Fashion is an expression of art because we live it out daily as a form of expressing ourselves and our various cultures. Some argue that the origins of fashion can be traced back to the day Adam and Eve decided to wrap leaves around themselves; while others believe it began with cavemen making loincloths from animal skin.
Depending on your school of thought, we can at least agree that since then, fashion as we know it has evolved continuously. Most of this evolution has either been brought about by technological and social advancements or have at the very least gone hand-in-hand with them. For instance, while the concept of online shopping was birthed by the technological advancement of the internet, the development of cotton mills for its part spurred on the widespread use of cotton and fashion.
Now one of the biggest fashion evolutions of recent times is unarguably, the concept of sustainability and ethical fashion. This concept which I sum up as “treating the environment, animals and your workers right” was brought about by a much needed global boom of social consciousness about our environment and climate. It was also supported by the fact that technological advancement enabled the use of other alternative materials processes and methods in the fashion industry.
As people all over the world become more aware of the unsustainable fashion choices they make, the sustainable fashion industry continues to advance in leaps and bounds. In fact, a recently published report estimates that the value of the sustainable fashion industry currently is set to reach a whopping $8.25 billion by the year 2023. Naturally, and as is the case with all practices worth adopting, there are several challenges the industry still grapples with and because of this, further advancements across all sectors of the sustainable fashion industry are understandably still ongoing.
Two instances of such advancements are that the novel concepts of digital fashion on the one hand, and virtual fashion on the other. Digital fashion generally refers to the visual representation of clothes made with computer technologies, particularly 3D software. Most of the clothes made digitally are in fact designed on computers, fed into a 3D printer and printed exactly as they looked in the computers. With 3D printing, all the waste associated with the traditional making of clothes is avoided, smart clothes can be made and this has really advanced over the last five years.
Now slightly beyond the frontiers of digital fashion lies virtual fashion. Virtual fashion is simply the design and sale of fashion items for virtual platforms and avatars. It takes the idea of digital fashion a bit further because it asks the question: why print out the clothes designed by the computers at all? This technology visualises users’ creations with the ability to create unlimited graphic placements, colourways and engineered print layouts, while accurately emulating drape-sensitive fabrics. Virtual fashion designs cloth in the same way as digital fashion but rather than print the finished design, it remains virtual and anybody who likes it can both buy and use it online, for their social media, their avatars on life simulation video game Sims or other games.
The premise here is futuristic but simple; a lot of times, the clothes we buy, we wear them to take pictures for online platforms. So then why don’t we just make the clothes specifically to be used on those online platforms without having to make them the traditional way? With virtual fashion, all you need to do is purchase the design you like, and send in your picture or avatar. The virtual fashion brand edits a highly photorealistic 3D version of the cloth on your image and just like that you are good to go.
This is not a case of simply Photoshopping your head on top of an outfit, because these are very realistic dresses, capable of doing everything a normal dress can do. The dresses can come in various states; they can look wind blown for instance and the materials can vary from plastic, cotton to metallic and much more. You can get a virtual design that fits your persona for your photos without the need to go to a physical store and try on clothes, much like having your own Zoom background that speaks to your personality. When you see a virtual dress on Instagram, in all likelihood, you wouldn’t know the dress is virtual.
Now on the sustainability end, with virtual fashion, there is no issue of water consumption and practically all physical waste is eliminated. There are no unethical supply chains as the raw materials are coded in computers; no labour issues because the workers are highly skilled designers and programmers known to have generally great working conditions. Even the waste associated with fashion shows are eliminated as now, the shows can be virtual too. Does it get more environmentally-friendly than that?
Digital fashion is a product of pioneering innovation. In 2018 Carlings fashion house released an all virtual collection called Neo X. The collection received wide acclaim with Instagram influencers like Daria Simonova declaring that they will definitely buy more. In 2019, Dutch fashion house Fabricant, which is the world’s first digital-only fashion house, sold its dress Iridescence for $9,500 at a blockchain conference. Since then, the trend has only grown with Moschino releasing a digital Sims-inspired collection that same year.
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MINDS. BLOWN. . $9.500 for the first ever digital couture to be auctioned on the blockchain. We actually sold one of our items that has never been physical. Someone owns it now, and will be able to wear it if they choose to. . Created by us, worn by @johwska, auctioned by @Dapper_Labs at #EtherealNY ? @bleumode . Thank you everyone for your support and believing in what we do. This is a dream coming true.
A few years ago, the concepts of digital and virtual fashion would have been laughed at but things quickly evolving with advancements in tech – and the pandemic lockdowns. With people cooped up at home, following social distancing laws and unable to visit stores, it seems that virtual fashion was tailor-made for this moment in time. According to Forbes, more fashion brands turn to augmented and virtual fashion in response to the impact of the pandemic such that the prospects of these new fashion developments going mainstream is no longer far-fetched.
Since we already spend a huge part of our lives across various digital platforms, the prospects of digital and virtual fashion feeds into our existing habits. Still, while digital and virtual fashion solves a plethora of environmental issues arising from the traditional fashion industry, it is vital that we remain mindful consumers here so as not to overdo things. Otherwise, we’ll just end up turning these tech advancements into different ways of over-consuming and if you recall, this is a major flaw of fast fashion that the sustainability industry as a whole is striving to address.
I mean, imagine not just buying excessive clothes (as seen in fast fashion) but buying clothes that don’t physically exist? How long until we start the race to virtual luxury fashion complete with specialised designs and exorbitant price tags, all for clothes that in a real sense, we will actually not get to wear? How does this feed into our ‘connected’ selves and our plugged in culture?
The insecurities that are created by social media fashion, especially for teens, are already challenging enough. Adding this to the mix, will it snowball into an insatiable race for fashion validation? What’s more, this is one race that might never end because ‘tech fashion’ is literally the blackhole of the sustainable fashion industry. As long as there are programmers to code the designs, the supply of digital and virtual clothes is unlimited.
Virtual and digital fashion is a step in the right direction. These advancements may not completely replace regular clothing, but they provide great alternatives to some serious flaws in our traditional fashion system. What matters a lot more though is how we build and consume these products going forward. Otherwise, we will remain stuck in a loop of creating bigger problems for ourselves out of the solutions we created in order to solve our fashion problems.
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Cover image of the $9,500 digital haute couture ‘Iridescence’ dress designed by The Fabricant and worn by French artist Johanna Jaskowska. Photo: The Fabricant.