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Circular and Digital Fashion for the Metaverse

I’m Kelly Vero, creative badass, future-gazer, game developer, and general Metaverse nerd. It’s no secret that I’m crazy for fashion (yeah, I know, it doesn’t look like it). I always tell people that I’m either a failed engineer or a failed fashion designer, so if you put these two things into focus, you meet someone who is always trying to refine the process and development of things, and digital fashion cannot hide from my urges! So, where did we go wrong in fashion, and how can we “fix” it?

digital fashion

My good friends at Positive Fibers posed a big question to me during a podcast recording recently: how will the metaverse fix fashion? When I realised Marije was being serious, I knew the answer! But like all solid hypotheses, there has to be a deal of background and hands-on experience to provide the answer. Because the circularity of everything requires a common framework that is democratized, right? In that no one owns it, and everyone can use it – a few brands have the desire but not the will. Some standout brands seem to be on the way there but have fallen at the first hurdle: from RFID (wasteful) to blockchain (closed). They certainly didn’t make it worse, but they didn’t make it better either. When the pandemic hit, we saw a sea of change in how we dress but also in how conscience/consciousness might guide us. So today? The fractious nature of fashion as layers of styles, movements, and demography means that we’re still nowhere near.

Negative Forecasting

In 2019, before the pandemic forced us into Karl Lagerfeld’s lockdown hell of sweatpants; digital fashion definitely was a thing, but that thing was up for debate.

In a report by the BBC about digital fashion in November 2019, it was Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at market research company NPD Group, who fired the strangest warning shot at digitizing fashion.

"Do I believe it's going to be something huge and stay forever? No."

Coming from the games industry, where digitizing fashion is the only way; my tea was instantly expelled from my mouth in a moment of hindsight horror. But even before the pandemic, how could it be that this was still an error of vision; because the more that we use video games or digital applications to further our communication, and the more that we connect to digital platforms, the more that there should be a digitized approach to everything. The spokesperson du jour is allowed to be wrong. Unless he was talking about metallic wings on digital evening dresses, in which case he’s 100% on the money.

From how we either design clothes for physical requirements, or how we designed clothes directly into digital, we still need a rethink even in 2022. Digital does not currently sustain physically.

For the first part of the pandemic, it was still very clumsy and awkward. There were a lot of discussions about how we would look after the design part of the product lifecycle management. I was invited to participate in a hack. I came up with a few possibilities, such as how this could be made easier for the design team to navigate their way around digital fashion and physical fashion with a less wasteful approach. However, this was quickly thrown out in favour of how-do-we-send-our-people-to-Shanghai-fashion-week-without-them-getting-on-a-plane because there was a pandemic. NO IRONY. Being more focused on people rather than on the tools and the appropriation of products in that space - even though at the time, games such as Fortnite were starting to emerge as metaverses or at least styled for the metaverse - was incredibly short-sighted. It was still apparent, to me anyway, that many designers and manufacturers were not prepared to make that shift from physical to digital with ease. A huge conversation - probably started by me - began about digital sustainability, a general discussion about greenwashing being good and supply chain balance, conscious purchasing, continuous governance, provenance and development being way off on the horizon.

Mark's Mighty PLM

Let's start with the PLM. The product lifecycle management system for manufacture was digitised around 1989, and I’m going to credit it to Mark Harrop. If you don’t know who this guy is, look him up, he’s an actual living god in the fashion industry. By the use of initial hacks of possibly Lotus 1-2-3 or other types of early spreadsheets, it was easy to place dimensional data directly into grid overviews to give merchandisers and retailers the information they needed to place the apparel accordingly in a store. Because e-commerce had not at that point really taken off, it didn't truly exist. Over the course of those few years, it was companies like Burberry who started to take on board the idea that product lifecycle management could be handled in a digitised manner, allowing checks and balances with ease. That word again. Ease.

The passage of time has been kind enough to PLM, thanks in part to the adoption of the technology by heritage brand Burberry, who has led the vanguard on all of the latest digital innovations. In fact, Burberry, as of the time around the pandemic and maybe before, considers itself to be a technology company. I concur. I wish more fashion houses considered themselves more tech than trad. Because from the design, all the way out to the merchandise and the bits in between, Burberry uses digitisation through manufacture and supply chain logistics within the product lifecycle management theory or method. That should mean lean production, right? Not everyone got the memo.

Digital design came along so very late in the game to the fashion industry, and even if a fashion house claims to be an early adopter, it feels as though it was somehow embarrassed by it because we never heard a thing, not a fanfare, not a showcase - whereas in my industry, the games industry, we were doing all the work for the fashion industry as far back as the early 90s. But, let’s give the laggards the benefit of the doubt because these were pandemic times. I’m reliably informed that the experimentation of design tools like AutoCAD, made it almost impossible to stitch (yeah, stitch) together the physical with the digital as fluently within the product lifecycle management method.

Clothelous Designer

The pandemic obviously changed all that for a lot of people. Silence fell upon an otherwise busy industry, and productivity hit rock bottom despite the demand for stuff. Come on, we all ordered stuff during the pandemic. But tech came through: Clo3D, though born in 2009, was really born, Marvelous Designer got its wings and started to fly, and CAD made way for mesh, texture and render. These things became the glue that stuck together all of the various steps inside the development of clothing, brands, and luxury and general apparel as we know it, inclusive of footwear and other accessories.

People tend to innovate when there are times when they feel they are blocked from being able to do what it is that they want to achieve with ease. We innovate our way out of the problem. That's definitely a design thinking trait. Naturally, designers would ordinarily innovate their way completely out of a blocked situation - so why did it take so long?

Get the Balance Right

MTM is an important part of the product life cycle. Because MTM is the management of time against pattern blocks coming from the design stage - I have made quite a lot of jokes in the past to loads of fashion developers where I have suggested that MTM could so easily be gamified to enable people to enjoy what it is that they're doing and not feel as though they're constantly being tested and pressured in order to deliver, but there's no bigger profit margin than what you would find in the fashion industry. No one took me on. Obviously, because, what’s games?

The fashion industry requires people to work fast, making margins big enough for brands to survive where waste is costly. But it was during the pandemic that we started to see a shift towards quantum development or on-demand development, whether that was for specific elements in the product lifecycle management, or whether it was aimed at specific brands, app-specific items of clothing or apparel. The thing about quantum fashion and on-demand fashion is that it isn't wasteful or, at least, it shouldn't be wasteful. It has been designed to be more effective, efficient and streamlined than traditional development in clothing manufacture. And at present, it is working successfully in a variety of different labels and brands, but certainly, if we look at a company such as Twine, which are based in Israel, they dye thread according to the amount that is needed to stitch the exact number of t-shirts, suits, trousers etc. I think that's an ingenious way of securing the future of dye waste into water throughout the world, not just in the places that we would ordinarily expect dyeing to be a hugely needless practice. Furthermore, in doing so, what we are creating here is supply chain balance.

The Big, Fat Dressberg

When we've created the first physical sample, usually what we will do is call our favourite courier service and have that shipped on a next day delivery or flown over to some country far, far away from both our design studio or from our manufacturing centre.

Because these two places are never close to one another, this ends up as a geo-societal cost rather than it being anything to do with the convenience of which I’ve heard, “the look and feel”. It's incredibly wasteful. The sample itself is either hugely scrutinised or completely destroyed in its quest for creating the perfect product, ultimately becoming that piece of landfill - let's call it what it is - the apparently mythical mountain of landfill that already sits somewhere between here and Africa.

The tragedy of the commons is that the more we see that which we are embarrassed about, along comes a wonderful aesthetic on a building on Bond Street or Fifth Avenue, and we must have it. Why don’t we just take the digital version of it? Fashion NFTs are big - can’t they be bigger? How impactful on the planet is a fashion NFT against a limited visual campaign in some big-label department store? That’s quite some plastic that needs to be ditched, recycled or ignored. And, is the new luxury simply fast fashion in disguise? This is exactly how greenwashing gets moving. We think that our fashion houses are careful because they tell us in their CSRs, but is the reality more facepalmy than that? How is manufacturing impact being offset? How are textiles being recycled rather than dressberged? If you do a talk at the UN in Geneva about fashion being the epitome of over-consumption, but you took two planes to get there, and you packed your favourite sweatshop-made sneakers, are you being true? (Fair obviously doesn’t come into it.)

If It Ain't Broke...Right?

How can we fix the physical sample conundrum when we're thinking about what happens next in terms of creating a more harmonious and balanced supply chain? People in power with their stupid sneakers and private jets can basically GTFO. The answer is really simple: use digital tools to show the look and feel and the movement of the garment or the textile before the item goes into mass production. Is that too simplified?

This can be done in a number of ways. During the pandemic, I created a virtual sampler, and I did this using a game engine. Some people might create something similar using volumetric capture, or they might want to work with VR tools to be able to show how this works. Definitely, the proponents in this space are the companies who are creating both the look and feel of the textile itself rather than just the design, pattern or toile. So companies such as Adobe Substance 3D, Marvelous Designer, Clo3d, ZBrush, etc. are the watchwords when we think about textile creation in a phygital space (you might call that the metaverse).

Nak3d has launched a super solution for streamlining digital garments from PLM detail and back again into e-commerce through digital garment generation. Harnessing the power of unique identification of apparel throughout the design-to-merchandise cycle is important for us to figure out how and more importantly, where the clothes are going. And no, this is not a bloody privacy and data play because the data is fairly pointless if you’re going to waste the garment. And Nak3d is a fine metaverse example because these guys have adapted their engine for platform exports from Decentraland to Call of Duty without breaking a single scene.

But to answer Positive Fibers' earlier question, which I did laugh about in the beginning but feel a little more connected to the answer. Yes, of course, the metaverse is a part of the fix, but not as much as digital tools are right now. Sure, the more open source or unwalled these tools become, the more we’ll call them metaverse or web3; but from the gamification of MTM, to the upskilling of sweatshops and digital design replacing courier planes in the sky, I think we can all agree that the metaverse does lend itself to the solution rather than the problem. Don’t you think.


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