Creative Disruption: Fashioning the future with 3D Design

Left photo is a mannaquin with pearls on it and the right is a photo of a pink and white striped dress.

Image source: (Left) Adobe Stock / 35757995 (Right) Virtual sample created in Adobe Substance by Maggie Mattioni.

A quiet revolution has begun. As new technologies enable fashion houses and fast fashion brands to convey the fit and feel of garments more accurately to online consumers, the final pieces of the puzzle are falling into place. Firms throughout the industry, from nimble start-ups like On Running to international brands like adidas, are embracing all-digital pipelines from design and production to marketing and retail.

Crocs photorealistic 3D product visual generated by INDG.

With the dramatic change in online shopping habits brought about by COVID-19, the market is now at a tipping point. Recent research by Weave suggests that almost half the industry expects to be using 3D technology at scale within the next three years. In this article, we want to explore the nature of the revolution: what we gain by going digital, what we think prevents us from doing so, and how we can overcome stumbling blocks.

Twenty years of fashion in the making

The past two decades have seen a series of technological shifts in the fashion industry, made possible both by innovations in software and advancements in the power of computer hardware that made those innovations accessible to all.

adidas photorealistic 3D product visual generated by INDG.

“Between 2000 and 2010, we saw designers start to move away from hand sketches to 2D design tools like Adobe Illustrator, and then to adopt digital layout software like Adobe InDesign,” says Bastiaan Geluk, head of digital fashion at product visualization specialist INDG, which helps traditional fashion brands to digitize their portfolios.

Despite this early advancement, there are designers today at some of the oldest Fashion Houses who sketch designs as part of a tried-and-true artistic and artisanal process — and they will continue to do so. What happens next in the process, digitizing these ideas, is where the challenge remains and keeps fashion workflows from advancing.

“Between 2010 and 2020, we saw another big shift from 2D digital sketches to 3D design, and from images on a server or desktop to full digital asset management in alignment with line planning data. Over the next five years, we expect to see the industry move from simple 3D sketches to truly photorealistic representations of products for marketing and virtual retail, even early on in the creative process,” Geluk says.

New Era Cap photorealistic 3D product visual generated by INDG.

Buffalo based New Era Cap embarked on a digitization journey with INDG in 2020 to revolutionize their existing image creation pipelines. New Era Cap image systems will be populated with high-quality photorealistic 3D product visuals generated by INDG to replace the existing 2D illustrations when the physical products do not yet exist. INDG’s 3D assets are produced with meticulous attention to every detail in the product, from the carefully designed shape and fit of the caps to the fine detail in the materials and threads that make up the beautifully crafted embroideries on every New Era Cap product.

Within INDG’s pipeline, the Adobe Substance toolkit plays a critical role to achieve this level of detail in the materials and embroideries. It has allowed INDG to incorporate amazing realism into their textures and embroideries while blending perfectly into the pipeline to accomplish this realism at scale when digitizing the New Era Cap product portfolio.

“As a 100 year-old company steeped in tradition, New Era Cap has undertaken the bold move over the past few years to dramatically modernize its business practices and leap forward aggressively in the realms of customer experience, Digital Commerce and product creation. For a company that produces over 60 million caps a year, the concept-to-artwork process was one such “traditional” process that was ripe for digital disruption. Enter INDG. Unequivocally the best in the industry, INDG quickly and unanimously dispelled any concerns about the viability of 3D digital art, blowing our minds with the speed, quality and excellence of their output and delivery, in the process creating a new way for us to go-to-market with our product. An absolute game changer for us going forward”, says Lorenz Gan, CIO, New Era Cap.

What can we gain by going digital?

INDG identifies five key benefits of a 3D representation of a product that can be used throughout the supply chain, from initial design decisions to marketing, retail — and sustainability — which is top priority for many brands these days.

Top business cases and the benefits of implementing 3D. Research by independent third-party — reference can be provided on request.

The hard benefits of 3D visualization are clear: by replacing product photography with digital images — as IKEA has done with over 75% of its catalog — firms can reduce the need for expensive real-world photo shoots and physical samples, while making initial design decisions based on photorealistic renders reduces the need for environmentally wasteful physical prototypes.

3D artwork by Clément Bourcier for product marketing visuals. Read the story on Substance Magazine.

“When I’m able to choose between 3D and more classic photography, I systematically opt for 3D. I’m not saying that you can’t get great visuals in photos; far from it. I just think that, for an equivalent level of quality on the final visuals, 3D allows you to save a significant amount of time.”

Clément Bourcier, freelance creative image maker specializing in 3D design, photography and art direction

Digital prototyping also leads to shorter product creation cycles and iterations. “Once you have…virtual assets, they’re very easy to share with multiple departments — no matter the location. You couldn’t do that with samples,” said Robert Garner, director, patterns, Kontoor Brands, discussing the firm’s Wrangler and Lee jeans.

Kontoor Brands designing garments in a virtual or 3D environment.

“With 3D design, there is a transparency with sharing the design and development process with everyone very early on, which leads to quicker decision making,” Garner adds.

Also a digital workflow can have unexpected soft benefits. By using customer feedback based on digital products rather than in-store trials, wedding dress retailer David’s Bridal increased the accuracy of sales forecasts of new gowns by more than 20%. Supermarket chain Tesco estimates an increase in net margins by 4-8% due to the reduction in lead times on its F&F clothing line resulting from adopting 3D virtual fit and prototyping technology.

Who’s currently getting digital workflows right?

Many of the first companies to reap the benefits of this disruptive new technology are small, agile emerging brands.

Paras Gupta, creator of Digi Denim, decided to tackle sustainability concerns while creating his new 3D denim collection that uses no water or natural resources whatsoever, making it the most ethical denim in the world. He used the Substance suite of tools for 3D materials to bring his project to life.

“When I started doing 3D it was a natural choice to combine my knowledge of denim with the skills of 3D. My aim was to create a real-time denim in a virtual world. When I made my first pair of digital denim jeans, I struggled to make them appear as authentic as ‘real-world’ jeans. This pushed me to seek out the appropriate tools with which I could create that perfect denim virtually — and this is how I found out about Substance,” says Gupta.

But digital workflows aren’t simply for start-ups. Some of the pioneers in the market have been multinational corporations. International footwear manufacturer adidas began its own journey towards 3D design in 2007, and by 2015 was creating 50,000 virtual assets per year. Other multinational brands are also now seeing success through virtualization.

“Digital design unlocks further opportunities to collaborate across disciplines and enhance craft and creativity within PUMA, capturing the occasion to bring design and consumer closer together. 3D offers the exciting advantage of using PUMA’s rich heritage to tell stories through everyday innovation,” says David McKenzie, head of design sportstyle footwear at PUMA Group.

PUMA photorealistic 3D product visual generated by INDG.

“Substance lowers the barrier to entry for less experienced users and allows anyone to create material applications with amazing levels of realism. It should be part of everyone’s digital materials workflow,” says Safir Bellali, senior director of advanced digital creation, and VF Corporation, a global apparel and footwear company founded in 1899 and headquartered in Denver, Colorado. The company offers more than 30 brands in outdoor, active and work wear.

What’s stopping the rest of us from adopting digital technology?

It’s apparent: the fashion industry has much to gain from new technology. So why aren’t more of us working digitally? One historical stumbling block was a lack of visual fidelity. Early 3D renders simply didn’t capture the nuances of real fabrics, resulting in a sub-par customer experience. But that is changing fast. In its work for British brand Pink Shirtmaker, INDG uses Adobe’s Substance suite of tools to author digital materials that are indistinguishable from the real thing, recreating minute wrinkles, stitches and surface detailing with painstaking accuracy.

Image courtesy of INDG.

Another perceived obstacle was a lack of tactile feedback. Interacting with a digital representation of a garment isn’t the same as trying it on, sceptics argued. The coronavirus pandemic has changed that, making a lack of physical contact a benefit rather than a failing — even for luxury fashion brands.

Product virtualization created in Adobe Substance by Mike Voropaev.

“As soon as COVID-19 happened, people didn’t want to go into malls and sunglass stores to try on glasses,” Chris Abbruzzese, vice president of trade marketing for Bollé Brands, told Insider Intelligence. “Who wants to touch something that was on somebody’s face? I’m not supposed to touch my own face, let alone wear glasses that touched someone else’s face.”

Staffing is another more practical obstacle to adopting new digital technologies. Most brands or hiring functions simply do not know what to hire for and some feel uncomfortable leading teams without having subject matter know-how themselves using the new technologies they are hiring for. Turns out the solution may be closer to home than you think. With traditional designers now experimenting with 3D tools for personal projects, research from supply chain consultancy firm Weave suggests that “98% of talent comes from within the industry, not from other sectors or technology firms.”

“98% of talent comes from within the industry, not from other sectors or technology firms.”

However, it is necessary to be realistic about the financial commitment that implementing a new digital pipeline entails. In its survey, Weave found that 30% of respondents expected a positive return on investment within 12 months of adopting 3D technology, whereas “leaders who have implemented 3D successfully understand…payback to be in the range of 36-48 months”.

Ultimately, the biggest obstacle to the adoption of digital technology may simply be the challenges that come with change. “I have seen many designers fear using 3D, and the main reason for that is sticking to their comfort zone, and being used to just sketching or using some basic computer tools which they learned in college, and moving to 3D could mess up their process. Another reason is that some designers can’t see the power of 3D as a design tool vs an execution tool, I saw this a lot in the industry, many designers who knew 3D were looked at as modelers instead of creative thinkers who happened to have an extra skill set, which caused a big tension in design teams, due to the lack of understanding of what 3D is, and what it can do,” says Hussain Almossawi, a product designer who worked with Nike and adidas.

Teams need to understand the benefits to embrace the new workflows and that requires capable leadership and change management. While some firms feel that their legacy workflows are just too complex to shift, the experience of multinational firms like adidas suggest that the challenges are not insuperable.

adidas photorealistic 3D product visual generated by INDG.

“I think that design teams and creative directors need to implement and adopt the new and advanced tools and embrace new technologies and processes if they are looking to create things for the future. An innovative design needs an innovative process, and 3D is definitely something that you can’t overlook,” Almossawi says.

How can you adopt digital workflows in your own organization?

If you’re just beginning your own journey toward working digitally, Weave has some valuable practical advice: begin with a business case, not the technology itself — and begin small.

Look for low hanging fruit such as products that have minor product changes in shape and trims…products that hardly ever change except color, graphic and materials are easy to generate at high quality. “3D virtualization can quickly reduce the number of samples and product approval time, giving you a short ROI with tangible cost savings that you can leverage with your vendor partners.”

Product virtualization created in Adobe Substance.

To lead the change, look for staff who already have experience of, and enthusiasm for, 3D technology. Also look for leaders to facilitate buy in and budget approvals. In its survey, Weave found that “40% of companies with 3D programs moving to scale indicated that the C-level were critical in driving adoption.”

Providing tech-savvy staff with autonomy over a project can create passionate advocates for change. Discussing adidas’s journey towards digital workflows, Sourcing Journal notes that the firm set up squads tasked with managing adoption of 3D technology within every department.

“Each squad would have ownership over a portion of the process, creating key influencers for each department that could be informed speakers on the subject during meetings.”

When scaling up your initial implementation, pick new targets wisely. Sourcing Journal notes that adidas “learned that it was important to be flexible and to greenlight smaller projects that could withstand small failures and extended timelines”.

And if necessary, consider outsourcing individual tasks to specialist agencies, or co-opting existing public asset libraries. INDG is currently working with Adobe to build a reusable library of digital representations of real-world materials, complete with metadata, so that information about a fabric’s carbon footprint can be built into decision-making from the start of the design process.

A visual exploration of the new Procedural fabrics and decals for fashion in Substance Source.

Where can we go from here?

With consumers more willing than ever to shop for clothing online, and disruptive new 3D technologies making it possible to create photorealistic virtual representations of products that can be reused throughout the production process, we believe that the fashion industry is at a tipping point in its adoption of digital workflows.

As the benefits of an all-digital pipeline become increasingly clear, and the barriers to entry diminish, the garment design business is poised to become the modern, forward-looking industry we always knew it to be: a leader, not a follower, of technological fashion.

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