Is fashion’s future virtual?

Will digital fashion be a short-lived trend, or is the metaverse the next step in couture’s evolution?


Roshini Raj

File photo: Vivienne Tam’s metaverse-themed Fall/Winter 2023 Collection at New York Fashion Week. (Roshini Raj for WSN)

Melody Jiang, Contributing Writer

“Hey, wanna come with me to the Diesel x HAPE Metaverse Fashion Week Party in Genesis Plaza?” is a statement that seems straight out of an AI generated-dialogue between two influencers making the rounds at fashion week. But in the Web3 world of cryptocurrency, NFTs and the metaverse, this has become reality.

Digital fashion has been making waves in the fashion world, but much of it still remains shrouded in obscurity to the general public. The most general understanding of digital fashion is any outfit that is created in — or for — an online space. Think “The Sims,” wherein you can create outfits for your characters to wear as they navigate their Intel HD Graphics world, or “skins” in Fortnite, which are bought solely for aesthetic purposes. 

With the promise of new sources of income and capital in the form of the metaverse and NFTS, as well as the prestige that comes along with being a forerunner in such a new field, everyone is looking to venture into the promised neverland that is digital fashion, despite reports of the Metaverse underperforming and controversy surrounding NFTs.  

Digital fashion has taken an elevated turn with the presence of big-name brands like Vivienne Tam in the virtual fashion realm, going beyond rendering simple avatars to making its debut on the runway in metaverse fashion shows. Everyday consumers can take part in digital fashion by purchasing digital fashion items on retail sites like DressX and “wearing” them on various metaverse platforms such as Decentraland, or by commissioning digital garments to be rendered on photos or videos of themselves. With augmented reality technology, consumers can also “wear” clothing pieces that are so fantastical they couldn’t possibly exist in the physical world. Augmented reality is used mostly for “virtual try-ons on e-commerce sites such as Farfetch, where consumers can try on clothing digitally before purchasing. 

The filter-technology that is driving AR right now is also intended to be accessible not just through phones, but also through “wearables”, like the Google Glass or Snapchat’s Spectacles, in the hopes of further integrating AR technology into our daily lives. Because the “phygital” aspect of wearables allows one to experience digital rendering of clothing or face filters in the outside world and in real time, AR is the most plausible way digital fashion could become a seamless part of our everyday lives. And brands aren’t just interested in the retail-assisting aspects of AR. Companies from H&M to Louis Vuitton have been leaning more heavily into the creative possibilities that digital fashion offers, releasing filters that allow users to try on 90s streetwear- or League of Legends-inspired outfits, respectively.

But can the experience of wearing digital fashion really replace the fulfillment and pleasure we get from physically dressing ourselves? The possibility of fantasy and a potentially unlimited wardrobe could suggest so. In the digital sphere, the age-old cliché “anything is possible” can truly become reality. Physical limitations cease to exist and anyone who wishes to design can create without inhibition, which can be seen in the holographic, metal-like fabrics or organic, blob-like shapes that sit just so on the model’s body. Digital clothing also doesn’t have the same environmental impact as physical clothing. It must be said, though, that because many digital fashion items exist as NFTs, they do have a serious environmental impact of their own.

In another sense, there are rituals and routines that come along with putting clothes on your body that can’t be replicated by clicking on an outfit. No matter how much technology continues to improve, the sensation of clothing on the body cannot be replicated. The materiality of clothing — supple leather, weightless silk, cheap-feeling polyester — can often be the most invaluable quality of a garment.

Rendering clothing digitally also takes the aspect of physical craft away, which was the original foundation of fashion. Even at the highest echelon of fashion today, haute couture, the aspect of hand-made work is so important that one of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture requirements to become an official Haute Couture house is to employ at least 20 full-time technical workers. The irreplicable human aspect of handicraft is lost on a metaverse digital gown that took only 100 hours to render as opposed to a gown that took over 10,000 hours to intricately craft

It’s impossible to deny that we live in an age of social media where image precedes everything else. Consumers have sacrificed the quality of clothing for a constant stream of cheap, trendy clothes, because of the perceived need to avoid outfit repetition, which the constant newness demanded by social media has made taboo. Even high fashion brands have sacrificed thoughtful design for “runway gimmicks,” spurred on by investors hoping for viral moments that lead to upticks in sales. This pursuit of virality is also reflected in the state of digital fashion today, as it tries to establish itself as a legitimate player in the fashion and tech worlds, often by collaborating with heritage brands. 

After a gimmick-heavy Spring/Summer 2023 runway showing last year, critics and designers alike have expressed a desire to return to the bare bones of fashion — good design and high-quality craftsmanship. Even Demna Gvasalia, the current creative director of Balenciaga and the king of viral fashion moments, said in an interview with “Vogue” that he had “decided to go back to [his] roots in fashion, as well as to the roots of Balenciaga, which is making quality clothes — not making image or buzz.” 

Ultimately though, it is up to the consumer to decide the fate of digital fashion. Most people still regard the metaverse and NFTs as an unnecessary part of digital life, and because of the desire for exclusivity concerning NFTs and some digital garments, fully participating in the realm of digital fashion requires a certain amount of expendable capital that many don’t have. A lot of the technology that is driving digital fashion is still in the earliest stages of development, and it’s hard to say whether or not digital fashion will attract a larger base of consumers as it becomes more interactive, exciting and inexpensive as time goes by.

Just as the traditional hierarchy of fashion critics and magazine editors gave way to the rise of the internet influencer a decade ago, it’s not impossible to imagine the current state of fashion on social media giving way to a digital fashion-dominated reality in several years. But unless we  find ourselves in a Ready-Player-One-esque universe, digital fashion will never replace the prominence of physical fashion in our lives.

Contact Melody Jiang at [email protected].