TLDR: Digital fashion involves creating and wearing clothing and accessories in virtual spaces, sometimes with accompanying in-real-life (IRL) components that link the experiences back to the physical realm. Digital fashion encompasses virtual clothing designs, digital runway shows, augmented- and virtual-reality experiences, and the use of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to represent ownership and authenticity of digital fashion items.
In recent years, the world of fashion has witnessed a remarkable transformation as the lines between the physical and digital realms have blurred. No longer confined to the racks of brick-and-mortar stores or glossy magazine pages, fashion has found a new canvas in the digital landscape. Today, a person can design and flaunt their favorite looks inside video games, digital shopping experiences, metaverse activations and more.
But what factors gave rise to the trend of digital fashion, and where is it taking us? In this article, we explore the origins of digital fashion, along with its significance and the innovative ideas shaping its future.
Digital fashion is a relatively new phenomenon, emerging in the 20th century as internet culture and video games rose to ubiquity in households across the globe. While not many of us had the luxury of waking up to Cher’s futuristic dream closet from the 1995 film “Clueless,” perhaps you recall picking out accessories for your favorite video game avatar. Or maybe you were a Barbie girl who played Magic Hair Studio on a desktop computer in 1997.
Eventually, those early digital fashion moments matured into in-game brand collaborations worth a pretty penny for fashion and entertainment companies. Notably, H&M collaborated with The Sims all the way back in 2007, offering in-game virtual wearables for those loveable avatar characters. Subsequent collaborations with Diesel and Moschino followed.
Since then, digital dressing rooms and virtual try-on software began to emerge in the late 2000s, making it possible for consumers to buy clothing from home after viewing it on a digital model. Ironically, the availability of online try-on services wasn’t an overnight success, as online shopping brought with it an excessive surge in unwanted items thanks to instant availability of one-click shopping and the ability to order multiple sizes without first seeing which one fits. However, virtual try-on can solve this learning curve, and retailers lately seem to be growing savvier in helping their customers customize their looks.
In the years that followed, we’ve seen the rise of fictional computer-generated influencers like Lil Miquela, brand collaborations give new life to the concept of digital fashion. Most recently, the non-fungible token (NFT) craze of 2019 triggered a new wave of digital fashion popularity when The Fabricant, a digital fashion house, auctioned an NFT known as the Iridescence Dress at the 2019 Ethereum conference for around $10,000. The Iridescence Dress was a collaboration between The Fabricant and CryptoKitties, one of the earliest NFT projects to achieve notoriety.
(Fun fact: The Fabricant is credited with pioneering digital fashion and even coined the term "digital fashion house.” Listen to a September 2023 conversation featuring The Fabricant co-founder Adriana Hoppenbrouwer-Pereira for a deeper dive on this history.)
Digital fashion is an umbrella term that encompasses several key areas:
Designers, artists and animators design digital garments using 3D modeling software. These designs can range from realistic representations of physical clothing to futuristic, avant-garde looks that defy the constraints of the physical world.
Imagine traditional fashion shows developed exclusively for digital. These shows are accessible to a global audience and feature digital models showcasing virtual clothing collections.
AR technology merges the physical and digital worlds, allowing users to interact with digital fashion through smartphone apps and AR filters. Popular Web2 brands like Snapchat and Instagram have popularized AR fashion filters that users can try on virtually, and there are a number of brands merging AR capabilities with high fashion.
VR technology offers immersive digital fashion experiences. Users can enter virtual environments, try on virtual clothing and interact with digital fashion models in a 3D space.
Digital fashion doesn’t always have to include NFTs, but the technology takes digital ownership to new levels. NFTs provide a digital certificate of ownership that enables owners to buy, sell, verify and trade digital fashion items with more documentation than previously seen before. These tokens provide scarcity and authenticity to digital clothing, enhancing its value in the digital realm.
Taking style to the screen, so to speak, has numerous benefits. For one, it invites individuals to express their creativity in virtual worlds and on social media platforms where their identities can be celebrated and showcased. Digital fashion may also offer a sustainable and creative alternative to traditional fashion, reducing the need for as much physical production waste and contributing to a more eco-friendly approach.
Here’s a shortlist of digital fashion’s potential benefits:
One of the most pressing issues in the fashion industry is its environmental impact. The creation of physical clothing often involves the use of finite resources and leads to waste. Digital fashion, by contrast, is potentially more sustainable, reducing the need for textile production and minimizing waste.
Digital fashion offers a new level of personalization. Consumers can virtually try on outfits, experiment with styles, and tailor their fashion choices to their preferences before (or even without) making physical purchases.
Fashion brands have found innovative ways to engage with their audience through digital fashion. From creating virtual showrooms to offering exclusive digital clothing collections, they can connect with consumers in unique and memorable ways.
Digital fashion has the potential to democratize the fashion industry. It allows emerging designers and creators to gain exposure and find their niche in the digital fashion landscape without the need for substantial capital or infrastructure.
In the metaverse, individuals can craft unique digital identities through clothing and accessories, empowering self-expression in a digital realm. This extends beyond fashion, impacting how people present themselves in virtual spaces.
Phygital NFTs — a term used to describe NFTs designating ownership of both physical and digital items — often incorporate Near Field Communication (NFC) chips. These chips are embedded in physical garments, connecting to NFC-enabled mobile phones to authenticate ownership and prove authenticity. NFC chips allow physical items to be linked to digital ownership, so that they can be stored, tracked and bought together. This concept opens up exciting possibilities for supply chain management, especially for rare or vintage items, inspiring brands to experiment with limited-edition phygital releases.
Despite its potential, digital fashion also faces several challenges and concerns:
Not everyone has equal access to the technology required for immersive digital fashion experiences. This disparity can exacerbate inequalities in the fashion world.
The rise of NFTs has introduced concerns about intellectual property rights and digital theft, as digital fashion items can be stolen or reproduced without consent.
Fashion has traditionally celebrated the materiality of clothing, emphasizing the feel and texture of fabrics. Digital fashion lacks this tactile dimension, which can be a significant drawback for some consumers.
Digital fashion is rapidly evolving, and the possibilities are expanding. Several potential entry points are on the horizon:
While still nascent, the metaverse will certainly play a pivotal role in the growth of digital fashion. As more people spend time in virtual worlds, the demand for virtual clothing will increase, and fashion brands will respond accordingly.
Digital fashion will contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry. By reducing the production of physical garments, it can help reduce waste and decrease the environmental impact of fashion.
For example, the innovative digital fashion company CLO developed a 3D fashion design software program to help designers create true-to life garment visualization so they can perfect their ideas before taking them to production.
AR shopping experiences will become more common, allowing consumers to virtually try on clothing and accessories before making online purchases.
Digital fashion will foster collaboration between fashion designers, tech developers, household brands and artists, leading to a surge in creative and innovative projects.
NFTs will play a significant role in redefining ownership of digital fashion items. Collectors and enthusiasts will have the opportunity to buy, trade, and display their digital clothing in the metaverse.
Events, concerts, and entertainment occasions offer great opportunities for digital fashion lovers to congregate and show off their looks. Digital fashion can enhance experiences and provide a sense of belonging in these contexts.
The emergence of new hardware, such as NFT-connected smartwatches or smart glasses, or Adobe’s recently debuted generative-code digital dress, promises exciting possibilities for mainstream adoption of digital fashion.
Digital fashion is no longer a futuristic concept; it's a vibrant reality reshaping multiple industries and a testament to the ever-evolving intersection of technology and creativity. This moment represents an exciting shift, offering sustainable solutions, creative freedom and a newfound sense of individuality and expression in a digital age.
Whether you're a fashion enthusiast, a designer or simply someone intrigued by the possibilities of the metaverse, digital fashion is a trend that deserves close attention.
Learn More: Fashion's Web3 Future (Featuring Designer Rebecca Minkoff and Mavion Co-Founder Michelle Reeves)
This article and all the information in it does not constitute financial advice. If you don’t want to invest money or time in Web3, you don’t have to. As always: Do your own research.