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WHY IT’S VIRTUAL REALITY’S TIME TO SHINE?

Updated: Sep 24

By Dan O’Connell & Jennifer Drury, co-founders BrandLab. 




When iconic computer game, The Sims, was first published in 2000, few knew that one day entire industries would be conducting business within a virtual Sim-like environment. And yet, in the world of wholesale fashion that’s exactly what’s happening in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.


With Covid-19 restrictions urging the nation to work from home, the traditional working day has been revolutionised. Over the last four months, fashion companies – particularly those reliant upon face-to-face interaction and commerce – have been forced to come up with new and more innovative ways to do business. They have had to knuckle down and work on refining their creative juices. The solution? Virtual Reality.

Prior to the lockdown, VR was generally used as a marketing gimmick, rather than a serious sales channel. However, closed wholesale showrooms and a drop in shop footfall in the UK have rendered traditional sales channels unviable. Many businesses have had to reinvent their operations with incredible speed in order to survive.

The fashion industry, in particular, is famous for its swift turnarounds. In recent years it has gone from focusing on two traditional fashion seasons, to up to 52 micro-seasons per year. While this has helped to increase demand, it has also put pressure on wholesalers to keep up with international travel requirements and upped the ante for brands to be more inclusive in their objectives.


While many jobs have been affected by the pandemic, one role that has had to completely restructure is that of a fashion buyer. Pre-Covid, the average buyer would take up to 80 flights a year, such was the historic precedence for face-to-face trading.

With travel almost entirely off-limits, they are having to think out of the box to fulfil work duties. For example, London Fashion Week is turning digital and attendees will join through online presentations, films, podcasts and discussions. Some leading fashion brands are upping their digital design game, examining how they can create better virtual samples for website visitors.


Most notably, the world of virtual showrooms has been transformed in the past few years by VR technology, to the extent that many buyers have suddenly found themselves more productive than ever before. Previously, a buyer attending a tradeshow might have been able to see 10 collections in two days. Through a virtual showroom, they can now see up to 200. In this way, VR also supports inclusivity within the industry, allowing buyers to engage with a wider range of designers they might not usually have had time for. Our platform uses its search function options to enhance the entire user experience. Buyers can narrow all options down to search for a specific garment or item via its colour.


The benefits here are two-fold. VR not only provides a solution for those faced with the current global health situation, but it has clear potential to improve the fashion industry’s environmental footprint too. Viewing items virtually means less carbon footprint and clothes wastage. Partly in response to these concerns, the global augmented and virtual reality market, which was valued at £8.91 billion in 2017, is set to reach £448.77 billion by 2025.

Fashion pioneers such as Barbara Hulanicki have taken reconceptualization in their stride. Having started Biba back in the 60s as a small mail-order company, Barbara has now gone full circle to stay ahead of trends. Her new collection, Hula, can only be bought in the VR world. It is presented in a virtual showroom designed to reflect her collections and style. Users are able to virtually tour the showroom and ‘zoom in’ to learn more about their favourite pieces. They are enticed to visit the showrooms by the digital fashion sketches found on Hula’s site homepage.


Mirabel Edgedale is also embracing the VR world. Her agency has been launching landmark retail flagships and working with brands including Marc Jacobs, Marchesa and Missoni since 1987. Not one to shy away from innovation, Mirabel has collaborated with us to creatively introduce virtual showrooms and press days to potential buyers. Each concept reflects the particular brand she is working with.


With travel not an option, our VR press day opportunities are also proving popular. We recently organised one for Marc Cain, providing the luxury brand’s media outlets, influencers and buyers with the opportunity to browse a bespoke showroom at a time convenient to them.


Developments are in progress and we are set to introduce a connected glove to our offering in the next 12-18 months, an exciting addition to our 360°showrooms.

The pandemic has highlighted how reactive fashion brands need to be in order to stay relevant. There is no room for hesitance when it comes to modernisation or at the very least adaptation. Those that cannot grasp or accept elements of technology will likely get left behind.


MOVING FORWARD


The ascent of VR shows no sign of slowing down now lockdown is over. The technology was never introduced to dismiss face-to-face contact, physical shops or pop-ups. It serves to enhance them and to provide us with more options. Notably, with more time to focus on themselves, just 9% of UK citizens want to go back to life the way it was before lockdown.

It’s also worth noting that a recent YouGov survey found 64% of Britons said they would not feel safe travelling on a plane due to Covid-19. This figure was up 40% from June. 84% said they do not intend to travel internationally in the next six months. It is crucial that the fashion industry listens and protects its workforce. While 16% may want to travel, VR offers a safe, flexible and low-cost alternative for those that don’t.


Going forwards, the likelihood is that most fashion brands will adopt a joint strategy of virtual events coupled with a few strategic in-person visits. Again, VR has its cost and time benefits in this scenario. In a buyer’s case, the time allocated for an international flight could be used to view more online collections. Similarly, if a company is attending certain shows, they could benefit from the technology and research the virtual collections they want to visit prior to the tradeshow.


Fashion in the age of Covid requires business leaders to embrace being ‘thrown out of the nest’ and to reinvent the ways in which they work. The future is about grasping more opportunities and providing choice to clients and consumers. The future is certain to include VR.


Dan O’Connell and Jennifer Drury are the co-founders of BrandLab, an innovative digital software solution designed to streamline the wholesale fashion industry.



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