Within much of the dialogue around the environment and the impact we are having on it, we see fashion as a primary culprit. The production, materials, workers and the huge amounts of waste are tainting the industry. So, what about fashion with no physical footprint and clothing that doesn’t strictly exist?
Daniella Loftus left her job in emerging technology last year to set up a blog, and later, her Instagram page: This Outfit Does Not Exist. Loftus was among the first to be showcasing digital outfits on Instagram and therefore her page began to gain traction. She started and continues to model digital clothing from brands such as Tribute Brand,Auroboros, Xtended Identity. For those unfamiliar with these brands, or digital fashion at all, Loftus’ page is an accessible introduction to an often complex industry planting its feet in the fashion landscape, the metaverse and beyond.
Loftus has had an interest in fashion since childhood: “I grew up watching McQueen and Mugler shows, I’ve always liked eccentric garments,” she says. But when it came down to it, something about a career in fashion did not feel quite right. “I don’t think it was ethos driven the way I wanted it to be,” she explains, partly due to the conspicuous consumption that circles it.
Loftus patiently waited for change and, whilst working in emerging technologies, found there was scope to involve fashion in her day job. This consisted of researching how emerging tech trends and brands will impact and disrupt different industries. She was perfectly placed. “I became the resident fashion technology expert at my company. I wasn’t staffed on a project, but I just read fashion technology articles all day. My dream was that at some point in my life, the two would converge, but I didn’t think it would be so soon,” says Loftus.
I went onto the internet, and I thought I was going to see thousands of Vogue business articles and Instagram accounts all centred around digital fashion, but there was literally nothing.
After reading an article in 2020 about how the CMO of Gucci, Robert Triefus, was set on producing digital clothes in the next couple of years, Loftus knew she had an opportunity to be ahead of the curve. It was during the pandemic that she realised: “We have this colossal creator economy, and we are all stuck in our houses, this makes so much sense. I went onto the internet, and I thought I was going to see thousands of Vogue business articles and Instagram accounts all centred around digital fashion, but there was literally nothing.” Now, searching ‘digital fashion’ on Google brings up nearly 400 million results. Loftus saw a genuine future in the industry and capitalised on it with unparalleled timing. It’s rare to find your perfect job, but Loftus has managed to create her own.
“I genuinely thought this was going to be my side hustle for a year or two. I thought the shift was going to happen, but I thought it was going to take a bit of time and then it was two months after that, the NFT boom happened and the whole thing got catalysed. I started getting all this attention, but I never expected it to happen so fast.” Loftus took 3 months off her job, moved to Mexico City where she still lives today, and started writing long-form essays around digital fashion and its future, bringing them to life with photos of her in weird and wonderful digital clothing, the first one titled, “The what, the how and why of digital fashion”.
Loftus categorises digital fashion into three categories; in real life (IRL), unreal life (URL) and on real life (ORL). IRL is a garment with both a digital and physical component. URL – a digital garment worn by a digital being, like an avatar – is how brands like Gucci and Prada are selling clothes on the Metaverse, intending to allow users to express themselves with a varied clothing choice and moving away from generic unbranded avatars.
This Outfit Does Not Exist was led by ORL, when a human wears a piece of digital clothing. It was important to Loftus that she was bringing the clothes to life, rather than showing a floating image or digital mannequin. It’s key to be able to visualise these unorthodox pieces on a human otherwise they feel like an out-of-reach piece of art and it was this difference that helped Loftus to stand out from the crowds of avatars.
Whilst Loftus was starting out, so were the first platforms to host these designs, including DRESSX, a multi-brand digital marketplace where you can buy digital clothing from countless creators and wear it by simply uploading a photo of yourself. Prices on DRESSX hover around the $40 mark, which in terms of accessibility, is appealing. DRESSX also understood the importance of education in a new marketplace, and quickly took to showing customers how digital garments could work.
I think we’ll start seeing it towards digital clothes. I think personally we just haven’t seen digital clothes that really leverage enough emotion or are cool enough
In the past few years, we have seen people form attachments to JPEGs, strong enough to spend millions on them. The highest selling NFT which sold in 2021 went for an enormous $69.3 million – Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Day. Spending this amount of money on something purely digital seems a crazy concept, but one that’s become a prominent part of the art industry. While we aren’t yet at that stage in digital fashion, it doesn’t seem too far off. “I think we’ll start seeing it towards digital clothes. I think personally we just haven’t seen digital clothes that really leverage enough emotion or are cool enough,” says Loftus. “That’s the kind of stuff that I’m going to try to design, because I think fashion is all about narrative.” After closing a round of funding at $1.5 million, she has just launched her own digital marketplace, Draup (@pronounceddraup on Instagram) where she has been working alongside a digital team designing a collection and building a community. With Draup she aims to “maximise the value of Digital Fashion for both its creators and consumers, to enable the revolutionary impact I originally envisioned.”
NFTs – or non fungible tokens – are the internet’s newest hot commodity, even if the NFT design itself is not new at all. The Bored Ape Yacht Club – a cartoon ape you’ve undoubtedly seen in 10,000 iterations of colours, accessories, and expressions – began at a modest $136 a piece and will now go for well over $2 million. Yes, a cartoon ape with a sailor’s cap for $2 million.
“It’s like people having these status symbols that represent their identities and then dressing them into true fashion. And I think that’s what we’re also going to see proliferate more and more.” As the popularity increases, we will see more platforms popping up which are tailored towards showcasing digital fashion, Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta positioning itself as an early leader.
The fashion industry is notorious for its exclusivity and inaccessibility due to barriers such as, but not limited to, class, size, race, and age. Loftus is confident that digital fashion has immense potential for accessibility: “With digital fashion, you can be anywhere in the world and, just like you learn the software, you use algorithmically generated assistance, you get it on someone like me or someone on Instagram, and you can distribute it to the world. I think that’s so exciting,” says Loftus. A brand also does not have to physically exist to be on the metaverse shop, which encourages a whole new creator economy, and hopefully a more accessible one. Although there’s still a high barrier to entry in terms of having to learn an entirely new tech stack, most outfits are made on a software centred around digital fashion called CLO 3D, which can take a little time to get your head round for someone who is a tech or digital fashion novice.
The URL element is the most accessible at present, using digital fashion on avatars and within gaming – an industry which Data.ai have found is set to hit $222 billion this year – has huge potential, especially as existing luxury and emerging brands battle on this newly-even playing field. Balenciaga has already made its mark by creating four virtual outfits for Fortnite – known as skins – that are used to dress the in-game avatars. Even since I first spoke to Loftus for this interview, much has progressed within the industry – Balenciaga, Prada and Thom Browne have joined Meta and will have their clothes for sale to dress our future avatar forms… watch this space as other brands pile in.
Trying to make fashion sustainable – from renting, to second-hand, to recycling – has been an uphill battle against fast fashion giants and the easy appeal of 99p dresses. Whilst digital fashion isn’t the sole answer, it does offer solutions. In the UK, the average person wears one piece of clothing under ten times, and brands are only just beginning to address the unsustainable nature of returns. Fast fashion titan Zara announced earlier this year that it would start charging £1.95 for all previously free online returns. The Office for National Statistics reported that 26.1 per cent of total retail sales were made online in March 2022, a 7.2 per cent increase since 2019 and a number likely to continue to rise. Returning less keeps greenhouse gas emissions low, while the eye-catching nature of digital designs has the power to influence shoppers into more conscious consumer habits. Leading e-commerce platform Shopify has found that 3D AR technology has reduced returns by 40 per cent. That’s a huge saving in time, money, and fuel, and makes digital fashion’s try-before-you-buy system all the more appealing. With 87 per cent of UK shoppers buying online, digital try-ons could be very useful in decision-making and more mindful purchasing.
But where does digital clothing fit in an industry that is so saturated by material objects and powered by our one-click-of-a-button consumerism? Aren’t we all just too attached to our tangible goods to say goodbye to our biggest spending sector? And how can this change our spending habits when the need for physical clothing hasn’t ceased?
For Loftus, she believes the digital designs she models should be used to augment our current system, not replace it. “I think the slow fashion movement is incredible,” she tells us. “But, I also think what’s very hard about it is it’s going against our human instinct.” We are conditioned to behave as consumers with constant dialogue around what’s new. We are bombarded with advertising and a fashion industry that tells us we need to reinvent ourselves every season by following trends and buying what we see on the catwalk. We have been conditioned to behave in a way that proliferates consumerism. “What I really liked from the outset about digital fashion is it doesn’t ask you to reject those urges, it asks you to transfer them to a digital identity,” says Loftus. Digital fashion is a playground for experimentation and perfect for trend-led fashion. You can virtually try new styles, shapes, and colours and decide if that piece is something you really like and would want to invest in the physical form, offering an alternative to the ‘buy less’ solution. It might be too late for some of us to unlearn our programmed-from-birth consumerist behaviours, but in comes the alternative – to keep shopping but make a proportion of it digital.
What I really liked from the outset about digital fashion is it doesn’t ask you to reject those urges, it asks you to transfer them to a digital identity
Globally, the gaming industry attracts 3 billion players each year – that’s a lot of avatars that need dressing. The collaboration between gaming and fashion has hinted at what’s to come for digital fashion, including the Gucci Garden which was launched on the game platform Roblox and brought in over 20 million visitors in the space of two weeks. As much as some might not want to accept it, we are seeing a digital shift in all major industries. Consulting company McKinsey & Company describes gaming and the digital sphere as an extension of the real world, very meta…
Oftentimes, increased diversity and accessibility can feel like the antithesis of exclusivity and – by default for this industry – luxury, but it appears the digital market has space for this too. Already in the metaverse, NFTs have created a new way to invest and own collectors’ items, and this should also be expected of digital fashion too. Digital fashion house The Fabricant, who has teamed up with Web3, allows users to co-create and mint their own NFTs. “I think it’s one of the biggest hurdles that we have at the moment, we still need to figure out what fair pricing is,” says Loftus. “To me, what is most exciting about digital fashion is that you can be a young creator from anywhere in the world and you can get your design seen and sold and actually make a profit from it, instead of working for a large fashion house where you must have certain qualifications and live in a certain place. I think what we’re seeing is super interesting in the same way streetwear [gained popularity] because it appealed to an entirely new audience, and was bottom-up,” says Loftus.
Despite many efforts, the fashion industry as a whole has yet to take appropriate accountability for it’s part in our climate crisis, with the United Nations Environment Programme and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reporting that as much as 10 per cent of global carbon dioxide output and one-fifth of plastic produced per year is produced by the fashion industry. Although it doesn’t physically exist, digital fashion isn’t able to walk free of a carbon footprint. The sustainability element is an interesting topic, but luckily one with logical answers.
While digital landscapes can undoubtedly provide us with alternative spaces in order to protect what’s left of our natural one, our digital footprint is also not invisible. The majority of digital fashion is built using the Ethereum blockchain, which uses a process called mining to validate transactions, requiring huge amounts of power. Across all cryptocurrencies, 39 per cent of its power comes from renewable sources. This is a higher percentage than the total global energy usage which is 28 per cent renewable, but this doesn’t solve how much power is needed in the mining process. The mechanism that enables these validations is called Proof of Work (PoW). A procedure where computers compete against each other to solve a maths puzzle to be the first to validate the transactions and, therefore, earn a reward in the form of Ethereum tokens. As the crypto industry has grown, and more miners have joined the Ethereum network, competition has increased and so has energy consumption.
Crypto and blockchain technologies are still relatively new and constantly evolving. Ethereum was created in 2015 and has a long way to go until the market matures. Fortunately, unlike the sustainability issues we face with fast fashion, there is a solution for Ethereum – a transition to Proof of Stake (PoS). This is a more sustainable method of validating transactions which no longer requires computers competing against each other and instead the network chooses one validator to create a new block. This transition, known as The Merge, is stated to occur in August of this year, but has faced years of delays.
A report by the Ethereum Foundation noted that this shift will be 2,000 times more energy efficient, using 99.95 per cent less energy, and make digital fashion a strong sustainable alternative. “It’s so much easier to remedy a technological issue than it is a fashion supply chain that’s been ridiculously unsustainable for years,” says Loftus.
When it comes to making a consumer decision, how can you tell the quality of something that is without material? Much of our understanding of fashion psychology comes from the physical experience of wearing and the emotional response that ensues, but Loftus has new requirements that she considers when inspecting digital garments. “One of my favourite designers is Tribute Brand – their materials look tactile and the render quality is perfect, it’s super sharp and it looks like I’m wearing it. It’s just like a different type of quality, I suppose. Less physical,” says Loftus. Instead of a tangible quality, Loftus looks at material renders, which are created by computer-aided design (CAD). The clothes should look sharp and without a pixelated appearance – it shouldn’t look Photoshopped – fitting the body well and allowing for natural movement.
While select digital brands have made their first moves into traditional fashion spaces – Auroboros are now included in the London Fashion Week show schedule – there’s still a way to go before industry-wide acceptance. “I think we are going to see a massive improvement over the next few years,” says Loftus. However, she admits that it’s unlikely to see the biggest brand names trading threads for pixels until the process is perfected. “Showcasing stuff that’s technologically cool but isn’t visually compelling is not going to get the fashion industry in,” says Loftus. If rendering and the appearance of the digital fashion doesn’t look luxurious and high quality, then it’s not going to attract the wider fashion industry or its consumers, especially at high price points. “I think one of the things that we’re still not seeing in this space is people who really understand and are crafting digital clothes with brand narratives that we see in physical fashion,” says Loftus. The next step is for digital fashion to reach beyond Web3 natives and to target digital fashion sceptics.
I think one of the things that we’re still not seeing in this space is people who really understand and are crafting digital clothes with brand narratives that we see in physical fashion.
It’s inevitable that the dynamics of the digital fashion industry are going to shift once larger brands start to play a more significant role and start to dominate trends. It’s a necessary shift, but also one that must consider the dedicated community that has formed digital fashion into what it is today. For development, it’s crucial that big brands take digital fashion seriously – not as a one-off collection, but as something to fully integrate into their brand strategy for years to come. And it is also crucial they don’t block out the young creatives, as this is a movement from the bottom-up, exploring totally new territories and technologies with digital and Web3 natives at the forefront, and they need acknowledging. What the industry needs is brands going in and really being concerned about a new digital identity, says Loftus. “Otherwise, I see it similar to greenwashing, it’s like crypto-washing,” she explains.
Luckily, the majority of brands are taking digital fashion seriously, and Loftus has seen this in their strategies. They see digital fashion as a long term ten-year plan to get right, as opposed to a marketing technique where a brand only dips a toe in and then reverts back to what they know… we need to see full brand submersion.
Loftus attributes much of her success to being at the right place at the right time, but she still timed it perfectly and had to know she was in the right place when no one else seemed to. As a front runner in the digital fashion space and like most successes, being able to take rejection ten times over but still not lose an ounce of faith in your idea is brave. It is exciting to be on this tipping point as we watch digital fashion infiltrate and, soon enough, dominate the mainstream.
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