In the few years since Target has started using 3-D virtual prototyping provider Optitex, product development has sped up by about two weeks and sampling has been reduced by roughly 65 percent.
With stats like that, it’s hard to believe that Alexis Kantor, director of apparel and accessories product development, and Sandra Gagnon, senior group manager of NIT and 3-D virtual product development, ever struggled to sway the squad behind America’s second-largest retailer to move to the virtual platform.
The biggest hurdle, not surprisingly, was the design team.
“We had expectations that design was going to be our most innovative partner. They were going to jump in and we were going to all live in this happy 3-D virtual technology land—that land did not come about so quickly,” Kantor laughed, describing Target’s not-so-easy transition to 3-D development to attendees at the Product Innovation
Apparel conference in New York on Tuesday. “What were they worried about? Very quickly we understood that our teams thought that we were going to change the way they had to think and create, but really we just asked them to use a different medium.”
Plus, as Gagnon pointed out, it’s hard to convince skeptics when the virtual images you’re presenting to them are not yet up to scratch.
Kantor agreed: “We needed to build credibility and trust very quickly. Fashion is emotional: you want to touch, you want to feel, it’s tactile. It was hard to convince people you could make really good decisions from seeing a virtual sample so we had to instill trust in them.”
“But as the technology has improved—and as we have improved—the images have just gotten better and better,” Gagnon said, adding, “We’ve really relied on a whole suite of software to do this and it’s really allowed us to create mannequins where designers can look at the garment and feel comfortable.”
The real game changer was adding fabric-drape testers and better textures to the mix, as well as buttons and trims, which built up the believability for design teams. “The more you can add in texture and lighting really goes a long way,” she continued, noting, “If teams know that their fabrics are going through the physical testing, they’re being checked for stretch and bend and friction, and all these physical properties are being fed into the software that will give us conscience that when we see it on that avatar it’s going to look the way the real garment would look.”
Kantor added, “We really could win over trust by giving people more photo-realistic rendering.”
That included using virtual in-store mannequins which, as Gagnon explained, also offered Target’s merchants a perspective on what the product would look like months ahead of when they would see a physical sample.
As Kantor put it, “I think what’s cool about that is the win for the other parts of the company. Before they had to wait for our information coming out of our big meetings and now we can do things in real time right there and pass along the information. Initially when we thought speed we were thinking speed in product development but we’re seeing speed across the enterprise.”
Gagnon echoed this sentiment. “Teams have had to reset their cultural mind to it but they’re really starting to see how it can come together now. Once you have those 3-D garments created, virtually putting them into the floor plan, recoloring them, seeing how they look in your lighting, it really helps to make a decision,” she said.
As much as it’s improved the process, Kantor doesn’t think it will ever fully replace physical samples. “Although I wish it would, but we can iterate and do so many things upfront before we actually have to see that physical sample,” she said, adding, “We develop a lot of product at a potentially 3-1 ratio—sometimes higher, sometimes lower—and 3-D gives us an opportunity to really hone in on what is that real style that we want, how do we ask for the right stuff, not just continue to sample but iterate so much faster and get to that perfect sample quicker.”
“In women’s ready-to-wear it’s all about speed,” Gagnor agreed. “With this technology, we can take a blazer and mock up 20 pieces of art in five minutes if we need to.”