The COVID-19 pandemic has changed consumer shopping habits permanently.

Two years ago, e-commerce accounted for 26 percent of all apparel sales. In 2020, the number grew to 46 percent - a rapid acceleration of consumers’ willingness to buy “digital fashion.” The irony, of course, is that consumers have long been comfortable buying fashion from pictures, as far back as the first Spiegel mail-order catalog in 1905. It’s the fashion industry, notorious for its resistance to change, that’s been slow to adopt technology in general, but especially 3D for product creation and visualization.

3D long ago transformed other industries. For many years now, realtors have been staging properties and conducting virtual tours using 3D technologies; architects and interior designers use them to communicate their visions to their clients. The manufacturing industry uses 3D to conceptualize and make prototypes of parts and products, while the health care industry uses it for imaging, diagnosis, and creating custom prosthetic devices.

“Fashion has always been a form of self-expression, so, naturally, the field attracts creative rather than technology types, which perhaps explains the resistance to technology.”

Marketers have always relied on images to sell and advertise products. For years now, most product images used online and other visual mediums have been 3D renderings rather than photographs. 3D renderings are easier to control for lighting, angles, and close-ups, and their hyper-realism often makes them preferable to pictures.

Apparel marketers have been slower to adopt 3D renderings of fashion products, largely because the product development and launch cycles are different in fashion. Where as marketers are brought into the early stages of product development in most industries, apparel marketers are traditionally the last to see the product samples used for time-consuming and costly photography sessions.

Fashion has always been a form of self-expression, so, naturally, the field attracts creative rather than technology types, which perhaps explains the resistance to technology. 3D, in particular, has been slow to take hold, mainly because of the prevailing view that the tactile and detailed nature of garments cannot possibly be visualized effectively. But it is possible. A skilled technologist can create hyper-realistic renderings of the silhouette, details – no matter how intricate, and fabric drape so that even an “expert” would struggle to distinguish between a photograph and a rendering. Perhaps this is why the resistance to 3D is weakening.

Early adopters of 3D, including several well-known brands, now feature 3D images on their e-commerce sites. These early adopters focused on the benefits of digital product development – reducing samples, fine-tuning designs, and accelerating time to market. But with more than two billion people purchasing goods and services online, perhaps the most tangible and immediate benefit of 3D is digital selling and gaining valuable consumer insights.

Outsiders, those without prior experience in the apparel industry, immediately see all the possibilities of 3D and are creating new business models in the process. Several new online-only brands create fashion products digitally, sell digitally, and produce only what’s ordered. No guesswork, no photography, no inventory. These outsiders’ embrace of technology will enable them to take advantage of the social media platforms that now support 3D content.

Fashion retail is changing right before our eyes, and 3D is at the heart of it.