I recognize that feeling. Serotonin pulsates through my bloodstream as I examine. It’s one of my favorite pastimes, scrolling e-commerce sites and renting for the perfect heel platform, or keeping transparent tunics and feather-trimmed midi on wish lists for future events, real and fictional. And this purchase is no different. The dress arrives and it’s time. The draping is masterful; the lower skirt shyly protrudes through the delicate layers of tulle. The half-breast has the look of Zendaya in melted Loewe gold at the Women in Film Awards. I look like a queen. Appropriate, since I opted for the ‘Intergalactic Royal Dress’. Admittedly, I would probably have styled it a little differently if I had known my feet would be on display. You see, this dress is not real. I got the clothes in a virtual studio Dressx, sent her barely dressed photo, and someone put a dress on my body and put it back in my inbox. His textiles are pixels, not anything tangible. But it is, in many ways, magnificent.
This is not my first flirtation with ‘figural’ fashion – where the physical world merges with digital elements – or even fashion in the metaverse. I’m a millennial and a journalist who lives in a digital sense, so my experience with AR goes beyond Prada’s Instagram filter ‘Current Mood’. I’ve never been a player, but not because I find the idea unattractive. Quite the opposite – when I was relatively young, I recognized in myself a tendency to get addicted to things quickly, so I stuck to cigarettes and alcohol or would never leave the house. But from time to time, I dive into the world of games and appreciate the power of choosing your player. A discarded leopard print outlaw for a day when you have a lot to splurge on; Sylph with a train of royal blue chiffon that reflects your charm and status. Appearance in the virtual world is as much a symbol of personality as it is in the physical; all the more so because the possibilities for customization are unlimited.
Even if we are not fully aware of it, we all move easily between digital people. We dress for the gram, run business meetings through teams or video-invite our friends to Dubai and, whether we decide to be a potato head, wear a pair of AR earrings or just blur the background, we are all making decisions about how to project on networks.
As I slide into various virtual realities, my relationship with digital fashion is complex. I have been working in a luxury fashion magazine for a long time and I adore clothes. The weight of the crinoline skirt (yes, I own it) is a remarkable thing. Empowering pants are my belief system. And it still amazes me every time I’m lucky enough to get closer to the art of high fashion. I may be at that generational crossroads where the appeal of the digital world is irresistible, but there is still skepticism about total immersion.
But as we begin to spend more time in virtual spaces, using everything from face-filling filters to purely pixel ‘wearables’, what’s next? Some, like Ziqi Xing from the digital fashion lab Xtended Identity, imagine a future where everything is either physical or virtual, and the screen lens magnifies everything we do. Still, it seems far away. Dressx’s Natalia Modenova and Daria Shapovalova, on the other hand, tell me that ‘decentralized existence’ is more likely, where our physical condition is just one aspect of our identity and our avatar dog wearing a Balenciaga sweatshirt at Fortnite may be a different, equally weighted, part wholes.
I agree with this from a fashion perspective. I am aware of my privilege of being able to access designer clothes, when most people do not have the opportunity or resources. And if virtual dressing democratizes, because it costs significantly less to buy your designer dream ball gown (the one I bought was only 26 pounds), it may be possible for an avatar to be an expression of your best watch. For those who resist the idea that digital clothing could be on par with the ‘right’, I tell you this: the art that goes into constructing a beautiful virtual dress is no less impressive. From conceptual sketches and trial textures to 3D modeling (equivalent to a tailor’s toilet) and rendering, it’s an intricate process. Luxury fashion brands such as Gucci, Iris van Herpen, Dundas and Coach have enlisted the help of virtuosos from the virtual world, including Republiqe, Dressx, GATE and Rook Vanguard, to produce their metaverse designs. There are even digital tailors, such as Scotomalab, who have dedicated themselves exclusively to creating magnificent virtual fabrics.
It is also more acceptable for the planets to live our fantasies about clothes online. As virtual fashion influencer Danielle Loftus writes in a disclaimer on Instagram: ‘No materials were damaged when these photos were taken.’ Modena also emphasizes that a digital dress is no less ‘real’ if it evokes emotions in the wearer, as it was in me.
All that said, there is one inevitable innovation that stops me on the way: creating digital twins or digital passports for all our physical clothing. For the uninitiated, technology companies are working to turn all of our physical fashion items into NFT – not in terms of digital art (such as your association to the term), but in terms of every tangible item being issued with a correspondingly unique digital token. It is a virtual ‘twin’, which will carry unique, unrepeatable information about it, stored indefinitely in the blockchain. By scanning a smart chip or QR code on your designer blazer, you will be able to access a whole range of data that is exclusive to that particular item, such as its material composition and where it is produced worldwide. You will own it in your digital wallet and, if you sell the blazer, the digital twin will be transferred to the new owner.
Major brands are already adopting the idea, which is promising. We will be able to quickly establish the authenticity, which might be able to cope with the 1.4 trillion pounds a year that are brought into fashion fakes. Bottega Veneta has introduced NFC (near-field communication) tags in its bags for just that purpose, putting digital twins within reach. Breitling watches already have full digital passports used on the blockchain, which can tell you about watch maintenance requirements and will soon allow you to see the estimated resale value for future mutual trade. Digital NFT twins could also allow you to track down previous repairs, learn about responsible disposal, or confirm that Madonna really once owned this coat. There are some “just for fun” elements in this idea: Nike’s ‘Cryptokicks’ will allow you to combine the NFT of your sneakers with someone else’s, creating cute, hybrid baby sneakers that you can choose to make physically if you wish.
But despite all this novelty and usefulness, I worry about what we may lose. It seems to me that the value of each item will be perpetuated according to a specific set of standards, including age, origin, restoration, and resale price. If you permanently connect it to your digital passport, your designer blazer will only be worth 12 years, plus one original garment bag minus two stitch changes. But in the digital future of fashion, will our value system always be based on cold trade opportunity statistics?
What about sentimentality and the uncategorized aspects of our emotional connection to clothing? I have a 1955 Gucci shoulder bag; a gift to myself after the birth of my son. It was a transactional recognition, to quote Radiohead, of ‘everything in its place’: career, finances, partner, child and personal fulfillment. I had real feelings about virtual clothes, but they could never come close to my relationship with this bag. Just looking at it causes immense joy. I smile when I take it in my hands because it reminds me of all the goodies of the past years, even as we went through hard times. I can’t give a number to that value; you cannot encode those feelings in data. The online passport of my Gucci bag would say that its value has weakened over time because I wore it on night outs full of tequila and was clumsy with my spaghetti. That could by no means say that this is my life’s emotional zenith in the shape of a bag.
I have my grandmother’s green velvet jacket. She was an actress and I have visions of her stepping on the boards in it – and looking for stains that give off parties after shows. I don’t want to know the facts. The mixture of memory and imagination is what makes it magical. Dressx and Breitling also insisted to me that blockchain is the future of heritage: you will be able to transmit your heritage through your digital wallet and, even better, they will continue to exist long after the physical object disintegrates and disappears, making memories like these eternal rather than ephemeral. . But I feel that there is beauty in death as well. An important ritual is included when enjoying something that is the last breath, even if we are talking about a jacket or bag.
He has genius and craftsmanship in digital fashion. I can support the idea that mainstream brands will launch ‘screenwear’ lines in the same way that they have festive collections and resort clothes. Maybe I’ll literally finally be able to afford a Saks Potts ‘Foxy’ coat. Avatars have great value if they allow us to express ourselves wildly and more freely than we sometimes feel physically capable. Maybe I agree with the idea of decentralization. But it seems to me that there is still importance in separating our physical and our digital existence.
Some people love virtual reality so much that they would rather experience everything through filter technology. And, certainly for fashion, digital twins could take us in that direction, with every physical garment becoming inextricably intertwined with its metaverse. But I am concerned that if we do, we risk blocking the value of the blockchain blocking any other kind of meaning that our assets might have for us. I prefer to think that we can immerse ourselves in the lavish fantasy of digital fashion, and at the same time live far from the screen, in which we protect the esoteric and deeply personal relationship we have with clothes. You can be a Roblox squirrel in Off-White jeans, who shows up at a virtual concert, and later that day dig into the box at the back of the closet to keep grandma’s jacket in quiet respect.