Fashion and culture go hand in hand, but some believe that the retail and fashion industries aren’t always as up to speed technologically as they are at the forefront of culture, that is depending on the brand of course. As companies adapt to technological acceleration and see a need to explore new ways to connect with consumers, more of them will need to think in 3D. This presents fashion with a massive opportunity for more than just digital transformation, but rather, real innovation.
Innovating In A New Era
3D is at the heart of so many of the technological advancements happening today. Think of 3D as one of the highest orders of content. From a high-quality 3D model companies can generate photos, videos, and even interactive experiences from one 3D model. Virtual reality, augmented reality, animation, and gaming all require 3D models. And now, social media platforms like Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram all support 3D content. In order to capitalize on these new technologies and channels, fashion needs to make 3D a top priority.
The retail and fashion industry is known for its resistance to change but some insiders recognize how far behind the industry is lagging when it comes to 3D. Spatial Computing and by extension 3D are changing the way that we interact with the world around us in as big a way as mobile phones changed our world 15 years ago.
For example, VNTANA, a 3D eCommerce platform that started working in the world of retail before the pandemic, was prepared for change. When the current pandemic hit they saw an increase in demand from multi-category retailers, fashion, footwear and apparel brands as they shifted focus to ecommerce.
Retail and fashion (whether it be a luxury fashion company, fast-fashion retailer or sportswear brand) is mistaking “digital transformation” for real innovation. Digital transformation is thrown around a lot these days and it acts as a catch-all for almost any new piece of software that gets added into the mix for brands. For many, thi is a problem because digital transformation is too broad a term to be properly useful, let alone efficient or visionary. It allows people to add a few pieces of software into their organization and reductively check their digital transformation box.
Oftentimes, when people talk about digital transformation, they’re referring to digital product creation, which is generally defined as the move from 2D to 3D. Rather than working off of 2D patterns and files, digital product creation uses 3D programs like Browzwear and Style 3D to stitch together patterns and provide a production-ready 3D version of a garment.
The automotive industry has been creating 3D versions (instead of just 2D drawings) of cars for years, but it’s not until recently that we’re seeing how valuable that can be. There is enormous value in designing and manufacturing something with the help of 3D tools, but there is also value that can be unlocked in sales and marketing.
For instance, almost every image on an automaker’s website was generated from a 3D model of a car. The same goes for any configurator that customers interact with. The key is that the auto industry pushed what was possible in 3D and now 3D is core to all of their marketing and sales efforts. This time investment upfront has significantly reduced the time it takes to create all forms of digital content that provide a better customer experience.
In Retail and Fashion, digital product creation is viewed as important because brands are able to replace physical samples with 3D virtual models to reduce cost and make design decisions faster. And while there are great programs like Vstitcher by Browzwear that make it easy for designers to create 3D versions of their garments, there is almost no understanding of what to do with that 3D model after it’s created other than generate a 2D render or pull it up in Vstitcher during a line review. In fact, after going through all of the effort of creating a product in 3D, in all likelihood, no consumer or internal stakeholder will ever interact with a 3D version of the product other than the original designer. This may be why many brands feel that change can wait and that digital product creation and its benefits are merely “nice to haves.” Brands are just seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to 3D capabilities.
Digital product creation and 3D are about so much more than meeting sustainability goals or speeding up time to market; they mark the beginning of a totally different way of doing business as well as a potential threat to the incumbents. The lack of awareness around how far 3D technology has progressed recently and how quickly it is accelerating is serious; so serious that for some brands, it could possibly result in their ultimate demise.
3D Technology Acceleration And Fashion’s Big Opportunity
In the last few years, technology has made leaps and bounds forward in real-time 3D rendering, 3D printing, 3D scanning, 3D game engines, and AI. In the retail and fashion technology space, we’ve also witnessed integrations between PLM systems such as PTC FlexPLM, and apparel 3D design tools such as CLO and Browzwear, enabling designers to tap into full PLM functionality from their existing 3D workspace. This facilitates a seamless and efficient digital workflow.
Every new iPhone comes equipped with LiDAR scanning capabilities which allow people to generate 3D models with their phone. Technology companies like Unity have launched products like Forma which allow brands to create incredibly rich and realistic interactive experiences. Forma can also generate ultra-high quality 2D renders very easily using 3D versions of products. This completely gets rid of the need for photoshoots. Apple is going to launch AR glasses which will allow consumers to overlay the digital over the real world with ease. Facebook, Snap, Google, Apple, and Microsoft have invested billions of dollars into consumer-facing 3D. Why do some in the fashion industry think they won’t need to take advantage of these new technologies and distribution channels to stay competitive?
There is an enormous opportunity to create a completely different type of fashion brand by leveraging these technologies in conjunction with digital versions of their products. Imagine a brand that is able to put out digital designs and take orders before ever producing a single sample, who can create virtual try-on experiences and leverage the power of AI to make highly personalized recommendations based on style and fit, and who allows consumers to take 3D versions of clothing they buy and dress up avatars in their favorite games. The pace of technological advancement is only accelerating, and the brands that don’t invest heavily in digital product creation today will be left behind.
While it’s understandable that the focus for many is decreasing the pain of product development and reducing inventory risk via a shortened product life cycle, this shouldn’t prevent brands from taking advantage of the opportunities that are available today. By showing ROI in sales and marketing, Retail and Fashion companies will be more likely to possibly get the executive buy-in needed to create real change.
So what are some things Retail and Fashion can do to start taking advantage of the opportunities that 3D can provide? First, they need to let go of the idea of the perfect digital product; not because they shouldn’t always be striving to improve, but because opportunities are being missed today in the pursuit of perfection. Retail and Fashion need to stop asking themselves the question, “Does this digital version of my product look identical to the real thing?” and start asking, “How can I make the most of my 3D assets with the tools available today?” and “Are there ways to test consumers’ response to a fully digital version of my product?”
There are opportunities right now for multiple stakeholders (including sales and marketing) to review products in 3D, to replace 2D images with 3D for wholesale buyers, and even sell on e-commerce. Today, the 3D version of products on a website probably won’t look identical to the real thing, but check back in 6 to 12 months. It’s important to try new things because the technology is advancing rapidly and brands who already have 3D versions of their product today will be in a far better position to take advantage of it in the future.
The furniture industry has proven this point. The furniture industry has excelled in using 3D and is reaping the rewards. Their digital products aren’t perfect but relatively young companies like Houzz and Wayfair have been able to leverage the power of 3D and AR in e-commerce to scale extremely quickly and make a massive impact on the industry. In fact, Houzz reports that customers who use AR are 11x more likely to make a purchase. There is no reason why a company like Ikea can allow consumers to place almost every item of furniture they offer in their rooms using AR, but footwear brands still aren’t utilizing AR shoe try-on at scale. The technology exists and the devices to power it are in almost every consumer’s pocket; it’s just a matter of investing the time and resources to execute.
Next, executive leadership needs to start looking at the bigger picture. How can the 3D products their teams create today be used 12, 18, and 36 months from now? While products are seasonal, the processes, skills, and technology to produce digital versions of those products are not. In order to take advantage of the new technologies that are coming online they will need robust processes, software, and a well-educated workforce who understands things like technical 3D, real-time rendering, and game engines. They need to be willing to make investments today with the understanding that ROI will grow over time with the technology, but not evolving is not an option.
To help with the planning and adoption of this new technology, brands should be looking to add fashion outsiders to their innovation and digital product creation teams. We’ve seen some of the most forward-looking brands like Adidas do this very successfully. More brands should be following suit. Ideally, these people should come from the gaming or 3D industry and understand the complexity as well as the opportunity of using 3D in e-Commerce and AR. In addition to strategists, technical 3D artists from the gaming space should be working side by side with garment designers. Part of the reason that 3D adoption isn’t happening quickly enough in industries such as fashion is that designers understand garment making but they don’t understand technical 3D. It takes them much longer to troubleshoot issues and overcome roadblocks when trying to use those 3D designs across web, game engines and social media. Adding just one or two technical 3D artists will act as a force multiplier for these teams.
Finally, companies should be looking to participate in Industry consortiums like the Khronos Group who are putting together standards for 3D and AR which will be hugely beneficial to the fashion industry. Today, the furniture industry is well represented and as a result, they are able to push for standards that make the distribution of their 3D assets easier. Fashion, both brands and software developers across the industry, should be participating in these types of groups as well as they have their own specific needs.
Rising Up To The Challenge
Fashion has always been at the forefront of culture, influencing trends through experimentation and radical approaches to dress. Designers haven’t succeeded through doing things safely, but rather, pushing the bounds of what we as humans believe we can be. These new 3D mediums are calling for that spirit of experimentation and boundary-pushing.
Thankfully, we are starting to see accelerated innovation in Fashion with creative technology leaders like Adobe integrating their Adobe Substance offering into digital design programs like Browzwear and Clo, giving fashion designers access to new and more realistic 3D materials. Brands and venture capital are forming more fashion accelerators and innovation groups with the express purpose of accelerating digital transformation, but this alone will not be enough for larger slower moving brands.
Fashion needs to think bigger and invite outsiders to join them in true digital transformation. It’s not too late for some of them to make a change. Let’s see who rises to the challenge.
This article was written in collaboration and with insight from Ben Conway, Co-founder, and COO of VNTANA.