We Need To Talk About… Digital Fashion
NZXT sneaker by RTFKT. Image courtesy of RTFKT
Strange things are happening on planet fashion. Recent experiments with gaming and augmented reality hint at a future for the industry that lies beyond the boundaries of our physical world. It’s a future where our clothes will be rendered in 3D instead of fabrics, and we won’t wear them so much as superimpose them onto our bodies.
Far-fetched? Perhaps. But these developments have the potential to revolutionise the way we think about and consume fashion. The industry’s major players know this and efforts are already being made to capitalise on this emerging market. In March, Gucci became one of the first established luxury brands to stake its claim when it debuted the Virtual 25, a sneaker retailing at $11.99 that you “wear” exclusively in the Gucci app by pointing the camera of your phone at your feet.
But will this new tech catch on? Can fashion, an industry so intrinsically linked to the production and consumption of material things, pivot to pixels and polygons? Will anyone buy sneakers that you can’t actually wear? And what does this all have to do with those NFTs you’ve been hearing so much about? All these questions, and more, are addressed below in our beginner’s guide to this brave new world.
Afterworld: The Age Of Tomorrow, Balenciaga AW21. Image courtesy of Balenciaga
So you’re telling me I’ll soon be able to wear new-season Balenciaga in Fortnite?
Sorry to disappoint you, but no. Balenciaga did create its very own game, though, called Afterworld: The Age Of Tomorrow, and used it to unveil its AW21 collection.
Burberry recently released a couple of skins for a character in Honor Of Kings, a Chinese mobile game with more than 100 million daily active users. And last year saw Marc Jacobs and Valentino release digital looks for Animal Crossing. The streetwear brand Chinatown Market was going to release skins for Apex Legends, then didn’t, due to the brand deciding to change its name off the back of the #stopasianhate campaign, but that’s a different story. The list goes on.
And what if I don’t like video games? Where else can I get my cyberspace fashion fix?
We don’t say “cyberspace” any more, this isn’t the 1990s. It’s called the metaverse.
Metaverse. It’s a term coined by sci-fi author Mr Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash, and it describes a virtual world where people represented by “avatars” – another term he introduced to the contemporary lexicon – can hang out, play games, purchase goods and property, and even earn a living.
Indeed. Mr Stephenson’s ideas have gone on to become hugely influential in Silicon Valley, where he’s revered as a sort of tech Nostradamus. The term “metaverse” is now used to refer to what many see as a potential successor to the modern-day internet.
Right. So what is it?
Imagine a more immersive version of the web made possible through augmented or virtual reality.
So, like Tron or The Matrix?
Sort of, only we’re not imprisoned in it.
Or so we think.
We can tell you’re sceptical. But there are huge opportunities here, not least for fashion brands.
What can I wear in the metaverse that I can’t wear in real life?
In the metaverse, clothes aren’t limited by the laws of physics. You can wear sneakers that shoot rainbow sparks out of the heels every time your feet hit the floor, or jeans that bloom with flowers as you walk, or an iridescent coat that moves like a jellyfish in water.
Did you just make that up, or can I actually buy these “clothes”?
There are plenty of brands currently experimenting in this space. RTFKT Studios designs “next-gen sneakers for the metaverse” complete with in-built TV screens and RTX 3080 graphics cards. Meanwhile, The Fabricant, another digital fashion brand, recently reimagined Buffalo London’s iconic platform shoes – famously worn by the Spice Girls in the 1990s – as a digital sneaker complete with multicoloured flame effects.
Buffalo London by The Fabricant. Image courtesy of The Fabricant
Right. So, a lot of sneakers, then.
Well, it makes sense. The sneakerhead market is a natural first step for the digital fashion industry. Hype sneakers are valued as collectibles, and the most sought-after pairs, known as “grails”, are rarely worn by their owners. And if they’re not being worn, do they really need to exist? Wouldn’t a 3D render of a sneaker do exactly the same job?
It’d certainly save a lot of leather. But the sneaker market is driven by scarcity; surely that doesn’t apply with digital sneakers. What’s stopping me from just copy-pasting them?
Ah, that’s where you’re wrong. These digital sneakers are exchanged via NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, a cryptographic unit that confers ownership…
Woah, woah. Stop right there. I don’t need another thousand-word think piece on NFTs, thank you very much.
Well, suffice it to say that they provide the scarcity that is driving the market for digital fashion.
Does all of this technology have any real-world utility?
Fashion retailers have been experimenting with “virtual dressing rooms” for a while now. It’s a genuinely useful tool for online retail, which doesn’t allow you the opportunity to try things on before you buy them. These augmented-reality services use 3D modelling to let you see how new clothes look on you using just your phone camera. The Gucci app has a Try-On section that allows you to see how you’d look in the brand’s sunglasses, hats and sneakers. The very same technology is behind the brand’s Virtual 25 sneaker, as it happens – the only difference being that the Virtual 25 isn’t a 3D-rendered likeness of a product; it is the product.
You’re making this all sound very futuristic. But didn’t Cher have a “virtual dressing room” in Clueless?
Snow Crash wasn’t the only piece of 1990s fiction that saw this all coming.