction. It is an exciting new era in fashion 3.0 and the future is bright with 3D product development.