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By: Rob Walker

Imagine sitting in your favourite armchair, putting on a virtual reality (VR) headset and feeling as though you’re walking into a luxury fashion store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. You browse all the clothing and accessories, just as you would in a real bricks-and-mortar shopping experience. Everything is three-dimensional and interactive, so it feels like you’re moving around the store freely. And here’s the clincher: If a handbag or a top takes your fancy, you can buy it there and then. It might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but VR functionality that bridges online and physical shopping is potentially just around the corner.

“We’re very close. We’re paving the way for e-commerce in VR”, says Abi Mandelbaum, CEO of New York-based YouVisit, one of the leaders in VR technology. If his firm (and rival VR platforms like it) is successful, it could shake up the retail landscape as never seen before.

Bigger than Facebook

VR headsets, like early edition mobile phones, are still rather clunky. They look a bit like cardboard scuba diving masks and seem out of kilter with VR’s futuristic technology. They are comparatively cheap to buy though, costing from around US$20 for a simple device. Of course, the headset matters much less than what goes on inside it, specifically the interactive, 360-degree (spherical) viewing experience. This is driven by a smartphone slotted into the headset. As for the headsets, just as early edition mobile phones evolved into streamlined (and pricey) fashion statements, so too will early edition VR headsets. It’s only a matter of time. By then, if you believe the hype, VR will be in the mainstream. In fact, logging onto VR platforms could soon be as common as logging onto Facebook. For the fashion industry, in particular, the implications are far-reaching. For one thing, VR could sound the death knell for catwalks and fashion shows (at least in the format we know them). VR could also be the beginning of the end for traditional e-commerce websites.

Up close and personal

“VR is the new technology that’s taking over the world”, says YouVisit’s Mr Mandelbaum. His company used the latest VR technology to film and stream the 2015 Mercedes Benz fashion show in Russia. “The VR medium is perfect for fashion but we had to come up with a way to prove it”, he says. The upshot, Mirror to the Soul, definitely whetted appetites. What impressed many, including movers and shakers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, was the depth and complexity of the coverage, which gave the viewer simultaneous multiple points of view, from backstage to front row seat. Accessibility is the cornerstone of VR. It’s not like watching a TV documentary, or streaming a video. VR is interactive and three-dimensional, so when you turn your head your view changes with it, just like in real life (the difference is that you can fast forward through the drivel). What’s more, VR filming is constantly evolving in its scope and functionality. VR seems set to become a major feature of fashion shows over the next five years. In so doing, it will make the traditionally elitist world of catwalks much more accessible because anyone with a cheap VR headset (and compatible smartphone) will be able to get a front-row seat.

Tommy Hilfiger is among the first to see VR potential

One early adopter of VR is fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger. Last year, in selected stores (such as its London Regent Street outlet), shoppers could watch Tommy Hilfiger’s New York catwalk show as a virtual reality experience, using in-store SamsungGear VR headsets (priced from around US$100). “Through virtual reality, we’re now able to bring our one-of-a-kind fashion show to the retail setting… It’s a compelling and interesting elevation of the traditional shopping experience”, said Tommy Hilfiger (the designer) in a press statement. Crucially, as shoppers engaged with the film, the apparel and accessories on the catwalks in New York were right there in the stores to be purchased. This was the first time, among major labels, that the real nub of a catwalk show – the designer collections – was in sync with a retail outlet. Typically, by the time collections from a catwalk make it into a store, all the excitement of a fashion show has died away. This time lapse has long been a big challenge for designer labels. There is more to VR than simply synchronising Fashion Weeks with retail outlets, of course. Big-name designer labels like Tommy Hilfiger are cottoning on that consumers no longer come into their stores simply to shop. They want to be entertained too.

Bridging worlds

“VR increases engagement with the end consumer, so it increases conversion rates and sales. What brand doesn’t want that?” asks YouVisit’s Mr Mandelbaum in our telephone interview. His company is in talks, he says, with a number of big name retailers about setting up a new generation of virtual reality stores. He acknowledges there are still challenges to overcome, but believes YouVisit will soon be able to offer VR e-commerce functionality, and possibly within the year. If VR does make that leap, it will indeed be a game changer. As hard as it might be to fathom right now, even the most sophisticated e-commerce websites could soon look staid by comparison.

VR comes at a price

If VR is going to have a big impact on the retail landscape, however, there will need to be a huge uptick in the number of people owning headsets. Currently, the main obstacle to stronger demand is not price tag but a lack of VR to watch, and that has a lot to do with the hefty expense of making VR content. “The biggest challenge is not only how expensive it is to produce content but how difficult it is to produce truly engaging content. There’s a big learning curve”, admits Mr Mandelbaum. The expense of making VR content also means that the medium, in its current form, is only affordable among big budget companies, a factor that could further limit growth going forward. Presumably, though, like most new technology, costs will come down as the demand goes up.

Is VR ‘social’ enough to be successful?

There is another possible obstacle to VR going mainstream, and it has to do with the personal nature of the experience. Today, consumers all over the world want to share their experiences; hence the huge popularity of Facebook and other social media platforms. By its very nature, VR is not a social experience. The people at the forefront of VR platforms acknowledge this as a challenge, but are confident that sociability will evolve over time. “There are many ways to bring social elements into VR. It’s an evolving platform. It’ll start as a tool that gives you the ability to experience the world in a more immersive way, and the next phase will be the ability to do that with friends and colleagues. That trend is just part of its evolution”, argues Mr Mandelbaum. Despite lacking a social angle, VR does have plenty of wow factor. And there is a growing consensus in the luxury fashion industry that brands need to embrace it. It is worth remembering that the fashion industry, and luxury categories especially, was late coming to the table with a social media strategy. Leading designer labels will not want to make that same mistake again. “The threat for fashion brands is not jumping on it quickly enough and then falling behind,” warns Mr Mandelbaum. First-mover advantage, as is often the case, could prove decisive.

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