For hundreds of years, the concept of buying clothes has been pretty much straightforward. You buy clothes from a physical outlet. You wear clothes on your body. Simple stuff. Within the past 20 years, we’ve seen a significant shift away from the traditional methods of fashion purchasing, with the rise of e-commerce and the digitization of purchasing clothes. One doesn’t need to visit a store to try something on anymore. Fashion companies are increasingly embracing the technologies of virtual and augmented reality, letting customers try clothes on in the leisure of their own homes. Simply provide your physical measurements and pick an outfit, and the wonders of AI will show you how you look in your chosen article of clothing. Bye bye, fashion stylists?
Both e-commerce and digitization are shaking up the industry, but another trend has been making waves in the world of fashion. The rise of digital clothing; clothing that is worn solely in the digital realm. While the notion may sound absurd to some, there’s growing interest in purchasing items just to be worn online. In 2021 Gucci made fashion headlines when it sold digital sneakers to be worn in Roblox and VRChat. As The Verge put it, virtual clout could be yours for only $12.99. Back then the global digital clothing market was valued at $498.7 million. By 2031 it’s projected to be worth $4.8 billion.
So what exactly is the appeal of digital fashion? Why would someone buy clothing, only for it to be worn on the internet? As strange as it may sound to some, the growth of the market actually has various precedents and it makes sense its popularity is growing.
One aspect that could be driving the popularity of digital fashion is the environmental impact of traditional fashion. There is some optimism in that if digital fashion can absorb some of the carbon impact of the current fashion industry, the environment will be much better off. In 2018 the global fashion industry employed 75 million people worldwide. Today it employs over 300 million people across the value chain and is a £2.4 trillion global industry, but at a considerable cost, which the the United Nations has described as an environmental and social emergency. The fashion industry accounts for 2-8% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions and consumes around 215 trillion litres of water per year! A worrying statistic given how scarce water is. Add to this a trend of people keeping clothes for less time, the era of ‘fast fashion’ is putting great pressure on the environment. Digital fashion has the power to change this by replacing many carbon-intensive processes such as manufacturing and transport.
For many people, fashion is about expression and experimentation. Consider your Facebook cover photo. Have you changed it to make your profile page look good? What about your Instagram profile? Millions of Instagram users take pride in having an aesthetically pleasing feed. It is very possible you have been conscious of your online appearance without really thinking about it. Digital fashion is an extension of this behaviour.
Also digital fashion has a lot of benefits over and above actual clothing. A pair of digital sneakers won’t get dirty. They’ll always look new and won’t need replacing due to wear and tear; unless of course the digital environment in which they’re worn accommodate for dirt and deterioration. How about a digital shirt? You won’t have to worry about dropping coffee on it or ruining its colour due to incorrect washing.
On social media, people like to stand out. That is what gets likes, attention and engagement. And this is done in a variety of ways. Take a selfie in an exotic location such as a desert or waterfall. Record a video of you petting a dangerous animal. You’ll get people talking. Wearing a unique digital fashion item can similarly get one the desired engagement, especially if you can customize it and add special effects.
Ultimately businesses will target customers where they are, and whether we like it or not, in this TikTok/Instagram-obsessed world, we’re increasingly spending time online. It’s where people are that advertisers and businesses will flock to. This is why social platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat are multi-billion dollar platforms. Those companies that want things to remain the same and don’t make the necessary adaptations run the risk of being left behind. There are countless industries that have evolved due to technological advancements and countless companies that got left behind because they didn’t adapt. Conversely those that saw the foresight to prepare for the new world were able to benefit greatly. And so, the decision of fashion brands to move into digital clothing sales could be seen as a smart move, but could also be seen as a move for survival.