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The State of Digital Fashion (pt.1)
#6 In this edition: repaving the cornerstone of Digital Fashion 101
“Doc: See you in the future.
Marty McFly: You mean the past.
- Back to the Future, Part III
Two years ago, I wrote The What, How and Why of Virtual Fashion.
As the first long-form explainer of what Digital Fashion was, and why anyone should care, I intended to create the cornerstone of Digital Fashion 101.
But, in an industry that moves at the speed of singularity, one inevitably has to repave.
So WTF is Digital Fashion in 2023?
NOTE: This newsletter now comes with a glossary - look out for the terms marked with a *
Digital Fashion, defined as “any worn garment manufactured in the digital realm”, can still be split into three categories:
WTF is Digital Fashion Now? (2023 edition)
1. IRL or In Real Life Digital Fashion
Definition: Digital clothes with a physical counterpart.
Where we were: IRL fashion is as old as time (in Metaverse years).
IRL today: Over the past two years, In Real Life Digital Fashion has been transformed by two things:
Technological improvements - from how garments are made and distributed to the benefits they offer wearers, innovations like 3D printing (Danit Peleg), AI-based personalisation (Deep Objects), and NFC* integrations (IYK) have led to a new generation of techwear.
Digital-first cultural markers - the digital asset craze of 2021 led to a spur in metaverse-native IP*. Be it through Bored Apes*, Crypto Punks* or Doodles*, individuals have begun to consume new identities; giving rise to digitally-native artworks and avatars which are cultural signifiers, human identifiers and burgeoning brands in their own right.
9dcc’s “Networked Products” - transforming the wretch-worthy 'Phygital’* into the far sleeker “Networked Product”*, NFT* influencer GMoney’s* brand creates physical products which use digital integrations to heighten wearer relationships.
9dcc garments reward owners for the ways they interact. A 9dcc wearer can ask those around them to tap a phone to their garment’s hem to receive a personalised NFT known as a POAP*. This digital asset verifies the wearer’s interaction and brings the recipient into that particular wearer’s online micro-community.
As fashion is all about socially signalling, the beauty of 9dcc is that it incentivises wearership and interaction across both physical and digital spaces. Brands currently relying on influencers face immense uncertainty around how social media metrics convert into real-world clout. Now, with networked products, brands have ways to track links between a garment owner and those they connect with through the number of NFTs given out (every marketer’s dream!).
RSTLSS fashion forging - Charli Cohen*, the mother of techwear, has been innovating on what it means to bring our clothes online for over a decade.
A natural continuation of her work under the Charli Cohen brand where she used QR codes to unlock buyer privileges, made customisable physicals, and built the first AR hoodie back in 2020, Charli’s new company RSTLSS experiments with melding our digital and physical lives.
Users of the RSTLSS platform can co-create wearables with digital artists. Both independent creators (e.g. Catherine the Worst) and crypto cult leaders (e.g. Gremplin*). These garments can then be worn across digital worlds such as Somnium Space, Snapchat, Mona and Instagram, plus ‘forged’ to wear IRL.
As Matthew Ball spotted back in 2021, virtual worlds are both where the next generation of IP will be created, and what the next generation of IP will be created for. As such, it’s inevitable that rather than dressing our virtual selves like our real-world counterparts, we’ll be dressing our real-world selves to mimic trends that develop digitally.
NFTiff status-on-status - with the likes of Timex and Bored Ape Yacht Club hot on their heels, Tiffany stands as the first luxury brands to create customisable jewels based on an owner’s digital avatar.
Seen by many as the ultimate digital bluechip, Crypto Punks, a 10,000 piece pixelated JPEG collection, retail at around $100,000. Held by celebrities like Heidi Klum and Jay-Z, ownership gives holders access to status, community (#punkfollowpunk) and now, thanks to Tiffany, personalised merch. Selling out in just 22 minutes and generating $12.5 million for its progenitors, NFTiff allowed 250 ‘Punk’ holders to receive a customised pendant of their Punk for the price of 30ETH (~$50,000).
PFPs are becoming degens’* second skins, with a number of notable individuals (GMoney, SeedPhrase, PUNK 6529) forging personal brands around their punky avatars. Despite a drop in PFP projects as crypto sentiment simmered, our representation in the forms of avatars is inevitable with branded avatars becoming fashion in their own right. Making these avatars the target of luxury clout is an intelligent play in a world where the crypto consumer is becoming an ever more integral luxury buyer.
2. ORL or On Real Life Digital Fashion
Definition: Digital clothes worn by physical people
Where we were: With 4 billion social media users, and a creator economy 50-million-strong, it’s clear that On Real Life fashion had a market in enhancing our online selves.
Much like social media itself, the OG ORL fashion (of our year 2020) was optimised for image, and, in order to glitch proof/ de-polly-pocketize, ORL wearership began as a hyper-manual process. You would:
Select a digital item
Take a photo of yourself as if you were wearing it
Send that image to the brand who would composit the outfit onto your image
24-48 hours later voila! a digitally-dressed photo.
Important to note is:
You did not own the outfit - the digitally dressed photo was all you got for your money
You could only wear the outfit once - due to the hyper-manual process of ‘dressing’ your outfit could only be put on a single image
This made a good investment for a budding influencer but little else…
ORL today: Over the past two years both the elements of ORL ownership and ORL wearership have significantly evolved.
Ownership - with the rise of NFT technology, fully ownable, traceable and transferable digital assets have begun to move into the Digital Fashion space.
Whilst AR filters under the Snapchat and Instagram banner still can’t be owned, companies like Tribute Brand and DRESSX are working to create blockchain-backed digital clothing you can both own and wear.
Wearership - innovations in AR are facilitating the move to real-time digital dressing.
Both Snapchat and ZERO10 are tackling the UX issues a Digital Fashion wearer faces across body tracking (your arm falls off when you move wrong way) and camera positioning (you have to prop a phone up, or enlist a friend to get a full body shot). With advancements in AR, wearers now have the ability to flex their Digital Fashion instantly, and wear the same outfit multiple times.
ZERO10 fashion in motion - over the past year ZERO10 has made a name for itself as Digital Fashion’s AR leader.
With a super sleek app, they’ve near nailed body-tracking, and have begun to build out Digital Fashion optimised for video.
As well as being able to shoot content in a variety of poses and locations (as opposed to the strict guidelines with which ORL began) this means that in the place of static prints you can find items which evolve with movement, catch on fire, or capture entire underwater worlds in their composition.
Tribute Brand X Carolina Herrera digital makeover - the pioneers of digital design (IMHO) Tribute Brand’s digital tailoring has long set the standard for immaculate digital dressing.
They partnered with the classic ready-to-wear brand Carolina Herrera in 2021 with an AR-collection available exclusively through their proprietary app.
With Herrera dresses retailing at $1,000+, the Tribute Brand collaboration provided an opportunity to get Herrera on an entirely new audience without sacrificing brand prestige.
Equally, by collaborating with a cutting-edge digitally-native creator the mainstream brand allowed themselves to experiment with style; wearers of the dress could shoot lasers from their bodies while wearing the hot pink digi gowns.
3. URL or Un Real Life Digital Fashion
Definition: Digital Fashion sold direct-to-avatar.
Despite the rise of ‘default culture’* — where gamers demonstrate clothes-based cattiness to rival that of the most virulent fashion bitch — until 2019 when Moschino and The Sims collabed, fashion and gaming kept each-other at arm's length.
Somewhere between a “persistent virtual world occurring everywhere, for everyone in real time” and “the next generation of the internet”, whilst a fully formed ‘Metaverse’ is a long way off, the past 2 years have seen a clear shift towards digital identities, forcing fashion to re-frame.
The rise of user-generated content* (UGC) has led to a new class of designers weaned on digital worlds. Roblox’s 22 year-old Samuel Jordan is the posterboy earning $90,000+ per month selling in-game clothes and designing for the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Burberry.
In a similar vein, brands such as RTFKT have seen immense traction. Built by digital natives for digital natives, they appeal to a next-gen consumers that trad fashion* would otherwise struggle to touch.
In terms of URL this reframing of games as spaces to find fashion has sparked two significant shifts:
An expansion in ‘wearers’ - this is both because of an increased number of virtual clothes available and because a wider range of digital characters can wear them.
Where Digital Fashion was previously limited to avatars in game-based worlds like Fortnite the rise of PFPs (Bored Apes), proto-Metaverses (Decentraland) and avatar creation startups (Genies) there are more ‘wearers’ of URL clothes than ever before.
A shift towards ‘interoperable clothing’ - with more trad fashion consumers moving into digital spaces, and more places to wear digital clothes cropping up each day, wearers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with fits restricted to specific environments.
The OG Digital Fashion locations — Roblox/Fortnite — function like gated malls. The clothes you buy in them:
Cannot be worn outside these platforms
Can only be created and traded with the platforms permission and commission
Are completely lost if the platform goes bust.
The rise of NFT-based Digital Fashion provides opportunities to counter these limitations, giving a buyer rights to their clothing which can then be owned and monetized freely.
What’s more, startups like Ready Player Me are leading the charge to move clothes cross-world. They support wearership across 6250+ apps and games.
10KTF store-y telling - the Beeple* borne startup began by making Digital Fashion based on digitally-native IP in 2021.
Set in a store in virtual Tokyo, shop owning character ‘Wagmi-San’ would open his doors and allow holders of specific NFTs to create custom merch based on their PFPs.
Ranging from Bored Apes to World of Women* and Moonbirds* 10KTF has seen $45M+ worth of trade volume over 30,000 items. In March last year, the brand collaborated with Alessandro Michele from Gucci, with custom Gucci merch available to those holders of the BAYC community
GMoney, Charli Cohen and Ian Rogers all argue that PFPs are not just digital avatars that wear Digital Fashion. Rather, as symbols used to express an owner's identity, PFPs are fashion itself. Capitalising on the prevalence of digitally-native IP to create fashion for fashion is a smart way to double-up status signalling (as NFTTiff did with Punks), allowing trad fashion players to piggyback off brands native to the digital space.
DRAUP coding the couture - a platform redefining Digital Fashion, DRAUP aims to reposition couture as a digital art form. (note for transparency: this my project)
In our manifesto ‘Code is the Couture’ we make the argument that where physical fashion houses work with the most talented embroiderers and tailors to bring their work to life, when it comes to digital fashion brands will need to turn to the coders.
Looking to projects like Artblocks and Bright Moments, where creations are coveted as much for algorithms as aesthetics, this seems like an obvious future.
One of the most famous generative art* pieces ‘The Chromie Squiggle*’ has consumers creating hierarchies around visible characteristics, seeking ‘full spectrums’ (all rainbow), bolds (thick) and pipes (pipe-like in appearance), but also hidden traits encoded in the metadata like ‘harmonics’ and ‘ghosts’.
With couture coveted for its artisanal qualities, it’s likely that new conceptions of what is classed as craftful will take route in digital forms.
The Fabricant - a true OG in the Digital Fashion space, The Fabricant has long woven principles of inclusivity into their ways of working.
As early as 2019, this first Digital Fashion house ran competitions for budding digital designers to collaborate on client work, with Karlie Kloss, Adidas and Star Atlas. Now, with The Fabricant Studio, they’re broadening these principles to provide creator tooling which allows anyone to be a Digital Fashion designer.
Over the past few years UGC has become increasingly popular. In the past 6 months, AI tooling stacks like Midjourney* & Chat GPT* have welded worlds where creation is about conception rather than execution. It’s inevitable these trends will seep into Digital Fashion, meaning marketplaces and tooling stacks that facilitate UGC fully owned by its makers will inspire the new creative class.
What’s the significance of these advancements? Why should you care? And what do they mean for the year…? You’ll find out in part 2.
“Welcome to the flat era of fashion. Flat is what happens when consumers buy clothing on the basis of how it looks in two dimensions, in an image to be shared on social media…Flat is not an aesthetic so much as a mode of dress—a format that turns every outfit into content that can be consumed, every image into catalog”
Dirt, The Flat Era of Fashion by Ana Kinsella
This Outfit Does Not Exist is a bi-weekly newsletter on the future of imaginary clothing. Love it? hate it? don’t understand it?