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#1 The What, How and Why of Virtual Fashion

what it is, how you wear it, and why you should care

The Long Read

If I offered you your dream outfit, anything from a cerise ballgown dripping in diamonds, to a pair of iridescent sweatpants a la Yeezy 2070, would you pay me £50 for it?

Now what if you wouldn’t be able to see this ‘dream’ outfit, but your friends, family, and that random person who comments on all your social media, would. How much would you pay me then?

The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson tells the story of the world’s first fashion victim. An emperor duped into paying two designers for an outfit “woven from the purest silk and finest gold thread, invisible to all but those of his rank and stature”. When the emperor ‘wore’ this outfit, parading first round his castle, and then through the streets, he was subject to ridicule because, of course, this outfit did not exist.

Flash forward to 2021, and dream-weaving con artists have been substituted for virtual-only designers like Tribute Brand, The Fabricant and KAI KAI, distributed through a burgeoning group of e-commerce sites. While these clothes are crafted from fabrics which can never be felt, unlike the Emperor’s imaginary clothes of the 1800’s, they can be seen…as long as you have a screen handy.

So WTF is it?

Since starting to explore Virtual Fashion, there are five main questions I’ve been asked:

1. What is Virtual Fashion?

Virtual Fashion refers to any type of fashion article (clothing, accessories, jewellery) that exists in the virtual realm. It spans the clothes that exist on avatars, the skins in gaming, and those digital-outfits which can be worn by humans - like the Iridescence dress ↓↓↓

2. How do you wear Virtual Fashion?

At present wearing Virtual Fashion is a 3 step process:

1. Photograph yourself — you take a photo in the location you want to wear the virtual outfit. Making sure the areas of your body on show whilst wearing the virtual garment are unobscured

2. Pay for the garment —you  buy the virtual outfit from the brand and send them the photo at checkout

3. Wear the outfit (like this!) — In 1–3 business days you’ll receive your photo, complete with new virtual outfit!

NB: This ‘wearing’ process is in its earliest stages, relying on 3D rendering technology still in development. In the near future, you’ll be able to wear virtual clothes in real-time, and in motion. You’ll also be able to ‘own’ the digital assets rather than just having your payment amount to one-photo, and change from garment to garment, like this….

3. Why would a human wear Virtual Fashion?

At this stage (<2 years into the sectors’ development) the Virtual Fashion consumer can be divided into three groups:

  1. The Monetizer— those who can use virtual clothing to generate income

Virtual Fashion has a significant B2B value proposition within the arts. For those who generate income through showcasing the newest fashion trends, the proposition of reducing spend, whilst decreasing their carbon footprint (and the amount of clothes they have to haul around for a shoot!) through switching to digital garments, is an attractive one.

Example consumers: Instagram influencers, editors and stylists, and (as rendering technology improves) those running costume departments across film and TV.

  1. The Flexer — those who want to benefit from brand association but can’t afford the price tag

Want to show off in a classic Chanel suit but haven’t got £5,000 to spare. Why not go virtual? As luxury brands execute on their plans to enter the space, Virtual Fashion offers an attractive opportunity to democratise consumption. Where those craving brand affiliation might previously have splurged on a £70 phone case, or waited with bated breath for an H&M diffusion line, they can now buy a virtual garment to be worn, across social media, in 1–3 business days.

Example consumers: aspirant luxury enthusiasts, consumers in emerging markets.

  1. The Gen-Z Creative— those excited by the concept of genderless, sizeless, gravityless, dressing

Virtual garments are not limited by material, sizing, gender norms or gravity, meaning they ascribe perfectly to all the fashion industry’s burgeoning trends; promoting social impact, through both sustainability and full-scale inclusivity. They are also 100% customisable, meaning you can really have the dress of your dreams e.g. a metallic ballgown from Tribute’s virtual haute-couture pictured below ↓ ↓ ↓

4. Why would brands make Virtual Fashion?

In the Virtual Fashion space, there are two types of brands creating clothes:

  1. Brands that sell only Virtual Fashion

  2. Brands creating digital twins of their physical collections

For those who sell only Virtual Fashion — cost, sustainability and enhanced creative capabilities are the three key pull factors.

  1. Cost effective creation - digital design and distribution allow emerging designers to showcase their creativity without needing to invest in the overheads of materials, studio space, or capital intensive equipment — dramatically reducing costs

  2. Planetary preservation - virtual clothes don’t require fabric, meaning they don’t contribute to the fashion industry’s 92 million annual tons of textile waste; nor do they require machinery (aside from computers) to be made, or highly-polluting transportation mechanisms to be delivered to the buyer

  3. Avant-garde artistry - Virtual Fashion pushes the limits of creative idealism, removing restrictions around material malleability, a humanoid colour spectrum, or as previously mentioned, gravity

For brands creating digital twins of their physical collections — Virtual Fashion still contributes to a sustainability imperative, as well as offering an ability to penetrate new customer segments and enter the gaming market.

  1. Pre-planned production - pre-COVID 30% of annual luxury goods production was discarded as unsold, excess inventory. This is because luxury fashion sales are based on an outdated business model which prevents designers from being demand-responsive. The majority of premium and luxury brands show 2–8 collections a year, releasing them to consumers 2–3 months later. There is little to no validation of demand for the garments before they are made, aside from industry critique By being able to release digital twins before their physical counterparts are manufactured, brands can assess what consumers want before their collections go into production - a big win when it comes to cutting both unnecessary production costs and materials waste

  2. Enhanced expansion - Virtual Fashion also gives brands the opportunity to access new consumer bases, providing access to both those unable to afford luxury goods, and those for whom luxury goods are inaccessible due to underdeveloped commerce systems

  3. Metaverse marketing - the production of Virtual Fashion goods offers brands the opportunity to engage with the Metaverse. There are currently 2.5 billion active gamers worldwide, spending $100 billion on virtual goods. Virtual Fashion allows brands to follow the lead of Louis Vuitton, Versace and 100 Thieves (debuting virtual goods in League of Legends, ComplexLand and Animal Crossing respectively) and penetrate this market. Not only is the Metaverse highly lucrative in terms of consumer spend, it also lends itself perfectly to digital marketing. After all, these clothes are bought to be seen (by any one of the 1 billion users of Instagram or 350 million gamers on Fortnite)

5. What does this mean for physical clothing?

On average an item of clothing is worn 7 times before being discarded. This is either because it is bought on a whim, induced by clever fashion marketing, or because it is poorly made. Virtual Fashion has the ability to provide substitutes for this first category. That crazy fuchsia dress you’ve seen on Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner, instead of settling for a cheap knock-off inevitably left in your closet to rot, why not buy it virtually?

In terms of this second category, Virtual clothes can become complements for brand’s physical items. Fashion houses can implement Made to Order models based off their virtual best sellers; for consumers sure they want to wear that cerise ballgown to their sister’s wedding, rather than solely in an Instagram post. Equally, if consumer’s whim buys are catered to by cheaper virtual garments, they have more to invest in their higher-priced, well-produced, slow fashion counterparts; supporting the physical fashion industry’s sustainability shift.

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