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  • Divya Bala

Let’s get phygital

The future-obsessed fashion industry is finally getting tech-fit. Divya Bala explores tomorrow’s cutting-edge couture and the garments that live somewhere between the physical and the digital.

Next-gen knitwear at CFCL’s autumn 2022 show.

Fashion prides itself on looking forward. But although a molecular obsession with “What’s next?” is woven into the DNA of the industry, it’s a sector that often falls behind when it comes to new technology.

During the pandemic, the digital transformation of the fashion business necessarily ramped up a gear or two. Technology was embraced to an unprecedented degree, impacting design, supply chains, production, retail and B2C interaction — even raising the question as to whether or not a garment needs to exist in the physical world at all. New AR (augmented reality) technology such as smart mirrors allowed customers to virtually try on products at home and quickly get information including price, materials and details of the supply chain (for the sustainability-conscious shopper). AI (artificial intelligence) assistance from the likes of Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri has helped accelerate brands’ market penetration dramatically over the past two years, in particular driving the auto-replenishment model and reliance on suggestions based on past purchases.

The autumn 2022 collections saw 3D-printing technology woven throughout the collections, from the fibres at Loewe to the hooflike boots at Heliot Emil and the knitwear at CFCL (Clothing For Contemporary Life), the label founded by ex-Issey Miyake designer Yusuke Takahashi. Perhaps most striking was the collaboration between Christian Dior and the Italian intelligent clothing development startup D-Air Lab. The resulting collection included a deconstruction of Dior’s iconic Bar jacket, reformed with airbag technology and transistors to protect and monitor the wearer’s body while helping to regulate its temperature.

“Design and technology affect each other,” says D-Air Lab’s art director, Alberto Piovesan. “The collaboration with Dior was born out of the avant-garde vision of [artistic director] Maria Grazia Chiuri, who wanted to fuse the iconic Dior style with a technological aspect related to body protection. And in us she found the ideal allies: we have been working since 2016 to innovate in the field of protecting people in their daily activities, and we do this mainly through air control.” D-Air Lab’s main focus is generally things like airbags to protect workers at heights, belts with airbags to safeguard the elderly against falls, and temperature-regulating protective wear for researchers in extreme environments such as Antarctica, where the mercury can drop to -80 degrees Celsius. The collaboration with a major luxury fashion house is a first.

In the digital space, wearable NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are also getting the attention of some of the world’s largest luxury fashion brands. For the uninitiated, these are virtual garments used to dress up one’s avatar in the online world. They are enabled by blockchain technology and smart contracts, which help protect the uniqueness and guarantee the authenticity of each piece. In this space, the lines between online and offline are blurred, as both physical and digital interaction with communities through exclusive content and experiences provide a more immersive, all-encompassing consumer journey. There’s also the argument that wearable NFTs reduce waste from customers churning through physical clothing purchases just to wear pieces once for social media.

In May 2021, Gucci became the first luxury brand to release an NFT, with a one-of-one art film that sold for $US25,000 ($AU34,900). Soon afterwards, Burberry dropped a limited-edition NFT collection for the digital multiplayer game Blankos Block Party. At $US300 ($AU419) a pop, 750 units of “Sharky B” sold out in 30 seconds. Then Dolce & Gabbana set a six-million-dollar world record for fashion NFTs with its Collezione Genesi, a nine-piece capsule of fashion NFTs.

In April of last year, LVMH, Prada and Cartier (part of Richemont) launched a partnership called Aura Blockchain Consortium, a bipartisan nonprofit that seeks to safeguard the intellectual property of luxury brands worldwide using a single blockchain solution. (OTB Group, which owns Marni, Maison Margiela and Jil Sander, joined in October.) Also in April 2021, LVMH announced a new digital research lab, slated for 2024, that will focus on new materials, biotech and data solutions. Two months later, it signed a deal with Google Cloud that will see its entire portfolio of brands (including Celine, Dior and Louis Vuitton) adapting to the use of artificial intelligence for inventory management, demand forecasting and personalisation of customer experience.

3D-printed boots at Heliot Emil. Photography courtesy Filippo Fior/Gorunway.

Fast forward to March of this year and Off-White (the label founded by the late Virgil Abloh) announced that its flagship stores in Paris, London and Milan will be accepting payments in the cryptocurrencies Bitcoin, Ethereum, Binance Coin and Ripple, and in the stablecoins Tether and USD Coin. That same month, the high-jewellery designer Gaia Repossi collaborated with the architect Harry Nuriev on a Web3 (blockchain-based internet)-inspired pop-up installation/cafe in real life — albeit in “pixelated” form. Meanwhile, the Italian fashion house Prada released a fragrance campaign for Candy starring an AI “muse” in place of the usual Hollywood A-lister. Similarly, LVMH recently unveiled its own virtual ambassador for the group. Then Gucci announced a pilot program of accepting cryptocurrency across five stores, a move towards blending its Web3 and physical communities and marking a milestone for the validation of cryptocurrency by the fashion industry. Payments in more than 10 digital currencies will be accepted, including Dogecoin, which was originally created as a meme.

In addition, the Italian luxury house has opened the GucciVault server on Discord, an invite-only social media platform dubbed “the Soho House of Web 3.0” by British Vogue. A statement from Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, describes the server as “a place where past, present and future coexist, an exploration of new digital realms alongside a curation of vintage Gucci pieces and noteworthy designers.” The statement continues, “From creators and collectors to the purely curious, anyone can join in on the conversation.” Through the server, the brand will grant special access to owners of two of its NFT projects — SuperGucci and 10KTF Gucci Grail — who may then pre-order a Gucci collection before its release to the general public.

“Consumers have appetite in fashion, not just for shopping experiences that are highly convenient, but also for something that is much more engaging: livestream shopping, conversational commerce, everything that we’re seeing at the interface of the fashion industry and gaming and NFTs,” says Anita Balchandani, a McKinsey partner based in London leading the research firm’s Apparel, Fashion & Luxury Practice in the UK, Europe, Middle East and Africa, in a Q&A. “The whole space of new materials, biomaterials, eco-fabrics: this is a sector that is growing extremely fast.” For Piovesan, this future may be closer than we think. “Functional clothing that responds to an ever-changing reality can be the future of fashion,” he says. “In this way, fashion and technology will have to work together ever more in the future.”

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 120 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Let's get phygital”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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