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Future fashion: does that dress come in digital?

A visit to a technology-fuelled fashion pop-up paints a picture of a world where retailers and brands sell virtual clothes for usage solely in consumers’ digital lives

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Digital fashion for sustainable consumption

In Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One – a virtual reality (VR) adventure made into a 2018 Steven Spielberg film – a key character in the VR world, Art3mis, is introduced as having a “mid-80s postapocalyptic cyberpunk girl-next-door look”.

The author describes her outfit as “scaled gunmetal-blue armour that looked more sci-fi than fantasy”, with “fingerless Road Warrior-style racing gloves and a pair of classic Ray-Ban shades”. It’s a style that is instantly attractive to the story’s protagonist, Parzival.

Evocative virtual sartorial descriptions such as Art3mis’s may not be the preserve of science fiction for much longer. In the intersection where technology and design collide, there is evidence of a new digital fashion space forming that transcends the pages of fantasy novels into the real world.

Kerry Murphy, founder of The Fabricant, which describes itself as a digital fashion house, is a company that envisages this future. It’s a future where consumers buy or rent fashion items – in the form of a digital asset – to dress their virtual avatars, or the images they use on social media, in video games, or their 360-degree digital twins.

In 2019, it all sounds rather fantastical, and those involved in this space – including Murphy – acknowledge digital fashion is at a nascent stage. But they believe it’s the direction of travel for the industry, supported by the behaviour of gamers, continued advancements in technology, and even some of today’s trends in apparel shopping.

Murphy, whose company’s tagline is “uploading the human to the next level of existence”, says: “The way I see it, digital life and physical life will blur more and more – we’ll always have a digital twin accompanying us. You could go into a high street store, see an item and ask, ‘Do you have this in digital?’ for your virtual avatar.”

Skin in the game

No-one knows if a Ready Player One-style existence awaits us all, but there are multiple examples of science fiction becoming reality. And no-one knows for certain how the proposed new form of fashion might pan out, but several e-commerce and gaming trends suggest its emergence is feasible.

In Epic Games’ global video game hit, Fortnite, players are encouraged to purchase new “skins” to use as they complete their PlayStation, Xbox or other console-supported quest. Here lies a precedent for buying a look solely for an avatar.

Meanwhile, luxury fashion e-tailer Yoox’s mobile app allows users to dress an avatar, called Daisy, with clothes they might wish to purchase online. The functionality was updated in November, allowing consumers to add their own photographs to create digital versions of themselves trying on clothes online.

When considering these developments alongside bigger societal issues, such as growing concerns over the carbon footprint of clothing manufacturing, and the rise of social media, selfies and “influencers”, the case for a digital fashion market strengthens.

Jonathan Chippindale, CEO of digital agency Holition, suggests we are in the “earliest scratchings” of the development of digital fashion – but it’s an area his business is putting its weight behind.

“If I’m prepared to pay a bit of money to pay for a digital skin on a digital avatar in the digital world, surely there must be money to be made through buying digital skin for a real person in the real world,” he says.

“Mighty oaks from small acorns grow, and we’re at the smallest of acorns at the moment, but there are green shoots – and from a consumer point of view, there is a demand.

“It’s predicated on that relatively recent idea all of us have an online persona and an offline persona. Increasingly, our online persona is a valuable asset.”

Every fashion designer is going to be a digital fashion designer in 25 years from now
Kerry Murphy, The Fabricant

He cites closer relationships between fashion and gaming – for example, Louis Vuitton’s sponsorship of Riot Games’ League of Legends esports competition – as evidence of different worlds colliding that might be a genesis for new markets to blossom.

Whatever that environment might look like, The Fabricant wants to be at the cutting edge of it. Looking forward to 2045 – the year Ready Player One is set and when one might surmise multiple platforms or marketplaces have been created to support the commercialisation of digital fashion – Murphy has grand ambitions.

“We would see ourselves as the Gucci of digital fashion in 2045, where we are the largest luxury digital fashion house, competing against other digital fashion houses,” he says. “Because every fashion designer is going to be a digital fashion designer in 25 years from now.”

As his final point suggests, Murphy views these early days of digital fashion as the start of a restructuring of an entire industry.

Murphy went to film school and has a background in marketing and 3D design – and even has a 360-degree digital body scan of himself that he can ‘dress’ to showcase the potential of the industry he wants to drive. But he’s confident digital fashion will go mainstream, and not simply be contained to his circles.

In May, The Fabricant sold a digital-only dress for $9,500 in a blockchain auction. The virtual garment, ‘Iridescence’, was bought at the blockchain platform Ethereal’s New York summit, in what was a fashion industry first and a statement of intent.

“Instead of translating current fashion industry business models to a digital version, new-style fashion houses are going to combine tech and fashion design so the language and industry evolves to become something different to today,” Murphy says.


The Fabricant’s digital fashion was utilised as part of a forward-thinking retail pop-up in London’s Shoreditch, in early November 2019.

The futuristic retail space, Hot:Second, which will appear in further locations over time, including at Berlin Fashion Week in January 2020, is the brainchild of academic and futurist, Karinna Nobbs. It welcomed people to virtually try on a range of luxury fashion items via mixed reality technology, offering visitors a “digital tailoring” service.

Fashion industry bods and the general public alike visited over the course of three days, as did representatives from several retailers, with Hot:Second raising awareness of digital fashion to a varied audience.

“I decided to open this concept store because I wanted to get people’s opinions on digital fashion after I found out everybody was confused,” Nobbs says.

Describing the set-up as it stands, which in her own words displays the technology in a rudimentary way, she says: “It’s a full-length Snapchat filter that’s not in Snapchat.”

Working with Holition, Hot:Second in London enabled users to digitally view how they look in high, low, vintage and sustainable fashion items. Its fundamental purpose was to provide inspiration for how this technology could be used, and to gauge consumers’ reaction to it, but where it all may lead is unknown.

From a consumer perspective, might people buy digital fashion to decorate their social media feeds with images of them wearing clothing they could not otherwise afford? Also, is there an environmental benefit to all this, whereby people choose to buy the digital version of an item they might otherwise have worn once and thrown away?

25 years ago, who could have imagined the personal peacocking and preening associated with today’s Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook? So is buying digital clothing to support these practices really beyond the realms of possibility?

Hot:Second is a full-length Snapchat filter that’s not in Snapchat
Karinna Nobbs, academic and futurist

All these theories currently fall into the category of “fantastical” and represent a reimagined relationship between people and fashion – there are certainly question marks over whether consumers would part with money for non-physical fashion. However, in the here and now, there are potential opportunities for this technology to take hold.

“Physical retailers now more than ever need to give people a reason to visit the store, and I’m interested in how emerging technology can be used to be a destination or reason to visit the store,” Nobbs says.

“In the short term, the Hot:Second set-up might appear in a multi-brand store or a department store where, on a regular basis, brands could pay to be featured as part of the experience.

“Digital fashion could move to become a service offered by retailers. There is potential for digital assets to be rented – a Chanel handbag for a week, for example – [which people use in their online or virtual world].”

Another company involved in the Hot:Second project was Nordic fashion brand, Carlings, which already stocks digital-only items on its website. UK fashion designer Christopher Raeburn, who has a reputation for reworking surplus fabrics and garments to create new clothing, also supplied digital fashion assets for the mixed reality experience.

Digital fashion green light

Indeed, the Hot:Second green angle was strong. To access the technology, visitors donated unwanted clothing to social enterprise Love Not Landfill or used the resident customisation team to redesign an existing wardrobe item.

“I realised one of the links to digital fashion or user cases for it was it could be connected to enjoying fashion in a more sustainable way,” Nobbs notes.

Kate Nightingale, head consumer psychologist and founder of Style Psychology, a consultancy, visited Hot:Second and bought into the potential of digital fashion. She says the environmental angle combines neatly with other aspects of modern consumerism.

“With the ever-increasing pressure of consumption to show our belonging or status, as well as the rising issues with delayed gratification, virtual fashion can provide a brilliant alternative,” she says.

“It can still fulfil our constant need for updated style forced on us by society with the ever-increasing speed of production of newness, yet without the detrimental effect on the environment that standard overconsumption results in.”

While that provides justification for digital fashion today, the market’s growth potential relies on human lives becoming more virtual in the future. Soon, ‘How would you dress as a Parzival or Art3mis-type character?’ might not be such a hypothetical question.

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