The Avatar’s New Clothes: Digital Design for Greener Fashion
When we think about fashion, we tend to think of material objects such as colorful textiles, cutting tables, scissors, sewing needles, or pins. However, the future of this industry will be shaped just as much by high-resolution screens, blockchain, 3D modeling, virtual and augmented reality, holograms, and artificial intelligence. While it is a natural concept for those now in their 20s, digital fashion might require a certain mindset shift for those who grew up in an analog world. However, in a future where our main priority will be to preserve our natural resources, virtual fashion is certain to become a sustainable alternative.
Put on your headset, position yourself comfortably in front of your screen and immerse yourself in the metaverse. Depending on your current mood and inspiration, choose your avatar and outfit and decide whether you want to hang out with other people, attend an event, visit a particular place, or shop around. All of this can be done from the comfort of your chair and using nothing but digital artifacts…
This is the metaverse, a universe of virtual spaces that will form the immersive version of the internet. Currently, under construction by multiple players in the gaming, blockchain and crypto worlds, web 3.0, as it’s also known, will become the main distribution channel for virtual fashion, according to Michaela Larosse, Head of Content & Strategy at The Fabricant.
“From a consumer point of view, we are all living digital lives, expressing ourselves in multi-media and virtual realities. When self-expression and the exploration of identity through the medium of fashion exists beyond the physical realm, it allows us to transcend the boundaries and limitations of reality; in the digital environment, we can express our multiple selves and explore new possibilities of who we might be,” says Larosse.
Founded in 2018 as the world’s first digital-only fashion house, Amsterdam-based The Fabricant operates at the intersection of fashion and technology. Currently, the company focuses on two core businesses. One is their own digital couture house and label, which creates garments that will never exist in the physical world. The other relies on developing digital versions of physical garments for established brands that want to expand their presence in the 3D digital space.
“From The Fabricant’s perspective, we are building our business for a future where physical fashion becomes utilitarian in response to our planetary circumstances and the need to preserve natural resources, but the digital environment is where we will let our fashion imaginations run wild.”
The digital transformation of fashion
Even though one might expect this industry to be the last one to go digital, there are numerous technologies that have tremendous potential in connection with fashion. Augmented reality, an immersive 3D technology that combines digital information with a person’s physical environment, already allows for digital clothing try-ons. In addition, digital supermodels are taking over the fashion industry, with data suggesting that in some cases, virtual personas outperform human influencers.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning make sense of large amounts of data, from customer size and measurements to consumer behavior and sustainability-related metrics. Besides allowing for traceability and transparency regarding the provenance of materials and the supply chain, blockchain also facilitates a new trend in fashion: NFTs (non-fungible tokens).
These are digital assets that provide proof of ownership in the virtual space. As the first company to ever release a fashion NFT, The Fabricant sold their digital Iridescence dress for US$9,500 at an auction in May 2019. RTFKT, a market leader in digital artifacts, sold US$3.1 mn worth of sneaker NFTs in seven minutes in February 2021.
For those anchored in the physical world, who experienced floppy disks and portable cassette players firsthand – the metaverse and digital images of themselves might seem pointless, if not absurd. However, Larosse points out that for young millennials and Gen Z, as digital natives whose virtual lives have equal validity to their physical lives, digital fashion is an obvious concept that makes complete sense and doesn’t require any explanation.
Being able to dress avatars (virtual representations of oneself) any way they want gives this generation a new avenue of self-expression that allows them to explore and experiment with their identity.
“Of course, we’re all used to wearing fabric against the skin, but fashion is an emotional experience. And you don’t lose that emotional experience when you create something digitally.”
On the other hand, more and more brands are entering the digital world to keep up brand awareness, reach customers via a multichannel approach, and offer them immersive experiences. Companies such as Levi’s and Ralph Lauren have already released lines of virtual clothing, Gucci recently sold one of its digital bags at a higher price than its physical counterpart, while Balenciaga dropped an entire digital fashion collection in the global multiplayer game Fortnite.
How does digital fashion contribute to a more sustainable fashion future?
The credo of The Fabricant underscores the company’s commitment to sustainability: “We waste nothing but data and exploit nothing but our imagination.” Larosse points out that, unlike the traditional fashion paradigm, which can be wasteful and exploitative in so many ways, digital fashion does not cause overflowing landfills, excessive water usage and pollution, child labor, or animal cruelty.
“The historical process of sampling is so wasteful. It hasn’t changed in 200 years. So many of the principles according to which the current fashion industry operates are created for societies that don’t exist anymore. But now, we have the tech to disrupt that narrative and allow for more sustainable initiatives. We have begun to be much more cognizant of our planetary circumstances, and that requires quite radical interventions in the way that we do things.”
Another important aspect is the way virtual fashion and 3D modeling can help make the sampling process more sustainable. By creating 3D samples, companies can bypass the extremely resource-intensive process of moving bolts of fabric across companies’ branches or ateliers, sometimes flying them across the world, transforming them into samples of different sizes and colors, and then shipping them back to the original point. If additional alterations are requested, the entire process is repeated, together with further carbon emissions and environmental burdens.
Big brands such as Peak Performance, Nike, and UnderArmour have already started to use 3D sampling by creating virtual versions of their garments. These digital assets can then be rebuilt as needed.
Today, a vast array of technological applications are poised to shape the future of the fashion industry. Keeping track of how these advances affect the environment and society in general, from creating a digital narrative to more informed and data-based decision-making, will be one of the main challenges going forward. Sustainability is becoming a key criterion in assessing the viability of a technological trend or business model.
All pictures in this article featuring digital fashion items were kindly provided by The Fabricant.
Want to learn more about the future of fashion?
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