In the future, instead of going to your closet to choose something to throw on for your next video call, you may turn to your virtual wardrobe to pick out a digital outfit that will “wear” for your call.
As more businesses look to the promise of digital fashion, some are betting that 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 on your body in the real world through augmented reality (AR) glasses.
In McKinsey & Company’s and The Business of Fashion’s annual “State of Fashion” report, industry leaders looked forward to the future of immersive technology.
Gucci’s chief marketing officer, Robert Triefus, told Reuters “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.”
A digital persona is a computer-based representation of a user or player. This representation can take the form of an avatar, character, or other type of graphical symbol within a virtual world or game. 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 fashion companies have begun using blockchain technology to track and monetize their products through the gaming market. In 2019, Louis Vuitton designed skins for the video game League of Legends, and Nike and Ralph Lauren offered avatar accessories through the virtual world-building platform Roblox. Outside of gaming environments, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) 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, virtual worlds have become more popular because of 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.)
Fashion designers were forced to get creative in how they presented their clothes last year, as many runway shows took place in virtual spaces. American luxury label Hanifa put on a digital runway show that eschewed human models in favor of headless, floating figures wearing 3D-renders of new garments. And Chinese designers Xu Zhi, Andrea Jiapei Li and Roderic Wong presented collections during Shanghai Fashion week through an AR virtual showcase.
Karinna Grant, who co-founded the NFT fashion marketplace The Dematerialised with Marjorie Hernandez, said in a phone call that brands realized they had to create digital showrooms and fashion shows to sell their collections in 2020. As a result of this new way of selling clothes, consumers were exposed to new ways of seeing clothes presented digitally.
After years of development and testing, the first wave of digital fashion marketplaces has arrived. These sites allow users to preview clothes through augmented reality (AR) technology, which overlays the clothes onto your submitted photo within 24 hours. Snapchat allows users to “try on” digital garments through AR, and Instagram recently tested AR clothing filters as well.
Brands like Gucci, Prada, and Rebecca Minkoff are coming into the virtual space, with Minkoff selling digital versions from her most recent collection on The Dematerialised — which was priced between $56 and $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
Grant sees three ways of using digital garments: wearing them yourself through AR, outfitting your avatars, and minting them as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to be collected and traded. In the last case, he notes that the NFT space has seen a boom in recent years.
But why should we replace our physical clothes with digital ones? Proponents say there’s unlimited creative expression available through virtual outfits, which now look increasingly more refined thanks to developments in 3D rendering and AR technology.
In a video call with mental health website InMinds, Simon Whitehouse—the former head of label JW Anderson who now helms the sustainability agency Eco Age—said “Clothing represents an expression of a personality. It always has in the physical world, and it will in the virtual world.” To that end, 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 non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
On DressX, shoppers can purchase gravity-defying sci-fi looks from “tech-couture” brand Auroboros that might take a fashion house weeks to engineer physically. In addition, virtual outfits offer a more affordable price point into luxury brands. Gucci launched new digital-only sneakers for $12 this past spring.
“It’s incredibly lucrative” to sell clothes without producing physical garments, she explained. This is because virtual fashion is far more sustainable than traditional clothing production.
Monahan says the technology is like “reinventing an entire supply chain.” “There’s no water usage, there’s very limited CO2 emissions,” he said. “There’s no samples being sent out or returns, and there’s no show rooms or physical prototyping.”
As of now, there is limited data about the reduced impact of digital fashion. However, DressX’s 2020 sustainability report reveals that the 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; however, the duo has recently partnered with Google Pixel and Vogue Singapore to introduce the company’s capabilities to a bigger audience.
In a phone call, Shapovalova said the company is working on popularizing digital fashion and getting consumers to use it.
NFTs are also being developed for the clothing industry. One is DressX, a company that will soon offer an NFT marketplace for fashion items. The goal of this marketplace is to give some designs more exclusivity and the ability to collect and sell them on the secondary market. Although 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 software companies enter the market, Monahan predicts that even more alternatives will arise.
Adoption of virtual fashion could negatively impact an industry that is a major contributor to the world’s carbon emissions and microplastic pollution in the ocean — as long as it does not replace real clothes in your closet.
According to Whitehouse, “We don’t need any more physical goods on the planet. Look at what’s happening in landfills all over the world. Fashion is one of the top five most polluting industries in the world.”
An interconnected future
Irene-Marie Seelig, CEO and co-founder of AnamXR, which designs virtual experiences for brands, explained that as more of the fashion industry dips into the virtual world, the interest in staking a claim in it may 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, she said. Otherwise the digital fur coat you’ve just purchased won’t be able to be worn between applications.
“The metaverse is very disconnected at the moment,” Seelig told me over the phone. “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 and virtual reality. The outfits could conceivably be ported into games such as Fortnite; however, it is up to developers to decide whether or not they wish to open that door.
Some critics are skeptical that there will be a metaverse at all, but Grant explained to me that 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 — to broader IP issues. Will tech companies be willing to share the metaverse space?
It is unclear how things will shake out, but Monahan appears optimistic so far. “In my conversations with digital fashion players, everything seems incredibly collaborative,” she explained. “Instead of traditional fashion houses being quite private with their product and the research and development.”
It is up to consumers to decide whether they see the benefit in ditching their material goods in favor of their digital counterparts.
“Right now, one of the challenges is the attitude shift toward paying for something that isn’t tangible,” Monahan said, recalling internet reactions to Gucci’s cheaper digital-only sneakers. “There were so many comments— ‘This is a scam’; ‘This is scary’; ‘This is the beginning of human extinction.’—there was such a resistance to it.”
But Monahan believes that the enthusiasm of enough people could fuel an interest in virtual fashion, which would change the tide. She likens the future of virtual fashion to that of streetwear; the hype around sneakers has sent their secondary market soaring, and enthusiasts collect them as status symbols to display, not necessarily to wear.
“It’s almost like an art piece,” Monahan said, referring to digital fashion. “And I think that digital fashion works in the same way as something that you have a kind of emotional connection to.” He went on to say that proving the value of intangible products will be key to mainstream adoption.