Fashion goes 3D

September 26, 2008: 11:54 AM ET
Using OptiTex software, fashion designers can simulate real fabrics on the computer screen – right down to seeing how they'll move when a model twists on the catwalk. Image: OptiTex

You wouldn't know it from browsing the chic fall styles at the mall, but fashion is a messy business. For example, a designer typically makes a shirt three times before perfecting the one you see on the rack, and often the rejects go straight to the trash.

Fashion industry veteran Shenlei Winkler has estimated that in the process of working on one collection that sold at Wal-Mart (WMT) years ago, she generated more than 10 cubic yards of landfill, and spent about $75,000 on materials. "It's a lot of waste," she says, of both time and resources.

Experiences like that inspired Winkler to see if technology can come to the rescue. As founder of the Fashion Research Institute, she's now working with IBM (IBM) Research on a virtual environment where designers up clothes on their PCs, fit them on digital models and revise their patterns. If you've heard of Second Life, you get the gist – except instead of using her virtual space as a digital pickup joint or storefront, Winkler is using it as a workshop.

It's just one example of the fashion world's flirtation with 3D graphics, a trend that could eventually cut the time it takes to bring clothes from concept to the catwalk. It's easy to see why the business could benefit from going digital; unlike many other industries, where robots assemble products, clothes still require lots of costly human handling. Winkler believes that using virtual worlds as a proving ground for ideas, she can cut thousands of dollars – not to mention hours – out of the production process.

But as is often the case with new technology, we have to be careful not to let the hype get ahead of reality. Experts say that while 3D tools might help the designers, they probably won't transform it anytime soon by dramatically lowering costs or upsetting the balance of power in the industry. Instead, says Forrester Research analyst Paul Jackson, designers who digitize more of their work might be able to get new products into stores faster – and that could potentially give them an edge over the competition.

And speed has real value. Just look at the success of Zara, a Spanish retailer that grew into a multibillion-dollar force in global fashion by getting clothes off the drawing board and into stores in weeks rather than months. Winkler is convinced that by using virtual tools, designers will be able to similarly capture some of that speed: "Designers are just going to be able to blow through their work," she says, "and turn in much higher quality."

The tools themselves certainly look promising. One of the standouts is 3D Runway Designer from OptiTex, an Israel-based company. The software is downright uncanny. Plug in information about fabrics, including how they stretch, twist and drape, and you can watch a movie-like sequence as a virtual model tries out the clothes. (Tommy Hilfiger and Target (TGT) are among the customers.) The results are photo realistic, down to the difference in the look of silk versus cotton.

Meanwhile, 3D technology is even appearing closer to retail. In the online stores at H&M, Sears (SHLD) and Land's End, shoppers can try simplified versions of clothes on a digital mannequin that matches their measurements, using technology supplied by Montreal-based My Virtual Model.

The results have been good enough that My Virtual Model says it does about $7 million annually in sales to retailers. But even so, it's not going to replace the dressing room anytime soon, says Trisha Okubo, founder of fashion-advice site Omiru.com.

"Buying a little black dress online isn't the same as buying a digital camera," Okubo says. "The technology is far from the mainstream – and it very well may stay that way."

Those are probably wise words of warning for fashionistas eager for a 3D revolution.

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