Fashion may be tied to aesthetics, but it is also a multisensory experience. For creators and consumers alike, the way a product feels can be as meaningful as how the item looks when worn — and for leather goods and accessories, even smell comes into play. Which is why the fashion industry’s shift toward the virtual world might seem counterintuitive. Or perhaps not.
“Fashion is the last creative industry to embrace digitization, and the change is long overdue,” said Michaela Larosse, head of communications at digital fashion house The Fabricant. “If you look at film, music or photography, the transition to digital practices is already a fundamental and growing part of every industry. We already spend so much of our lives online and the near-global lockdown forced by the pandemic enabled the fashion industry and consumers to wake up to the need to digitize.”
The main focus of these digital efforts has been to support the selling of physical product. For the past few years, footwear and clothing designers have been increasingly digitizing their back-end processes, replacing hand-drawn models with software prototypes. And others are getting creative with their approach to e-commerce, developing interactive experiences through augmented and virtual reality, or using 3D product assets to make shopping online more reliable.
But a small — yet growing — group of businesses are focusing on the virtual experience as the end goal in itself. Building off the huge growth in the gaming and online entertainment worlds, they are making it possible for brands to reach new customers and sell them product, even if it’s worn by just their avatar.
At Drest, a fashion styling app founded by former fashion editor and e-commerce executive Lucy Yeomans, the virtual products are the stars. Real fashion products are rendered in digital form for use in the app. Users can create outfits around a specific product or for a specific event, enabling them to see how different pieces might work together — both in the digital and the real world.
“What I’ve tried to do with Drest is take all the elements of the real world — whether it’s a hairstyle by Sam Knight or a dress by Gucci — and replicate them in this beautiful virtual space,” said Yeomans. “People can come and still be with the product, but it can be done at scale, it can be done very sustainably, and they can really engage with the storytelling in a far more immersive environment.”
For Yeomans, the duality of the physical and virtual product is critical. Fashion, especially luxury fashion, has always possessed an aspirational element; digital products enable a democratization of discovery, even if only in a virtual realm. For the brands, it provides a new way to share their designs with a greater audience, without diluting the exclusivity of the products themselves.
It’s this expanded exposure that turns Drest from pure entertainment into a potential brand revenue source. Younger consumers, or anyone not currently in the position to purchase luxury product, can still explore collections and build a relationship with these labels, which might prompt purchases in the future. For those who are able to buy now, Drest provides the ability to do so through its partnership with luxury e-tailer Farfetch.
Then there are the brand partnerships, which allow companies to create a narrative around individual styles they want to highlight. Drest will launch styling challenges around a particular product or campaign theme, inviting users to spend time engaging with this one item and styling it for real-life use.
“It’s so targeted because you can’t enter the challenge unless you play with that very product,” said Yeomans. “It is different from an ad campaign, where you might look at it but be distracted by the model or by the location. You actually have to go in and use this product.”
With Drest, the focus is on play over product acquisition. But for The Fabricant and digital retailer Dress-X, virtual products are a commodity to be bought and used across the online ecosystem. And they don’t need to have any roots in reality at all.
Unconstrained by the requirements of the physical world, designers can use digital products to explore fantastical interpretations of a brand’s identity. This allows them to disregard the cost and logistics of certain materials — or even ditch realistic materials altogether. For instance, Buffalo London partnered with The Fabricant to produce a pair of sneakers made from flames.
“From a consumer perspective, the digital fashion environment is this vast, untapped, creative terrain where all things are possible, without limits or boundaries. It’s an open goal for the imagination,” said Larosse. “When you’re digitally dressed, you can wear materials that are impossible in real life, like waterfalls or clouds.”
Digital products might seem to the uninitiated like a fun gimmick, but they represent a growing business. Dress-X sells digital-only products, which they will render onto a chosen image once purchased. For social media users, this makes it possible to style and post a greater volume of outfits for a fraction of the cost of a physical outfit and without any of the associated waste.
Sustainability is a growing concern for brands and consumers alike, and digital products offer an appealing compromise. And as technology develops, connecting different virtual platforms into a unified Metaverse, the merchandise will be able to travel across video games and other digital worlds. Blockchain technology makes it possible to tokenize these assets, for resale or donation as needed, much like physical product.
“From our perspective, as 3D specialists working at the intersection of fashion and technology, we envision a world where digital garments replace physical inventory when possible,” said Larosse. “The non-physical world has become our primary tool for human connection and self-expression. With this backdrop, it’s inevitable that screenwear has become the new streetwear.”