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The global emergency sparked by Coronavirus has disrupted the season of events scheduled in all business areas, as cancellations came pouring in even before reaching the full lockdown. An unexpected and unpredictable situation that put the fashion & luxury industry in an unprecedented condition. Starting with the fashion weeks, the cancellation of many physical events opened the door to multiple opportunities, made possible thanks to virtual fashion technologies.
An excellent article by Maghan McDowell, recently published in Vogue Business, makes us reflect on how digital technologies are contributing in curbing this emergency, enabling professionals to discover and exploit their full potential to the point that they are now considered a solid ally even in the “new normal”.
Virtual fashion technologies offer great support for the omnichannel vision of the brand-customer relationship, as they allow the entire experiential journey to be digitised – from fashion shows to showrooms –, with great benefits for both fashion designers and retailers. In this article, we will review the possibilities that digital technologies offer today to support fashion & luxury brands’ corporate communication strategies when they cannot rely on physical experiences.
Videos and online communication
Filming fashion shows at new collection presentations and distributing fashion videos is nothing new as proven by the long tradition of this content type both on thematic TV channels and on the web. Youtube itself has recently launched a vertical on fashion which, at the time of writing, has nearly 1.2 million subscribers. The channel hosts live streams of events held by fashion brands and offers many insights dedicated to the main protagonists of the fashion world. Some other platforms specifically target local audiences, such as the Chinese platform Weibo, where Gucci has reached over 16 million viewers during its first live stream, in September 2019. For the fashion & luxury industry, the galaxy of online corporate communication naturally includes the proprietary channels of their respective brands, which continuously experiment with new formats to reach their audience.
As for the events, some brands have just opted for a “See you in 2021”. The Mercedes Benz Russian Fashion Week, scheduled for the first week of April 2020, has cancelled its entire physical programme, announcing that it will be replaced with digital experiences. It is safe to expect a similar behaviour from all the brands who do not wish to have their presence swept away from the global scene.
Digital fashion creatives around the world are facing the challenge to produce valuable content that can support the omnichannel strategies of the brands and capture the attention of potential customers effectively. Both the full digital alternative or the hybridisation between online content and physical events fit perfectly into this context where videos are an indispensable tool.
To add value to the physical experience, a video should offer new angles which would not be accessible for a physical event viewer. Directors and creatives alike have free rein to convey the stories of the brands making use of a wide range of technologies. For general filming, several cameras positioned in different parts of the catwalk deliver the best result, while large displays allow viewers to appreciate small particulars such as the details of the fabric. Decentralising the point of view also paves the way for new filming devices, such as drones, or even utilising virtual content thanks to computer graphics, in a similar way to what can be achieved in events through projection mapping.
Compared to physical events, the spreading of digital content online targets a much wider audience, generally, at lower costs. The event itself undergoes an identity transformation: from being the linchpin of the experience, it now becomes the basis on which content can be built for a multiplicity of purposes. In this context, the online availability of various multimedia formats allows both fans and professionals to follow many more events – also live – as confirmed by Emily Zak, Vogue’s Head of fashion shows, after attending the Paris Fashion Week remotely: “When I wasn’t travelling from show to show, I had more time to absorb them”. Zak mainly followed the live streams and the contents broadcast on the Instagram channels of the participating brands, and she positively surprised: “That’s a real benefit that maybe I wouldn’t have appreciated fully if the circumstances hadn’t come to that full boil. I don’t know why we haven’t invested more energy in coming up with an alternative”.
3D models and virtual catalogues
The level attained today by 3D software in terms of photorealism and the simulation of physical fabrics allows companies to digitise their product catalogue without any quality loss. 3D technologies become then a very precious ally of fashion & luxury brands, as they can support the entire production chain – from the proof of concept to the presentation of new product lines –, while creating all the visual content required for the companies’ marketing and communication needs. Ultimately, the digital alternative to physical products is already here and can also be used to substitute the content of the events.
For the Paris Fashion Week, Louis Vitton has digitised a part of its catalogue to allow the public to discover the new collections online. This experience has had an overall positive outcome, anticipating a transition that would have been implemented in the next two years if it were to follow the regular business plans, as confirmed by the CEO Michael Burke.
360° images & videos
Beyond the tangible results, the main limitation of online video content compared to the physical event is the absence of interactivity. The audience is a mere spectator of what the director narrates. While for certain types of content this choice turns out to be the best option – even instrumentally –, in other situations, it is preferable to engage the public directly. A classic example of the latter case is the showroom – a container where customers should be free to explore and interact directly with the product as they wish.
360° images and videos can be created by filming the physical showrooms. They faithfully reproduce iconic flagship stores in 3D, as in the case of Levi’s, a popular “Mecca” for the brand’s fans. Instead of creating an entirely virtual environment, they offer users a realistic, disruptive experience.
Undoubtedly, one of the advantages of interactive digital technologies is the ability to track user interactions, acquiring useful data to understand their preferences and their behaviour in a targeted way. Brands like Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors regularly use 360° images to present their products online and to support online-to-offline marketing strategies. Virtual showrooms, integrated within a proper sales strategy, generate a fourfold increase in orders placed by customers, as shown by the cases of Loewe and Proenza Schouler, which use a dedicated platform.
Among the 3D technologies used in virtual fashion, augmented reality has significantly captured the attention of brands, especially because of its widespread diffusion. Users can easily establish a relationship with the brand using an app on their smartphone, besides customising and sharing their online experience, turning it into an event. Unlike other technologies, a dedicated device is not needed, here.
The possibilities disclosed by augmented reality in the fashion & luxury sector are endless, having as their common denominator the availability of pre-determined content (without any loss in terms of control and quality) that customers can use to have their own exclusive experience. Think of an application capable of bringing a fashion show to life wherever you are or hearing a testimonial directly from your living room. That, plus the possibility of virtually testing the products, thanks to virtual try-on apps. Many brands use augmented reality applications, both in the fashion & luxury sector (i.e. Nike, Converse, etc.) and in the cosmetics field (i.e. Sephora, L’Oreal, etc.)
It being understood that no purely digital event can fully replace the exclusivity of a physical event in terms of tangible relationships, the level of realism achieved through immersive technologies allows users to experience situations that would otherwise be unthinkable, adding extra value to the customer journey.
Initiatives such as VR Fashion Week and Fashion Week Online allow companies to share virtual reality content to offer wholly artificial fashion shows and showrooms, such as those recently held by brands like Rag & Bone, Balmain and Diane von Furstenberg.
The immersive experience opens an enormous potential for brands in terms of audience engagement but the scarce diffusion of VR devices and the limited support of broadband connections (5G) limits the online use of virtual reality. Virtual Reality still remains the go-to technology for location-based events, where the main goal is to capture the public’s attention thanks to its novelty and the so-called “wow effect”, as well as to offer a memorable experience that creates a strong emotional bond between the user and the brand.
For further information on virtual fashion, fashion tech and omnichannel, we suggest reading the following articles, published on 3D Stories, and the in-depth analysis on Vogue Business by which this article was inspired:
Forced cancellations jumpstart virtual fashion technology (Vogue Business)
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