Spurred on by the worldwide lockdowns and constantly shifting quarantine measures implemented to keep COVID-19 under control, the digital realm has seen a boom as people isolating in the physical world find their way online in droves to work, learn, play and connect. Digital fashion is also having a moment. The shutdown of global fashion cities and centres has meant that brands and their customers are both left looking for new ways to engage.
Forma, a San Francisco-based tech company started by one of the founding members of Uber China, is the latest to join this digital revolution. Esquire Singapore speaks with Ben Chiang, Forma’s co-founder, and CEO, to find out more about photo-realistic style ‘avatars’ and why trying on thousand digital outfits is all in a day’s work.
ESQUIRE: What exactly is Forma?
BEN CHIANG: Forma is a technology company that enables anybody in the world to digitally ‘try on’ any outfit in the world. By uploading a single front-facing photo, you can try on any of our digital outfits, instantly and photo-realistically.
ESQ: How did you evolve from being the head of global data at Uber in China to pioneering photorealistic digital fashion visualisations for anyone with a smartphone and the app?
BEN: The founding vision of Forma is that as more and more of our lives shift to the digital world, everybody needs a photorealistic representation (which we call their ‘avatar’) as an identity to interact with other people. My co-founder and I come from gaming backgrounds where people have spent billions of dollars on outfits and ‘skins’ for digital avatars that don’t look like them; timing is important for any company, and recent breakthroughs in computer vision and deep learning mean that pixel-level photorealism in real-time is actually possible.
I enjoyed my experience at Uber but I wanted to do something quite different that could potentially have just as big, if not bigger, an impact on the world.
ESQ: How does the app ‘dress’ us in different clothes? How does it work?
BEN: From a single front-facing photo, Forma’s technology digitally separates the person (which we call avatar) and outfit using a category of technology called computer vision (which already has many applications including Snapchat filters that know where your eyes and nose are). Once we’ve separated the two, we then make real-time modifications on any digital outfit in our database to fit the user’s avatar, sort of like an instantaneous digital tailor.
ESQ: Has the technology changed much since you first started Forma? And has the product and its applications evolved from when Forma was first launched?
BEN: The technology is still in the early stages and is getting better every day. The way we talk about it internally, we feel like we’re at something like an iPhone 5 camera—pretty good in most situations, but not as good in more difficult situations (e.g. low lighting). It’s an ongoing process to keep improving and soon we’ll be consistently at the quality of an iPhone XS camera.
The product and applications are also constantly evolving and we release a major update at least once a week, although the core functionality of trying on clothes has never changed. We’re actually in the process of rolling out our latest version right now.
ESQ: Virtual fashion and digital avatars didn’t take off earlier despite the technology being available. Mainly because it was expensive, difficult to deploy successfully, and didn’t look realistic or looked too realistic (which brings with it its own set of problems); how is Forma different?
BEN: The main breakthrough because of deep learning is in pixel-level photorealism in real-time. Previously, technology could sometimes do pixel-level photorealism, but it would take hours to generate; on the other hand, technology could do real-time clothing, but the quality was not photorealistic (think Fortnite or Snapchat).
That said, I’d point out that virtual fashion and digital avatars have already done quite well, although mostly in the gaming space where Fortnite, Diablo, World of Warcraft, Covet Fashion and others have generated billions of dollars of revenue over many years already. Forma bets that changing clothes for yourself is just as, if not more, compelling as changing clothes for your video game character that probably doesn’t look like you.
ESQ: Besides being able to see yourself in different clothes instantly, what are the potential other types of consumer applications and commercial applications of Forma’s technology that has been?
BEN: The key use case is to serve as a digital dressing room for e-commerce companies to improve their conversion rates by allowing their shoppers to see an item on themselves before buying, just like in the offline world. We have partnered with over 600 merchants already and have generated over a million ‘try-ons’ for users/shoppers, with measured and proven purchase conversion lift for merchants. Soon, we expect most online shoppers to demand to be able to see something on themselves before buying, just like they do offline.
The next use case is more similar to an Instagram or Pinterest or Esquire magazine, where people have typically gone for fashion inspiration. The difference is that Forma is interactive, where the user can see him or herself in the clothing directly. Similar to Instagram, sometimes this inspiration could lead to an actual purchase, but regardless it’s a great way for a brand to deepen the connection with current and future customers.
ESQ: For example, with people spending increasing amounts of time online, creating personalised digital avatars that individuals identify with no longer seems like something out of a sci-fi movie. How is Forma enabling this and how has public reception been?
BEN: Yes, the future is now! Well, at least parts of it. And we’re just getting started, hopefully soon we’ll be able to do much more such as 3D and animation, so we can place you in a TikTok clip, video game, or VR.
The public reception has been surprising—we thought this might only be interesting for a small niche of gamers and sci-fi fans, but we’ve found that the concept of digitally changing clothes is very broad and easy to understand, so we’ve found a huge and diverse group of users already.
ESQ: Have you seen any interesting ways that consumers are using Forma that you didn’t expect?
BEN: The top 10% of our users average over 1,000 try-ons—imagine how long it would take to try on 1,000 outfits in the physical world? They’re using Forma for inspiration, sending them to friends for second opinions, bringing Forma with them to go shopping. As we’ve made clothing digital, the use cases explode, just like when music or photography went from physical to digital as well.
We’ve also seen users create thousands of unique outfits for the whole Forma community to be able to try. They are finding outfits they like from e-commerce sites, social media, or their own photos, and upload them to Forma’s instant outfit creation tool which digitally creates the outfit for anybody to be able to try. We hope that we will soon have our Justin Bieber (YouTube) or Lil Nas X (TikTok) moment, where a talented but undiscovered clothing designer can take off with Forma.
ESQ: Will you be expanding your menswear selection?
BEN: Yes, we started with mostly women’s clothing, but we’ve found that about half of our users are men. So we’ve been working hard to catch up on the men’s side.
ESQ: Given the COVID situation, the type of clothing that people are currently interested in wearing has shifted towards casualwear and athleisure. Do you foresee Forma providing a virtual escape for people to dress up in the styles that they would otherwise not be able to wear, or afford, at the moment?
BEN: In the offline world, you only have so much money, so you have to make careful decisions about how you want to spend it. The beauty of digital clothing is that you don’t have to choose, you can have your casualwear and athleisure, and you can also try on fancy or even ridiculous outfits that you might not even bother to try offline. It’s similar to the revolution of Spotify, where instead of choosing which albums you wanted to buy, you can now listen to all types of music and even discover new music that you might not have thought to try before.
ESQ: How do you see Forma impacting the way fashion is consumed, or changing how people will now shop or interact with clothes?
BEN: We’re already seeing that with Forma, people are trying on way more styles and outfits than in the physical world. Because of that, they’re able to develop a more nuanced sense of style for themselves that would have been harder offline, where you would need to go to many stores or order a lot of clothes via e-commerce to explore your style. I’m not sure if Forma will help people buy more clothes or not since the limiting factor is probably still how much money they have to buy clothes, but I do believe that people will be much more confident in their style.
ESQ: Which are the most popular looks on your app?
BEN: The best items vary greatly depending on the user. The top categories are Formal Wear (dresses + suits), Costumes, and Date Night (casual and stylish), although for any given user they probably strongly prefer one or two categories over others. It seems leather and denim jackets are quite popular recently.
ESQ: What does the future of fashion look like to you?
BEN: I think everybody will have their own very unique sense of style that’s developed over thousands of try-ons, and their style could be an interesting mix for different situations—but it will be uniquely theirs. Most of the exploration will be done digitally where it’s free and fast, but that they’ll still buy their favourite pieces for the physical world and wear them with greater confidence.
The Forma app is available on the Shopify App Store and the Apple Store.