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Unlocking digital fashion: Clothes for your online self

What is fashion going to look like in the future? Will it solve the ethical problems in the industry?

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A photo illustration of photo illustration.

A look at digital fashion.

Illustration by Zoe Peterson, Deseret News

Imagine it’s 2050 and you’re walking around Times Square in a puffer jacket made up of pixels and the code that made the Matrix itself. You look cool in the green fit, to say the least.

You’ve even paired this out-of-the-world garment with some dark shades to elevate the “wow” factor.

What if I told you that this green coat already exists in the digital world and you, too, could wear it?

The entire planet is going through a digital transformation, and fashion is not going to be left behind as it also takes a leap into the metaverse with pixels instead of textile. Brands, designers and creatives have envisioned a new way of expressing fashion that would tackle the problems of the industry such as lack of transparency or sustainability.

But before we get there, let’s start from the beginning and go through how this new era of digital fashion came to be.

What is digital fashion?

Digital clothing is everything that traditional fashion is — the hats and shirts and pants — it’s just not tangible. Customers wear these clothes through digitally altered photos or augmented reality.

This evolution has been underway for some time now. The new generation of designers is looking for ways to make clothing ethical, economical and creative by turning to technology, according to a study about digital 3D fashion.

Digital fashion dominantly began through the “skins” gamers use to change what their avatar or characters are wearing, and this industry alone makes $40 billion a year. Just play one game of Fortnite and you’ll understand the “skins” culture.

There are approximately 3.2 billion gamers worldwide, according to a recent DFC Intelligence study. And many of these players have customized their character’s appearance for as long as video games have been around, creating a sense of self-expression. Since “skins” don’t affect gameplay, brands have room to experiment.

“Half of the world already consumes digital items, we just don’t call it digital fashion yet. Every time someone buys a skin for his or her characters, it’s a digital fashion purchase,” said Leslie Holden, the co-founder of The Digital Fashion Group, a European-led collaboration between Fashion Academics and Industry Innovators.

Adidas, Armani and Calvin Klien had dabbled in digital fashion on Second Life, an online virtual game with one million members at its peak in 2007. In 2012, Diesel sold clothing and furniture on The Sims.

Last year, Balenciaga showcased its fall winter 2021 collection through Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, a video game with a digital runway set in 2031. Gucci has partnered with games like Tennis Clash, The Sims, Genies, Roblox, Pokémon Go and Animal Crossing to create clothing for digital avatars, eventually launching its own game called Gucci Grip.

In September, Balenciaga launched another collaboration to create outfits for Fortnite’s 400 million players.

Then, the metaverse came along. And that will change what the future of digital fashion will look like.

What is the metaverse? And why is digital fashion involved?

In a sense, the metaverse is where the digital self and physical self meet through virtual reality, and it could have a major impact on digital fashion. It’s a place in the digital universe where people can do anything like go to concerts, travel around the world, connect with friends, gaming and more, creating the next phase of the internet.

The metaverse already exists and is accessible with high-speed internet and a virtual reality headset. This virtual reality relies on people to create new assets, like NFTs, experiences and activities to lay a foundation for the metaverse. You can use blockchain currencies to create, exchange, share and track digital assets.

But the typical “tech bro” in Silicon Valley is resistant to style, so why are these two worlds colliding?

Here’s a clue — the metaverse may be an $800 billion market by 2024, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. It’s only natural for the fashion industry to recognize the predictions made about the potential of this digital universe, said Holden.

The idea of making money doesn’t end there. Digital clothes don’t require raw material, labor, manufacturing or shipping, which translates to much bigger chunks of profit. Most clothing brands have archives that they can use, cutting designing costs too. On top of that, they can collect royalties each time an article of clothing is resold through smart contracts that “assign and manage ownership and manage transferability.”

Profits aside, digital fashion uses 97% less CO2 and absolutely no water, (saving 3,300 liters of water per item) in comparison to producing a physical garment, according to DressX, a digital fashion house.

Holden said that sportswear brands like Nike and Adidas have an obvious reason to join the metaverse. These brands value innovation and technology when developing products because they are used to enhance performance.

“In some terms, it is predictable that those brands are looking forward to the future of fashion, and today this future is the metaverse,” he said.

But there is another reason — the audience who are athletes, in this case, are a part of the esports consumer market, a $150 billion industry. And these consumers are on the metaverse.

So who is digital fashion for?

The most obvious question comes to mind — if you can’t actually wear these digital clothes, then who are they for?

Social media has changed how people see themselves and that impacts fashion. Historically, Holden explained, fashion marked differences in social classes, while in the last century, it has helped make distinctions between social tribes like punks, hippies, hipsters and so on. Keeping the same concept in mind, augmented reality filters can help create these digital differences online.

In simple words, if you spend a lot of time online, you probably care what you or your avatar looks like. Millennials and Gen Z as the most active gamers. This demographic also values their presence on social media applications like Instagram.

“Expect (fashion) to move away from big box online retailers’ sites. More than half of young people who are interested in new shopping experiences are keeping up with their shopping interest on Instagram,” according to an Instagram 2022 trends report.

Holden already sees this happening: “More people learning how to create digital fashion and more people having access to devices and platforms to create it,” said Holden, adding that the mainstream community is bound to adopt it. “Maybe in five or 10 years we wouldn’t even call it ’digital fashion,’ but simply ‘fashion’ as it is,” he said.

Brands in the high luxury sector that pride themselves on exclusivity may stay away from this type of e-commerce, just like they stayed away from social media but the ones that are mainstream “will need to step in as the metaverse is the internet of tomorrow,” said Holden.

Nostalgia will also play a huge role: “When we were teenagers, we would decorate our rooms and experiment with our style, right? Our human desire to collect, customize, and express ourselves will certainly persist in the metaverse,” said Enara Nazarova, founder of ARMOAR, a collaborative platform for customization of virtual textures.

What is the future of digital fashion?

Even though brands like Nike, which acquired a virtual shoe company, or Balenciaga, which appointed a metaverse business unit, have welcomed this technological change with open arms, most fashion brands are already beginning to see digital fashion as more than a marketing ploy, explained Nazarova.

This would require companies to make either digital counterparts to their physical garments or release completely virtual clothing lines. Either way, she said, virtual economies will continue to emerge, leveraging “more digital currencies, whether it's through in-game purchases, NFTs and authenticated art.”

As for fashion design process itself, it will continue to evolve and become digitized as well. Right now, designers still heavily rely on creating and cutting physical patterns. But with software like Clo3D, which allows designers to simulate how the clothes would look and the physics of how the fabric would behave in a virtual environment, designing garments is becoming more affordable and accessible than ever before. 

“With software like Clo3D designers have more agency to create any type of clothing they can dream of and directly interact with the potential customers without ever stepping foot in a department store,” she said. “This is revolutionizing the way fashion creatives can market, distribute, and sell their work.”