The evolution of digital fashion: You can buy but you can’t wear

This translucent computer-generated dress, called Iridescence, from ’digital couture’ house The Fabricant, sold at auction for over R154 000. Picture: The Fabricant.

This translucent computer-generated dress, called Iridescence, from ’digital couture’ house The Fabricant, sold at auction for over R154 000. Picture: The Fabricant.

Published May 3, 2021


In a world overrun by influencers, punch-drunk on social media and slavishly led by trends, it is little wonder there are now people willing to pay big money for literally nothing - just to be part of something.

Please put on your 3D-glasses, we’re about to enter the world of digital fashion, the trend setting hems on fire in the fashion industry. Sans any tangible couture in the traditional sense - think actual clothes that you can wear - virtual fashion has already drawn in some of the biggest names in the business such as Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger.

With much of our lives now playing out on social media - thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic confining us to our homes and keeping us glued to our screens - “looking the part” is totally passe, it’s all about “posting the part”.

Fashion trends change before you can say Giorgio Armani, and influencers are champing at the bit to be bang-on-trend on social media. Waiting to dress the part is so last season. The pressure to showcase a trend before it rolls over mounts with every changing fad. After all, for fashion influencers, flash is king.

This is where digital fashion is making its biggest strides.

The concept is elementary. A customer chooses a garment from a digital catalogue. A full-length photograph, taken in underwear, is sent to the fashion house, where a team of designers customise the chosen outfit to the submitted image.

The image does not have to be professionally shot. Many people have reported taking pictures in their gardens, much to the chagrin of their neighbours. One top tip, wear undies that you’d be caught dead in.

The designers then send the final photo back to the customer, now decked out in the piece chosen from the catalogue, to post on social media platforms.

The cost, which can run into thousands, depends on your choice of design house.

Let’s make this absolutely clear, what you pay for are not real clothes - they exist only in cyberspace as cutting-edge simulations created using 3D software. Your chosen piece has never been made in the material world (pun intended) - and does not hang in any closet.

Essentially, you are paying for someone to dress your photo.

Some companies, such as DressX, even dedicate several pages on their sites to coach customers on how to take a good photo for their digital garments.

Suck in here, tuck in there. All good for a slinky little number that you’ll never have to squeeze into after a big meal.

DressX only launched last July but already has more than 1 000 regular clients and 70 designers. It calls itself the ‘“biggest digital fashion retailer on the market”.

Digital fashion has been around for over five years, but it has only recently taken off. In 2019, a translucent computer-generated dress, described as a piece of art, made by “digital couture” house The Fabricant, sold at auction for £7 800 (over R154 000).

Digital fashion is also riding high on the sustainability ticket, with advocates claiming that its positive environmental impact far outweighs any “suffering” endured by fashionistas, especially now that they have nowhere to go.

The cutting of physical production addresses all the main criticisms against the traditional fashion industry - factories, poor labour practices, and package and transport pollution, such advocates say.

To be fair, not all virtual fashion will make a hole in your very real pocket.

Gucci became the first mainstream brand to support digital fashion, with creative director Alessandro Michele last month launching Gucci’s Virtual 25 Sneakers - chunky, neon green, pink and blue shoes that feature the iconic GC logo on the sole of the shoe and inflatable tongue.

To try them on, you download the Gucci app and pay R228..

Speaking to the psychological impact of this changing dynamic, Professor Carolyn Mair, a behavioural psychologist specialising in fashion, told The Guardian she believed digital fashion could scratch the same itch as fast fashion.

“Humans are wired to seek out novelty and pleasing aesthetics, which is why the essence of fashion is that it keeps reinventing itself.

“Digital outfits could satisfy this need, giving the same self-esteem boost as the much-maligned trend for people to wear new outfits each time they post on social media, but without making physical garments to be sent to landfill.

“It is also true escapism, which much appeals at the moment. It takes us into the impossible. In an artificial virtual world we can be whoever we want to be,” Mair said.

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