The history of digital fashion is a short one. For many people, the starting point was three years ago, during the pandemic.
Prior to that, there was the famous Iridescence Dress from 2019 by The Fabricant, which was preceded by the lesser known digital collection by Norwegian brand Carlings in 2018. Lee Alexander McQueen’s Widows of Culloden fashion week collection from 2006 is also recognized as the first hologram-enabled fashion moment, which saw Kate Moss appear hovering mid-air.
Before this, there was almost nothing.
There were no digital fashion brands, no way to wear digital fashion, no marketplaces and definitely no market. Fast forward to today, and there is a plethora of digital brands and designers, numerous marketplaces and virtual garments arriving by the thousands. And that’s not to mention the incubators for brands and startups, university programs, digital fashion weeks, exhibitions, conferences, mentorship programs and workshops for designers.
Yet, even in the midst of a major acceleration across the digital fashion realm, its wearability remains limited, and the buyers few.
The challenges that digital fashion finds itself up against are not entirely down to being nascent or last year’s bear market.
The reality is that digital fashion has had a handicap since day one; it lacked a problem to solve. Consequently, nobody currently really needs it, and very few want it.
Legacy vs digital fashion
The reason for this situation is the fundamental difference between legacy fashion and digital fashion – digital fashion sprung from technology and not from fashion itself.
Fashion is rooted in our appreciation of patterns, color, style, craftsmanship and quality, and boasts an immensely rich history.
Fabrics and clothes have helped define indigenous communities across the globe for millennia. Woven fabrics have been traced 27,000 years, and silk screen printing – the predecessor to today’s fabric printing techniques – originated in China roughly 1,000 years ago.
The industrial revolution was in part ignited by the textile industry in the 19th century, and today, luxury fashion is a defining cultural force.
Fashion is a natural layer to our existence. It is, by definition, culture.
Every time we get dressed, our outfit says something about who we are and what community we belong to. We use clothes to signal social status, power, and to attract others.
Deep biological forces are at play when we get dressed. In its purest and highest form, it is an intimate, sensual experience. It is the feeling of an exquisite fabric against your skin. It is how a garment accentuates and complements your body. It is how it makes you feel.
Digital fashion, on the other hand, resides in its own universe with its own references and aesthetics. These are not always easily decipherable to outsiders. There is a gap between digital fashion and its future users.
Even though we call it digital fashion, it doesn’t equate it to what we instinctively know fashion to be. There is simply not enough fashion in digital fashion. Wearers have to create their own interpretations to understand its purpose and promise, which is a hindrance.
During Paris Fashion Week, I attended a number of collection presentations for luxury brands, fashion school showrooms and digital fashion week events. While there were interesting moments during the digital fashion presentations, it was impossible to ignore the shortcomings.
The gap between digital and luxury fashion remains stark. A look at the difference in silhouettes, use of color, materials, storytelling, and craftsmanship is all that is needed to realize this.
Bridging the gap
For digital fashion to fulfill its promise, this gap needs to be bridged, and I believe this bridge is fashion itself.
The first stage of digital fashion has been dominated by the tools and the tech. Now, it’s time to double down on design and quality.
This is ultimately what will engage newcomers. For this to happen, we need to start having honest conversations about the quality of digital fashion, while still remaining supportive and constructive, and optimistic.
Digital fashion should be completely reframed. Instead of thinking about it as something that we need to pioneer, we should think of it as a new way to iterate ideas that were previously limited to the physical world.
Both realms should fall under the definition of ‘fashion’ and with that, in time, we will stop differentiating between the two realms.
The path to the future of digital fashion is through fashion – with its craftsmanship, legacy, storytelling and its sense of quality, style and desirability – not around it. Digital fashion’s biggest impact will be as digital layers on physical garments, enhancing the experience they create and their storytelling.
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Evolution of creativity
Creative skills are what will make this possible. It may take a designer up to 10 to 12 years, including five years in education, to reach a senior design level in luxury fashion.
The history of digital fashion doesn’t span 10 years, nevermind decades.
This disparity in development has meant that there is a quality gap between the design skills of digital fashion designers and the teams of designers behind the collections we see on runways in New York, London, Milan, Paris and beyond.
At No More Mondays, we have a team of designers working under the direction of our creative director, and we specialize in print and surface design drawing on 15 years of experience working with luxury brands.
When working with a brand, we often spend hundreds of hours on the prints for a collection, and in extreme cases we have spent 100-plus hours on a single artwork. This is in addition to the countless hours that the brand’s design team spends designing the silhouettes, pattern making, fabrics, sewing, and then fittings before finally arriving at a completed garment. Some 10 to 15 people are involved in the design process alone.
In digital fashion, the same process is often completed by a single designer. Digital fashion is yet to flourish into a collaborative design process, and the quality suffers because of this.
Being great at 3D animation does not automatically make a good designer – of fashion, or anything else for that matter. Design is a completely separate skillset and it has the power to be infinitely more impactful for digital fashion than 3D does.
Anybody who is serious about digital fashion should work as hard as he or she can to become a great fashion designer. This is why I always advise young talent interested in digital fashion to get as much experience as they can within the traditional fashion setting, while building 3D skills on the side.
Digital fashion needs to pivot from its origin story centering on rebellion against legacy fashion, and instead focus on the creative possibilities that it unlocks.
By doing so, digital fashion has the potential to start engaging users in a big way. Through fusing creativity and craftsmanship into an irresistible, impactful experience, the next era of digital fashion could produce new fashion icons – like McQueen.