In the near future, instead of going to your closet to choose something to throw on for your next video call, you might instead turn to your virtual wardrobe to pick out a 3D-rendered digital outfit to “wear.”
At least, that’s what a number of people in the fashion and tech space are banking on as more businesses look to the promise of digital fashion. And they’re wagering those virtual outfits won’t just be for your Zoom calls, but could eventually be worn all over the “metaverse” – the concept of an interlinked extended reality world – in games, across social media, and eventually, perhaps, viewed on your body in the real world through augmented reality (AR) glasses.
In McKinsey & Company and The Business of Fashion’s annual “State of Fashion” report, industry leaders looked ahead to this immersive frontier.
“There are more and more ‘second worlds’ where you can express yourself (but) there is probably an underestimation of the value being attached to individuals who want to express themselves in a virtual world with a virtual product, (through) a virtual persona,” Gucci’s chief marketing officer Robert Triefus is quoted in the report as saying.
Outfitting our digital personas is nothing new, from making pixelated Dollz in the early 2000s to shopping these days for new wardrobe additions in Animal Crossing. The video game industry has more recently laid the groundwork for digital fashion, with outfits or “skins,” in games like Overwatch and Fortnite generating billions in revenue.
Some major fashion players have already begun capitalizing on the gaming market – in 2019, Louis Vuitton designed skins for League of Legends, and Nike and Ralph Lauren have this year offered avatar accessories through the virtual world-building platform Roblox. Outside of gaming environments, NFTs – or non-fungible tokens, which use blockchain technology to verify ownership of digital assets – have allowed digital fashion to be monetized more broadly as well. (This fall, Dolce & Gabbana’s NFT collection sold out for 1,885.719 ETH, at the time equivalent to $6 million).
At the same time, discussions around virtual worlds have accelerated due to the pandemic and remote working. Facebook’s rebranding as “Meta” has only spurred more interest. (In a recent keynote for Meta’s Connect 2021 conference, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that we’ll have “a wardrobe of virtual clothes for different occasions” in the metaverse.)
And without physical runway shows last year, fashion designers were forced to get creative in how they presented their clothes. American luxury label Hanifa put on a digital show that eschewed human models in favor of headless, floating figures wearing 3D-renders of new garments, while Chinese designers Xu Zhi, Andrea Jiapei Li and Roderic Wong presented collections during Shanghai Fashion week through an AR virtual showcase.
“Brands realized that they had to create digital showrooms and digital fashion shows…to sell their collections in 2020,” said Karinna Grant, who co-founded the NFT fashion marketplace The Dematerialised with Marjorie Hernandez, in a phone call. Because of that, she added, consumers were exposed to new ways of seeing clothes presented digitally.
And, quick as a flash, the first wave of digital fashion marketplaces has already arrived, with sites including Replicant, The Dematerialised and DressX offering varied but still somewhat limited functionality. (Currently the latter overlays the clothes on your submitted photo within 24 hours). Snapchat allows users to “try on” digital garments through AR, and Instagram has tested AR clothing filters as well.
Labels like Gucci, Prada, and Rebecca Minkoff are eagerly getting into the space, with Minkoff selling digital versions from her most recent collection on The Dematerialised – which was priced between 50 euros and 500 euros ($56 to $562) and sold out almost immediately. Just this week Nike announced it had acquired RTFKT, a collective that designs virtual kicks among other digital collectibles.
Replacing the physical
As the field develops, Grant sees three ways of using digital garments: wearing them yourself through AR, outfitting your avatars, and minting them as NFTs to be collected and traded – the last of which has already seen a boom in the digital art space.
But why should we replace our physical clothes? Proponents say there’s unlimited creative expression through digital outfits, which now look increasingly more refined thanks to developments in 3D rendering and AR technology.
“Clothing represents an expression of a personality. It always has in the physical world, and it will in the virtual world,” said Simon Whitehouse, the former head of label JW Anderson who now helms the sustainability agency Eco Age, in a video call. His artist collective, EBIT, recently launched a mental health-focused game called “Yellow Trip Road,” which includes the ability to purchase digital outfits, called “Bumper Jumpers,” as NFTs.
On DressX, shoppers can purchase gravity-defying sci-fi looks from “tech-couture” brand Auroboros that might take a fashion house (or a cosplay designer) weeks to engineer physically, with some elements impossible to make at all. In addition, virtual outfits offer a more affordable price point into luxury brands – like when Gucci launched new digital-only sneakers for $12 this past spring.
“It’s like an entry point where you’re not spending thousands of dollars, but you can still participate with a brand,” said Caitlin Monahan, a consumer tech strategist for trend forecasting company WGSN, in a video call.
From the brand side, it’s “incredibly lucrative” to sell clothes without producing physical garments, she explained. Which, by the same token, means virtual fashion is far more sustainable, as well.
“It’s reinventing an entire supply chain,” Monahan said. “There’s no water usage, there’s very limited CO2 emissions. There’s no samples being sent out or returns. There’s no show rooms, there’s no physical prototyping.”
So far there is limited data about the reduced impact of digital fashion, but according to DressX’s 2020 sustainability report, production of a digital garment emits 97% less carbon than a physical garment, and saves 3,300 liters of water per item. The marketplace’s founders, Daria Shapovalova and Natalia Modenova, first targeted the influencer industry, since influencers often receive clothes from brands for a single image, but the duo has recently partnered with a number of brands and publishers, including Google Pixel and Vogue Singapore, to introduce the company’s capabilities to a bigger audience.
“We’re working on popularizing digital fashion and mass adoption for it,” said Shapovalova in a phone call.
They say an NFT marketplace is also on the horizon for DressX, giving some designs more exclusivity and the ability to collect and sell them on the secondary market. And, though garments minted as NFTs will be less sustainable than non-minted digital garments due to the carbon emissions of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies, Whitehouse, Grant and Monahan all pointed to more eco-friendly ways of building NFT platforms, such as using blockchains that operate on an allegedly greener “proof of stake” system, or offering the ability to pay in fiat money instead of crypto.
“As more and more players get into the market in terms of software, I think even more alternatives will begin to arise,” Monahan said.
Any adoption of virtual fashion could mean positively impacting an industry that is a major contributor to the world’s carbon emissions and microplastic pollution in the ocean – as long as it is successful in replacing some of the clothes in your closet, and not just an addition.
“We don’t need any more physical goods on the planet,” said Whitehouse. “Look at what’s happening in landfills all over the world. Fashion is…in the top five most polluting industries in the world.”
An interconnected future
As more of the fashion industry dips into the virtual world, the interest in staking a claim in it may, at first, outpace the technology itself. Having a single wardrobe that can be used across multiple gaming environments as well as social media and other platforms will require them to be compatible, explained Irene-Marie Seelig, CEO and co-founder of AnamXR, which designs virtual experiences for brands. Otherwise the digital fur coat you’ve just purchased won’t be able to be worn between applications.
“It’s very disconnected at the moment,” Seelig said over the phone. “And in the future, I foresee it being a lot more interconnected…where you’re able to connect into different metaverses with your avatar, your digital wardrobe.”
Seelig created the Bumper Jumpers from EBIT’s Yellow Trip Road using Unreal Engine, a popular game engine that supports console, mobile and desktop gaming, as well as VR. The outfits could conceivably be ported into games, including Fortnite, one day – if those game developers decide to open that door.
Some critics are skeptical that there will be a metaverse at all, but if there is, achieving the utopic “open metaverse” with a single wardrobe will be challenging for a number of reasons, ranging from the technical – if some virtual worlds require a particular graphics card or crypto wallet to function, explained Grant – to broader IP issues. Will tech companies be willing to share the metaverse space?
It’s unclear how everything will shake out, but Monahan is optimistic so far on the fashion side of things.
“In my conversations with digital fashion players, everything seems incredibly collaborative…instead of traditional fashion houses being quite private with their product and the research and development,” she explained.
That leaves it up to consumers to decide whether they see the benefit in ditching their material goods in favor of virtual ones.
“One challenge right now is the attitude shift towards paying for something that isn’t tactile,” Monahan said, recalling the internet reactions to Gucci’s cheaper digital-only sneakers. “There were so many comments…saying, ‘This is a scam.’ ‘This is scary.’ ‘This is the beginning of human extinction.’ There was such a resistance to it.”
But Monahan believes there are enough people who will be keen on the idea to change the tides. She likens the future of virtual fashion to that of streetwear. The hype around the latter has sent sneakers’ secondary market soaring – and enthusiasts collect to display it, not necessarily to wear.
“It’s almost like an art piece, something that you have this kind of emotive connection to – and I think digital fashion works in the same way,” Monahan said. “And just because something isn’t tactile, it doesn’t mean that it lacks value. And I think proving that utility and proving that craftsmanship will really be key to mainstream adoption.”
Top image: Virtual influencer Kuki (@kuki_ai) wearing a digital garment by Marco Rambaldi, purchased from The Dematerialised.
Animation: DressX founders Natalia Modenova and Daria Shapovalova wearing garments from BalmLabs and DRESSX Kandinsky Art collection. Photos by Olga Helga.