We live in times where using Instagram filters and catching up with CGI Influencers is nothing but mundane: our experiences are defined by the quality of our post-adventure posts and Lil Miquela is the topic of our lunchtimes.
There is almost no line drawn between our virtual and off-line lives to the extent where it is hard to tell reality and fiction apart. And the trend is yet upcoming with the World Health Organisation (WHO) entitling Knox Frost, a CGI influencer to educate us on the importance of coronavirus prevention practices. We are advised and influenced by fictional characters with very real voices, names, stories, and purposes and yet, we seem to be reluctant to admit that virtual reality is applicable to the beforehand inherently materialistic industry of apparel.
The process of its digitization is not revolutionary but rather evolutionary: there are steps fashion brands have already made in this direction like virtual dressing rooms, made to increase retail relevance, and 3D design implementation, aiming to reduce waste and close the loop. Therefore, one should not in theory be surprised when faced with an alternative to the traditional off-line garments. But is a non-physically-wearable outfit really something one could incorporate in their routine or will it be labeled as an influencer-only viable option?
The concept of virtual outfits is not foreign to members of the gaming community, who are willing to spend the record amount of $4,500 on avatar accessories in the game Runescape and to regularly purchase skins in Fortnite.
According to some brands, digital fashion is the only way to proceed further. Tommy Hilfiger, for instance, has announced the implementation of a fully digitized process by next year, while other brands, like Louis Vuitton and Moschino, have teamed up with video game producers on collaboration resulting in high-end outfitted avatars in League of Legends and SIMS.
Many other luxury brands have launched their market among the online gaming community.
‘One of the things that really matter to us is meaningful innovation’, says Burberry’s global vice president of digital marketing Rachel Waller about B Bounce: both a game and a new customer exposure opportunity for the brand. ‘We know that gaming is mainstream. We know that it’s at the forefront of our consumer right now. It is about being native to the spaces that people want to talk to you in’
The game features prizes from digital Burberry garments fitted onto the player’s photo of choice to a chance of winning the real garment and is seen as a new platform for brand storytelling and communication.
Burberry’s example was followed by other luxury giants like Gucci and Hermes, while Dior launched a Snapchat filter with their monogram.
It was also Snapchat that proved to be a selling platform for sports giant Adidas since October last year when they launched a collaboration in accordance with the start of Major League Baseball Playoffs.
In the big scale, virtual and styling app Ada has signed with more than 20 other luxury brands, among which Armani, Balmain, Dior, and Christopher Kane, to outfit player’s avatars in luxury fashion, while Drest, another styling app, signed with partners like Gucci, Prada, Valentino, and Burberry, for its launch last autumn.
By opening a space for dialog, styling apps and gaming platforms bring digital fashion towards the forefront of the industry and consumer’s interest is evident in Glu Mobile’s Covet Fashion game, which generated $53.4 million in sales in 2019.
‘The money being spent on virtual content in the gaming industry is huge,’ explains Matthew Drinkwater, Head of Fashion Innovation Agency, ‘and the fashion industry is only just beginning to realize that there might be an opportunity there.’ He further points out that the amount of $140,000 spent on CryptoKitty, one-off digital art is a colossal example of just how much people are willing to spend on digital-only design.
Therefore, it wouldn’t come as a surprise that people are willing to spend as much or more real-life money on digital clothing for themselves. A recent example of this attitude is the first-ever digital dress by virtual apparel brand The Fabricant, which was auctioned for the record amount of $9,500.
‘It’s definitely very expensive, but it’s also like an investment,’ says buyer Richard Ma. ’In 10 years’ time everybody will be ‘wearing’ digital fashion. It’s a unique memento. It’s a sign of the times.’
Scandinavian digital and physical apparel brand Carlings put this concept into practice in 2018 when they created the first digital apparel collection available for the general consumer: 19 pieces of sizeless, genderless apparel all to be tailored to the consumer’s very own photograph of choice. All the wearer has to do is pick a Neo-Ex garment in price variation 10-30 EUR, send Carling’s digital team a picture of themselves, and submit the order. Next thing: a new social media post in an outfit unseen before with all sales proceeds going to WaterAid. Furthermore, the Norwegian brand promises zero environmental impact: no manufacturing, no shipping, green energy electricity, and no carbon emissions.
This sounds like a long overdue dream come true for the demonized fashion industry but would digital fashion in this form be a viable replacement of clothing for people who are not aspiring influencers and fashion trend chasers? After all, clothes were invented for the practical reason of covering our bodies. Could people with off-social media engagements be the future digital fashion customers?
CEO of Carlings, Ronny Mikalsen believes this is plausible and shares details about the brand’s first digital collection consumers:
‘…customers ranged from fashion influencers [to] gadget geeks to futuristic dreamers […] we aren’t naive — it’s not like we believe that all clothing will be digital in the future but since we launched, the idea of digital fashion has exploded from a fringe idea to talk of the town’.
Happy 99, yet another pioneer in the physical-digital garment area, posted their firs digital-only shoe in 2018. They, however, have endorsed a different approach: instead of editing photos for their clients’ social media feed, they are creating a new brand identity and opening up a conversation about the meaning of fashion.
Nathalie Nguyen and Dominic Lopez, founders of the brand, claim that, despite non-existent in the physical world, their products create engagement, brand awareness, and mindfulness about sustainability.
Similar is the approach of The Fabricant, possibly the most well-known digital fashion creator at the moment. Every month they release free digital garments on their website with the primary purpose of educating the consumer in software skills and the relevance of digital apparel. With a thick portfolio of collaborations including recent Puma and Napapijri, The Fabricant’s avatars are graciously moving towards the future of luxury retail.
Their work with I.T. Hong Kong in celebration of the Chinese retailer’s 30th anniversary was a digital recreation of iconic pieces and was presented in pop-up boutiques with order taken via I.T’s app.
‘Digitisation helps clients to promote and visualize ideas without wasting unnecessary resources. 3D visualization gives a multitude of possibilities on lighting, materials, and backgrounds’, says Kerry Murphy, founder of The Fabricant, and doing so touches on a painful topic for the clothing industry: fast fashion.
Digital apparel’s trend predecessors like brands Fashion Nova and H&M were created for the sole purpose of satisfying the consumer need for exclusivity in times of weekly fashion swings. The consequences were daunting, immense and awareness has been raised. This resulted, on the one hand, in brands tightening their corporate responsibility, biodegradable materials approach, reducing waste, and, on the other, in greenwashing, boycotting fashion altogether, and hostility towards the trendsetter culture.
The natural response seems to be, instead of removing trends, focus all excess consumption in the world of digital and, instead of buying a statement piece, only worn in one picture, one could spend the same or less amount of money on a digital piece: no production and shipping cost, no environmental burden and still a window towards creativity and self-expression.
Perhaps digital clothing is the most creative solution to the chaos caused by the fashion industry. After all, ‘You simply can’t stop creativity with regulations, no matter how negative and ruthless this fashion impact is on the environment. You have to be innovative’, says Mikalsen and Lisa Ackerman, stylist, designer and YouTuber ads:
‘My followers loved it right away…For me, it could be an easy and green way of showing off my creativity and futuristic style. I know a lot of influencers that would be interested in using digital clothing if there were easy ways to use it.’
So, presented with the buyer’s need to shop for social media posts exclusively, and with trendsetters showing interest in this piece of the fashion pie, the clothing industry might just have found a sustainable and original solution to its environmental footprint in the face of digital apparel.
Having said that, digital transformation is a challenge to many brands. According to experts at Deloitte Digital, Switzerland, the fashion industry is in the process of undergoing significant changes. Consumer behavior is changing, as is data availability, and industries must adapt.
As an economic sector with a relatively uncertain future, fashion has been swinging between the convenience of utility wear, the appeal of luxury, and the allure of fast fashion, and the role of consumer has switched from one of a passive observer to the stance of enabled dominance. This is why it is essential to consider the buyer’s exclusively digital behavior prior to, during, and post-purchase.
With the implications of COVID-19 each economical sector has been challenged to create their own virtual segment and apparel brands as well are now looking to redefine their culture and operations in order to align with the emerging digital mindset.
Selfridges is one brand to do so, transforming new season’s collections into 3D renders, linked to the wholesaler’s eCommerce site. And even though apparel online revenue has dropped by 11 percent as of March this year, digital clothing platforms are on the rise.
Fashion try-on app Forma, for instance, has users doubling by the week, trying twice as many outfits and spending 50 percent more time on the app as compared to pre-COVID statistics.
Other fashion platforms on the rise are the above-mentioned styling app Drest and Roblox, which gives users the opportunity to not only design but also buy and sell virtual fashion items.
Digital platforms present brands with the freedom to both increase engagement and customer base and provide the fashion industry itself with a field for digitization and experimentation. ‘Games have the power to not only entertain but be a light in the dark during difficult times,’ says Covet Fashion VP and general manager Sarah Fuchs.
A way for luxury brands to further utilize digitization is to use Forma as a means for trying on clothes immediately after runway shows and so test the popularity of designs, or collaborate with AR try-on companies like Wannaby to present new releases even in extraordinary times like the quarantine.
And while the comfort and utility of loungewear, performancewear, travel wear, sleepwear and athleisure could not be replaced by digital clothing, items of high visual creativity and statement pieces are more likely to be seen in their virtual versions.
‘In real life, these types of designer clothes cost thousands of pounds and will usually be worn on social media once because of their distinct design,’ says Markus Persson, game designer. As a result, consumers will expect from brands more creativity and exclusivity.
The unexplored territory of virtual fashion is yet to be traversed by innovators, apparel brands and influencers, as well as those who like to experience this yet blank canvas of possibilities and have some fun with it at an affordable price.
‘I really love this idea because firstly, it’s environmentally-friendly and secondly, clothing nowadays is more like an art form for social media. Digital clothing is super convenient, and the design potential is huge because it’s way cheaper’, says influencer Daria Simonova.
As a result of the first initiated virtual apparel purchases and the environmental awareness of buyers, The Guardian reported a 4% drop in monthly consumer purchases and a 3% increase of consumers buying every 2-3 months. Moreover, putting the fear of blowing the budget, creative potential, and possibilities for brands increase immensely.
‘By selling the digital collection at £15 per item, we’ve sort of democratized the economy of the fashion industry and at the same time opened up the world of taking chances with your styling, without leaving a negative carbon footprint.’, Carlings representatives say.
Facts point that the industry is ready for a new business model and consumers’ reaction to it would be largely positive. There is, however, the question remaining whether digital fashion could become an actual revenue generator and most importantly, could we establish a connection to our digital wardrobe, comparable to the sensual, tactile interaction we have with our off-screen closet?
According to Drinkwater, virtual fashion will allow us to build an entirely different relationship with our apparel. ‘With the proliferation of high street stores where everybody is pumping out huge volumes, but every store is the same, it’s made the world very boring. I think the element of exclusivity that you could create through digital clothing is something that could build that desire and actually return a sense of how we used to shop’, he says.
In conclusion, it is undeniable that our lives are becoming more virtual, while our experiences move towards digitization. What a couple of year ago was considered outrageous and irrelevant now appears on most of our social media feed every day.
It is, therefore, only fair to assume that what seems to astonish us about digital fashion today may as well be what we see as our everyday tomorrow.