With Zoom calls and social media posts becoming the predominant modes of social interaction for us all in the past year and a half, we have surely all seen and experimented with face filters and backgrounds by now. While these kinds of filters are mainly just for fun, in 2020 dozens of high fashion brands adopted face filters as one of their newest marketing tactics in an effort to boost awareness and engagement when in-person fashion shows and their accompanying media frenzy were cancelled. Paco Rabanne’s filter replaces the user’s pupils with the brand’s logo; Jacquemus’s puts their cool blue sunglasses onto the user’s face; and JW Anderson’s alters the user’s face into one of the Pol Anglada-illustrated masks used in their menswear collection. Although Gucci, Valentino and Off-White started using branded face filters in 2018, it was this spring 2021 season that really kickstarted the use of filters as a new medium for marketing, and this was just the beginning of an overall wider-spread experimentation within the newly burgeoning digital side of fashion.
One of these experiments resulted in the world’s first augmented reality t-shirt, released by Swedish brand Carlings in December 2019. Dubbed “The Last Statement T-Shirt,” it appears plain white to the naked eye aside from some text on the sleeve and a small logo close to the collar. This logo is actually a tracking point for the associated Carlings filter on Instagram and Facebook, which allows for the superimposition of hundreds of different designs onto the shirt when it is viewed through the lens of a phone. This way, as Carlings puts it, “every day, the shirt can display a new animated statement design to amplify your message. Without ever having to buy another t-shirt.”
Considering that three thousand litres of water go into the production of just one cotton t-shirt and 92 million tonnes of textile waste is created globally each year, having one t-shirt take the place of many was a strong selling point for those interested in the sustainability movement, and was just a bonus for those who were simply interested because of the cool tech. On top of that, the t-shirt was released just weeks before countries around the globe began going into their first lockdowns and also just before a year of ground-breaking social justice movements. Not only did the t-shirt allow wearers to show off numerous different looks without necessitating any shopping, but it also displayed statement designs that were particularly resonant in 2020. A large proportion of these designs centred around climate change awareness and environmentalism, but there were also many other options that addressed topics like racism, homophobia and gender inequality, among others.
Unfortunately, The Last Statement T-Shirt is no longer available for purchase and the filter for it is no longer being updated on a regular basis. Regardless, it remains a first in the fashion world, pioneering a new way of thinking when it comes to “updating” your wardrobe, as well as reinforcing the role that social media plays in engaging with social justice issues. One gripe that some users had with the t-shirt was that they were not able to upload their own designs for it, which was unfortunate as the AR technology behind it seems like it truly has limitless potential for customisation. But while no one has taken on the mantel of making another AR t-shirt since Carlings sold out of theirs, a handful of other forward thinkers have emerged to lead the charge into the realm of fully digital fashion.
Digital fashion—fashion with no physical form that only exists online—is an industry still in its infancy. Despite this, it already has an interesting history, starting off in an unexpected place: video games.
More specifically, video game skins functioned as somewhat of a proof of concept for digital fashion. A skin is a cosmetic add-on that customises the way that game characters and items look without affecting gameplay. Skins can be earned within the game or they can be purchased in the game’s store through virtual or real currency. Rarer skins attain recognition within the gaming community—similar to how name brand clothing works in the real world. The first major crossover between video game skins and fashion occurred in 2020, when high fashion labels such as Gucci, Valentino, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs and Moschino all released limited edition skins for a variety of different video games. The skin industry also now includes a burgeoning gambling system to trade in and bet on the most sought-after skins. The most expensive sale to date was a purported $100,000 USD for a Counter-Strike: Global Offensiverifle skin in the summer of 2020, but in general, of the 39% of gamers who use skins, those considered to be “big spenders” spend, on average, $15 USD or more per month.
From here, it is easy to see how the dots between video game skins and the concept of digital fashion are connected: skins prove that there truly are people out there willing to spend real money on purely virtual aesthetics.
Finally, this brings us to today, where digital fashion is changing the way we think about clothes. Video game skins showed that a market for virtual clothing does in fact exist and that people are already paying to portray themselves in a certain way online. Mix this with the performative nature of social media (as evidenced by The Last Statement T-Shirt, whose entire selling point was its online appearance), and we see that digital fashion will only continue to grow as our world becomes more virtual by the day. Considering how many people are working and studying from home now, it makes sense that people are less motivated to physically get dressed these days, and instead are more interested in the idea of being “dressed” for the medium in which they find themselves most often—in this case, for social media and the internet.
Purchasing and “wearing” digital clothing does away with the bothersome and time-consuming practicalities that accompany real clothes: travelling to stores, trying pieces on, getting garments tailored, taking care of your purchases and using up closet space. Purchasing digital fashion is instead more similar to a typical online shopping experience: you browse an online catalogue, add what you want to your cart and head to checkout. The one simple extra step in the digital fashion checkout process is uploading a picture of yourself. After one or two days, that picture will be emailed back to you with your purchased item masterfully digitally tailored onto your body, picture perfect and ready-to-post.
With the prevalence of fast fashion and the “new is better” notion that it caters to, people often feel pressured to keep their closets constantly refreshed so that they are always wearing new clothes in line with the most current trends. In fact, the average person only wears a piece of clothing seven times before discarding it. This leads to an enormous amount of textile waste, with 208 million tonnes being generated by single-use outfits in 2019 alone. The foremost benefit of wearing digital clothing on social media then is that digital items take up no physical space or resources. For comparison, the production of one white t-shirt emits 6.5kg of CO2 into the atmosphere, whereas the single hour that may be spent making a digitally equivalent t-shirt only emits 0.312kg—95% less emissions than its physical counterpart. Not to mention, the digitally designed t-shirt would now be ready to clothe a limitless number of customers, all while adding minimally to its resource footprint, whereas every physical t-shirt made will continue to emit the same 6.5kg of CO2. Digital fashion therefore allows customers to indulge in the fast fashion mindset of buying clothing that they may only wear once without the immense amount of waste that would traditionally accompany this model of consumption.
One of the major players spearheading the digital fashion movement is The Fabricant, the “world’s first digital fashion house,” which was founded in 2018. The brand does made-to-order garments, but they have also partnered with other brands in the past to make ready-made pieces. The company made history in 2019 when it auctioned off the first ever digital couture piece known as the Iridescence dress, which sold for $9,500 USD. The new owner went on to wear the dress on her Facebook and her Instagram. Amber Jae Slooten, one of the co-founders of The Fabricant, predicts that physical clothing in the future will be much more subdued due to the ever-growing environmental concerns associated with clothing production, while clothing in the digital world will be the exact opposite—fanciful expressions of creativity that are only limited by our imaginations. The Fabricant foresees a future where their designs can truly be “worn” on social media, in gaming environments and in other virtual worlds just as seamlessly as real clothing is worn today.
The other powerhouse in the digital fashion space is DressX. Founded in 2019, DressX is a digital fashion marketplace that brings together collections from various designers—some that are digital-only and others that are traditional physical brands that are entering the virtual fray for the first time. DressX not only functions as a retail platform, but it also assists brands with their transition into the digital fashion space, aiding them in creating digital versions of existing physical garments and supplying their own team of in-house digital tailors to take care of product delivery (i.e., altering customer photos to “dress” them in their purchases). Their current average delivery time is one to two days, and the main goal of the business right now is to perfect the automation of the delivery process in order to reduce turnaround time going forward, ideally allowing for digital fashion transactions to be instantaneous.
While the first fashion branded face filters provided a peek into how the fashion industry could begin adapting technology to their benefit, clothing filters and the concept of video game skins demonstrated the huge potential that virtual clothing could have. From these early innovations we now have numerous digital fashion start-ups creating clothing for people to wear online in all sorts of styles at all different price points, paving the way towards making this type of dressing more mainstream. Some leaders in the space foresee a future where our online personas will be replaced with avatar likenesses of ourselves that we will be able to outfit in digital fashion as effortlessly as we pull on a pair of pants in real life. Regardless of whether this futuristic vision comes to fruition or not, we are excited to see where the newly minted and ceaselessly visionary digital fashion industry will take us next.
+ Words: Dorice Lee, Luxiders Magazine Contributor