woman in mask amid coronavirus in Montenegro

In a time when “uncertainty” seems an overused sentiment and the only constant is ongoing change, businesses have needed to not only work ahead but plan for extensive possibilities and cater to pending calendars. New normals are forming and companies are questioning which new practices will have staying power.

Notably, in fashion retail, companies have been unable to engage in regularly scheduled photoshoots to capture imagery for new seasons during stay-at-home orders throughout the world. While brands are shifting seasons back for future deliveries, it remains to be seen if online retail will look quite the same. With many concessions being made because of coronavirus, will there be a season without on-model imagery? Traditionally, retailers show images of apparel both on-model and flat giving consumers a look into an item’s fit and style and provide an ongoing stream of content on social media.

According to TrueFit, on-model photography is particularly useful in categories where there is a high variability of construction details and fit, like tops, dresses and pants. “Understanding how an item is intended to be worn or lay against the body, helps a consumer determine if it’s a style that they might like or wear,” said Jessica Murphy, cofounder and chief customer officer at TrueFit. “Anything that gives the shopper confidence in their buying decision when shopping online is important — not just to the retailer in getting a sale, but critically to the shopper, who simply wants to find clothes they will love and keep.”

Further, Murphy said the inclusion of on-model imagery shows the ideal, product titles, descriptions and personalized size and fit guidance significantly improve a consumer’s experience. “Even with the best imagery available, consumers still struggle with how to translate what they see on product detail pages to how the clothing will work with for them uniquely,” Murphy said. “What [TrueFit’s] data has shown is that when you make the translation about how a product will uniquely work for a shopper, in a way that is simple and personal for the user, it translates into increased consumer confidence to buy, higher keep rates, increased products viewed and increased overall spend.”

True Fit online

Consumers are able to find accurate sizing online with True Fit.  Courtesy of True Fit

In many ways, consumers have also found on-model imagery to be confusing to apparel fit, which created the need for a recent data-focused approach to size. “We know on-model imagery can be deceiving, especially with the fit, apparel is pinned in place to achieve the desired look on that specific model,” said Jason Wolf, head of sales, North America at Fit Analytics. “In our experience, on-model imagery is helpful getting a consumer to a product page but ultimately the imagery or even the models’ size, as many retailers include, is not sufficient alone to give shoppers confidence that they have chosen the correct size.”

According to Dr. Carolyn Mair, behavioral psychologist, business consultant and author of “The Psychology of Fashion,” while model images are important as they allow consumers to see how the items of clothing look and, if there’s video, move, the models are often unrealistic to the consumer.

“Unfortunately, many of the models hired by fashion and beauty brands are not representative of the target audience,” Mair said. “Some professionals in the industry believe that customers want to see models who inspire them, and this is why they hire models whose looks are generally unattainable. However, the research says otherwise. Customers are more likely to be inspired by models who look like they do but on a good day. The settings can be inspirational, but still, they should be relatable to the customers the brands [want to] serve.”

Overall, a consumer’s sentiment toward retail imagery varies widely from person to person. “They may be frustrated that the model is 10 centimeters taller or slimmer than they are, so they are unable to imagine how the item would actually look on them, Mair said. “For customers who lack confidence and seek guidance about their fashion choices are more likely to care that the models don’t look at all like them. The majority of women would change at least one aspect of their body if they could, most women are dissatisfied with how they look. This is increasingly true for men too. Seeing very thin models even for an extremely short time has been found to be detrimental to the observer’s body satisfaction. In turn, this can make them dislike the brand.”

AerieReal role model Aly Raisman models pieces from her 2019 collaboration with Aerie.  Courtesy

While showcasing apparel on multiple models to illustrate how it fits on a more inclusive audience the practice remains allusive to many, some brands, like Aerie, Girlfriend Collective and Savage x Fenty, have done this quite well.

“It’s a practice today to use inclusivity as a new form of advertising exclusivity, whereby model pics tend to encompass models of every background, size and ethnicity for a far more global approach to retail and brand,” said Marigay McKee, cofounder and general partner of Fernbrook Capital Management. “This to me is where the fact of models or no models debate really comes into play, it’s very important for a lot of brands to showcase their DNA platform of globality and inclusivity.”

To be sure, brands utilize imagery to send a larger storytelling message to consumers and provide the desired experience.

“Showing your product on a live model gives consumers context about your product — it allows them to imagine how your product will fit into their lives, and gives clues about your brand identity,” said Marie La France, executive director of corporate strategy at Dash Hudson. “Context is more important than ever, as consumers can’t go to brick-and-mortar stores to try things on, or see your designs worn on the street. Storytelling is important — authentic storytelling about your brand. The visual needs to stop them in their scroll, while at the same time clearly communicate an aesthetic.”

Recently, Dash Hudson pulled the Instagram engagement data of 10 fashion labels to find the most effective styles of fashion imagery. The analyzed content was a mix of solo product shots and product on-model imagery. Overall, catalogue-style shots were found to have the highest engagement and effectiveness at 30 percent higher than the next-best category. Though La France told WWD, the creative choice really comes down to the item itself. Meaning those with intricate details should be shot solo and up close, while fit and silhouette focused apparel should be shot on a model.

“I’m not sure there will be a huge effect as many companies, like The RealReal, still showcase flat apparel on mannequins online and are very successful in the endeavor, but it’s true that retail is about the experience, environment and emotion and therefore it’s important to showcase lifestyle to get the emotional engagement of the consumer,” McKee said.

“Apparel shown on models tends to have more conversion rates online in general, but many branded businesses don’t use live models or video and still manage to sell effectively,” said McKee, “although most brands at the higher end of the market do and it’s an expense they deem as essential to creating the lifestyle effect.”

Moreover, with a large audience showing an aptitude to shop on social media, influencer imagery can also be used to market to the digital audience.

“We’ve seen that influencers can be highly effective for generating brand awareness, as well as sales, especially when influencer imagery is used in advertising,” La France said. “This can be done through influencer whitelisting like many brands are beginning to experiment with, as well as by simply promoting high-performing influencer posts and making them shoppable.”

Dash Hudson tested this theory with its fashion partner Revolve. As Revolve had been using e-commerce model images in social ads, Dash Hudson used its Vision technology to identify top-performing creative, which identified lifestyle and influencer content. When the ads were tested against the typical e-commerce creative Revolve had been using, they saw an overall 70 percent lift in return on ad spend. One ad that featured an influencer also achieved a 95 percent increase in average order value, indicating that the right context also has the potential to increase the amount consumers will spend with a retailer.

To continue creating product content during quarantine, La France tells WWD many of Dash Hudson’s brand partners are leaning heavily on established influencer relationships and sending products to be shot at home if they can. “Similarly, some brands are turning their staff into at-home models and influencers, tapping into the creativity and sense of brand that already exists within their talent,” La France said. “We’re seeing this content really resonates with at-home audiences who can relate to the setting that this content is being created in.

“Even if you know the style of imagery that works best for your products online, it still comes down to the brand creating and executing that content in a way that will speak to its unique audience,” La France said. “[And] brands can add context to their images to tell an authentic story about their brand identity.”


Dash Hudson used its Vision technology to find the bet suited imagery for Revolve.  Courtesy Image.

Still, with brands having to make concessions due to coronavirus, is on-model imagery a top priority when cities reopen?

“Overall, I think seeing clothing on models is a nice-to-have but not a must-have for most fashion categories,” said Keval Desai, general partner at InterWest. “It certainly helps to see how the material flows, get a sense of fit and style to see it on models. However, there are alternatives — for e.g. ‘try before you buy’ business models allow consumers to receive and try out a product on their own body, which is even better than seeing something on a model before purchasing.”

COVID-19 has undoubtedly seen changes in accelerated technology both large and small.

Despite new rules and regulations, the coronavirus lockdown has shown a light on digital product creation. “When it is required, brands/retailers can use technology to alleviate some of the challenges that come from this shift in the economy,” Desai said. “Technology advances can also help to some extent, for example, with computer-generated imagery models or even the ability to upload your own photo and see how a piece of garment might fit. Broadly speaking, I believe the COVID-19 crisis is going to accelerate the shift from an economy of proximity to an economy of distance — this shift had already started in commerce/retail a decade ago with online shopping.”

Admittedly, many companies have already embraced new technology in large ways in the last several years. “Apparel manufacturers and brands that have invested in 3-D design tools are now reaping the benefits of this strategy in new ways,” said Greg Petro, chief executive officer of First Insight. “Even though on-model product images are difficult or impossible to get right now, companies with 3-D capability can still present realistic-looking product images in online retail, avoiding the need to move to flat images.”

Many of these 3-D solutions create images to look so lifelike that it is hard to distinguish them from photographs. And further, the technology allows the user to get a 360-degree view of the products.

Moreover, at a time when everyone is feeling very disconnected and isolated, Petro said flat product imagery, as an alternative to on-model shots, might seem yet another impersonal interaction.

“It’s certainly easier for a consumer to envision herself wearing a product if it’s shown on-model or in a 3-D format,” Petro said. “When on-model photography is impossible, this may be an opportunity to leverage avatars, which are becoming more lifelike all the time. It will be interesting to see how the current challenges around photographing products on-model impacts a trend that had been gaining momentum pre-COVID-19: showing relatable models with a wide range of body types across the marketing mix and in e-commerce.”

Additionally, companies like Obsess, founded by Neha Singh a former Google software engineer and head of product at Vogue, have built technology to provide immersive storefronts with a 360-degree shopping experience that do not require special hardware. According to Desai, several prominent brands have used the Obsess platform to “find their rhythm in this new economic paradigm.”


Obsess virtual discovery platform. Here, a tie-dye-themed trend shop.  Courtesy Image

“The more sophisticated images do transport a consumer to a world of fantasy and desire and again it depends entirely on the category as some are ‘want’ purchases and some are ‘need’ purchases and investments, so it depends on the products,” McKee said. “Storytelling is always aspirational and where the consumer wants to know the origin of the background and journey of a product this leads to the sustainability and transparency debate also where consumers do care today. Storytelling can bring the dream to life it turns a moisturizer into hope in a jar or turns a fragrance into fantasy in a bottle. It transports is to new lands and a world of opportunity.”

When asked what happens when her team cannot shoot live with models, Cassandra Grey, of Violet Grey, famed for its Hollywood beauty shoots said, “While we value high production art and will produce celebrity cover stories again, most of our content will remain virtually produced and user-generated, shot for social on an iPhone and this is the content that is actually ‘king,’ and this was the case before COVID-19. It’s the world we live in now that we are all on TV via Instagram and TikTok.”

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