Years ago, fashion was slow to embrace technological change; today the industry has done a complete turnaround. Technology and fashion have been fast to embrace each other, and a co-dependent relationship has developed with advances in the internet and social media. Today it’s almost impossible to find a label without a strong online presence be it through e-commerce retailers, social media or advertising.
Diane von Furstenberg was quick to partner with Google Glass; Fendi has used drones to live-stream their runway shows, and Alexander McQueen used holograms of Kate Moss in their 2006 Widows of Culloden show in Paris. But this symbiotic marriage of fashion and tech, which becomes more entrenched with every new advancement, seems to beg the question: what’s next?
The most obvious answer would be virtual reality. Being touted as a new medium, and compared with the invention of the internet, this cutting-edge tech is making a massive impact in the market. Naturally, fashion wants a slice of the pie. Since 2010, over $4 billion has been invested in VR, and those funds aren’t exclusively from electronic companies looking for the next big thing in gaming. For the fashion industry it could be a new way to bring in revenue; viewing headsets priced from $20 to just under $1,000 make VR accessible to everyone, putting brands right in the laps of potential shoppers.
It’s an untapped and immeasurable form of access to consumers in a slowly declining retail market; it only makes sense that major brands are jumping at the opportunity. The only problem is the industry hasn’t figured out how to profit from it just yet.
For VR to be any more than a PR play, it needs to help the industry generate sales and interest from potential customers. Brands have been experimenting with the technology in a number of ways: Elle, In Style and Refinery 29 have all released experiential VR videos for their sites and many brands have opted to film runway shows in VR including Topshop, Rebecca Minkoff and Tommy Hilfiger, the latter of which even brought the technology to his flagship stores to give customers access to the catwalk while shopping.
Last year Dior premiered Dior Eyes, their in-house manufactured VR headset that is “packed with cutting-edge technology,” and offers a backstage look at models prepping for shows. So far none of these efforts has had any major impacts on sales numbers.
Pairing technology and fashion don’t necessarily generate an automatic win for these industries. Fashion was quick to jump on Google Glass with Diane Von Furstenberg leading the pack. The designer made a special-edition collection of Google frames, sent her models down the runway wearing the specs during her Spring 2013 show and pushed those glasses like her brand depended on it. (We later found out it could have. In her memoir, released in 2014, she confessed that she felt her collections were so weak that she partnered with Google Glass to deter attention away from them.) Apple was another tech giant that leant heavily on the fashion industry.
When they released the Watch, they obtained placement on the cover of Vogue China, showcased a preview during Paris Fashion Week, appointed Christy Turlington spokeswoman and eventually partnered with Hermès. Despite the current growth of Apple Watch sales, the early numbers were stagnant, and the fashion industry was no longer on board.
But VR could be a game changer. Unlike wearable tech that attempts to integrate into not only your everyday routine but also your wardrobe, VR is a medium that can be viewed on multiple platforms at the user’s leisure. Fans can watch shows on a state-of-the-art headset, put together a small makeshift viewer like Google Cardboard, or watch the 360-degree videos on their phones or tablets.
Because VR videos are different than traditional films, the audience can fully engage with the content simply by turning their head; they can watch the models walk down the runway or check out the celebrities sitting in the front row. Since the viewers can focus on what’s most interesting to them, the videos become a truly personal and lifelike environment. Now the Fashion Week experience—sans flights, lines, crowds, hotel and cost—can be enjoyed from your couch. And you don’t even need to get an invite.
For brands, this ease of access can translate directly into sales. YouVisit, a company that creates virtual tours of restaurants, sporting events, music festivals and the like, partnered with Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia to create an interactive VR experience called Mirror to the Soul. The resulting work is a five-minute video that gives viewers a behind-the-scenes peek at all the front row, backstage and street-style moments from the event.
While it’s like any other VR video that allows users to move around the space and view the object from multiple angles, they are hoping to be soon able to integrate product information onto the screen and the ability to place an order directly from the VR unit. And with the industry reevaluating the traditional schedule for a new “see now, buy now” system, this could change the way brands conduct their advertising, manufacturing or distribution.
Of course, by all accounts, VR is still in its infancy. Last year, a study done by Touchstone Research and Greenlight VR noted that of 2,282 respondents aged 10 to 61, 95 percent said they were aware of VR, 55 percent stated that they were likely to purchase a VR device in 2016, but only 35 percent had tried it. As we’re currently in the first wave of VR devices, it’s expected that not every home has invested in a unit, but research suggests that they will. Reports estimate that the global market for VR should reach $105.2 billion in 2020, up from about $4.5 billion in 2015.
At this point the fashion industry is playing the long game—by getting in early, they’ll have a better understanding of the tech and how it works for their brand’s needs, a steadily growing VR fan base, and the time and opportunity to develop content to make it more engaging for the consumer.
To actually capture the possibility of what’s available with VR, the industry is going to have to do more than give fans a digital front row ticket to shows. While the immersive experience will undoubtedly lead to improvements in a new customer base and higher sales, it won’t, single-handedly, shake up the entire fashion industry.
The addition of direct orders or in-headset information as suggested by YouVisit will definitely make an impact on the market, and eventually, new ideas and applications will grow with the popularity and technology of VR. Someday it could be used to virtually try on clothes to see how the fabric moves or fits in-person. We could try on shoes to see how they look when we walk, mix and match bags and outfits from our favourite brands and test different colours and cuts. Until then we’ll just have to shop the old-fashioned way—online.
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