The rise of the digital age has sparked an innovation for what we may otherwise take for granted. With this, comes a new type of fashion: virtual fashion – the combination of the physicality of clothing with technology. This may come in the form of online fashion weeks or the ability to ‘try on’ clothing digitally before purchasing. In recent years, virtual fashion has become more prominent due to our current pandemic, making the design and distribution of traditional fashion more difficult. While the term ‘virtual fashion’ itself may not have made its way into household conversation yet, studies have shown that it is a common interest. Dimension Studios, for example, found that 53% of 18-34 year olds reported interest in virtual try on apps. With this in mind, the question remains: is this a positive progression into a more inclusive take on fashion, or are we merely entertaining another attempt from the high-end fashion industry to modernise what will always be an inaccessible field?
Inevitably, the removal of excess physical garments will have a positive impact on the climate. In their recent press release, The Fabricant (a Dutch fashion house operating entirely digitally, with no physical clothing used) stated that they ‘waste nothing but data and exploit nothing but imagination’. Digital fashion also has no water usage, and emits 97% less CO2 than physical clothing. Considering this and the multiple calls to reduce the popularity of fast fashion, including protesting outside fashion weeks, the rise of virtual fashion has made its way into high end production. See Helsinki Fashion Week’s Digital Village in 2020, for example, which incorporated technology in order to reach a wider audience across the world. This not only addressed disability and barriers, but also recognised the carbon footprint of transporting and producing fashion shows of such a capacity. Alongside this, Vogue Singapore presented the idea of a virtual reality space to its readers, in which they could try on clothes virtually before purchasing. Hybrid fashion weeks have also been established across the world, with classes, talks and runways being conducted online. The necessity for these types of events is obvious – in order to reach the 1.5 degree target, McKinsey and Company predict the fashion industry must reduce its emissions by 50% (1.1 billion tonnes) in the next decade. With material production being the highest contributor to this figure, making fashion digital could have revolutionary impacts on the carbon footprint of the industry.
However such changes are coming from high end, less accessible, sources of fashion. With fashion weeks and magazines such as Vogue making use of clothing purchased by the wealthier population, it is clear to see how smaller designers cannot make the same changes. Whilst it may be argued that digital fashion could be more accessible to those less able to fund resources such as studio space and machinery, there is little evidence of this actually taking a positive effect on their success. Virtual fashion is yet to enter the sphere of smaller designers, arguably due to both their desire and need to promote their fashion in the more traditional sense in order to be recognised as legitimate. Up and coming designers who make use of purely digital fashion not only miss out the satisfaction of holding their physical creation, but also run the risk of being disregarded due to them not appealing to an audience that is used to traditional forms of fashion. Furthering this, studies noted earlier such as Dimension Studios’ noted earlier focus on younger audiences. Therefore, whilst 18-34s may be keen to use technology to try on clothes, those less attuned to social media may be less inclined to complicate a process as comfortable as buying clothes. Ultimately, if virtual fashion takes too much precedence in society, those of older generations alongside those less financially advantaged, will suffer.
So what is the future of virtual fashion? So where does the future lie with virtual fashion? Rebekka Bay, creative director of Marimekko, views virtual fashion as an opportunity to rethink traditional forms of fashion but not where the future of styling lies. Overall, I think I follow this line of thinking more than most. We could consider the forms outlined by This Outfit Does Exist, which categorises Digital fashion into three different types, one being the most digital, another being a 50/50 combination of both, and the last being technology having a minor role. By taking these forms, I would advocate for what they call ‘phygital’ fashion, in which digital fashion is designed for the aim of producing physical garments. By using this, we could use technology for ‘trying on’ digitally, rather than excess garments created just to be returned. Mac and Balenciaga already adopt these practices, and it has the potential to be opened up to smaller designers, who can still physically create their own garments but not waste material or time on creating unnecessary clothing.
We should be using the ideas accumulated over recent years by established designers and directors to spur a rethinking of fashion and incorporate new forms of distribution. Sentimental physical garments could then be prominent in ‘slow fashion’ in order to allow small businesses and designers to promote their work, whilst fast fashion brands should be encouraged to move to a much more digital sphere of distribution and branding.