The Metaverse isn’t new, but throughout 2021 it gained momentum with many big brands investing serious money into it. Today digital fashion is being heralded as the solution to fashion’s sustainability problem, but is that true? And will 2022 be the year that digital fashion truly takes hold?
Let’s start with the basics, what is digital fashion? Currently it’s a bit of everything and nothing. The lowest hanging fruit for brand involvement is a digital skin/outfit for your avatar, which isn’t too hard to wrap your head around (especially if you’re a 90’s baby who grew up virtually dressing characters on Sims.) The next tier up is creating a virtual collection, the smartest of which tie in with physical product ownership – like the Diesel PROTOTYPE sneaker that comes with a corresponding NFT. This not only satisfies the consumer desire (and quite frankly need) for tangibility, but also taps into a new wave of investment and collectables. These virtual collections are being sold by digital fashion retailers, like DressX and The Dematerialised, that bridge the gap between virtual and “real life” by enabling you to impose your digital wardrobe on your image to post on social media.
Over the course of the pandemic as we became familiar with our new physical-digital fluidity and IRL retail was forced to close, the fashion world was quick to adapt with digital fashion shows and virtual fitting rooms appearing nearly overnight. But it went further than just satisfying the practical need to replicate real-world experiences, as the relationship between fashion and gaming became more intwined than ever before. Examples include Gucci, who partnered with popular gaming platform Roblox to create The Gucci Garden, an immersive experience and digital collectible store and Balenciaga who became the first high fashion label to drop skins in Fortnite. Exciting, but somewhat surprising behaviour from an industry that was notoriously slow to embrace e-commerce.
Facebook’s historic rebrand to “Meta” in October further exacerbated the hysteria around digital fashion, and the world watched as Zuckerberg swiped through an outlandish digital wardrobe before settling on the same simple, minimalist outfit he wears in real life: a black jumper, matching trousers, and white sneakers.
So, is digital fashion worth the hype? Or is it just a sign that the industry has collectively exhausted the hysteria of limited-edition collaborations IRL and are just hungry for the next big thing? On the one hand it feels counterintuitive to pay £100 for a jacket that you can’t actually wear on your person; but on the other hand, the rate at which these brands are investing into it demonstrates that we’re only just understanding it’s potential. The key question we want to answer today though, is whether digital fashion is really going to save the planet?
Experimentation in design is essential, but it does create a lot of waste. It’s been estimated that 15% of textiles intended for clothing ends up on the cutting room floor. Digital design allows us to eliminate that wastage, without curtailing our creativity. Similarly, in the same way a lot of sustainable brands experiment with made-to-order, digital fashion allows brands to trial their collections online before making them. Prototyping designs to see what their audience is getting excited about so that they can begin to understand the demand before a physical product is made.
Pairing real-life products with digital twins (like the Satoshi Studio sneakers) can create a unique digital identity that can provide access to information such as suppliers, materials origin, authenticity, model, and afterlife instructions. It can also tackle the problem of counterfeiting, where production often takes place in unregulated environments where worker exploitation and child labour are commonplace.
For streetwear in particular, digital fashion could help return the category to the true fans. Originally a style born out of self-expression, shared cultural codes and community ideals of elusive urban subcultures, it has since been co-opted and commoditized so much is that reselling is now an essential part of the sneaker game; with some buying shoes to flip them without even opening the box. If this behaviour could thrive in the digital environment instead, it might result in more sneakers on actual feet rather than in cupboards, and true sneakerheads being able to take their culture back.
The unquenchable desire for newness isn’t going anywhere. But unlike in the physical world, where reinvention is linked to consumption, in the digital world we can refresh ourselves every day with very little impact. You can switch up your look on Instagram every day, without ever having to order/ship/try on/style (and maybe even return) a physical piece of clothing. Sounds far better… right? Or does it.
Our obsession with instant gratification has been both fostered by and satisfied through the technological evolution of the past decade. Social media has exploded the need for disposable garments and poured rocket fuel on the fast fashion industry. The digitisation of fashion means that trends, garments, and pieces will be created in days and weeks rather than months and seasons. Whilst it could satisfy that craving (as above) it could also accelerate it, leading to more mass production and a further eroding of physical fashion as a both a craft and an art form.
Proponents of the metaverse talk about its decentralisation as a benefit, empowering creators and coders, but in this virtual Wild West it can be difficult for brands (and creators alike) to protect the use of their valuable assets. One infamous example of this is Hèrmes vs. Los Angeles based digital artist Mason Rothschild who has used the iconic Birkin bag design to create 100 “MetaBirkin” NFTs, earning himself an estimated $800,000 in the process. With huge sums of money being made (and lost) in digital fashion, there is a long way to go before brands and consumers can feel confident in their investment in this virtual space.
The production of digital fashion may not create the same waste as physical fashion, but the transactional cost of them can be far greater. For some retailers, like DressX and The Dematerialised, the process isn’t dissimilar to the likes of buying on any other marketplace (but you can expect a photo to appear in your inbox vs. a package at your front door). For others, it’s less straightforward. Some garments are minted as NFTs and recorded on blockchain-based platform, the most common of these being Ethereum. Minting an NFT is an incredibly energy-intensive activity with some estimating a single transaction equates to that of an average US household over 4.38 days. Ethereum’s developers have planned to shift to a less-carbon intensive form of security for Ethereum 2.0, but there is no clear deadline for the switch.
Clearly digital fashion isn’t going anywhere, and we can expect to see and hear a lot more about it as the year goes on, but it’s far from perfect. In its current form it presents some issues that we would be remiss to ignore – the key one being its impact on the planet. Whilst some may argue that these are vastly overshadowed the current problems with our physical industry (and they’d be right) we shouldn’t jump in without considering the impact first. We’re in a unique position to be starting an industry from scratch with the benefit of hindsight and we must learn from our previous mistakes, putting sustainability at the core of any innovation or decision. Whilst we all get excited about this new digital world, we must not neglect the impact it may have on our physical one.