The Digital Showroom Boom: Reinventing the Fashion Experience

The luxury fashion industry has been pressured to adapt to the digital age for some time now. VOCAST supports hundreds of brands by setting up their digital showroom, but the current COVID-19 pandemic might just have created the ideal circumstances for a long awaited innovation boost. Now that the physical aspect of the shopping experience is indefinitely suspended, fashion brands can take the opportunity to re-imagine it within a digital-only space. Here are some best practices pushing the industry forward.

In a bid to stress the environmental impact of photoshoots in the fashion industry, Vogue Italia printed its January 2020 issue with illustrations only. In his editor’s letter, Emanuele Farneti mentioned how the photo production of the magazine’s hefty September issue had involved 150 people, taking about 20 flights and more than a dozen train rides, having 40 cars on the ready, 60 international deliveries, catering services etc.


“No photo shoot production was required in the making of this issue”

The move didn’t go without criticism, with the replacement of photoshoots by illustrations being a one-off initiative. Even though “Vogue started as an illustrated magazine”, Vogue Italia’s Creative Director Ferdinando Verderi reminded us on the magazine’s website. The first issue was drawn under the creative direction of Harry McVikar in December 1892. Not that drawing should now replace photography alltogether, but Verderi believes there’s value in looking back to move forward: “It can be an old solution to a new problem, or just open the door to more creative ways of challenging our production process.”

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated that need for the fashion industry to challenge their production processes. “Many luxury brands have their warehouses and production centred in Italy. This has definitely impacted their supply system, forcing them to rethink how they work”, says Sophie Dewaele, a London-based luxury fashion Digital Communication Manager with experience working for brands like Alexander McQueen.


“What are we even running around for?”

In response to the pandemic, global fashion weeks including New York, London, Paris and Milan have been cancelled. With productivity in the fashion industry feared to decrease due to stores closing, buyers being skeptical about stock purchases and struggling factories, the urgency of digitalisation becomes clear. But, as we recently wrote, these circumstances could lead to positive change rather than crush creativity.

“These are exceptional times where we all find ourselves in our rooms thinking about what we’ve done to the planet”, Sophie continues. “What are we even running around for? Do we really need collections counting dozens of different looks twice a year? Travel halfway across the world for a ten minute fashion show? These designers are now locked in, thinking about how they can continue to express themselves without overdoing it. How can we share their voice? We all need to strip back.”


Let’s Get Digital

That doesn’t mean we all need to literally go back to the drawing table and return to illustrated content only. “Sure enough, cancelled flights and the inability to move entire teams across the globe have affected photoshoots and events. Meanwhile, social distancing measures actually have made a thriving business out of photographers or videographers living under the same roof as models”, explains Sophie. “Add a makeup artist to the household and you’ve really got yourself a deal.”

If it was up to Tommy Hilfiger however, there wouldn’t be a need for illustrations or photoshoots in the first place. Way ahead of the COVID-19 crisis, the American label completely rethought its design processes. From sketching to sampling and showrooming: it will all be done with 3D design only by 2021, the brand vowed. A cost-saving approach for the planet as well as the brand’s budget. The global apparel company PVH Corp. encompassing brands like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, spent two years developing its digital library stacked with digital raw materials of fabrics, patterns and colours. The all-digital design and production process will rely on that digital library.


Dressing an Avatar

Thanks to this, Tommy Hilfiger will be able to design an astonishing 60,000 product options fully in 3D, writes Vogue Business. Moreover, because the designs are digital from the start, “there is no need to photograph it”, CEO of Tommy Hilfiger Global and PVH Europe Daniel Grieder explained to the online fashion business magazine. “It is all there. We can use it for marketing and for the digital showroom. Everything will be possible and much faster.”

One of those possibilities is the use of online avatars in the digital showroom to be dressed in digital garments. Grieder takes it even further, stating on Vogue Business how the use of artificial intelligence can help train digital models to the likeness of their physical inspiration: “If Gigi Hadid can’t model, she will send her avatar to other companies and dress in digital clothes.”

VR can help improve the digital showroom experience.


Artificial Intelligence in the Digital Showroom

“The common mistake of developing the digital realm as an addition to the physical, is brought to light now that the physical aspect has been removed”, says Afef Bouchrika, EMEA Marketing and Partner Operations Coordinator at Clarabridge. The company uses AI in helping leading global brands understand customer interactions. “To start with, a digital showroom should be able to fully replace the classic version we are used to. We can then build on that basis with digital-only perks”, she continues. “What is typical of a showroom, is that you can address a person in there for advice or information. Take that presence away and you don’t have a showroom, but a catalogue.”

An option to replace the real shop or showroom assistant in the digital world, is a chatbot. “This can allow users to click through to FAQs, receive discount messaging or add reminders to certain products in the digital showroom”, Afef explains. “A chatbot can engage in advice selling when the user has chosen to interact with it. That is how AI can make up for the lack of physical interaction you would normally get in a showroom. Chatbots are made to empathise, offer proactive guidance, remember details, and know when to escalate. Which means that, when the AI lacks the knowledge to help a customer, a real person can take over within that digital space.”


Immersive Experience

The luxury brand Louis Vuitton, part of the French LVMH, offers a nice example of integrating such a chatbot in its app. Through the app, users can access a digital library that acts as a marketing platform which allows for purchases as well. The overarching LVMH is supposedly focusing on the further use of chatbot customer service, visual recognition technology and more to develop customised clothing for the different individual users. 

Furthermore, Italian fashion house Gucci makes use of a Facebook-integrated chatbot. The brand has taken its digital strategy further the past years with, for example, AR and VR installations making their 2018 campaign an immersive one in-store. Or their SS17 #TFWGucci collaborative art project which featured their watch collection through memes in the digital space, strengthening their online presence.

Finally, Amazon’s Echo Look offers a good example of using AI for fashion-related digital assistance. Through the Alexa voice assistant, users can take full-length photos of their looks and request direct feedback and styling tips.


Social Shopping

Another important aspect of the physical showroom is how buyers influence each other through their interaction within that space. In China, e-commerce has rapidly taken over from hitting the high street with friends. There, Pinduoduo is only one example of a startup proving that online shopping doesn’t have to be a lonely feat. Huang Zheng, a former engineer at Google, started the company in 2015. The platform has cleverly integrated social media like WeChat, allowing shoppers to share products with their circle.

In an analysis of the new app, Forbes explains how users can create purchase groups and enjoy discounts. To encourage this social shopping experience in the digital space, Pinduoduo also offers cashback incentives and free products to loyal customers. Especially in communities mainly depending on social media like WeChat for information from news to shopping suggestions, this kind of platform works well, the online magazine writes.


Integrating Other Digital Channels

This linkage of other digital channels to the digital showroom is an example of the digital-only perks mentioned before. Those can be built on a solid basis that doesn’t rely on the existence of a physical counterpart. By allowing for frictionless referral schemes through WeChat with its 79 % penetration in the country, the Chinese third party mobile e-commerce app achieved viral growth. The platform currently counts 585 million annual active buyers and 135 million daily active users. Those numbers are likely to continue rising as improved internet access reaches more remote areas in the country as well.

Big e-commerce fashion player ASOS takes advantage of the digital realm in yet another way by using AI for image recognition. Thanks to its visual search tool, customers can upload images of items or outfits they’ve come across online or outdoors. The algorithm will then find the exact product if available or suggest similar items. An approach that leads to more product views, return visits and placed orders. With regards to the digital showroom, such an approach could allow users to search for visual assets within specific trends they might be focusing on in their (digital) displays or magazine features.


Embracing Virtual Reality

Another approach helping to enhance the digital experience within the limitations of physical contact, is the incorporation of virtual reality. With the launch of Buy+ in 2016 for example, the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba allowed customers wearing a VR headset to browse products and try them on through a virtual interface. No need to come in store and change clothes. Users would only have to upload body measurements and photos so virtual models can do the work for them. Moreover, that information can offer brands more insights in customer preferences allowing for more bespoke products and services.

To make up for the cancelled mass events, including international fashion shows, we can look at Dior for inspiration as well. The French fashion house already launched a VR headset in 2015 and back in 2017, the luxury brand organised its ‘I Feel Blue’ event in Shanghai’s West Bund Art Centre: a fashion show completely made up of 3D holograms.


Using What We Have

Brands can improve the digital showroom experience by easy additions like more elaborate product and material descriptions with the images. But, as findings recently published in Quartz show, we are 60,000 times faster at processing visual information than text which explains our natural inclination toward visual storytelling. Thanks to so-called ‘mirror-neurons’ in our brains, when looking at images, we experience the actions and the physical and emotional sensations we link to them through our imagination. It is therefore important to prioritise visual elements when strengthening our digital presence. 

Other easy ways of doing so, bearing the previously mentioned insights in mind, are the use of video next to photos, and organising streaming sessions followed by live Q&As allowing customers to still directly interact with the brand. Moreover, to make up for not only the look of the product, but the feel as well, we can learn from online-only interior design brands such as MADE.COM that offer customers free fabric samples to help them decide on their purchases.

But what the aforementioned existing examples prove, is that there is no reason not to think big. The tools and technologies are already there: from AI chatbots, over 3D holograms to virtual reality. Amazon, Apple and Google all offer specific kits that help develop AI skills and build them into apps and platforms, or help create augmented and virtual reality apps. Now, it is just a matter of putting them to good use.

Photo credits: Unsplash.

Wided is the Lifestyle Researcher for the Belgian and Dutch markets at VOCAST. She’s a Belgian editor and author with a background in journalism. In London, she established a career in digital marketing for fashion and interior design brands. When she’s not working or studying for her Master’s, you’ll find her in front of a canvas, paint brushes in hand.


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