Digital dressing: the power of virtual images in an e-commerce world

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Digital fashion could accelerate the shift towards sustainability

It has been hailed as either fashions sustainability saviour or dismissed as a cynical cash-in. But is digital fashion – which includes virtual styling apps, virtual clothing and virtual fashion shows – a gimmick or a genuine attempt to improve fashion’s sustainability? Joe Cook, vice president of Delta Global, a sustainable packaging solutions provider for luxury brands, believes that digital fashion is not quite as contentious as is sometimes reported – and could accelerate in the shift towards sustainability

The good news is digital clothes are completely sustainable. The bad news is they don’t exist. However, despite not existing, should you wish to launch your digital wardrobe anyway, you’re sadly too late to buy Aglet’s $2,400 virtual sneakers or The Fabricant’s $9,500 digital dress.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of digital fashion, you may wonder if this another example of fashion’s ability to monetize something that appears patently absurd. But beyond the headlines about wildly expensive ‘clothing’, digital fashion is, at its core, an inevitable and rational step toward sustainability.

Virtual clothing

Perhaps, when scrolling through your social feeds, you’ve noticed shimmering liquid outfits that appear to disregard physics or dresses that defy gravity. While these virtual clothes make for eye-catching news stories, they represent only a fraction of digital fashion. But since it has become somewhat emblematic of the sector, let’s first discuss virtual clothing.

Rather than thinking of virtual clothing as an expensive way to add unique content to an Instagram feed, the concept aims to offer clothes without waste, pollution and production.

Take influencers for example. It is customary practice for a fashion influencer to buy an outfit for their feed, wear it once and then abandoned it. Influencers both represent and define wider behaviours and, like many of us, are cogs in the wheel of environmentally destructive fast fashion business models.

So, rather than encourage the relentless turnover of clothes simply to make content, virtual clothing requires no transportation from distant countries, no landfill is created, and no plastic packaging is manufactured. $9,500 for a digital dress might be the headline, but the reality is closer to the £15 items sold by brands such as Carlings Sweden.

The other side of the virtual clothing coin is represented by luxury fashion houses, namely Gucci and Moschino. The approach taken by these brands to virtual clothing is about sound business sense, rather than supplying sustainable ‘clothing’ to instagrammers.

If we are to ask luxury brands to commit fully to sustainability, we must accept that this involves increased costs somewhere along the production line. The reality for these fashion houses is that anything that dents profit – like increased sustainability across all sides of a business – will need to be approved at boardroom level and paid for; ideally by new revenue streams that don’t contradict that commitment to sustainability.

That’s why Gucci’s move into creating digital versions of its collections for video games (DrestTennis ClashGenies) ought to be celebrated, rather than be perceived as a cynical cash-in. It is necessary and a wise move into new markets, ensuring Gucci can both drive its sustainability commitments and remain true to what consumers expect of Gucci – to be an innovative high-end fashion label that harnesses luxury materials and exquisite design. In a tumultuous, uncertain and rapidly changing market, the longevity of even the biggest fashion houses is not assured.

So, if we demand sustainability now – which we must – accepting eco-friendly revenue diversion like this is to be applauded and encouraged. Having brands such as Gucci and Moschino endorse digital fashion, even tenuously, can only help to normalise sustainability-beneficial strategies for the entire industry.

Virtual styling and virtual fashion shows

The most obvious utility that virtual clothing has is digitising styling and fitting rooms. I was encouraged by the recent acquisition of try-on start-up Zeekit by Walmart. When the largest store-based retailer in US embraces digital fashion, it signals real and tangible progress.

Walmart joins Google, who launched a AR (Augmented Reality) try-on tool in December, and Snapchat who purchased  fitting recommendation company Fit Analytics in March, in entering the realm of digital fashion.

The sustainability advantage that these blue-chip brands have generated, by accident or design, is driving the reduction of carbon emissions incurred by unnecessary orders and returns.

And there are lot of them. In the US alone, there were $428 billion worth of goods returned last year.

But what is the depth of the carbon footprint left by such an astounding volume of returns?

If that footprint is similar to the carbon emissions from the travel undertaken by buyers and designers to attend the four major fashion weeks, the answer would be: enormous.

In 2020, a report co-authored by The Carbon Trust calculated the total emissions of these journeys amounted to 241,000 tonnes CO2e, equivalent to lighting the Eiffel Tower for 3,060 years.

For this reason, the move to digital fashion shows caused by the pandemic was greeted as a “wake-up call”, in the words of Caroline Rush CBE, Chief Executive of the British Fashion Council, who also said: “I genuinely hope that the long-term effect (of digital fashion shows) is a change for good.”

Consider that there over 100 fashion weeks across the globe. The full digitisation of lots of shows would not hinder the success of many of the hundreds that feature in them. In fact, correctly marketed, certain brands could attract new consumers that the traditional fashion week formula of show-buyer-retailer denies them.

Forward-thinking brands could embrace digital fashion in a similar way to Helsinki fashion week, which promotes ‘digital sustainability’ and selects 15 international sustainable designers to take part.

Here, 3D models take to the runways immersed in futuristic and fantastical backdrops – underwater cityscapes, alien environments and palaces made of crystal were among last year’s highlights.

Making use of AI (Artificial Intelligence), Blockchain and digitised sustainability, Helsinki looks very much like the future. And it is digital fashion that is leading us there.