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GUEST COMMENT Stitch in time: Why fabric simulation is the key to virtual fashion’s success

Image courtesy of Happy Finish

Not so long ago the high street had fashion sewn up. But, according to a major study by accountancy giant EY at the height of Covid-19, four in five UK consumers claimed they wouldn’t feel comfortable trying on clothes in-store.

That figure will doubtless drop as things return to normal. But the shift to buying and browsing online is likely to persist at higher levels than ever before: further figures from Statista show around a fifth of UK consumers of all ages will now initially shop for clothes on the Internet.

It seems we’ve reached a tipping point in digital fashion’s favour. But once people are online we know they want a brilliant experience to stay there – and to keep buying things. That’s all about engagement – allowing users to get a feeling for the product, the brand or the campaign.

The recent Metaverse Fashion Week hosted by Decentraland gave consumers and brands alike a glimpse of what’s possible virtually. The involvement of big names like Tommy Hilfiger, Dolce & Gabbana and Selfridges provided a great future-gazing opportunity for the industry, a chance to see what brands are doing, what their representations are, and where they’re going to go with it.

While the ability to try on clothing virtually is still a little way off, fabric simulation now enables realistic representations of clothing virtually. That means far more options in terms of how brands decide to engage consumers. It’s going to change how we shop and how brands market fashion to us.

Mass-market photo-real virtual fashion

The latest developments in fabric simulation software mean it’s now economically viable for fashion brands to recreate the physical properties of material to a realistic level. And the tech required to ‘cut out’ a pattern, drape it over an avatar and animate it to simulate the swish of the fabric in motion is widely available.

Increased computing power has led to real-time, 3D creation tools like Unreal Engine being adopted by brands for the first time. They’re enabling levels of interactivity that weren’t previously possible, meaning brands can change the look of environments, clothing and people on the fly.

Originally developed for the film industry, it’s only in recent years that computers have become powerful enough, and the software advanced enough, to allow for wider uptake of fabric simulation in a commercial sense. Once the simulation is in place you can render it, as you would in a Pixar movie, or make it interactive using a game engine like Unreal. The options are endless.

An existing knowledge of fashion is important. From the way patterns work to the way fabrics move, understanding the physical properties of fabric is crucial to getting fabric simulation right, as all these elements will affect accuracy.

This marriage of fashion knowledge and tech capabilities will bring real benefits for the consumer as well as the brands themselves.

Fashion brands we work with already handle all their designs with 3D virtual mock-ups, so knowledge of the software is key. The ability to verify designs and how fabric will move when worn has the added bonus of minimising fabric being wasted during the design phase.

Fabric simulation coming close to photo realism means digital fashion – clothing, accessories, footwear, can now become a ‘single source of the truth’ for fashion brands – essentially a single 3D asset of a particular product can be referred to at every stage – from design and verification through to marketing assets and billboard campaigns.

The implications of this are far-reaching – from avoiding the economic impact of sending samples and staff around the world, to preventing mass destruction of unwanted stock, through to enabling design teams to collaborate effectively from anywhere, while viewing their designs in interesting new ways – from desktop to VR, Hololens to AR.

Fashion brands will have access to tools to create increasingly engaging brand stories and customers journeys that bridge the physical and digital divide – often merging them seamlessly as brand and campaign stories, particularly as the metaverse evolves.

Multiple applications

What has until now been used mainly by the film industry to make on-screen clothes look as real as possible will soon be in consumers’ hands, transforming their experience of fashion.

From a consumer point of viewrealistically trying on clothes digitally will be the next step. We’re all already used to filming ourselves for social media purposes. Soon we’ll be filming ourselves on our phone, sending a brand or retailer that footage along with our outfit picks, and being sent back footage of ourselves wearing the items we’ve selected. Real time fabric simulation in (for example) retail settings will come later.

Fabric Simulation in an experience focused world

In today’s ‘experience economy’, allowing people to do things as well as simply buy things strengthens the bond between brand and consumer. This technology will enable brands to generate feelings, communicate their ethos and change consumer experiences in amazing ways.

That will include a world where consumers will be able to buy digital fashion items, dress their bespoke avatar in them and then wear these items in Fortnite, Sandbox or elsewhere in the Metaverse, and whatever new platforms may come. But that’s just the start.

The fashion industry has known for years that when consumers can interact with a real product, they are far more likely to buy it. As the switch from high-street to online purchase gathers pace digital fashion tech promises to deliver realistic experiences and drive consumer interest in ways we’re only beginning to imagine.


Alex Lambert, creative director at Happy Finish

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