The Fashion Industry Is Pouring Money Into VR, With No Idea How to Use It

We saw a one of the first virtual reality fashion shoots, and it was a lot like a normal fashion shoot.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to watch what was championed as one of the first fashion shoots in virtual reality, Unstitched, at photographer Ruvan Wijesooriya's studio in Manhattan. The project is one of the most interesting and innovative experiments using virtual reality in the fashion industry, and it didn't even use the medium to a fraction of its potential. The industry as a whole is pouring capital into the technology, but has no idea what to do with it.

Wijesooriya directed Unstiched in partnership with virtual reality agency Virtualize as well as with The Endless Collective, an interesting cross-continent company that designs virtual experiences.

The piece was perceived as innovative enough to land the cover of Iceland's version of Glamour, but for the most part, it depicts a normal fashion shoot, complete with traditional looking models having their photos taken. The piece shines during unexpected moments, like when Wijesooriya is seen taking photos wearing bright yellow socks, or when the various frames aren't cut together perfectly.

Wijesooriya is a veteran of the fashion world, and has shot for clients like Burberry and Roberto Cavalli (he also created an entire book of wonderful LCD Soundsystem pictures). For the most part, Unstitched follows the fashion universe's standard protocol. The two white, thin models are shown against an all white backdrop, dancing and posing for Wijesooriya while wearing clothes from designers like VFILES and Dries Van Noten.

Image: Ruvan Wijesooriya/Virtualize

I viewed the shoot twice on the Samsung Gear VR, and was impressed by the technical execution of the video, although it didn't seem to provide a much higher quality of image than that of the Google Cardboard.

It's not clear that what fashion needs is virtual reality, especially not in its current form. So far, the industry has failed to take advantage of the medium and instead used it mostly to broadcast normal fashion shows, merely in virtual reality. Unstiched is one of the first examples I've seen of an artist attempting to use the medium to do anything else.

Rebecca Minkoff was one of the first designers to invest in the technology when the company developed its own custom version of Google Cardboard last September. With the use of a mobile phone, the cardboard allows a user to watch what is essentially a traditional fashion show, just inside of a headset.

Coach did the exact same thing several weeks ago, except they also offered a non-immersive option for those who couldn't secure a cardboard. In other words, if you didn't get one of the limited edition headsets, you could just watch the Fashion Week show online, exactly how fans have done for years.

Image: Ruvan Wijesooriya/Virtualize

Back in 2014, Topshop also invested in the technology, but again the experience was limited to allowing fans the chance to view the company's upscale Topshop Unique fashion show, as though you were in the front row.

It's hard to see how this experience is different from merely viewing a show online, which is often filmed from a view just as good, if not better, than being in one of the first several rows.

Dior also followed suit by announcing its own custom headset, Dior Eyes, last June. It too, will feature Dior's fashion shows.

Publications that cover fashion have done a little better. Elle, for example, allowed viewers to check out a fashion shoot in VR, using a similar concept as Unstitched in 2014. InStyle also created a virtual reality experience where readers went behind the scenes on a shoot with Drew Barrymore. Refinery29 launched a series using virtual reality in 2015.

I'm skeptical that virtual reality will "disrupt" the fashion industry in the way that optimistic designers and executives are anticipating because their excitement seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the way that most people shop using technology.

From my perspective, the number one concern that potential buyers have with online shopping is that they don't have the ability to see how clothes would feel or fit in person. A number of different companies have tried to find a solution this, by allowing customers to virtually try on clothes, or have them shipped free in order to be checked out at home first.

This seems like the sort of instance where virtual reality could really provide value. Using the tech, users could see exactly how a skirt moves, or the way that a pair of shoes looked while walking.

Image: Ruvan Wijesooriya/Virtualize

Virtual reality could also be used to fulfill the fantasies of fashion geeks, providing them with immersive, interactive experiences featuring their beloved fashion houses. For now, it seems like designers are only concerned with providing their fans with a digital ticket to their fashion shows.

Virtual reality is still in its most early stages, and it's definitely possible that creatives in fashion will learn over time how to adapt the medium to its potential. Some are optimistic that within two to five years, we might be doing at least some of our shopping in virtual reality. For now, if a seat at Fashion Week is what you're after, you can probably snag a view from the comfort of your couch. If you're looking for something that will truly change the way you experience clothes, it just isn't here yet.