Avatar Apparel vs. the Real Apparel Industry

In my various talks, I am often asked by members of the audience ‘what’s the difference between ‘virtual fashion’ (which we at FRI refer to as avatar apparel) and ‘real fashion’.  It’s pretty clear from this question that people who aren’t apparel industry practitioners really aren’t aware that there’s actually huge, disparate differences between the $1.7 trillion USD global apparel industry, and developing digital fashions worn by avatars and gaming characters.  Let me point out here that I do not regard apparel industry fashion as the only ‘real’ fashion, but I also recognize that there is a substantial monetary divide between not just avatar fashion and apparel industry fashion, but between the avatar apparel content providers and apparel industry fashion designers. 

Let’s start with the similarities because they’re easy: both avatar fashion, and apparel industry fashion, must appeal to the emotions of the purchaser.  Both kinds are developed out of the imagination and creativity of the practitioners.  And both are currently initially created, to some extent, using 2-D design tools such as Illustrator and Photoshop.  But it is at this point where things diverge.

Avatar apparel creators can simply stop at the point where they’ve developed 2-D images.  This type of fashion is only instantiated within a virtual world.  It is not subject to the laws of physics, because it is never manufactured. Avatar apparel creators do not need to worry about considerations such as manufacturability, fit, function, sizing standards, supply chain considerations, factory capabilities, labor requirements, first cost, patterns or pattern making, marketability, trends, trend stories, timing, seasonality, collection function, development and production.  In short, everything that goes into actually manufacturing a tangible product is missing from the avatar apparel production pipeline. 

And the pipeline itself is quite different.  The apparel industry, as I mentioned before, generates a global and whopping $1,700 billion US dollars a year in revenue.  The entire global gaming industry, in comparison, is expected to generate only $66 billion in 2011 for hardware, software, services, and content, according to ABI Research.   Content revenues were about $275 million for 2007, according to IDC Research.  Avatar apparel isn’t broken out as a separate component of content, so it is difficult to compare avatar fashion revenue dollars in a direct one-to-one comparison to apparel industry fashion revenue dollars, but I do think anyone can see that revenues generated by avatar apparel are a tiny fraction of apparel industry revenues.

Developing tangible apparel for real people to wear in the real world takes real capital inputs. It takes a deep understanding of global markets, trends, material science, textiles, construction techniques, costing, and a deep creative accumen.  It also requires a lot of specialized training: a fashion designer can expect to spend at least four grueling years learning specific development systems on top of the basics of color, fit, form, draping, pattern making, textile science, selected manufacturing techniques, and if she chooses to specialize, all of the mandatory requirements she must have to enter that field.  An apparel industry designer needs all that education when the time comes for her to move her finished fashion design out of the concept phase and into the production pipeline. 

At that point, she has to develop a factory-ready technical specification, which fully details every seam, every thread, every exact qualification and specification of every input into the garment she’s created, right down to the specific color numbers called out by her design director.  One might think she’d be done there.  But actually, that’s just the start of a long process of getting her vision instantiated in the physical world. 

She will also call on her entire team of production specialists, from the manager whose role is to see that single design through the manufacturing process, to the trim specialists, costing agents, customs agents, lawyers (in many cases), technical specialists, merchandisers, and a range of other specialists.  She has to take that design, and iterate on it until it is correct.  She’ll look at innumerable iterations, check the sizing and fit, examine the quality of the textiles, stitching, linings, and other inputs, and she’ll receive as many physical samples as it takes, and do that working under some intense time deadlines and cost requirements, to help her team bring that final rack-ready garment to your local apparel store. 

An avatar apparel creator needs simply to create images that map correctly to whatever mesh-based system that is used in their chosen revenue arena. It’s a quick process in comparison to real world apparel development and avatar apparel creators can ignore almost all of the requirements an apparel industry fashion designer must consider. Anyone with a good eye for color and moderate to excellent pixel editing skills can jump in and learn quickly to develop avatar fashion. These garments will never need to be put through the manufacturing process; the realities of manufacturability and the wearer’s comfort aren’t even a consideration.

Clearly, the differences between avatar apparel, and the apparel you will wear tomorrow are manifold.  And it is those very differences that the Fashion Research Institute was formed to address.  Our work with IBM has resulted in an entirely new way of designing and developing apparel industry product.  We are not focused on avatar apparel or its development, which will proceed quite nicely on its own path.  We are focused on helping the apparel industry to cut its time to market, slash its development costs, reduce its carbon footprint, and enhance its profitability and revenue opportunities.  We are using virtual worlds to insulate designers from technology and to enable them to focus on design. 

This ultimately allows everyone to do what they do best: People to create, computers to work.