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Virtual reality (VR) is at the heart of the movement that’s bringing us more immersive experiences like the metaverse. It is also what is making us find it harder to concentrate on ‘physical-only’ environments. Whether day or night, together or alone, VR is infiltrating our lives as we read. Areas of day-to-day life like how we cook and how we dress are not excluded.
VR in essence provides a simulation of reality in an immersive visual environment that can be interacted with via headsets, sensors, and the like. With its history in perspective drawings and stereoscopes, VR or the study of a man-made idea of reality has existed for centuries and has been the subject of art & science fiction.
Philosopher, music composer and computer scientist Jaron Lanier is sometimes considered the father of virtual reality (he coined the term and founded the first VR company to ever exist—VPL Technologies), VR has captured the interest of humanity beyond the industrial age. The whole allure of Web3 is to live and engage our senses in a fantastical space of possibility. The drive for accessing this vision is rooted in projects like the Sensorama and
The Sword of Democles (precursor to the UI wireframes of today).
Over the decades, films from the Bond franchise, Star Trek, Star Wars, Tron and the Matrix have traversed boldly into the smart wearable sphere in front of the camera. But today’s reality has shifted its lens to the digital profiles or the online preferences and virtual expression of the imaginations of approximately 5 billion internet users.
Meanwhile the fashion industry has increasingly come under the radar for being one of the most unsustainable on the planet. To add to this, the fashion industry has faced an even greater challenge to maintain frictionless experiences in the face of the pandemic.
Enter digital fashion. Digital fashion can arguably be said to have evolved from the concept of gamer skins. (Think back to toggling your PlayStation controller as you decide whether the Goku avatar on screen should wear his orange or blue jumpsuit before another match with Cell). Well, nowadays, the avatar is more and more likely to be you. In fact,fashion communication labs like AdamEveFamily are working on building digital-first influencers & models that have no life source in the physical domain, but can successfully be ambassadors for behemoth brands!
Experiments in technology were once exclusive to luxury fashion brands like Burberry. The Art of Trench campaign, 2009, was the first foray of any fashion brand into digital media marketing. Burberry paid homage to its legacy product whilst moving into unchartered territory in a sustainably thoughtful, omnichannel offering. This offering tapped into the nostalgia cycles of identity in post, post modern, metamodern or transhumanist society. Burberry has since then even made its way into games.
In 2018, it was Scandinavia based retail company Carlings that took one of these “small steps for mankind” towards the era of ‘digital fashion proper’. Neo-Ex was a capsule line that consisted of 18 outfits that could only be consumed in the digital sphere. It positioned itself as an environment friendly, waste-free solution wherein users merely had to pose and upload pictures of themselves which were then reworked into the wearable designs of Neo-Ex by accomplished 3D Designers for the price of €9 EUR. More recently, NYFW’s Nolcha Shows showcase NFT based wearables for the gaming environment of Chain Guardians.
The pandemic challenged fashion’s concept of immediacy, immersion and interaction. Where once only the giants were working within the digital space, digital “spores” that became successful found IRL room to grow in. Success for a post-pandemic brand isn’t just about achieving a strong technology driven presence but a seamless one that integrates both spatial and virtual experiences.
For the fashion industry “phygicality” is at the core of how consumers experience products. Physical retail stores still inhabit something more concrete than consumer mindshare, & offer sensory immersion to curious, old school, more confrontational consumers. Investing in space through proximity stores demonstrates commitment to molecular attention to consumers and adds to trust, especially nowadays in the presence of online shopping scams.
So how are we connecting physical stores to digital channels?
Beacons project information about the product via bluetooth.
Augmented reality (AR) displays additional information about products as we view them in real time and space. Zara has implemented AR in more than 130 stores across the world.
RFID labels make fashion manufacture & retail processes transparent to consumers.
Light ID allows consumers to access links to website databases by scanning their phones on light boards in stores.
Kinect translates physical bodies into digital twins that can then be integrated with digital products on screens.
Rebecca Minkoff added smart fitting rooms in her stores.
Pop-up, limited time only and personally marketed stores make fashion retail an adventure.
Geolocation is being used to push ads for products near you.
Embedded NFTs: Louis the Game is an experiential initiative by Louis Vuitton to educate users via collectible NFTs won by playing their brand story inspired game.
In India, Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail or ABFRL is a first mover in India to make a surefooted move toward digital service design. Through partnership with Accenture, ABFRL is developing an ERP system to manage data across touchpoints for customers.
Behind the line of visibility, ABFRL intends to deploy myConcerto platform insights to manage operations. Both endeavors aim to make ABFRL agile & responsive to its consumers across channels & devices.
SUSTAINABILITY: Digital fashion is more sustainable. Campaigns like PUMA’s “Day Zero” campaign save on sampling, traveling & other logistical waste right till the last mile.
EFFICIENCY: Automated production processes mean less “jhanjhat” and only assigned usage of finite resources in factories.
INCLUSIVITY: No more searching for rare fits like they are endangered animals. Digital fashion is here to create fits that adhere to an infinite range of proportions and able-bodiedness.
IMAGINATION: Designers can work with “materials” online that they may not have access to IRL. This way their creativity will not be fettered by physical resources & neither will the customers’ vision.
AFFORDABLE EXCLUSIVITY: As gaming and luxury brands unite over NFTs, online-only fashion lines and the like, the digital fashion space unlike its offline counterpart is becoming less privileged and more experimental.
DIGITAL AMBASSADORS: Brands benefit doubly from having their products ambassadored by customers in virtual ecosystems as each time an NFT is passed on, blockchain allows the flow of royalty based revenue.
DIGITAL REUSE: Carling’s Protest Tee Shirt is an example of wearable filters or AR filters which allow consumers to change the slogans on their T-Shirts, making reuse flexible and fashion-forward for Gen-Zers. This is where knowing the difference between AR and VR proves useful...
Today digital fashion native platforms like The Fabricant, DressX and Republique are driving sales of digital products after AR try-ons. Brands like H&M and Lenskart have homed in on this method. However, going digital has its risks:
RISING PRICES: Technology means constant evolution. This is expensive. Customers still undervalue digital versions of books and the like but driving values of sustainability mean the digital space is set to become more valuable.
LIMITED ACCESS: Since fashion brands are now piggy-backing gaming brands, access to exclusive merchandise will be limited and stands to create an online community of have-nots.
GARMENT TRANSLATION: After digital renderings of ideations, sourcing digital materials in reality will be fraught for both designers & consumers. It’s likely that digital avatars will remain stuck in the digital arena and not be well integrated into practical life.
LOSS OF THE LAST MILE: Blockchain has its advantages in the realm of traceability & ethical sourcing. However, with the use of blockchain for digital translations of the garment, where will the experience of the product end? Will materials actually be “consumed”? Or borrowed?
DIGITAL EDUCATION OF ARTISANS: Material visualization, online documentation of meta-data, and other digital skills is challenging the age-old approaches of artisans and fashion design students who now face a digital industrialization.
At the company level, Digital Fashion can only be successful if integrated agilely into their service communication & design channels. UX driven KPIs for personalized services should drive insights on the basis of which to pivot company positioning. Cross-channel team coordination will ensure communication is synchronized & CX remains consistent.
Lowering customer acquisition costs is always a good investment. Since most automation today is user driven, ROI is more likely to be greater.
Order management systems can ensure the best experience in the last mile. This is where companies like ABFRL are working strategically to gain a stable foothold in an industry where fads abound.
In conclusion, while experimental approaches in the digital space are wonderfully thought provoking for users and cathartic from the point of view of remote consumerism, the question still remains whether we wish to create sellable moments or sustainable solutions.
WORDS TO CONSIDER:
Touchpoints: Points of contact between customer & service.
A/B testing: A usability tool that helps consumers choose between 2 versions of a
NFTs: Non-fungible tokens
Blockchain: A database existing within a nodal peer-to-peer based data network
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