Virtual Reality’s Fashion Moment

Events like London Fashion week have started streaming live runway shows to build an immersive reality experience people can attend from their couch. Read how the biggest brands in fashion are debuting new collections on a VR runway, designers are creating virtual sculptural garments attendees can interact with after shows, and retailers are digitizing fitting rooms to enable more online shopping.

By Pragati Verma, Contributor

This is not your typical fashion show.

There are no runway models or catwalk, no live audience either or front-row celebrities. Instead, digital avatars of guests enter The Museum of Other Realities (MOR) to experience the immersive fashion show, The Fabric of Reality, via virtual reality (VR) headsets. They move down a winding purple carpet and enter the exhibition room that showcases the creations and stories of three designers curated by London College of Fashion’s Fashion Innovation Agency (FIA).

Here visitors can wear and interact with larger-than-life sculptural garments in virtual interactive rooms. Throughout the show, neither designers nor attendees are limited by the rules of the physical world. They can fly, float in space, or resize themselves with a drink like Alice in Wonderland. They can even enter the minds of designers as they mingle with each other.

“Neither designers nor attendees are limited by the rules of the physical world. They can fly, float in space, or resize themselves with a drink like Alice in Wonderland. They can even enter the minds of designers as they mingle with each other..”

The interactive, immersive digital format is an opportunity for fashion shows to go beyond showcasing designs, according to Sam Field, head of creative tech and innovation across EMEA markets at RYOT Studio. RYOT, Verizon Media’s Emmy Award-winning production house, created the show jointly with Kaleidoscope, MOR, and FIA. “They can take the audience inside their world. Our designers created virtual sculptural garments that attendees could interact with, but they also created storyboards to narrate the stories inspiring their designs,” he explains, “So often, you see new garments and designs, but the artist’s story behind it is lost.”

“We deliberately avoided creating a digital replica of a catwalk show—we weren’t wondering how to make it as real as possible,” says Field. Trying to make it as real as possible is the biggest pitfall for VR shows, he continues. “Why be constrained by physical boundaries when you are in a virtual world? Make it native to that environment.”

To Fields, the immersive show that was hosted in London but will be available online to audiences all over the world for 12 months, was a success. “About 150 people experienced it live in VR simultaneously and over 360,000 watched the live stream in the next 24 hours,” he elaborates.

Haute Couture Goes Digital

The Fabric of Reality might be among the pioneers in creating a VR fashion show, but it is not the first digital fashion experience on the runway. Fashion Weeks—staple events on haute couture calendar—are embracing digital formats.

Paris Fashion Week, which ended in March at the Louvre Museum, was the last physical show this year. London Fashion Week pivoted to digital, with virtual showrooms, podcasts, films, and webinars. China Fashion Week had a live stream on sponsor Alibaba’s eCommerce platform, where viewers could like, comment, or click to buy. And that’s not all: Several high-profile brands, including Chanel, Hermes, Burberry, and Dior, are embracing the format and creating shows that can be watched via live stream.

Why are so many fashion brands breaking with tradition and going digital? Field says that while they’re “transforming to fit into the post-pandemic era, there are bigger issues” at play. According to him, the fashion industry was rethinking its fashion show format long before COVID-19 put an end to physical gatherings. “As the pandemic forced show cancellations, it also unearthed how several labels were not happy with the way the industry runs events,” he says. Several brands, such as Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci, were already dropping out of the fashion show season. “It’s been clear from the last few years that they haven’t enjoyed the Fashion Weeks’ intense pressures and expenses,” he adds. As collections are digitized and attendees are remote, these virtual runways are leaner and much less wasteful, points out Fields.

But there’s more to digital than cutting costs. Fields believes interactivity and social elements add to the excitement. “VR experience is not about watching, listening, or reading. It feels like you were there and part of the experience.” He explains how attendees can drop in and chat with a designer’s avatar as though they had bumped into each other at a party. And this, he adds, can democratize access that has been typically reserved for celebrities and influencers. “The fashion industry can be quite cliquey. But here, everyone is animated and no one is judged on how they look or dress.”

Fashion’s New Frontier

Even as several brands are embracing VR, he laments that most have yet to “crack end-to-end digital transformation that immersive and 3D content and experiences” can bring.

The idea, he says, is to make the process of discovering and buying more experiential. “If they integrate VR and other immersive technologies to create an experience, where you can see an outfit in the virtual realm and your avatar can try it. And if you like it, you may choose to purchase it within the VR world, and then it can be physically delivered to you,” he elaborates.

Going forward, as VR becomes mainstream, it will open many similar opportunities for fashion houses, he says. And till then, he expects experiments like The Fabric Reality will prepare fashion brands to create “truly immersive experiences across the supply chain, from design to showcasing and selling—whether in shows or stores.”