Clothing that grows on the skin, digital fashion shows held exclusively on the metaverse, augmented reality shoes: You would be mistaken for thinking these are a fabricated folly or part of a sci-fi movie script. They are, however, some of the crucial and very real elements responsible for catapulting the fashion industry into the next century, today.
The pandemic disrupted the fashion industry to its core and forced brands to figure out new ways of connecting with customers – especially in digital-only environments. While the result of this rift has been cataclysmic for many, those who had the means to move online, or adapt smart, forward-thinking technologies, have thrived.
As the first digital fashion brand to show at a major global fashion week in London later this year, Auroboros is breaking into the mainstream. The science-meets-fashion label creates hyperfuturistic, real-life couture garments and digital-only, ready-to-wear garments that crystalise and metamorphosise over time.
The brand says that one in 10 people admit to buying clothes “solely for social media” and that those outfits can now be digital-only, which “produce 97 per cent less emissions that physical items”.
Founded by Paula Sello and Alissa Aulbekova (designers in residence at Sarabande, the charitable trust established by Lee Alexander McQueen), Auroboros's strengths lie in its ability to marry nature with tech tools and software to create eye-catching designs for modern life. "Our ideas were so aligned in terms of creating a positive vision for the future," says Aulbekova of the duo's mission to use technology to create a "powerful, utopian and accessible" future. Amid the pandemic, the designers expanded into ready-to-wear clothing with a 14-piece digital-only Biomimicry Collection, which was shown at London Fashion Week in June, with a physical model wearing the digital clothing, styled by celebrity stylist Sita Abellán.
“With this business model of the physical and the digital – as in physical couture, digital retailer – we’re completely disrupting the way in which the industry functions, and doing so in a way that’s much more sustainable, both ecologically and in a way that’s really enhancing the creativity,” says Sello, who is responsible for creating the physical couture and digital ready-to-wear alongside Aulbekova.
How does buying digital clothing work in real life? “It’s three simple steps,” says Aulbekova. “You choose the garment you like, then you purchase it and you send [us] an image or video of yourself. And that part is really exciting because people tend to really explore their identities and creativity.” The digital garment-making process typically takes three to five days, and a full outfit starts at £475 (€550).
The pair have also run collaborations with luxury fashion gaming platform Drest – along with high-fashion brands including Louboutin, Cartier and Stella McCartney. If you thought the gaming industry is still dominated by pale, young men in dark rooms then consider this: 60 per cent of mobile gamers are now women. "There are 2.7 billion global gamers," Sello says, "and 69 per cent of them are most likely to spend their money in-game on skins and cosmetics. Digital fashion already is vast. It's just that fashion is now adapting to it and understanding its reach and creativity."
With the global gaming market valued at $167.9 billion (€141.6 billion) in 2020, and by 2026 expected to reach $295.63 billion (€249.3 billion), there is ample room for fashion brands to integrate into the gaming space. In fact, most luxury retailers have already begun experimenting with gaming technology as a means of connect with wider audiences: This year alone, Burberry and Farfetch unveiled a 3D world to promote new bags; in May, Gucci unveiled a new virtual world on Roblox, a metaverse and gaming platform, with a virtual two-week art installation where the label's iconic Dionysus Bag sold for $4,115 (€3,470) – $750 (€632) more than the cost of the physical version; IMVU, another online metaverse social networking and fashion e-commerce site with 7 million monthly active users, held a virtual-only fashion show in May with seven emerging designers including Collina Strada, Mowalola and Mimi Wade.
In the case of e-commerce, a key takeaway from the pandemic is that brands need to be able to make critical decisions quickly, which requires access to data on existing and predicted consumer behaviour.
One crucial solution to this is the use of artificial intelligence (AI), which has rapidly accelerated investment in new tools and tech. Answering questions such as whether or not you avoid philosophical or theoretical discussions and your views on marriage might not seem like a normal part of your shopping experience, but it’s a core part of Psykhe’s unique approach to buying clothes in 2021.
The smart e-commerce platform, founded by fashion journalist-cum-neuropsychologist Anabel Maldonado in 2019, is the first shopping platform of its kind to apply a smart learning algorithm based on psychological data science to help make recommendations to shoppers based on personality traits. By exercising AI and taxonomy to help influence personalisation, the result is a sleek shopping platform informed by traits such as openness or neuroticism – in addition to traditional details like whether or not you prefer polka dots – without human input.
“The mission is to promote self-knowledge amongst consumers and to enable technology to understand consumers and to change how we think about clothes,” says Maldonado of Psykhe’s approach to online shopping. It works by tapping into the Big Five model – a model in psychology to measure the building blocks of your personality – to make product recommendations based on the user’s personality profile, and is the only platform of its kind to employ psychological data to inform its machine learning capabilities.
The upside in using machines to help you find your perfect outfit? They provide an enhanced approach to product filtering, meaning you’re less likely to see items you’re not interested in. But what if AI were to become too predictable? Could it limit your personal style evolution? It depends on how sophisticated the algorithm is, according to Maldonado, who has worked to develop a less “heavy-handed” algorithm but rather one that is more human in nature and accounts for your aptitude for surprises: “Another proprietary feature of Psykhe is that if you don’t like a recommendation you can stop it, and that will teach us about your dislikes, which I think is actually just as important as trying to see the things you like.”
It's not just international players who are tapping into smart tech. For heritage brand Louis Copeland & Sons, investing in its digital infrastructure was key to ensuring survival, according to David O'Connor, group general manager and head buyer. The close proximity needed between customer and tailor in order to get accurate body measurements meant that its bespoke service suffered as a result of store closures. To counteract this, the brand introduced smart body-recognition technology – the same deployed by Apple for the iPhone's facial recognition feature – to suit-up new clients. The investment, then, allows the customer to get measured safely while affording Louis Copeland & Sons access to a new global audience.
It works by sending a front-facing and side-profile photograph – wearing tight sportswear or, ideally, underwear – to the tech company’s data centre in the United States. From here, a hyper life-like avatar is created which is then used to create accurate measurements for bespoke and made-to-measure suits.
“I think this year was the best year we ever had with regard to growth and learning,” O’Connor says. “We’ve not only survived, but we’ve improved. And I think it made us analyse every aspect of the business that we probably wouldn’t have had the time to do beforehand. The end result is that we’ve got a business that is stronger, that is a leader [and] that is more creative and progressive.”
How does an avatar compare to the skill of a master couturier? It’s surprisingly authentic, notes O’Connor, adding that the team performed rigorous tests on staff and long-standing customers before opening the service up to wider audiences. What’s next for the retailer? A smartphone filter that materialises your new suit with the touch of a button? Perhaps.
Indeed fashion and beauty giants are already leveraging augmented reality, which was made ubiquitous by social media platforms Snapchat and Instagram, as a powerful "try-before-you-buy" tool.
In a click of a button, Garnier's Virtual Shade Selector will allow you to try on your favourite make-up shade before committing to a purchase, Mac Cosmetics' make-up filters provide a near 100 per cent accuracy to the real thing, Sally Hansen will give you a digital manicure and Benefit Cosmetics Brow Try-On allows users to try on 15 brow shapes in 12 shades. Following the success of Gucci's landmark partnership with Snapchat in 2020, which enabled users to virtually try on Gucci sneakers (nearly 19 million Snapchat users have tried on Gucci products using the filter to date), users will now be able to try on clothing, glasses, purses and bracelets virtually from Farfetch, Prada and Piaget with upgraded technology that detects and responds to body movements and facial dimensions.
Whether virtual clothing can trump the in-real-life bricks-and-mortar experience is down to personal preference, but it’s hard to argue with the efficiency and convenience of trying on new-season Prada from the comfort of one’s home. If the phygital shoe fits . . .