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How Digital Fashion is Changing Fashion’s Supply Chain

The term “digital fashion” encompasses a lot.

A collection of digital sneakers and charms sold for millions as non-fungible tokens—or NFTs, as they’re more commonly known—would count. Valentino, Louis Vuitton and Gucci’s collaborations with Animal Crossing, League of Legends and The Sims would also fall within the digital fashion categorization. Balenciaga’s Fall 2021 fashion-show-turned-video game certainly meets the definition.

But for those embedding digital fashion into their design process, replacing physical samples with virtual models can mean reduced waste, machine time and labor.

Representatives from UNIFi3D, TAL Apparel Ltd., High Fashion International Ltd. and Cotton Incorporated gathered for Thursday’s Hong Kong Sourcing Summit to discuss digital fashion and the supply chain.

The growing importance of digital materials within the fashion and textile industry has prompted Cotton Incorporated, a not-for-profit organization that provides research and information to cotton manufacturers, to integrate 3D technology into its existing pool of resources.

“After a product is developed in 3D… that same 3D asset can then be used for internal planning to show buyers, to create marketing images in social media and then loaded into a website to be viewed in 3D,” Katherine Absher, Cotton Incorporated’s manager of fashion and digital design, said.

Beyond the supply chain, Absher added, virtual assets can produce new digital experiences for consumers. Customers can configure and customize products in 3D, interact with them in augmented reality and view them in their own environment.

“These 3D models help consumers better understand their products and companies using 3D in marketing are seeing increased engagement online from customers and that translates into increased conversions and reduced returns,” Absher said.

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TAL Apparel Ltd., a Hong Kong-based manufacturer with 10 factories across four countries, creates six types of products, namely shirts, with a total capacity of roughly 15 million pieces. Ambrish Jain, the company’s chief customer officer, said TAL Apparel has been investing in virtual sample technology “for quite some time,” but that it’s only been the past few years that customers have begun asking for it.

“The 3D prototyping capability has increased significantly, multiple-fold versus what it used to be and for today there’s really very little reason why the customer shouldn’t be using this, except if their business model is one where they do need physical samples to sell, primarily to the wholesale channel,” Jain said.

But for individual consumers, buying virtually is nothing new. “They’re not touching and feeling the product, they’re buying based on the digital image, which is either a photographic image of an actual product or even a 3D rendering,” Jain said.

Interest in 3D prototyping has boomed amid the pandemic. At TAL, the number of virtual samples provided upon request climbed to nearly 2,500, a roughly 175 percent increase compared to the prior year.

Well Lam, High Fashion International’s managing director for China, noted that the pandemic accelerated the demand for virtualization technology on multiple fronts. On the one hand, travel restrictions limited physical sourcing and opportunities to meet with customers one-on-one. On the demand side, meanwhile, consumers cared about global wellness and sustainability more than ever during the pandemic, Lam added.

At High Fashion International, using 3D technology allows the company to show customers its materials’ physical drape and texture, as well as offer style recommendations. If a business wants to see how that material would look on its designs, it can simply download the digital files and immediately upload them into their own 3D design software.

“This is like the coolest part because it really saves lots of time, lots of effort, lots of swatches [being sent] and immediately we can see the result of this fabric in your own design,” Lam said.

Li & Fung recently spun out its Digital Product Development Center of Excellence as a 3D-as-a-service company under its technology-centered offshoot LFX. Dubbed UNIFi3D, the business now works with more than 100 brands, according to its head of services, Idy Lee.

“We want to empower the fashion industry to actively promote sustainable consumption and our mission is to help accelerate fashion retail’s transition in creating and selling product digitally at scale,” Lee said.

UNIFi3D helps clients throughout the cycle of digital product creation and commerce, from hosting educational workshops to helping create manufacturable and marketable assets, Lee said.

“Our major goals [are] to help you accelerate adoption, bridge all of those technical skills gaps that you have, to optimize your digital flows and drive that agility for you to be able to repeat and refresh at scale with all of your products digitally,” Lee said. “When you speed to market, we’re helping you eliminate a lot of the analog physical events during your product development stage.”


In Case You Missed It: All of the session’s from this year’s Sourcing Journal Hong Kong Summit: “Recovery & Reinvention” are available to purchase and view on-demand. Click here for access.