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The State of Digital Fashion (pt.2)
the future is bright with Digital Fashion
“I wonder if they named it feed
knowing we’d be ravenous
and tame, gathering round
to eat out of their hands”
-Sasha Stiles, Discontent Creators
Over the past 3 years, Digital Fashion has evolved. Starting as an unknown, unwanted, subsection of an archaic space; cobbled together from nerds, idealists and futurists, Digital Fashion has become a rapidly expanding industry that presents a compelling trajectory for fashion’s wider future.
Part 1 of this piece focused on how Digital Fashion’s three categories (IRL, ORL and URL) have evolved since they began. This sequel analyses the wider factors influencing Digital Fashion’s growth, and where they’ll lead us over the next 2 years.
The Macro State of Digital Fashion:
When asked by Rolling Stone Magazine if technology was a route to human improvement, Steve Jobs replied: “It’s not a faith in technology, it’s a faith in people.”
Those who spend their time teetering on tech’s bleeding edge know this all too well; aware that we are just as likely to fall due to lack of support as we are of being shoved by pushy naysayers.
Stability, when it comes to a trend like Digital Fashion, can be mapped in three stages. First comes awareness, then adoption and finally (if we’re lucky) acceptance.
Faith in fashion
1. Awareness of Digital Fashion
As of Feb 12 2023, there were 218 million search results for the term ‘Digital Fashion’ on Google News.
Taking into account that I initially axed a segment called ‘Digital Fashion’s in the Press’ due to concerns that our lack of coverage would dishearten readers, this is a pretty big deal.
Awareness of Digital Fashion has been catalysed by three things:
Nomenclature - we’ve seen a coalescence from the smorgasboard of terms ranging from ‘virtual clothes’ and ‘cyber fashion’ to ‘phygital techwear’ (vom) into the succinct ‘Digital Fashion’ — now with its own Wikipedia page and IG hashtags referencing 290K+ posts.
PR - founders like Daria from DRESSX, Marjorie from The Dematerialised and Leanne from IODF have done an exceptional job of putting Digital Fashion on the map. From our humble beginnings in a 2021 issue of L’Officiel, Digital Fashion is now all over the news. In fashion publications such as Vogue Singapore, Grazia, and Dazed and national business sources like NBC, Bloomberg and Forbes.
Adjacencies - a good fortune of Digital Fashion’s breadth is that it has the capacity to piggyback off other technological trends. The efforts of Mark Zuckerberg to “make metaverse happen”, the rise (and slight fall) of NFTs, and now the proliferation of AI-based creator tools have all led Digital Fashion to gain further facetime across the globe.
2. Adoption of Digital Fashion
Partially due to increased awareness, partially due to the pandemic, and partially due to an ever more pressing sustainability imperative, Digital Fashion adoption has accelerated rapidly, heightening not only what we can wear, but when and where we can wear it. Some notable examples include:
Hilfiger getting real - Tommy Hilfiger has long been a Digital Fashion first mover, committing to turning designs digital as early as 2018.
Now, alongside a digital creation process which currently applies to 50%+ of all collections, Hilfiger has leveraged Digital Fashion to digitalise the see-now-buy-now format of its physical shows.
First entering the virtual space through Roblox in 2021, those on the platform could watch a virtual rendering, or live stream, of Hilfiger’s AW22 show. Viewers could then buy virtual versions of select pieces seen on the runway for between 50 (63c) and 200 Robux ($2.50) in gaming environment Tommy Play, which received 18.9 million visits in the first 90 days post launch.
ORL runway to (virtual) wardrobe - AR leader ZERO10 has similarly democratised fashion, with its (mostly free) AR app now boasting close to 100 designers.
With some of the industry's most-advanced AR body-tracking, brought to life through its proprietary app and real-time AR Mirrors, ZERO10 took its tech to the runway for the first time ever this NYC fashion week.
In collaboration with the brand Private Policy, three runway items could be digitally worn directly after the show. In a similar style, the AR provider collaborated with Vogue Czechoslovakia just last week by making four key looks from Loewe, Louis Vuitton, Dior and Dolce & Gabbana available to wear in AR as soon as the magazine hit shelves.
3 Fortnites of Fashion - Balenciaga, Moncler and most recently Ralph Lauren have all ventured into mega-game Fortnite with limited edition Digital Fashion collections over the past 24 months.
In 2021, Epic vs. Apple revealed that a single Fortnite skin could generate $50 million in income for the platform (Fortnite X NFL). With over 1300 skins in game — all developed centrally through official game-partnerships — this places Fortnite’s fashion revenue at levels which vastly outstrip those of trad ecomm winners like YOOX and SSENSE.
3. Acceptance of Digital Fashion
The medley of stakeholders in the Digital Fashion ecosystem range from the general public (your grandma) to the crypto-curious (your NFT trader).
Yet, while most Digital Fashionistas view themselves as disruptive and anarchic, one of the most significant validators of Digital Fashion is still its reception from the well-worn illuminati aka. ‘trad fashion’s’ elite.
If being invited to eat lunch at the ‘mean girls’ table is Digital Fashion’s validating factor. The past 24 months have seen Cady Heron…:
Wearing pink on Wednesdays - the marketing plays
NFTs the likes of Dion Lee, Fendi and most recently Thierry Mugler have come to accompany in-game drops across a range of social sims. However, with the exception of a few brands like Dolce & Gabbana (who have generated $25.65m from NFT sales since their first auction in 2021), most brands feel more comfortable using NFTs to drive hype around their IRL collections, rather than to generate alternate revenue streams.
Jingle Bell Rockin’ - the establishment of in-house teams
Those slightly further ahead of the Digital Fashion curve have evolved from imploring their marketing teams to figure out WTF NFTs are, to instead hiring dedicated employees to run Web3 units.
Notable examples include D&G who boast an in-house team of experts, Farfetch who after months of work with David Cash hired Stephanie Simon to lead their Web3 and community strategy, and LVMH who tapped Nelly Mensah to lead their digital strategy last June.
Becoming Queen Bee - the ‘red pilled’ execs
Finally, at the most extreme end of the spectrum, a small number of trad fashion executives have already fallen down the Digital Fashion rabbit hole.
Alice Delahunt who previously served as Chief Digital Officer of Ralph Lauren announced the $9.5M raise for her Digital Fashion startup SYKY last month.
Beginning at Burberry, when social media was on the rise, Delahunt has the expertise and excellence to bring Digital Fashion mainstream. Her inaugural party during NYFW saw Calvin Klein and ID mag come together to promote independent designers such as Calvyn Justus, Claire Maguire, Charli Cohen and Nir Goeta.
In spite of these advancements, as Maghan McDowell succinctly states, “as brands lean in, a cultural clash is forming around what counts as good style in metaverse spaces.”
Put simply what ‘good’ looks like through a fashion lens is still different to what makes exceptional work from a meta perspective meaning traditional industry backlash may continue for some time.
Putting your money where your faith is
Belief is all well and good, but an ecosystem expands when mouths meet money.
Looking to Digital Fashion’s capitalisation over the past 2 years, both investment, and consumer spend, have seen extreme increases.
INVESTMENT: In 2021, more than $10bn in venture funding went toward metaverse-related companies. Over $200M of which was poured in Digital Fashion startups.
From marketplaces (Tribute Brand $4.5M; RSTLSS $3.5M; SYKY $9.5M, DRESSX $4.2M, Space Runners, $10M) to brands (RTFKT $8M; DRAUP $1.5M) to studios (The Fabricant $14M; Blueberry $6M) investors across gaming (Makers Fund, Bitkraft, NEON DAO), crypto (Variant, TCG) and consumer (776, Firstminute Capital) have all embraced the opportunity to tap into what is rapidly encroaching on the $3 trillion physical fashion industry.
CONSUMPTION: Where investors are spending, so are consumers.
The skins market was estimated to generate $40bn as of 2021, and NFT based fashion — which allows consumers to freely own and wear their garments — is expanding exponentially.
A recent article by Jing Daily marks Digital Fashion NFTs as a $245 million market based on the findings of one Dune analytics dashboard.
The collection volumes attribute 567 ETH to NFT marketplace Rarible, 4638 ETH to Looks Rare and a staggering 159505ETH to OpenSea. This is only set to increase as we see an expansion in the variety of projects and what constitutes Digital Fashion.
The future in 5.
Where 1 human year is 7 Digital Fashion years, 2021-2023 have seen the move from infancy to adolescence. In its next phase Digital Fashion will become an (incredibly well dressed) young adult.
Whilst not quite reaching maturity; either in its technological infrastructure or its mass adoption, we’ll begin to see standards consolidate around what it means to build the right way. With the following results:
The standardisation of education - from a craft taught through YouTube videos and Telegram groups Digital Fashion will become curricular
Colleges like Ravenspourne, INU, Parsons and even CSM (in a program pioneered by IODF) are already leading the way; offering courses and certificates in Digital Fashion. Leading to a new generation of creators, a new premier of creatorship, and set standardisation of excellence — all in time for a growing job market.
Code-based couture — over the past 2 years generative artworks (that’s art created by algorithms) have blossomed into a multi-billion dollar market.
Platforms like Artblocks and FX Hash have bred a new generation of collectors to whom the craft lays in the code.
As I argue in my essay ‘The Code is the Couture’, this same transition is inevitable in fashion. For centuries fashion houses have sought out the most talented embroiderers, tailors and printmakers, to bring their visions to life. Now in a world where the output is fully digital, the inputs need to demonstrate the same level of skill; within these digitally native bounds.
AI on-chain - the past month has seen a sector-wide existential crisis around what it means to be a creator. In a matter of weeks, the ability to make ‘art’ shifted from those with training and skill to anyone who could type a few words into a MidJourney bot on Discord.
Where styles are instantly mimicable (see results for the prompt “in the style of a Frida Kahlo painting”) the issue of creator plagiarism — already rife within trad fashion — becomes increasingly violent. The solution is, of course, NFTs.
By making provenance blockchain-backable, AI has found its natural fit. Of course there will always be disputes over who did it better, but at least who did it first can be immutably confirmed.
The PFP trait switch - whether PFPs are wearers of fashion, or fashion itself, is a hotly debated topicA debate I’ve been having recently w the likes of & is whether PFPs are routes to wear your or Digital Fashion themselves… I’m torn, WDYT? PFPs are…
In the next 2 years the answer will become clear, as PFPs debut switchable, fashion-native traits into their on-chain DNA.
Launched during the time of Pharrell as Chief Brand Officer (now the next Creative Director of Louis Vuitton), Doodles 2 allow their on-chain Digital avatars to have their appearances endlessly updated and saved to the blockchain (with no transaction fees).
The next 2 years will see similar initiatives launched for most PFP projects. Whilst some may link switch-ability to OG traits aka. “only monkeys with rainbow hair can wear the pride jumpsuit”, others will opt to sell mystery boxes (a-la Doodles 2), or have customisable accessories as rewards for holding for extended periods of time.
The rise of the digital diffusion line - pioneered by H&M, diffusion lines have long given a taste of ultra-luxe brands such as COMME des GARÇONS and Mugler, to the high street buyer.
As a Digital Fashion creator it’s always been clear to me that digi-diffusion lines are the next step in democratising luxury wearing.
Rather than some filter-based marketing gimmick, digital diffusion lines, like their physical counterparts will see:
The creation of unique collaborative collections
Sold (rather than given for free) for a fraction of the price of their high end counterparts
Limited by both size and location
These will fully leverage Digital Fashion’s capacity to bring accessibility to new audiences, as well as triggering the virtuous cycle of social media shares these larger brands crave.
In traditional luxury fashion, 20% of consumers generate 80% of the revenue. Whilst we may not see the next 2 years result in the breakthrough to billions of Digital Fashion wearers, we can imagine them finding our truest fans.
Whether IRL, ORL or URL, we’ll see those aware of our work adopting. And those who have already adopted, doubling down.
I imagine an audience transitioning over from alternate spaces, where digital assets signal status (e.g. gaming and NFTs), and coming to appreciate digital clothing’s true worth. All while we wait for our mass consumers (those of Gen-Z and Gen-Alpha) to start their careers.
“The action of snapshotting has become part of the lived experience. You are now actively in control of the moment. You are involved in narrating the story. This isn’t an objective understanding of the world. This is my personal point of view. This is how I make sense of the chaos as the main character of my life”
Photographic Memories by Bobby Hundreds
This Outfit Does Not Exist is a bi-weekly newsletter on the future of imaginary clothing. Love it? hate it? don’t understand it?