We have documented the evolution of the digital fashion movement here over the past year, and the early rumblings are becoming a roar. What may have been a fad is now an established a trend. Given the technological bent of the SXSW festival, it’s not surprising that virtual fashion is at the center of its fashion programming in 2021. If you consider SXSW the leading edge between the present and the near future, digital fashion is worth revisiting.
Digital Fashion Is Now and Forever
A series of SXSW talks presented by technologists, designers, and the creative minds who merge both abilities, filtered a unifying point: Digital fashion is a thing. The interesting development for retail is that virtual fashion is breaking the confines of both digital and virtual worlds; it is nearly ready to take to the streets.
Imagine a future in which you select a simple sustainable garment from your physical closet, and then select a virtual outfit to project on top of it, one that is visible to anyone wearing smart glasses.
2020 was a year of staring at ourselves on screens. As we enter year-two of an always-on-screen presence, the interest in shaking up our visual representations, or creating other-selves, is a logical extension of individual expression. As with many behavioral changes resulting from our time trapped indoors, some of the shifts will stick with us as we begin to broaden our physical distances. The conduit connecting our screen-based, virtual expressions and the physical world is augmented reality. According to the experts at SXSW, augmented reality is also a thing that will fuse with digital fashion as we head back into the real world.
Digital Fashion Recurring Themes
There were underlying themes at SXSW that will shape our behavior:
- Fashion as a form of self-expression is nothing new and until now has been limited by utility. A garment (not including apparel designed as a work of art) must be wearable, cleanable, and functional.
- Clothing is now content.
- Digital fashion is sustainable.
- Digital fashion is not only about experience, it is also marketable.
- Digital fashion adds identity flexibility.
- Digital fashion offers diverse economic and social groups access to luxury, or a cool factor that they could not otherwise afford.
Nonny De La Peña, founder and CEO of Emblematic, a digital media company specializing in immersive, virtual, and augmented reality, and Kerry Murphy, a digital fashion designer and the founder of The Fabricant, a leading digital fashion company that caught headlines in 2019 when a virtual dress designed by Murphy sold on the blockchain for $9,500, tee up the near future. Murphy discusses the increased accessibility of 3D and VR and the declining “technological barriers of entry,” making these tools more accessible to fashion designers. The bulk of The Fabricant’s business is not designing $9500 digital gowns but working with designers and fashion houses to develop digital revenue streams and production processes.
De La Peña produced an avatar runway show she and her team created for the Italian streetwear brand GCDS (God Can’t Destroy Streetwear). She describes some hiccups between the fashion and the tech teams as teachable moments. Peña notes,” It takes about eight weeks to produce a digital fashion show. You can’t just roll up a sleeve after it is rendered, it will take an additional week to peel back the layers and make even a small change.” Virtual catwalks may be a pandemic-only phenomenon, but with changing attitudes about business travel and the costs involved, virtual may be a solution that sticks around.
Real-life developments are emerging through augmented reality. Murphy says, “Gaming is now the outlet, but AR filters are the next frontier.” He predicts AR Lenses are, “like the smartphone, suddenly everyone will have them.” The lenses or smart glasses will allow passersby to view alternate clothing items layered over clothing that will serve as an accessible canvas for expanded self-expression.
AR is also top of mind for Kailu Guan, recent founder of the AI-enhanced skincare line HelloAva. Guan is also fashion-tech designer trained at the Parson’s School of Design who created a pioneering 2016 adoption of AR apparel augmentation. Lest we forget, 2016 was the year Pokemon Go introduced the world to smartphone-based AR. Guan created beautiful physical garments that were augmented with three-dimensional shaped overlays, visible when viewed through the AR app she developed. While this 2016 fashion concept appeared to be a fad, it was a signal of a new trend waiting for technology to catch up. Guan remarks, ” The most profound technologies are the ones that disappear. Stop thinking gadget…instead, we should not feel the technology. It should seamlessly incorporate into everyday life”.
Digital fashion also has the potential to encourage more sustainable buying patterns. Anand Duncan, a digital designer, animator, and curator at the Museum of Other Realities and Sanj Surati of Tiger Heart London, a design technology studio specializing in AR, VR, and holography solutions for clients are both proponents of the benefits of digital fashion. They believe the emotional effect of fashion can be enhanced by its virtual form. If an attachment to the digital item grows, the consumer is confident in buying the IRL version, and create a customizable version that could be treasured.
Futurist Amy Webb summarizes the 504-page FTI annual tech trends report with the conclusion that 2020 was the year privacy really died. In terms of digital fashion, she calls out digital fashion as a leading trend in 2021 featuring these key findings:
- Physical garments may soon come with virtual counterparts, allowing users to catalog their wardrobes digitally, and preserve a version of a garment even after the physical piece degrades.
- As AR eyewear becomes commonplace, users may be able to virtually showcase digital looks on their person instead of just on an avatar. Imagine a future in which you select a simple sustainable garment from your physical closet, and select a virtual outfit to project on top of it, one that is visible to anyone wearing smart glasses.
Gucci’s experimentation in the AR space has been extensively covered and other use cases of this technology are increasingly emerging.
- Apple is working on advanced MR (mixed reality) glasses that would offer an AR and VR component. The company’s hardware developments are proprietary, as usual, but leakers are hinting that the high-priced glasses won’t be on faces until 2022 at the earliest.
- Facebook, on the other hand, is moving closer to an AR product and it is rumored that their glasses will be available in the fall of 2021. The company just teased the companion AR controller-ring in a recent video announcement.
- Fabricant is working with Under Armour to produce a 3D-digitized catalog of the current collection. Tommy Hilfiger developed a 3D digital hoodie as a test case for a fully digitized design process. Puma created an online 3D digital “shoot” and catalog for their Day Zero capsule collection, and sneaker company Buffalo London sold limited edition flaming sneakers that thankfully are only to be worn in the virtual world.
Fantasy Worlds as Realities
These ideas are hardly sci-fi (apart from the burning sneakers fantasy). After a year stuck at home, many of your current and future customers are already living in multiple worlds. They will emerge from shelter soon and the aftereffects of this year will emerge with them. For certain demographics, life will be lived in multiple realms. As consumers fragment their visual presentations of self, they will be dressing all of them. This is an opportunity for apparel brands and retailers alike. The separation between fantasy and reality blurs as we adopt multiple fashion personalities to match our multiple worlds with our AR/VR communities who live in a different dimension.