Imagine a scene. Wake up, grab your phone and decide on clothes for the day. Will it be pants shrouded in neon flashes of lightning? Or mini dress with a texture like glass? Maybe a meta-birkin (disclaimer: NOT in any way related to Hèrmes) for accessories? Do you need shoes too? How about a couple Nike Dunk Genesis Cryptokicksor some Nicholas Kirkwood x White Rabbit Crystal Combat Boots?
None of these items exist as real, tangible clothing. I can’t slip next to your skin or protect your feet. You can’t show them at parties. Instead, they all sit under a huge – and relatively confusing – umbrella that is currently known as ‘digital fashion’. Some of them are NFTs. Others are 3D renders that you can buy and photoshop on an image of your choice, providing you with an Insta-ready shot with a look that is truly out of this world. It’s clothes, but not the ones we usually know.
In the past few years, there has been a lot of buzz about the intangible future of fashion. Many in the industry advertise this as the next big frontier: a brave and strange country with new creative rules (and new ways to help brands make a profit). But what do people actually think when they talk about clothes in the metaverse, designer NFTs or shows in Decentraland? And how could these things actually shape the world of fashion going forward? Let iD take you on a short tour through the back of the virtual closet and into the digital realm.
WTF is digital fashion?
Currently, digital fashion refers to a range of different products and garments available in virtual form. The oldest and most prominent types of digital fashion originated in games. From those intoxicating days in the middle of the night when you could spend hours at Stardoll dressing Avril Lavigne in Abbey Dawn or Mary-Kate Olsen in vintage Pucci, to the increasingly sophisticated graphics and customizable elements now found in games like Fortnite or Roblox, fashion has always found a natural home in this interactive environment.
For many fashion brands, games are an easy first port. The two games mentioned above were especially popular in fashion circles, including former welcome brands. Balenciaga, Moncler i Adidasand the latter work with Gucci i Ralph Lauren. Often what these brands provide are ‘skins’: virtual items that can coat in-game avatars, providing a skillful branding exercise in the process. Other options include Animal Crossing (Marc Jacobs, Valentino, H&M), The Sims (MoschinoGucci), Honor of KingsBurberry) and League of LegendsLouis Vuitton). Some of those mentioned here, including Balenciaga, Burberry and Louis Vuitton, have even created their own games.
WTF is NFT?
For brands that don’t like to intrude on games, another option is NFT. This usually means a virtual garment, picture or item that you can buy. Wait, I hear you’re wondering, why would you buy something you can download or copy for free? Isn’t that the whole point of the internet? The difference with NFT (aka: Non Fungible Token) is that your ownership of a digital product is registered through a blockchain data unit. Since you are the owner, you can sell it the same way as a designer bag or artwork. Like these items, the value of NFT can also rise and fall depending on what the market decides is worth. Many brands have now tried NFT Prada to Balmainalthough it remains to be seen whether they can generate serious sales or will still look more like a marketing ploy.
Digital fashion also refers to a variety of other methods of virtual interaction with clothing: from those photoshopped digital garments mentioned above, to interactive spaces that can be entered to view or purchase clothing. Here we come to the metaverse. Which doesn’t really exist yet. Basically, the idea of the metaverse, which far preceded the popularization of the concept by Mark Zuckerberg, predicts a more architectural future for our online lives. Imagine the internet, but in three dimensions. In the metaverse, different forms of AR (augmented reality) and XR (augmented reality) technologies would allow us to access the whole world parallel to ours: one through which we could move in the form of an avatar, seamlessly switching between platforms in one place rather than jumping from website to website. Such a place would certainly require clothing.
WTF is Metaverse Fashion Week?
The first official Metaverse Fashion Week was held at the end of March, on a platform called Decentraland. There one could maneuver their avatar (with some difficulty) around a series of shop windows and shows. From big attackers like Tommy Hilfiger independent designers such as Auroboros, participated in a number of brands. While the awkward graphics made it feel more like a nostalgic comeback than the latest look to the future, what this event hinted at was a potentially useful set of ways we could see digital fashion evolve and shape the wider industry in the future.
WTF is the future of fashion?
This is a big question right now. Even if the metaverse is still a pixel dream, there are more relevant ways in which digital fashion could have an impact. Much has been made of its potential to free people from the framework of gender and beauty ideals. When you don’t have to worry about producing an IDP garment, there’s more room not only to play with the very nature of design (abolishing the basic laws of physics – like gravity – opens up many fantastic options), but also who can wear the finished piece. After all, it doesn’t have to be placed on a real body – or even, probably, on a human form. While some people use digital clothing only to experiment with their looks or enhance their old images, others use it as an opportunity to be the people they have always dreamed of being – would that mean wearing lighter clothing, changing style completely, expressing yourself through high fashion, etc., ”says Daria Shapalova, co-founder of the virtual fashion store DressX. “Digital fashion has no limits, making it a great tool for exploring yourself and your personality in the safest and easiest way.”
This is one of the more optimistic arguments in favor of digital fashion: the creative democratization of luxury, the idea of a welcome space where everyone can express themselves exactly the way they want. This comes into slight conflict with the NFT exclusivity aspect (not to mention some of the the darker aspects of the metaverse), but there was always something fascinating about the idea that you could reshape yourself completely.
Does WTF mean that for IRL mode?
A secondary and potentially more compelling argument focuses on ways in which virtual clothing can facilitate a better relationship with the environment. “Digital fashion was born as a solution to several major industry problems, with sustainability at the heart of the concept,” explains DressX co-founder Natalia Modenova. Their place could be considered a short-term cure for the excesses of fast fashion. If clothes are mostly bought anyway to be displayed on social media, why not just skip the stage where you buy something super cheap – which probably hurt both the planet and the people who make it – and opt for something virtual instead? No waste, no guilt, endless potential.
Elsewhere, virtual showrooms and catwalk shows could somewhat mitigate the environmental impact of customers and force them to board a plane every few months to see shows (something that will reportedly change during the pandemic but has now returned straight to work as and usually). What doesn’t seem to have broken yet is the atmosphere. How can you create drama and spectacle when you don’t have the hum of others present around you, or a sensory experience – glitter! sound! attitude! – dresses with sequins that chase?
However, as technology improves and virtual displays of clothing become more realistic, the opportunity to see clothing in motion, and perhaps even ‘try it on’ could provide a more consumer-oriented model: allowing customers to order items then made according to the specification, instead of brands having to guess how much they will sell and then end up with significant waste and unsold inventory. This could lead to a more thoughtful way of buying, giving priority to smaller batches of products and higher levels of workmanship.
WTF means for fashion education?
Digital fashion also has broad implications for the future of fashion education. There are a lot of really good graduates coming out, ”says Leslie Holden, co-founder of Digital Fashion Group. “[But] they graduate and for them there are very limited job opportunities. One of the problems is that fashion education in general still follows a fairly old business model … It doesn’t turn and it doesn’t move fast enough to be more than just a leader [the way]but also meeting the opportunities that the industry might need. ”
Holden, former head of fashion and design at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, believes it is crucial to equip today’s fashion students with the full range of digital skills to prepare them for their professional lives. “What we see is that students get little knowledge in their software degree, but they don’t link it to the rest of their learning. And most of them are still coming out with a catwalk. ” By software, he means using programs like Clo3D that allow users to create digital clothing renders. For him, however, it goes much further than that: digital fashion potentially represents a way to break down traditional boundaries and build new, expansive ways of approaching creativity and craft. The sustainability aspect is also crucial. “[We can use] digital to help us develop a much better industry, ”he says briskly.
For now, many of these ideas remain emerging rather than fully formed. Digital fashion is still, often, an experimental ground. But it is worth paying attention to the results of these experiments. Not everyone will hold back. After all, much of the pleasure in clothing lies in its physical ability, its ability to take us through the real world. But the digital world is not going anywhere either. It is better to have killer clothes that will guide you through it.
All pictures courtesy of Etro