Digital Textiles: The Emperor’s New Clothes?
by Craig Crawford
Eyes may have rolled earlier in May this year when the world’s first digital only dress sold for $9,500 at auction as part of the NY Ethereal blockchain conference, but Dutch digital design house Fabricant founder Kerry Murphy enjoys the controversy and the debate that has ensued around digital textiles and product.
Breaking the Rules
“Because we don’t have to deal with physicality, we can break the rules,” says Murphy, who has a background in marketing, cinematography, and animation. “When we design, we like to create physically impossible textiles and garments,” he says.
“I usually start with a set of materials in CLO that I use, the qualities of fabrics such as denim, nylon, etc.,” explains Fabricant designer and co-founder Amber Slooten. “I just chose that and from there I start to play with the properties of the fabric, drape, weight color—taking it away from the real. For instance, I’m in control of the gravity,” she says.
“In the physical space, you’re stuck with only what’s available physically,” she says. “But in digital, I can create whatever I want, regardless of cost, regardless of manufacturing constraints.”
While Fabricant’s preference is to always work with clothing that doesn’t exist, the team are creating what they refer to as ‘hyper-real visualization’ for Italian sportswear brand Napapijri, Japanese streetwear label A Bathing Ape, and Stitch, a digital SaaS spin-off company of PVH, currently digitizing Tommy Hilfiger.
While the results may be more for marketing purposes, all designs start with digital textiles.
Making it Automatic
“Product development today is like a switchboard from the 1950s—someone’s unplugging wires and re-plugging them in somewhere,” says Keith Hoover, founder of Black Swan Textiles, a US digitalization consultancy that helps brands develop their “Digital Twin” model for product design, development, and manufacture. Hoover is currently working to digitize Ralph Lauren’s product development processes.
“When we use a cell phone it auto routes,” Hoover explains. “Product development should be like that. We are trying to standardize it so it’s profitable to the brand and to the supply chain. For color it’s been solved—we can exchange the data. We are trying to do this today for fabric. Just like spectral data, we aim to send a fabric file to a mill, and have it come out right every time.”
“The first thing a customer sees is color, then they touch, then they try for fit. If all three meet the customer’s expectations, then they buy. And then, if it meets their expectations for quality, they come back and buy more,” he says.
“Can we objectively characterize hand? The same way we do with color?” Hoover asks. “If we can formulate a fabric to feel a certain way, we can then commoditize, reproduce, and market this.”
According to Hoover, there are six components to a fabric, and by classifying and digitizing these, brands can start creating textiles digitally that then drive reproducible high-quality manufacturable textiles.
How It’s Made
All brands have the same issue—if they have created a fabric and want to replicate it at another mill, they must start all over, explains Hoover.
“But we can generically define a fabric from a machine point of view. After all, the original mill can reproduce it. We’ve tested this and replicated a fabric at six mills and it was identical,” he says.
How should a fabric look? According to Hoover, advances in scanning have standardized this. He cites German-based software company Vizoo as one example.
According to Hoover, the drape of a fabric has been technically classified by 3D software packages such as Clo and Browzwear, but “I’d like to see it improved because it’s from the 90s, based on how a membrane drapes, and all textiles aren’t membranes,” he says.
“There is no shortage of tests for the physical performance attributes for fabrics,” Hoover says. It’s just a matter of putting this data together, he explains.
“Not matching color, but the characteristics of how certain fibers react to colors,” Hoover explains. These are known constants, he says.
Codifying hand is achievable with the technology we have today, Hoover says.
Digital therefore can allow designers to see how their design choices and decisions affect margin and lead-time, he explains.
“We are not limiting design but instead creating an awareness,” he says. “This allows a designer to be an engineer without actually having to be an engineer and allows the brand to engineer their products for their customers.”
The Interoperability Challenge
Digital work flow is dependent on frictionless integration. Interoperability between design and development systems and manufacturing systems is not smooth, and while many software vendors are working toward frictionless integration, the industry still isn’t there.
Led by Target, retailers have formed a coalition to accelerate this. The 3DRC aims to bring together retailers, software vendors, and other industry partners to exchange information and address the interoperability challenge.
“We are sharing data with tech companies, and we are collaborating like the industry has never done before,” explains Steve Greenberg, President Pointcaree, a textile software developer that offers a complete software package for printing, knitting, and weaving. “We have APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to products like Browzwear and Gerber, allowing you to bring your digital designs in to these programs directly onto avatars. And if you want to modify the textiles, one click brings you back into our applications, and once modified they update immediately on the avatars in the other software.”
“We are the front end of raw material design and development,” he says. “And because we are technically accurate—our yarns, our wovens, our colors—you are able to go straight from digital design to render to production and get what you see. Integration to 3D and other digital supply chain tools is now an industry requirement.”
“We are in a transitional period where mills and the supply chain are just understanding the benefits of digital textiles,” says Yazan Malkosh, co-founder of Swatchbook, a SaaS platform for the exploration, visualization, and sharing of textiles. Swatchbook stores scans of textiles that hold manufacturing data as well as physical properties allowing the materials to be applied to 3D product renderings.
“We have power users who don’t want to scan anymore,” Malkosh explains. “They are working to make textiles digitally first and then showcase these to clients, manufacturing on demand only what textiles the clients want.”
One such early adopter is Taiwan-based Pony Leather
“I design, develop, commercialize, and market seasonal swatch books of my materials with two seasons per year to all of the footwear design and development teams in North America and Europe,” explains Jason Eric Brown, vice-president of product creation for Pony Leather.
“I’ve been designing and developing footwear materials for 25 years—and doing so physically. Now, I’m building a workflow digitizing all the physical inputs to support a fully digital pipeline of realistic materials that match their actual counterparts in every way. So, I can finally design complex sophisticated effects in real time!”
For 15 years, Brown worked as a color and materials designer/developer for brands such as Nike, Brooks, Adidas, and Skechers. “I got frustrated with the process of not being able to design my materials in my own factories, so about 10 years ago I switched from the footwear brand side to the material manufacture side,” he says.
“The current design process has been unchanged for decades—sending an email to the factory describing what’s wanted and waiting 2 weeks for 10 samples. Then another email to wait 1-2 weeks between iterations. I’ve had to build my life around this—as have my peers in footwear. But now we can do this in 3D in real time,” he explains. “The iteration speed is the draw for me as the supplier, which is the same draw for brands.”
Brown cannot be more enthusiastic about the opportunities digital-first textiles bring.
“I’m fully obsessed that the wonderful world of 3D is finally making strides in footwear materials!” he says.
Brown’s AW21-22 collection, to be launched in November, will be a hybrid of physical and digital renderings, and by May of next year, his SS22 collection will be completely end-to-end digital.
Digital textiles allow for volumes of interactions unsupported by the physical development process, he says.
We can have up to 500 textures, 400 prints, 100s of foils, and 16 million colors that would create trillions of combos, Brown explains. “For designers to be able to tap into that? Visualize in real time their concepts, and then only produce samples for what they like? Wow!”
“This is co-developing with mills from the mill’s digital offerings,” Malkosh says. “Product development, design, and merchandising work with the mill’s parameters to configure what they like, and then from those simulations request physical samples from mills,” Malkosh explains.
“All suppliers are going to want to do this eventually, but not all are not there yet,” he says.