Imagine you are wearing a T-shirt in a metaverse, made out of a fabric that can’t be produced in real world, which has flames all around your shoulders, fluorescent lights on your sleeves, and a real-time message popping on your chest! Wouldn’t you want your digital avatar to be an expressive one so as to make you stand out in the crowd? That’s what fashion enthusiasts are aggressively developing today to provide a platform to global fashion consumers and brands to help them move on to fashion ‘metaverse’ and experience a whole new digital life over there which is real alike, interactive and innovative. Sunil Arora, a renowned fashion technologist and Co-Founder of Trace Network Labs, is exactly doing this and helping industry create a digital world which is a meeting zone for fashion, lifestyle and entertainment industries.
After working for over 37 years with 1000+ Apparel & Fashion companies in over 50 countries, Sunil is now dedicatedly working in digital fashion and metaverse space; and creating newer opportunities for brands and designers to open new revenue stream for them. In an exhaustive and freewheeling conversation with Team Apparel Resources recently, Sunil touched upon key topics within the fashion metaverse, NFTs, blockchain, trends and future outlook of virtual and physical clothing industry. Here are the excerpts…
AR: Fashion tech and 3D companies are aggressively on their way to help brands in their transition of becoming more digital-friendly and launching digital clothing lines… But, physical clothing isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. What, according to you, is the future of both digital fashion and physical clothing?
Sunil: There are two scenarios over here. 1) The trade of physical clothing is rising in a big way because people missed it badly in the pandemic era. The retail activity that was almost on halt has now restarted. However, I believe the reason of increased sourcing recently by fashion brands is not because the demand of apparels is increasing but because people were missing retail experience! They were previously shopping online that is not as enjoyable as going in-store for shopping. 2) Digital fashion is certainly an add-on that has different customer segment and market. For digital fashion brands, new customers are being added to their portfolio in a different category altogether. Since pandemic disrupted traditional markets, brands and retailers were looking at alternate concepts and eventually virtuality evolved out of pandemic. This evolved out of ethical buying concepts, the understanding of which has been strongly developing in next-gen consumers. This generation spends insane amount of time in the virtual world and they believe physical clothing is not going to help them, so they intend investing in digital fashion wearables. Hence, both trends will be moving strongly altogether in post-pandemic era.
AR: Virtual fashion is majorly an outcome of the online gaming industry. Why, according to you, did the fashion industry feel a need for adopting this concept on a larger scale where they are extensively expanding their virtual clothing lines?
Sunil: If it were not for the pandemic, I doubt the speed of digital fashion and its adoption amongst global fashion buyers would be much slower than what it is after pandemic… During 2020 and early 2021, the fashion brands were undergoing hardships and they were not doing regular retail activities. Brands were not able to sell anything physical, so they were on constant look out for creating a global image for their business without even selling any physical goods and that’s where their challenge as well as opportunity started. Out of all alternatives available, fashion brands, technologists and designers found out that virtual fashion was something that could help them sail through the tough times.
Yes, the concept of digital fashion is derived from video game industry but I must say the fashion industry has hopped on it brilliantly. To have an influence in games, users buy skins that provide a way for players to feel unique. This skin purchasing concept has also evolved. Previously, the video game developers used to sell their skins but now fashion brands look at it from revenue point of view. They started creating skins and selling in the virtual world as soon as they realised its worth. More interactive games, immersive internet and innovative digital products collectively gave birth to ‘metaverse’ which, in digital world, is replicating the physical world and the fashion enthusiasts are loving it.
AR: Fashion brands and tech companies are more focused on creating ‘humanised’ digital avatars now that offer ages, weights, imperfections, acne, braces, scars, etc. Do you see this trend becoming even stronger with the rise of metaverse in fashion industry? What’s your thought on making more ‘humanised’ digital avatars?
Sunil: True. There is certainly a need for generating more humanised digital avatars because, for today’s generation, it is a style statement as they want to stand out in the crowd – even if it is happening in virtual world. We want to give genuine ‘wearability’ to fashion products on digital human avatars because I strongly believe that the first and foremost property of a garment is wearability. Brands or developers need to ask themselves – Is the garment they are showing in metaverse wearable or not? In Trace, we do not talk about cartoonish avatar rather we develop real-looking avatar of our fashion consumers on which unfeigned clothes are used. This is exactly what is going to be a fashion signature for any individual in any metaverse going forward, irrespective of which blockchain this metaverse belongs to. This is where we are making a difference.
AR: NFTs are the next big thing and you have also come up with an NFT platform. How has been the response of the end-consumers as well as the fashion brands?
Sunil: We are giving NFT-connected wearability to all our users with three options – purchase it in digital form or in physical form or in both. These options give true value to people as they first test the product in digital form and, if it looks good on them, they can always go for physical replica of the same. This concept fits well both for B2C and B2B models. We are creating shopping malls in metaverse. Virtual showrooms, concept stores. We are combining fashion, lifestyle and entertainment industry to give users a genuine usability. Doing all this, we are creating a window for fashion brands that develops a separate revenue stream for them in digital-only fashion world.
When I talk about individual users, their digital avatars and digital clothes are NFTs. With these avatars, they have created passport for themselves that helps in easy transition from one metaverse to another. In this transition, there is certain information that metaverse requires from users to allow them to enter. This information is captured from face only which is happening through NFTs. These NFT-enabled wearables assure users that they are buying an authentic product from a genuine brand. This way, we are helping brands and designers to utilise NFT concept in the most optimal way possible.
Therefore, the response from brands as well as users is overwhelming. In the recent three events in Dubai that were associated with Expo Dubai, there was a huge crowd on our booths – for getting their avatars made. We asked visitors to come to our booth, we took their pictures from our phones/laptops and then developed their avatars which we sent them through emails. We said them “If you like it, you can claim it and keep in wallet as an NFT”, and they did it. This entire process doesn’t take more than 2 minutes.
AR: Contrary to popular belief, NFTs do have several disadvantages such as hacking as well as less energy efficient platforms. What will you say to convince a potential investor in NFTs or to the end-consumers who are still not able to make their mind for purchasing a digital asset through NFT marketplace?
Sunil: Honestly speaking, there are bigger things happening in the real world in terms of hacking! NFT and Blockchain is an emerging concept so even a smaller issue gets noticed. All the banks and financial institutes are gradually adopting this concept but in a big way, so developments are an ongoing process. All the bugs and shortcomings are being identified and eliminated from the system at a rapid pace. I am not at all saying that there are no disadvantages of NFTs but everything in the world does have its own pros and cons. Fashion NFT has more pros than cons and that is why the adoption rate is quite high.
As far as energy wastage is concerned, this has become an old scenario of blockchain. The old methodologies in Ethereum, Bitcoin and Blockchain do not have energy saving scenarios but today there are a lot of energy efficient blockchain platforms. We are using Polygon and it is one of the most energy-efficient system available.
AR: What’s the guarantee that an item (apparel or sneaker to be precise) purchased from NFT won’t be counterfeited? For example, is it not possible that anyone could take a photo of the product image, put it on a blockchain and sell it? Or, can’t they reproduce the same item by tweaking its design a bit? What are the preventive measures you, as a fashion tech expert, suggest to the industry?
Sunil: Think it like this – fashion brands put their products on e-commerce marketplaces and they are open for all to see and download. But their designs are protected and even if it is not protected, they can always go to the court of law. However, this is an arduous process and a critical one. Now if the same thing is replicated on NFT concept, the brands/designers just need to put their products on blockchain and record them. This becomes ownership records for them. When you put it on public NFT, you have got it copyrighted, as simple as that. Yes, there is a lot of tweaking that happens in fashion products. There is a global protection available in NFTs for your products where you can claim proof of ownership and proof of designs/concepts.
AR: If digitalisation of physical clothing’s product development is concerned, the efforts are yet to be matured. Virtual sampling is still on the back seat despite so much talks about it going around! Pls share your views on this.
Sunil: Virtual fashion is a huge concept. People think 3D is virtual fashion which is a myth! 3D is just a small portion of virtual sampling or virtual fashion. Traditionally, the manufacturers/vendors and brands/retailers have different design teams and they collaborate with each other to develop a production ready sample that takes enormous amount of time and creates a significant raw material wastage. 3D has created immense possibilities of doing the same thing in much faster and efficient way. The only debate here is – exactness of the digital sample. Factories and brands often complain they can’t touch the fabric to feel its texture…In my opinion, these situations have been evolving fast now and both brands and manufacturers are much more into virtual sampling in today’s time than they were a couple of years ago – all thanks to pandemic.
AR: The first major change physical clothing industry witnessed was on-demand manufacturing back in early 2016…Western world has grasped the concept quite well and the factories there are partnering up with brands, technology providers and designers to create micro-factories. This is lacking in Asian countries. Are you working in this direction to make on-demand manufacturing a more familiar name in the sub-continent’s manufacturing landscape?
Sunil: On-demand manufacturing is going to become a big thing in time to come, it still is but its real potential is yet to be realised across the geographies. The kind of trends I am talking about in physical fashion, will be dependent on on-demand manufacturing in subsequent years. The industry previously used to go for predictive analytics; trend analytics and forecasting to project the quantities of physical garments they needed to produce, however the situation is changing and, instead of using predictive analytics, platforms like Trace are giving the industry a not-error-tolerant decision making through digital collection testing.
Let me put it in simple words… For example, the fashion industry used to produce 100 designs before and was able to sell only a few of those designs in the consumer markets. Now I’m telling you, make 100 designs and sell all 100 designs virtually. Track here which design is getting hit and seeing more virtual trials; from which country the demand is coming; and in what all colours. When you get this data, your precise planning should start. This will boost the on-demand concept. Right type of technologies are already there to strengthen this concept.
The only challenge I see, especially in India is that the fashion brands, factories, institutes, designers and tech suppliers aren’t collaborating with each other in right manner as everybody is working in their own direction! They need to come together for a common goal. Industry has its own set of challenges and requirements which technocrats need to understand before coming up with any technology or solution.
AR: In India, a lot of fashion designers including Manish Malhotra are moving to NFTs for their new collections. Do you see this adaptation of Fashion NFT is going to increase or is it just short-lived development?
Sunil: No, I don’t think this is short-lived development. Everybody wants to jump on to the bandwagon of new concepts and every designer wants to show something new to their audience. This gives an opportunity to them to be able to do global promotion without spending much. We are in a position to provide a platform where budding designers, budding brands or even established brands can reach more global audience, become more sustainable with low carbon footprints generation. In 2021, almost all big luxury brands such as LV, Ralph Lauren, and Burberry have entered metaverse. In 2022, the retail brands such as Nike, Gap, Walmart, H&M and Zara have started to enter because they see a possibility there. The same goes well for Indian designers too.
AR: What kind of product do you feel will move parallel to digital along with physical? Luxury products or mass brand products? Why?
Sunil: When this whole concept started, people ran after it because they wanted to create something which was never created before, let alone at a large scale. In our case, expressive T-shirts with multiple designs, textures; jeans; hoodies are getting huge traction in metaverse. These are not out-of-the-world designs but are relatively different ones. And, we are creating a curiosity in the market that these designs will be produced in limited number.
AR: What’s next for Trace?
Sunil: We have partnered with over almost 50 global fashion brands and more than 10 brands in Indian subcontinent. We are developing digital wearable collection for these brands. Since inception in 2020, we have opened offices in India, Dubai, Vietnam, France and USA, and we are going to open two more offices soon in Singapore and UK.
Apart from these offices, we are bringing new metaverse called ‘PARIZ’ which will have possibilities to create retail zones, community zones, manufacturing & industrial zones, and entertainment & lifestyle zones. People can open their own malls and corporate offices in this metaverse. Digital twin of factories can be created here so that buyers can virtually have a round of their vendors’ factory floors.