Where are we going to wear digital fashion?

McKenna Sweazey
September 28, 2023

There are two camps of virtual fashion: the fantastical, physics-defying pieces that can only exist online, and the digital twins of real apparel that resemble items you expect to see in a shop. Which will emerge as the defining trend of digital fashion?

Humans need fashion, not just clothes. Covering our bodies is no more important than signalling our status or our membership of a group. The emergence of both luxury and fast-fashion cannot be explained by anything else. Meeting the consumer need for clothes, in ways that speak to their need to participate in society, is a big business.

Digital fashion throws a spanner in the works. Not that the underlying need for fast-fashion or luxury will disappear, but that both who can create this type of fashion, and what it looks like, is about to transform.

In particular, digital fashion has democratised the work of the designer. You no longer need expensive fabrics or skill with needle and thread. Anyone with a computer and a creative inclination can design virtual apparel. While there are still markers of quality that separate good from the bad, the vast playing field of virtual apparel means that the traditional signals of quality, like handmade leathers, and high-quality fabrics, no longer have a role to play.

At the same time, other markers of quality, like beautiful design and popular logos, will only become more important. When the logo is the good, such as a Balenciaga hoodie in Fortnite, provenance and authenticity are critical in commanding luxury prices.

Balenciaga's Fortnite hoodie infamously retailed for $725.

Much like apparel is in no small part influenced by our natural environment – the weather, our work, our bodies – digital fashion will partly be a product of digital environments, from social media to gaming, that will drive both the use cases and aesthetics of the virtual realm.

In keeping with the physical world, our digital environments will ultimately differ by the social activities that occur within them. That isn’t to say all our digital experiences will be high fidelity, just that technological capabilities will not, ultimately, be a constraint. Roblox looks cartoony, but that hasn’t prevented Gucci handbags selling for more on the platform than they do in real life. At the same time, digital fashion startups like DressX provide a social-media-ready wardrobe through augmented reality photo filters.

I find it productive, however, to think of all these platforms as members of one of just two different camps. First, metaverse-type environments that emphasise digital versions of ourselves, like gaming platforms such as Roblox and Second Life. Second, spaces that serve as extensions of our real physical lives, like social media has done historically.

Digital fashion has democratised the work of the designer.

These worlds will never fully overlap. No matter how much of our lives move online, there will always be real humans who want places to talk about their real lives. Meanwhile, metaverse-style environments are fundamentally about the identity we wish to embody in our dreams. The bifurcation between fantasy and reality will remain.

Fashion designers will have to place themselves on a spectrum. One end is tied to the real world: simply an evolution of fashion as we know it today — brand-driven, limited by the same rules that govern the real world, and with the possibility of physical twins that mirror the digital offering. The status quo rendered digitally. At the other end lies more revolution than evolution, embracing the new opportunities of digital-native design in those metaverse-style environments and extending what we think of as ‘clothing’ beyond its physical limit.

For the next few years, designers will just have those two choices, between metaverse-style gaming environments and other environments that try to reflect the real world. But by the end of the decade, those two distinct fashion markets are likely to merge. Today, the real audience and spend occurs in the former (non-gamers buy their clothes in the real world), but the traditional fashion branding machine is a powerful beast; it is more likely than not that the industry will find a way to bring digital fashion to everyone.

DressX's platform lets people layer digital clothes over their bodies using augmented reality.

Where we ultimately end up will be decided in the experimental edges of society. Instead, the trends of fantastic fashion versus real-life-inspired fashion will echo from the fringes of the internet, where there is freedom to push boundaries and define the future of cool.

For most people, digital fashion will simply be an extension, if a creative one, of their real lives. The same brands will have cachet, bodies will be covered in much the same way, clothes will have some visible reflections of what your parents wear in the real world.

This affects major names moving into the digital fashion space, where recognisable brands will search for platforms and experiences that align most with their identity and what consumers expect of them. For most, this means the popular social media platforms.

Conspicuous luxury consumption needs an audience focused on appreciating that form of fashion. This has been Instagram’s bread and butter, and despite TikTok’s rise as a more ‘authentic’ platform, there is still significant fashion and luxury influencing there as well.

While the drivers of a move to digital fashion may be financial, sustainable, or novelty-driven, the opportunity for a new way to peacock on social media is likely to grow at a rapid pace in the immediate future, and the incentive to share with your friends and followers is intrinsically linked to showing off your personality, good taste, and ability to acquire impressive items. 

The answer to the question ‘where will we wear digital fashion’ is as simple as it is in real life: it’s wherever we can use fashion to tell our peers who we are. Just like it drove luxury and fast fashion, ‘see and be seen’ will drive the growth of digital clothing, and the platforms and styles that win will be those which best meet the basic human need to define ourselves. In other words, what is changing is not fashion, but where we want people to see us.

The styles that win will be those which best meet the basic human need to define ourselves.
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McKenna Sweazey
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McKenna is a speaker, writer, and consultant with a passion for digital empathy. She holds an MBA from INSEAD and is the author of How to Win Friends and Manage Remotely. She is excited about the emergence of digital fashion in web3.