In November 2019, a San Francisco businessman spent $9,500 on a dress for his wife. Apart from its hefty price tag, you may be wondering why the fuss over a long-sleeved maxi dress with an iridescent cape? For one thing, the dress does not exist, not in real life at least; it is a 3D-rendered digital garment that is “worn” by superimposing it onto a photograph of its wearer.

Welcome to the digital fashion world, where technology is pushing design boundaries and redefining clothing as we know it. Virtual wear, made from pixels instead of textiles, need not be confined to conventional material nor constrained by gravity or physics. Hence, virtual closets offer endless opportunities for experimentation and creative self-expression. Think electrified streetwear, glass-blown dresses, and cloud-like outerwear. In the not-too-distant future, AR (augmented reality) glasses may even allow us to flex our ‘phygital’ (physical-meets-digital) clothing in real life.

The concept of digital fashion is not new; online gamers have long been outfitting their in-game avatars. Today, popular games like Fortnite and Roblox generate billions of dollars in revenues from “skins.” And it is not just the gaming industry paying attention. Luxury brand Louis Vuitton partnered game developer Riot Games to create a collection of League of Legends skins as well as real-life outfits; Balenciaga and Fortnite followed suit. In fact, the fashion industry cannot seem to get enough of this fashion subculture. This past year saw fashion NFTs (Non-fungible tokens) launches by Gucci, Dolce & Gabanna, among others. Nike also announced its acquisition of RTFKT Inc. (pronounced as “artifact”), fashion NFTs’ frontrunner, which famously sold 600 pairs of digital sneakers in 7 minutes for $3.1 million.

Proponents cite three reasons to shift to digital fashion: sustainability, inclusivity, and ethical consumerism. According to the UN, the fashion industry is the second-largest polluter after oil. Fast fashion is primarily to blame; together with social media, they encourage a one-time wear culture, contributing to ever-growing fashion waste. Virtual wear drastically reduces this wasteful phenomenon while allowing people to try new styles. Digital clothing is body-type, gender, and age-inclusive; it can be made to fit anyone and need not conform to societal norms of dressing. Digital fashion could also solve long-standing ethical issues like exploitative working conditions, sweatshops, and child labor plaguing the fashion industry.  

But not everyone is convinced. Some find it absurd to pay for a dress or handbag that does not exist in real life. They also argue that digital clothing is not a functional substitute since you still need real clothes. Others contend that digital does not automatically mean sustainable since data centers used to power digital designing also add to the growing carbon footprint.

Though I do not think I will be switching to a virtual wardrobe anytime soon, digital fashion is intriguing. I think it is a cool, innovative way to express myself, but don’t ask my grandmother, she believes it is the emperor’s new clothes!