Enter The Matrix

Should We Get Used to Virtual Fashion?

In the wake of an unprecedented global health crisis, brands are increasingly making their presence known through digital means – be it virtual avatars or tech-driven supply chains. The question now remains: what lies in store for brands who are tactically embracing all things virtual with open arms?

Should We Get Used to Virtual Fashion?

The headlines aren’t good. Between regular breaking news of companies verging on business closures as a result of industry contractions and more events being cancelled, there’s a hanging cloud of gloom across the fashion industry.

Already, an April 2020 report by McKinsey projected that 80% of publicly-traded fashion companies in Europe and North America will be in a state of financial distress. The same report also indicated that a significant number of global fashion companies will go bankrupt in the next 12 to 18 months, with corporations that shown signs of struggling before the pandemic being the most vulnerable.

But despite the climate, there is a new stream of opportunities for fashion to rebound. Already, we’ve seen that brands who have exercised survival instincts understand the urgency to accelerate its digital frontier. As Europe began shutting down retail points early this year, leading fashion houses such as Gucci and Dior quickly rolled out new virtual means of connecting with consumers.

Between podcasts, virtual museum tours and online recipes, Dior is one of the leading luxury houses who have quickly adapted their marketing messaging into various digital channels. Image: Dior

The precautionary measures of social distancing have made it clear: digital presence is a priority, now more than ever. This doesn’t just refer to how brands maneuver their messaging around the shifts in purchasing behavior, but also how industry leaders are seeking innovative tools to integrate within their operations.

There is some reason to hope for better days too, especially when certain Asian regions are already showing early signs of recovery. Notably, South Korea and Hong Kong, with major cities like Seoul easing broader restrictions by reopening offices and public facilities. Hong Kong who is a contender among global financial hubs have adopted similar actions, as well as talks on relaxing cross-border quarantine measures between neighbouring cities, according to government sources, while Singapore has already unveiled its plan to open up the economy in phases.

The COVID-19 pandemic is now shaping up to be a crucial moment for businesses to reassess and speed up future-proofing efforts before a further outbreak unfolds. Adopting a digital-first mindset would be a promising solution. With that in mind, here are three potential avenues that should be prioritised if fashion wants to fortify its future.

Influencer 2.0

Created in 2016 by Los Angeles-based AI media studio Brud Records, Lil Miquela has since dominated the digital influencer pack with a cult Instagram following of 2.2 million to date. The catch? Her digitally-rendered personality is governed by a team of computer-whizzes. With the ability to shape-shift and replicate human mannerisms, brands are growing intrigued by how far they can ride on the digital avatar wave.

Once a niche, Lil Miquela no longer just caters to your Instagram feed. Signing with sought-after creative artists agency and entertainment company CAA, Miquela will be the first virtual client under their representation. With CAA’s resources, she is set hit the big screen through TV and film projects, and commercial endorsements. It’s an unprecedented move, whereby Brud’s president Kara Weber cites Miquela is “finding herself in the unique position of both reflecting and influencing culture.”

Ditto Noonoouri, another digital avatar with over 350,000 followers on Instagram watching as she strikes a pose in the pages of fashion magazines, while wearing Giorgio Armani and Marine Serre. The virtual influencer also recently made an appearance on Amazon’s fashion design competition Making The Cut as a guest judge, cementing the role of VR influencers within fashion’s culture and business.

Apart from the buzz it generates, digital avatars offer different solutions. Raymond Zhang, senior vice-president for strategy at fashion e-commerce Mogu, helps reiterate that “the rewards are obvious. Virtual influencers can work nonstop. They don’t have real-people problems; they can just be selling products and working 24/7.”

It’s not hard to then imagine a retail future where Miquela-equivalent identities will soon take over a larger sum of a brand’s influencer marketing budget, with it being a cost-effective and scalable customer acquisition solution, while still remaining on brand for most companies.

On a somewhat similar note, apps such as Facemoji and Memoji provide an outlet of self-expression – allowing you to create larger-than-life egos without social and environmental constructs. Even Facebook has recently created its own launchpad, allowing you to create personalised avatars. The social media giant rolled out the services to its U.S. users, whereby individuals can share feelings and interact with friends in comments, on Messenger, and in Stories that utilise this digital “facelift”.

These digital facets will appeal to tomorrow’s consumers. Not only are they heavily exposed and receptive to digital innovations, but more importantly, it resonates with their openness towards fluid definitions of identity, whether it be in relation to gender diversity or to a person that solely exists in virtual reality who wants to sell them skincare products.

With this new realm of virtual reality, everyone can now co-exist in the digital sphere, and the fast-expanding pool of voices will be one that brands can tap on.

Gaming in style

Before social media leveraged on digital avatars, the gaming industry adopted the concept much earlier on, with Second Life and The Sims, which kick-started the millennium and sold nearly 200 million copies worldwide.

Whether we’re physically present or embodying a persona on our mobile device, there seems to be a common desire of personalisation. Take the recent success of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, for instance. Once the game is opened, players can build an entire utopia within their Nintendo game sets, and recently some players have also begun rolling out “fashion boutiques” that offer digital versions of off-the-runway looks from the likes of Louis Vuitton and Chanel.  

In March alone, Animal Crossing sold 5 million digital copies, setting the record for the most digital copies of a console title sold in a single month, according to Nielsen’s SuperData.

Users who want aesthetically pleasing outfits have seen to be making virtual bootleg pieces by the likes of Prada and Celine. Brands such as Marc Jacobs and Valentino swiftly embraced the trend and have partnered with content creator @AnimalCrossingFashionArchive on a curated range of downloadable styles via QR code.

While more data to prove its effectiveness to drive sales will take time to accrue, especially with the game’s nature of deterring from ad placements and co-branding, it’s safe to predict that more brands will make the venture, due to the broad appeal and low cost to entry.

“Creating capsule collections in Animal Crossing, while seemingly unorthodox, is a fun way to get potential and existing customers excited about new items while increasing brand engagement and affinity,” says Rachel Oliva-Vales, social media specialist at PR firm AMP3. Rolling with new digital trends will help brands salvage brand equity by gaining further insight into consumers’ likes, dislikes, and nuances. In the case of Animal Crossing, brands can monitor user-generated designs to forecast what designs to prioritise.

A digital-first marketplace

With alternative working arrangements becoming the new norm, digital design is emerging as a valuable lever to efficiently streamline operations. These three-dimensional, photorealistic digital models can be easily adopted as creative marketing materials, customer-facing e-commerce pages, and augmented reality experiences.

3D designs allow brands to be resourceful, whereby designers can create and alter designs without physically producing them. The physical properties of fabrics are quantified and recreated digitally, and avatars act as fit models to portray how clothes will fit in real life. With technological advancements, the merchandising and design teams working from home can render a realistic-looking shirt in one day, as opposed to a few months with traditional prototyping.

By adopting virtual avatars for their customers who are staying home, Diane Von Furstenberg is able to guarantee a higher level of consumer satisfaction and minimize unsold or returned goods.

This is proving to be a thriving solution, with companies steeped in history looking to infuse tech-driven supply chain set-ups to their heritage goods. Diane von Furstenberg is one example, as the brand is integrating innovative codes into its production chain – developing a platform for customers to personalise its signature wrap dress, from the colour combo right down to the sleeve length. The customer can immediately preview their dress via a 3D model before making an order, which drastically reduces the problem of unsold merchandise and returns.

Beyond fun and games, 3D models can provide more context than static imagery, which fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff can vouch for. Since last Fall, Minkoff – who was an earlier adopter of this trend – had observed that visitors who interacted with a 3D model were 44% more likely to add a product to their cart and 27% more likely to place an order than visitors who didn’t.

The virtual solutions are boundless and beneficial. Brands should take this moment to properly audit on their resources, recuperate, and find a mix of tools that complement their vision. Augmented and virtual reality – whether it be avatars that are extensions of yourself, or programs that help designers visualise end products – will soon be the new norm.

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