Digital fashion is a white-hot topic that’s also rippling with real-world confusion. While it’s a fulcrum burning with possibilities (sales of virtual loot boxes and clothes, a.k.a. ‘skins’ in games is predicted to hit $50bn by 2022, and the first piece of ‘digital couture’ sold for $9500 in May 2019) exactly how the overlaps between IRL identities and URL desires will play out remains a creative and commercial sticking point.
Looking to move that conversation on, last week saw the London launch of A Hot Second – a highly prescient proto-flagship in East London designed for ‘selling’ virtual style to digi-curious consumers.
While the tech was imperfect & the laudable eco-relevance at times addressed with some confusion, British Fashion Futurist & Lecturer Karinna Nobbs’ multi-brand beta concept (a pop-up for now) posited not only vital ideas concerning retailing digital clothing to generation gaming, opportunities for luxury brand culture and also a bigger picture glimpse into the transition to virtual living.
How it Worked: The Digital Fashion 101
To be considered a lab above all else, on entering the ‘store’ visitors stepped into booths equipped with ‘magic mirrors’, allowing them to virtually slip into something more (and sometimes less) comfortable: one of four looks rendered by digital fashion pioneers and in some instances their brand partners. Norwegian streetwear brand Carlings created a metallic tracksuit in collaboration with Danish creative agency Virtue; Dutch ‘digital fashion house’ The Fabricant floated a catwalk-ready statement piece from its own exclusively digital collection called Deep (a silk paisley jumpsuit with chunky fur sleeves); while 3D designer Emily Switzer recreated British designer Christopher Raeburn’s union jack ‘safety’ parka.
There was also a virtual replication of Kansai Yamamoto’s famous ‘Tokyo Pop’ PVC Kabuki jumpsuit worn by David Bowie in the early ‘70s – a telling nod to Nobbs’ other first love: vintage fashion.
The magic mirror mechanism felt rudimentary in parts (garments more cardboard cut-out clunky than contour-clinging bombshells of virtual seduction) and the takeaway limited to a static print-out or email-able photo of the visitor in their chosen look, so no capacity to carry the clothing into another online dimension. But the key sentiment – to experience the pleasure and personal empowerment of digital dress-up – was beguilingly intact.
Nerdy to Normal, Almost
While according to a 2019 YPulse report, 71% of Gen Z’ers are happy to identify themselves as gamers, with 84% believing that it’s cool to play video games, the aim, says Nobbs, was to introduce digital fashion to the curious but uninitiated. That includes those for whom the gaming movement and its abundance of un-real second-life accoutrements still feels entirely disconnected from the everyday catharsis of high-street shopping.
According to Nobbs: “Digital fashion can be a hard concept to swallow. Mr. Benn [the iconic 1971 British cartoon where a smartly-dressed businessman assumes a new character/magical adventure every time when he enters the changing room of his local fancy-dress shop] was a major inspiration. That sense of transformation, of playing with identity, was a key element of the experimentation.”
Stoking a Virtual Fire: Why Artifice & Illusion Matters
It’s no coincidence that the aforementioned piece of ($9500) digital couture, a hyper-real shimmering maxi dress called Iridescence, was created by The Fabricant in collaboration with Berlin-based artist Johanna Jaskowska. Jaskowska designed the wildly popular Beauty3000 Instagram filter – a facial overlay best described aesthetically as cyborg-luxe.
The virtual mask reveals that while the trend for the imperfect perfect, of showing flaws, maybe widely trumpeted, the capacity to reinvent oneself at will be a stronger sell in a cultural climate of near-chameleonic fluidity: “This is about the capacity to realize ourselves as something other,” says Nobbs.
As such there is mileage, even liberation, in the digital ‘deception’, of knowing an image is doctored. Hence the rise of post-Lil Miquela digital celebrities including Shudu Gram, one of three virtual models to depose the omnipresent Kardashians in a recent Balmain campaign.
British consumer psychologist Paul Marsden explains the mentality: “In a bizarre way, virtual avatars are more authentic than ‘real’ influencers. There’s a knowingness which is comforting for young people. The fantasy is less oppressive than airbrushed reality, or an apparently perfect-looking life.”
To emphasize the eco-excellence of digital fashion (no physical pieces means zero real-world resources) Nobbs also partnered with UK business Love Not Landfill, a charity that redistributes old clothing, requesting that those who wanted to try the experience donated an unwanted garment to participate. Laudable yet unnecessary – indulging in digital rather than physical fashion is a sustainability win in and of itself – Nobbs also disclosed the need to create a psychological value exchange. “To pay for a service in some way, even if not monetarily, is essential to cementing a sense of worth.”
What Virtual Shoppers Want (& The Luxury Brand Opportunity)
Luxury brands are fast wising up to the in-game opportunity – in 2018 Gucci recreated 200 pieces in virtual form for US messaging app Genies, while Louis Vuitton has just designed a series of skins for online multiplayer game, League of Legends that will be matched by real-life counterparts in the coming months. But a still-more pressing opportunity may lie in resuscitating archival pieces – a trend aligned to the booming resales market.
Post-pop-up this weekend Nobbs affirmed that the appetite for trialling vintage garments was as high as the capacity for wild new fashion inventions. “The desire to try on a historic garment was huge. The jumpsuit was the most shared on social media, but I also had people asking about things like being able to try on Princess Diana’s wedding dress. People loved the idea of visiting an exhibition or show and getting to try on the looks. True vintage lovers said it would make them extremely happy to interact with things they could never access or get IRL”.
Raeburn has already mooted the idea of using his parka rendering as start of a larger virtual archive.
The Phygital Brand Hangout
The physical space, too, may be key to future commercial seduction, considering the emerging interplay between physical and online communities. At a recent panel debate in London hosted by American fashion styling recommendations business Vue.ai, Remo Gettini, Chief Technology Officer at wildly popular peer-to-peer e-tail platform Depop, confirmed that many of its sellers with shared interests are creating IRL community groups, while users of Chinese video sharing social media app TikTok are similarly expanding their e-connections into real-world meet-ups. As such, a physical hangout may be an invaluable piece of the virtual style community.
What’s Next? Berlin + Blockchain To Take It Transactional
Nobbs is already producing the second iteration of the concept store, to launch in Berlin in January 2020. The reboot will focus on clothing that’s actually wearable online, on the buyer’s avatar, and is a tradable asset. The idea echoes Iridescence, which was backed by blockchain business Dapper Labs, meaning it’s both a piece of clothing and a form of crypto currency.
To do so she’s already engaged German blockchain specialists LUKSO, with the brand/designer partner still to be revealed: “Tokenization is key. The next stage is having items that are transferrable into online worlds that that can be traded as an asset.” As yet there’s no centralized space for this virtual economy, no Ready Player One style matrix to strut into, but the promise is closing in.