Fabrication Fashion: Clothes You Can See, Not Touch
We’ve had drones as models for handbags, clear PVC jeans and outrageous runway looks. Meet fashion’s strangest trend yet.
In November 2019, Richard Ma, CEO of San-Francisco based security company Quantstamp, bought a $13,580 (£7,500) dress for his wife Mary Ren.
A long-sleeved maxi with a lightweight, oil-slicked rainbow iridescent cape over the front.
But here’s the catch - this dress does not exist. Designed by Amsterdam-based digital fashion label The Fabricant, the dress was a digital garment photoshopped onto an image of Ren to look like she was wearing it. To flaunt her new outfit, she then posted the image on her personal WeChat and Facebook pages.
Enter the mystifying world of digital clothes.
Imagine shirts made of wisteria flowers that remain forever fresh, pants made of heavyweight PVC pipes, and glass slippers that now fit on everyone’s feet (sorry, Cinderella). Shards of glass and concrete that belong in a construction junkyard are now in the designer’s playground with the emergence of digital clothes, and these cutting-edge technologies will not be cutting anyone.
Made with 3D softwares like CLO3D and Blender, digital clothes are realistic garments that are designed and rendered onto images.
For customers, that also means that any garment they want - whether it’s a chic virtual outfit found on Nintendo Animal Crossing, or a fantastical woodland fairy dress - can be rendered on pictures of them for a price. From $7 digital sunglasses to $40,000 digital sneakers, you can hear Super Mario Coin ka-ching! as digital fashion houses cash in on this new trend.
Anna Sherman in DressX’s Pink butterfly dress by LVMH-award nominee designer Paskal. Photo: Courtesy of DressX
In California, the digital fashion house DressX works with 51 digital designers and companies like The Fabricant. In India, XR Couture works with 12. In Singapore, Republiqe has its own in-house designers curating pieces for its buyers, selling upwards of 450 digital garments since its launch last August.
And around the world, independent designers are beginning to make their own creations too, as brands such as XR Couture launch their “I Dress Digital” campaign, welcoming digital artists and designers to come on board and design their own digital garments as well.
While parting with thousands of dollars for a digital wardrobe seems absurd, these digital fashion houses might be onto something big. Like $5,000 couture micro bags and designer ‘dirty’ shoes, digital clothes might well satisfy the fashion needs people never knew they had.
Spending large amounts on something you can’t touch seems like something absurd, but the idea of dressing up in a virtual space is nothing new.
Most people on Club Penguin had a favourite colour Puffle for their penguin and decked out their igloos with their choice of furniture, fans of Habbo Hotel had their own personalised 8-bit outfits. Dressing up digital personas of ourselves has been around for a long time, in the games that we play.
According to Newzoo’s 2020 Global Games Market Report, there were 2.7 billion game players worldwide. In-game purchases made up 74 per cent of revenue for game publishers and developers, their largest source of income.
From spending days in the 90s personalising our Sims to dressing up our characters on Animal Crossing: New Horizons that debuted in March 2020, there is a potential market for digital clothes.
In 2017, players on the massively multiplayer online game Fortnite spent around US$30 billion on customisable skins and boxes, a figure that was set to double by the end of 2022, according to business intelligence company Juniper Research.
“It's still somewhat surprising to some people who don't spend time in games that your virtual clothes are super important to you. They're important to you in the same way that your regular clothes are, they represent your identity,” says Dr Rabindra Ratan, Associate Professor of Media and Information at the University of Michigan. “You've chosen them, you've curated them, sometimes you spend a lot more time on the virtual clothing than you do on your real clothing.”
In other words, the virtual identity is as important as the physical one. The way digital avatars talk, walk and dress matters to people. And as people increasingly spend on in-game cosmetic customisations of their avatar (that do nothing for the abilities of their in-game players), it’s no wonder that the fashion industry is looking to this trend to reach to its younger audiences to make their labels known to the gamer Gen Z crowd.
Image Credit: Instagram @animalcrossingfashionarchive
Big fashion labels like Net-a-Porter and Valentino have collaborated with fashion gaming enthusiasts to virtually replicate outfits from scratch on games like Animal Crossing. Inspired by the Fall-Winter 2020 runways, these outfits were designed in-game on the game’s Pro Designs function on players’ NookPhones. With that, high fashion label replicas made it onto the virtual islands of Animal Crossing for in-game animal characters to wear. The island even had its first virtual fashion show held by Reference Festival, a Berlin-based fashion organisation, with the full red carpet treatment, paparazzi and catwalks featuring the then-current season looks of Loewe, Prada and GmbH on dolled-up villagers.
Similarly, when Gucci dropped its inaugural collaboration collection with The North Face, the brand released virtual versions of the pieces with the augmented reality Pokémon game, PokémonGO, before the sale of its merchandise. For players, this may be their ticket into a highly sought after fashion collaboration, as they now could dress their avatars in T-shirts, backpacks, caps and bucket hats in pieces adorned with the Gucci logo.
“I like to look good in the game,” declares Rikh Singh, a 31-year-old super player of PokémonGO, the augmented reality rendition of the childhood favourite game. And while there is a wardrobe of free outfits available on PokémonGO for users to pick from, Singh has taken pride in spending a couple of dollars on in-game outfits to kit his avatar out to look presentable to his in-game friends.
“You can send gifts to people and people can see your profile so it's very interactive. Maybe because of that, I want to present myself as someone cool.”
When you think of it that way, digital clothes don’t sound so crazy after all. With all the in-game spending, fashion labels are simply playing a game of catch up.
“The money being spent on virtual content in the gaming industry is huge,” explained Matthew Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion, in an interview with Elle Magazine, “and the fashion industry is only just beginning to realise that there might be an opportunity there.”
Digital garments are just an extension of gaming skins and add-ons, for social media-driven online persons.
“Our clothing is not designed for people who are looking for something to keep them dry in the rain.”
James Gaubert, Founder of digital fashion house Republiqe
“There is a mental reason why we buy clothing. And that is because we want to feel good, and we want to look good,” says James Gaubert, founder and CEO of local digital fashion house Republiqe. “For today's consumers, it’s all about feeling good and looking good on social media.”
And while Gaubert admits that these clothes are not practical, digital garments are not made for the people who are looking for practicality. “Our clothing is not designed for people who are looking for something to keep them dry in the rain,” said Gaubert.
However, he is passionate about what digital clothes can bring to the table. A big driving force? The freedom of creativity that designers can tap into. From rare ostrich feathers to slabs of concrete, designers can use hard-to-find textiles that won’t weigh wearers down.
It may seem strange that people would reach for a lilac ostrich feather coat - items like that have always been left on sales racks at fast fashion outlets like H&M - but there is no denying in the joy of dressing up.
Cue the fashion trend that peaked during the global pandemic, Covid-19, #alldressedupandnowheretogo. The hashtag has over 90,000 tags on Instagram, and counting. With mirror selfies of people at home fully dressed in outfits with makeup and hair done, this trend proved that even in a lockdown, people still want to look good and dress up, even if that means putting it on for just five minutes for that mirror shot.
“For me fashion is an artistic expression of individuality. To me, it's like a message that's been coded and you want to send to people,” says Wendy Long, 40-year-old fashion enthusiast and socialite. According to research done by the Columbia University in 2015, it found that the way people dressed up affected the way they felt, and how they act.
So just like days of paper dolls playing dress up, digital garments offer the same value for its customers. Outrageous outfits made of impractical materials may not be an option in the heat of the island city, but digital garments make dressing up fuss-free and possible.
“What I picked was something that I think I will never get a chance to wear,” says Fahimah Thalib, a 34-year-old speech therapist in Singapore who was gifted a pink PVC floor-length gown from the digital fashion house Republiqe. It makes sense: no one would want to be wearing such a heat trapping material in the sweaty humidity of Singapore.
“When I received the picture. I was really happy to see how I looked in a fancy gown. And it made me feel, ‘Oh my God, if I ever in some unforeseen future need a dress like that, I would definitely pick some silhouette that's similar to that,’ because I actually really liked how the digital dress looked on me,” she said.
Photo: Courtesy of DressX
Seeing herself in the pink ball gown was a fantasy Thalib indulged in. “I like that there was that element of fantasy to it, that it's very different from anything that I will get to wear in real life,” she says.
And while the outfit was only a digital render and felt different from usual Instagram images, Thalib appreciated the ethereal effect of her first digital garment. “You know that the reality is that you were not wearing anything fancy, but It still looks special.”
Thalib’s image in her $120 digital prom dress from Republiqe was posted onto her personal Instagram, and garnered comments from curious followers and friends.
“What! So you’re not actually wearing it, it was digitally added?”
“So trippy! Love this pic!”
Thalib, in Republiqe’s Digital Prom dress, made of a full colour lycra bodysuit, PVC mini dress and purple silk caplet. Photo: Courtesy of Fahimah Thalib
But when asked if she would ever pay for a digital outfit out of her own pocket, Thalib shook her head and whispered “no …”
However, she does see the possibilities 3D renders could bring, and how they could help her buying physical clothes, rather than just being available only for the virtual world.
“I think that if I'm buying my clothes online, if they have this feature where they can actually fit on the clothes on me, then I feel like I am more likely to make the purchase of a real clothing item because I would have seen how the clothes will fit and fall on me,” explained Thalib.
“Maybe in the future if I became more into gaming then maybe I'll probably be willing to spend on digital clothes for my avatar.”
So while Thalib did enjoy the fantasy, she remains skeptical about spending on digital clothes.
“I’m crying, has anyone seen that company selling digital clothes to put on your photos…” Twitter user @yyverse tweets. “It looks so bad, why would you buy clothes that aren’t real?” the twitter user bemoans.
And followers of the user seem to agree.
“Why does it look so bad?”
“As we enter a more digital era I kinda get it’s an interesting concept but they.. Look so fake.”
“So you will have two parallel identities. That is what we look forward to.”
Subham Jain, Founder of digital fashion house XR Couture
Still, while digital garments may only exist in the realm of our images now, digital fashion houses are banking on the rising trend of augmented and virtual realities, where there would be a reliance on digital garments to dress up virtual avatars in these virtual worlds.
In February 2020, TechCrunch’s columnist Eric Peckham wrote a series of articles about the rise of the multiverse era, where the virtual world of games expands to become hubs for social interaction and entertainment.
Peckham predicted an increase in open-world massively multiplayer online (MMO) games like Fortnite and Club Penguin that will facilitate and focus on social interactions over gaming. And was he right.
Three weeks after Peckham wrote the series, the Covid-19 pandemic struck and the majority of the globe went into lockdowns lasting weeks. Research by Nielson Global Media found that 82 per cent of global media consumers had played and watched video games in the height of the pandemic lockdowns.
Outside of gaming, there has also been a rise in the use of virtual reality technologies. In 2020, Oberlo found a 20.9 per cent increase in users of virtual reality headsets in the US from 2019, up to 43.1 million people.
So as primary school kids are into games such as Roblox to meet their friends, and teens are meeting on Among Us and Animal Crossing to hang out and socialise, it's no wonder digital fashion garments are betting on the rise of these virtual worlds to propel digital clothes into the spotlight.
And acknowledging that digital clothes will never replace physical ones, Subham Jain, founder and CEO of digital fashion house XR Couture does predict that these technologies will complement our physical clothes with the help of augmented reality and virtual reality (VR) and technologies.
“There will be places where you will have a virtual identity for yourself, and in these virtual identities you will be wearing digital garments. Like say, I'm wearing VR glasses right now. But if I take them off, you're wearing a physical garment, but when I put them on you wearing a digital garment,” Jain explains.
“So you will have two parallel identities. That is what we look forward to.”
Some in the fashion crowd feel the same way. Although the idea of dressing up for the virtual space sounds foreign for now, with the rising idea of virtual and augmented realities, digital clothes could become fashion they would want to invest in.
“I guess right now it sounds strange for us because we don't quite understand how we are going to apply and use it,” says Long. “But if we have a real augmented reality where we have our own presence online as a digital avatar and we need digital clothes for them, then I think that that will come in very handy.”
Photo: Courtesy of DressX
And for enthusiasts, the fundamental concept is that fashion is art. Similar to the Hermès Birkins and limited-edition garments fashion enthusiasts buy for display in glass cabinets, digital fashion holds a place in the hearts of some fashion enthusiasts as another item to keep at home as part of their collection.
Take for example when digital sneaker company RTFKT held an auction for a pair of AI-designed digital sneakers, the colour-shifting high-top sneakers were sold at 22 ETH (cryptocurrency worth approximately $13,300 at the point of sale) and purchased by a user who goes by the moniker Whaleshark.
For Whaleshark, the digital sneakers were simply another to add to his collection of digital artifacts. “I would love to hang that up on a mural or digital screen in my office,” he said in an interview with cryptocurrency media outlet Coindesk.
But while people like Whaleshark and Richard Ma spend thousands on digital clothes and true-to-life sneakers, digital fashion houses are not only catering to the wealthy. Not every outfit costs an arm and leg.
With that, digital clothing companies aim to be inclusive and affordable, as they continue to find new ways for people to dress. “Digital clothing, it’s kind of a one size fits all, we don't discriminate against any shape or size or body that our consumers are,” says Gaubert.
As strange as the trend of purchasing something that doesn’t exist sounds, it might just work. Maybe in a couple years time we’ll meet virtually and virtual outfits won’t sound so crazy after all.