Image courtesy of Balenciaga

What Balenciaga's Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow tells us about the future of fashion

Fashion is proudly innovative, but the industry has been slow compared to others when it comes to digitalization. Its key demographic—young adults—is digitally savvy and has been for some time. To stay relevant, fashion needs to keep up. Some in the industry have woken up to this, and momentous change is in the air. 

Companies like Balenciaga are at the vanguard of fashion’s digital evolution. The French label wowed the world last year when it unveiled Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, a video game built to showcase the company’s Fall 2021 collection. 

Described by Vogue Runway as a “quantum leap for fashion”, Balenciaga’s Afterworld is more than just an innovative way to market clothes. It represents an entirely new era for the industry—one in which ever more sophisticated virtual worlds and immersive experiences will supercharge online commerce. 

Virtual worlds unlock infinite possibilities 

Afterworld represents a new way of thinking about identity in the digital world—that the internet can be a rich, interactive, three-dimensional virtual playground for fashion. An immersive adventure set in a city in the near future of 2031, the game enables players to pick from a range of characters before exploring different zones, passing models and pieces from Balenciaga’s Fall 2021 collection along the way.

It’s a thought-provoking way to showcase clothing—and one that represents the start of major fashion brands becoming awake to the creative possibilities unlocked by new technologies.
Image courtesy of Balenciaga
The project was a collaboration between a multitude of different studios and creative minds across the globe. Balenciaga’s Creative Director Demna Gvasalia provided the creative vision, both conceiving the video game concept and dreaming up its world. The collaboration began in April 2020, with a conversation between Substance & Inhalt and Wilson J. Tang of Yumebau Inc. about all the available technologies and teams necessary to realize the idea. From there, Streamline Media Group handled the game development and Dimension Studios provided volumetric video capture, with Substance acting as Creative Consultant.

As the game developer for Afterworld, it was up to Streamline to aggregate all the various components delivered by the creative teams working to bring the project to life. “In cooking terms, we were the chef working with great cooks from around the world to deliver a delicious meal for a highly discerning patron,” says CEO and Co-Founder Alexander Fernandez.

Afterworld is one the largest projects Streamline has worked on in terms of the number of parties involved. A unique mix of creative and technical expertise from across fashion, games, and other industries made for an exciting melting pot of perspectives. “This cross-pollination of ideas demonstrated to us how video games have really come into their own right in entertainment and now in enterprise,” says Fernandez. 
Image courtesy of Balenciaga
His team used Unreal Engine to build the game environment, setting up the functionality of the game quickly and easily using the engine’s Blueprint visual scripting system, and populating the world with photorealistic 3D scans from Quixel’s Megascan library. “Unreal Engine was made for this type of work,” he says. 

Streamline also did the initial R&D to establish a baseline of what was possible and at what quality level, weighing up the technological constraints against Gvasalia’s expansive vision. 

It was responsible for bringing volumetrically captured digital models created by Dimension Studios into Unreal Engine, as well as building the different levels of the game and populating them with vehicles, background characters, and animals.  
Image courtesy of Balenciaga
Acting as the conductor responsible for marshalling an orchestra of creative talent is a big task—particularly when you only have three months to deliver. For Fernandez, the experience was exhilarating. “Working with people from non-games was incredible,” he says. “We were able to take their ideas and find a way to make it work with the technology and time available. This was where our vast experience in creative and technical problem solving came into play.”

As well as the key creative stakeholders, Streamline collaborated with numerous teams to bring the project to fruition, including Builders Club, who supplied pre-rendered cinematics for in-game transitions; and Ubitus who helped optimize and test the experience for deployment in the cloud.

Simon Windsor is Co-Founder and Joint Managing Director at Dimension Studios. He’s worked at the cutting-edge of immersive and extended reality (XR) content, technology, and storytelling for over 10 years. Windsor led the team at Dimension Studios that created 50 digital models for Afterworld using the state of the art in volumetric filming, thought to be the largest volumetric video project ever undertaken, using the Polymotion Stage—a collaboration between Dimension Studios, Nikon, and MRMC.

These 4D digital models act as game characters throughout the five levels of Afterworld. Dimension authentically recreated the look and motion of the garments the characters wear by capturing them volumetrically using Microsoft Mixed Reality Capture technology

These assets were then encoded into a compact, streamable form. To facilitate their use, Microsoft provides a plugin to Unreal Engine enabling volumetric assets to easily be integrated into Unreal Engine projects to take full advantage of its advanced rendering pipeline. “The convergence of volumetric capture and Unreal Engine was perfectly timed for Balenciaga to push the boundaries with Afterworld,” says Windsor. 
Image courtesy of MRMC, A Nikon Company
Footwear designs, eyewear, and other reflective surfaces are known to be incredibly difficult to capture in volumetric video, and Balenciaga's Fall 2021 collection has some unique and intricate designs—including armor. 

Dimension developed an advanced processing pipeline that enabled these more challenging materials and forms to be faithfully recreated and tracked onto the final digital models. Items like reflective sunglasses and thin heels were virtually modelled and replaced in post-production. The final results are impressive. With players able to view the looks in 360 degrees, the game acts as a true lookbook for the luxury fashion brand. 
The project gave Windsor the opportunity to explore an idea that has captured his imagination for a long time: that content and the web will evolve from traditional screens and blend into our physical world, with virtual worlds and the Metaverse co-existing. 

He likens Afterworld to the OASIS, a virtual universe that serves as the primary escape for the population in Ready Player One. “Balenciaga’s Afterworld is an example of an exclusive, curated experience, but one that’s available to anyone around the world,” he explains. “It allows the brand to do much more than a traditional lookbook or even an in-person fashion show.”

What Balenciaga has realized—and what other fashion houses are catching on to—is that immersive and interactive experiences will eventually be commonplace, both online and on the highstreet of the future. 
Image courtesy of Balenciaga
The technology to enable these next-generation experiences has ‘come of age’, and now offers the immersion and aesthetic this younger audience needs and demands. Game engines like Unreal Engine will be the bedrock on which they are built, “the heart of a storytelling and content revolution,” says Windsor. 

Digital human avatars to reset identity 

Virtual catwalks, MetaHumans, digital clothing, digital supermodels, and virtual worlds are throwing up radically creative and disruptive opportunities that are rapidly shaping the future of fashion. Forward-thinking fashion brands like Balenciaga have seen this coming, and are already beginning to capitalize on these opportunities. 
Image courtesy of Balenciaga
It’s a point not lost on Fernandez. “Digital humans and virtual worlds are just a first step for fashion and brands in general,” he says. “It’s not hard to see what comes next with trying on clothes or seeing yourself represented in the world.”

For him, that could be a melding of fashion with virtual worlds, where product discovery, commerce, and social interactivity provide the opportunity to go shopping with friends located on the other side of the world—while also seeing the latest fashions. “It’s going to be great,” he says.

These possibilities include everything from enabling new dynamic virtual camera angles for sports broadcasters or volumetric extras in virtual production for filmmaking, to creating interactive 4D immersive musical experiences. “As these technologies continue to converge, so we'll see even more creative magic happen,” says Windsor. 

The Metaverse is coming—and fashion can thrive in it

As he looks to the future, Windsor predicts digital fashion will be a thriving hub of creativity. “The Metaverse, the holodeck—whatever you call it, vast persistent virtual worlds are coming and fashion brands will live and thrive creatively in these bold new worlds,” he says. “As our digital personas evolve beyond social media and digital expression as we know it, manifesting in our own virtual avatars that become a natural extension of who we are—or want to be—in the Metaverse, so we’ll see the virtual economy for fashion boom.”

Fernandez predicts that the evolution of virtual worlds will have huge implications over the next twenty years, resulting in worlds completely driven by brands. “The entire concept of design, luxury, and service will be redefined by video games,” he says. 
Image courtesy of Balenciaga
Windsor agrees, and points out that this is already happening, from virtual influencers and AR runways to fashion shows in Fortnite, digital fashion labels, and the creation of Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow. “Uniquely creative and wonderful virtual fashion experiences are coming,” he says.
For Fernandez, fashion’s shift to digital will entirely change the definition of brand affinity, loyalty, and engagement in terms of what they mean and how they’re measured. “Virtual worlds will transform not just the way we sell, market, and interact with products, but how companies structure their organizations to meet the needs of their team members and stakeholders,” he says. “Enterprise video games represent digital transformation of the global economy—and this is only the beginning.”

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