Digital fashion: a new dimension or simply delusional?

You’re scrolling through the Instagram explore page, falling down a social media rabbit hole, and your attention is brought to an eye-catching dress adorned on a social media influencer. You love it, but you already know it’s going to send you so deep into your overdraft that you can’t remember what your bank balance was to begin with – and it’s not exactly the kind of “everyday” dress your wardrobe currently needs.

But what if it doesn’t have to be? What if you too could be wearing that dress, at an affordable price, and post a picture of your very own for your Instagram followers to see? It sounds too good to be true.

Alas, there is a catch. You will never actually wear that dress in the real world, in fact you will never even touch it. Instead, your photo will be edited by a team of digital fashion experts so that your past self captured in a photograph is now wearing a high-end dress that never even entered the material world.

Welcome to the realm of digital fashion. This new concept of style might seem a little futuristic, but it could finally offer a sustainable solution to the damage caused by the fast fashion industry.

In essence, digital fashion is a pioneering method of creating and designing virtual garments that can be used as prototypes, marketing strategies and even purchased by individuals. These 3D pieces can be manipulated and subsequently edited onto photographs of people, creating the effect that the item was worn by the individual in the physical world. Largely a response to the culture of social media influencing, whereby outfits are hastily bought, modelled and discarded on a rolling basis, this new virtual process results in lowered carbon emissions, zero human exploitation and reduced waste.

It all sounds rather space-age, but promising nonetheless. This, however, is not breaking news to the world of gaming. Fortnite “skins” (aka the outfits a player can dress themselves in) are the predominant source of revenue for its now billion-dollar developer Epic Games, and Electronic Arts’ The Sims has been using similar 3D styling techniques for years now. Virtual clothing is not completely revolutionary, however its extension into the world of “real-life” (if we can even call it that) is something that quite possibly is.

The Fabricant is the world’s first “digital fashion house” to exist, and, based in Amsterdam, their small team of experts are working to make it the “first billion dollar” company of its kind. In an interview with ThePowerhouse, The Fabricant’s co-founder Amber Jae Slooten revealed that the premise behind the idea was to eliminate waste, and eradicate the throwaway culture we have somehow become engulfed by.

Unfortunately, digital fashion isn’t quite yet the pixelated utopia The Fabricant hopes it will be. At the moment, there is no automated process to recognise a body and “dress” it, which subsequently makes it a manual procedure for 3D artists to fit clothes to models digitally. As soon as “digital dressing” reaches a place of automation, this will really change the game and up the efficiency of this new direction of fashion.

But for now, it’s increasingly clear that something needs to change within the fashion industry if we want to significantly reduce pollution, human exploitation and indeed climate change.

It’s hard to dispute the fact that a new wave of digital fashion could potentially solve this problem. Fashion is an impulsive industry. Designers, brands and consumers are constantly looking towards the future for what will be the next greatest thing, however this forward-thinking approach coexists with huge environmental and social consequences. Synthetic materials composed primarily of plastics are being manufactured at a considerable rate, often by underpaid workers in despicable conditions. In our current fast-fashion worshipping society, these garments are only worn once or twice and ultimately destined for a landfill site, where microplastics often find their ways into ecosystems, damaging the organisms which inhabit them.

There’s nothing wrong with the evolution of style and changing fashion trends, as long as it can occur sustainably. This is where digital fashion enters the room. The same ideas, artworks and creations can be replicated just into the virtual world, which is really where they will end up anyway if we wear them just to post online. And the damaging chain of events before and after an item is “on trend” need not occur. In fact, The Fabricant claims that based on the life cycle of a single t-shirt, digital sampling can save 683 litres of water, prevent the released of over 12,000kg of toxic dichlorobenzene (causing environmental pollution) and reduce the carbon dioxide output from 7.8kg to 0.26kg.

For social media influencers, this could be a real game changer. Outfits are often only worn once for a photo, but if the photos could be digitally “styled”, and clothes purchased in an entirely different way, this would eradicate the need for any physical garments at all. What’s more, this could broaden fashion’s artistic freedom, without the barriers of the material world – so it could be an exciting tool for designers to play around with.

Although fascinating, it’s important not to keep our heads too high in the clouds when it comes to the supposed sustainability superhero that is digital fashion. Sure, virtual garments could offer a great deal of hope, but is further photo-editing something we should really be promoting? The fact that a garment can be manipulated to your body seems to place increasing emphasis on appearance and pressure to look a certain way for a simple Instagram post. People already put their lives onto social media, and with even more reason to grow fixated on likes and followings, it puts us at risk of living in a virtual reality.

For designers and experts, fashion at its purest is a form of art, but to the everyday consumer, clothes mean so much more. We form memories and feel emotions when wearing a certain pair of jeans, or a hand-me-down jacket, and this is all lost when we can’t even touch an item. Perhaps getting sentimental is not a good enough argument to justify the detrimental impacts on people and the environment that fast fashion creates, but we also cannot deny the cultural and emotional importance of the things we choose to wear.

And of course, for those of us who are realists, we have to consider if people would actually get on board with this. Unless you are someone who puts their life online, it’s unlikely you can see the difference digital fashion could make. There would be no reason to purchase clothes virtually when that just doesn’t matter to you.

But this is only partly true. You may not endeavour to purchase a virtual skirt yourself, however further up in the production chain digital prototypes could really transform the sustainability and efficiency of a brand. Yet again, this is still a very new concept and it is most definitely true that it might be challenging (and perhaps initially more expensive) to grasp in the beginning.

So then, does going digital really offer a new dimension to the world of fashion? For influencers, it’s undeniably a YES. With their jobs being centred around imagery in the virtual world, digital fashion just makes sense. It’s sustainable, it’s not wasteful and it’s a form of art, one that very much aligns with the ever-growing online world “influencing” has become a part of.

As for the clothes themselves, I fully respect and admire the creative expression digital garments offer, although I’m not convinced it will ever offer a better alternative to physical clothes (particularly for those of us who do not solely exist in the world of likes and hashtags). Instead, I welcome this new artistic dimension to fashion that working digitally generates. It is certainly a new venture for online creators in the twenty-first century.

However, whether or not people will engage with the idea another question. It might take some getting used to, but as soon as Kendall Jenner posts a picture of herself in a virtual Versace dress, I’m sure the industry will see a digital fashion uptake in the world of influencing.

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