Evolving face of digitally enabled sustainable fashion

Sustainable and effective digital measures can set the industry on a greener track for the years to come

Due to the corona pandemic, clothing samples are no longer sent around the world and there are no more fashion shows. As a result, fashion brands cannot show their new collections. The Fabricant’s 3D design solutions are a cost-effective and sustainable alternative. But the applications of 3D fashion go much further than that.

The Netherlands-based start-up The Fabricant is a leader in replacing physical clothing with high-quality 3D design solutions. The Fabricant works with major brands such as Under Armor, Puma, Adidas, Napapijri, PVH Corp. and VF Corporation. Adriana Hoppenbrouwer is a partner at The Fabricant and together with PwC’s digital innovation strategists Jennifer Nelen and Sakshi Dhakad she discusses the promising possibilities of digitisation in the fashion industry. Nelen and a dedicated PwC team of financial specialists and technology strategists recently partnered with The Fabricant.

Adriana Hoppenbrouwer

Partner at The Fabricant

Pandemic accelerates digitalisation

‘The past seven months have been extremely busy for us,’ says Adriana Hoppenbrouwer. ‘This was due to the rapid demand for digital fashion. After China and Italy went into lockdown, ordered products and samples could not be delivered and fashion shows were halted due to travel restrictions. 3D design files quickly emerged as a saviour in this scenario, since it was cost effective while still keeping business continuity.’

Dhakad adds: ‘More broadly speaking, at this time, companies are now re-evaluating the decisions they made at the peak of COVID-19. We are receiving requests, ranging from helping clients evaluate their supply chain needs, to making a roadmap towards a drastic shift to online. Anything to enable sustainable business growth.’

3D designs are sustainable and efficient

The Fabricant has given a boost to digital transformation plans that already existed in the fashion industry but hadn’t yet taken off. Hoppenbrouwer: ‘These digital alternatives (3D files, ed.) are becoming particularly attractive to retailers in the pressure of the pandemic since virtual showrooms considerably reduce the duration of the whole sample process, which then allows for the timing of production to be tighter.’ 

‘Using 3D designs also means fashion brands can collect data around the potential success of a design before production starts. Ultimately, this results in less overproduction and waste. Less travel and less waste are just two examples of how digital solutions are a means to become both cost-efficient and more sustainable.’ In addition, the insights gleaned can help further personalise customer experience.

Along similar lines, customer engagement, which features in every retailer’s strategy is already being shaped by technology-enabled solutions. Examples include augmented reality-enabled virtual fitness applications and artificial intelligence-enabled digital humans or shopping assistants.

Virtual world as a new outlet for fashion 

The boundaries between games, social communities and fashion are blurring. (Digital) apparel helps establish (digital) identities and functions as a social currency to connect. Nelen: ‘Almost twenty years ago user-created 3D universe Second Life wasn’t very successful. The timing wasn’t right then but this has changed drastically. The virtual world is now a new outlet to sell fashion.’

Hoppenbrouwer: ‘Today’s consumers are creators, especially Millennial and Gen Z consumers who have lived digital lives from the moment they were born. Social games are a big trend and in these games it’s important how you present yourself.  An example is gaming platform Fortnite, that hosted concerts with millions of people as avatars. Eventually, selling digital fashion has become one of Fortnite’s biggest revenue streams.’

Immersive 3D experiences for consumers

3D files, in which The Fabricant specializes, can also be used to create engaging content, for instance in e-commerce and in marketing or social media campaigns. The Fabricant even goes a step further than that: ‘We are now developing our own software that creates an immersive experience in which consumers can try on digital fashion and use it in different digital channels. This means we are evolving from a service agency towards a more software-based business model.’ PwC supported The Fabricant to develop and strengthen this new service-based revenue model. Hoppenbrouwer: ‘The PwC team challenged us strategically about where to position our solution in the whole ecosystem. All this together made us ready for investor rounds.’

New revenue models in digital fashion

A lot of fashion brands are looking for new revenue models, because they see their traditional sources of revenue decline. Application of digital fashion in social media and the gaming industry as avatars are emerging. Building on that, an ability to buy and sell digital fashion via technologies like blockchain is foreseen. Hoppenbrouwer: ‘The smart augmentation of digital to physical is also expected to be on retailer agendas soon, for example, by launching products in the digital realm before the physical product is released.’

Nelen: ‘To add to that, recommerce, which is about selling back, donating or renting second-hand garments for a reward, is also a lucrative emerging revenue model that is trending among fashion labels. And there is also a changing role of data as part of these sustainable business models. Fashion labels are looking into ways to track their garments through solutions like RFID, NFC and QR code. The collected data will definitely provide business value, which can be used for potential new business models and offerings in the future.’

Supply chain transparency

Nelen indicates that brand sincerity is also becoming more important than ever to ensure sustainability is not just a marketing tool but is genuinely reflecting firm values. ‘As an enabling technology, blockchain can provide supply chain transparency to monitor quality and ensure the origin and journey of a product are ethical. Tracking and monitoring can also apply to new garment launches and recommerce processes.’ 

Other trends in the sustainable fashion arena

Apart from the rise of digital fashion and recommence, several other trends are helping to pivot the retail realm to become greener.

  • Bringing production closer to consumption: Hoppenbrouwer, ‘A typical fashion season enabled by mass production results in about thirty per cent overstock, which is a huge addition to retailer costs. Digitalisation of the entire fashion value chain will result in the rise of a production-on-demand business model.’ This will give consumers an avenue to order ‘custom-made’ clothing, which is a step further in personalisation. Nelen adds: ‘Pop-up stores that sell (second-hand) fashion will also become more popular as made-on-demand fashion is surging’.
  • Focus on a direct-to-consumer model: As wholesale revenues drop, the direct-to-consumer model takes centre stage, reducing real estate demand in retail. Additionally, as digitally enabled revenue models become more lucrative, physical stores are expected to decrease in number in the coming future.
  • Change in the fashion calendar: Hoppenbrouwer: ‘Pre-Covid-19, there were fast fashion drops every month, in addition to four to six seasonal collections. This whole system is under threat now. One of the trends I see within for instance the high-end fashion industry is to create more evergreen collections. Strong quality basics that last for more than one season. This is more sustainable, as it means less items and less overproduction that will eventually be destroyed. In other words, less negative impact on the planet. These are turbulent times for the industry. The fashion industry knew the system was broken but kept the wheel running all the same. Now it’s time for a reset.’
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Jennifer Nelen

Jennifer Nelen

Consumer Markets Customer Transformation, Partner, PwC Netherlands

Tel: +31 (0)61 284 15 45