Opinion: Why are we still afraid of digital fashion?

    In this Jing Meta Insider op-ed, Karinna Grant, former co-founder and co-CEO of The Dematerialised talks who’s stunting digital fashion’s growth, dispelling the fear around future-facing tech, and crossing the chasm.
     Photo: The Dematerialised x aespa
    Karinna GrantCo-CEO and former co-founder, The Dematerialised
      Published   in Jing Meta

    Digital fashion is stuck at the end of its first hype cycle. To move from niche to mainstream acceptance, it needs to cross the proverbial innovation chasm. But fear is slowing it down.

    The digital fashion industry is nascent, yet salient. According to Industry Research Co, it’s a sector currently valued at $243 million.

    It’s also no longer the shiny new thing. In the past two years, artificial intelligence has stolen the hearts of creatives, the headlines of mainstream media, and the wallets of countless investors. Such is the ebb and flow of trends.

    But I believe that digital fashion still hasn’t received the spotlight it deserves, given its significant potential for positive economic, social, and sustainable impacts on the $1.7 trillion fashion industry.

    Co-existence, not a coup#

    The question is, who is hindering its progress? I believe it is the end consumers, creatives and C-suite decision makers, a conclusion drawn from multiple in-depth conversations with industry players, longitudinal surveys with consumers, secondary market research reports, and my own personal experiences.

    It’s been a shock to me how divisive digital fashion has become. Since my TED talk on digital fashion aired in February, I’ve received hate mail and been trolled across numerous platforms, and not for the first time.

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    Broadly speaking, consumer appetite for digital fashion has unfortunately been mis-associated with the conceptual demise of the metaverse and negative sentiment around NFT (non-fungible token) culture. Sceptics have also drawn comparisons to Black Mirror, denouncing the industry as dystopian and capitalistic. These fears are real and legitimate. With any innovation, there is an inbuilt ethical uncertainty that must always be monitored.

    Older (non-gamer) consumers complain that it makes them feel old and that they don't “get it” — it being the value attributed to something that is not physical.

    My counter argument for those against digital fashion is that it will not be for everyone, just like polka dots, or Crocs. Experimenting with digital fashion does not mean instantly giving up on reality. In the same way we weren't forced to shop only by ecommerce or solely by brick-and-mortar, both can co-exist.

    The Dematerialised x Karl Lagerfeld collaboration. Photo: The Dematerialised
    The Dematerialised x Karl Lagerfeld collaboration. Photo: The Dematerialised

    Hefty barriers#

    Fashion designers exclaim a few areas of dismay, the first around the creative process and pipelines. Digital product creation and the myriad of software tools available offer a disruption to traditional workflows and, at minimum, this requires upskilling, or at maximum total re-skilling.

    This can often hurt from the ego’s perspective, as well as the obvious time and money involved. Excitingly, this will be a non issue for the next generation of creatives who, thanks to more resources offered by institutions, will be fluent in both virtual and physical craft.

    Secondly, there are perceptions that the skill of creating a digital fashion garment is not as technically difficult as creating a physical garment; a sentiment that’s steering new designers away in the pursuit to be accepted by the industry.

    Education establishments and self-taught creatives are dispelling this myth slowly but surely through their own practice. Just look at the hashtag #digitalfashion across socials to make your own judgement.

    Thirdly, digital fashion’s aesthetics are criticised for being niche, for only offering shiny, cyber, sci-fi looks. Those immersed in the space know this is not the case, but we do need mainstream (aka Web2) creatives, stylists, writers and editors to seek out different digital fashion looks to feature in print and on social media in order to spur adoption.

    Digital fashion aesthetics are predominately inspired by futuristic, sci-fi references, stunting their mainstream adoption. Photo: DressX
    Digital fashion aesthetics are predominately inspired by futuristic, sci-fi references, stunting their mainstream adoption. Photo: DressX

    Fear of being first#

    In the early days of digital fashion, no-one from the traditional fashion realm wanted to be first.

    After my keynote talks, leaders would all say the same thing; “we love it, but we are waiting to see what our competitors launch.” Thank goodness for vanguard individuals at brands like Nike, Gucci, Prada, PVH, and VF Corporation, which who had the foresight to push for experimentation incrementally with a long term focus.

    In my recent interviews with industry experts, the end consumer use case – “where do I actually wear it?” – emerged as the most significant barrier. The current digital fashion ecosystem is naive and fragmented and interoperability is not here, yet. Therefore, now we must be patient, experiment with the platforms that do have traction (Roblox, Zepeto, Fortnite) and watch for new ones with the right blend of aesthetics and community.

    One specific panic of the C-suite that hasn’t dissipated over time is, “will digital sales cannibalise physical sales?” There is no public data set as yet to support the idea that digital will displace physical sales internally, but it is indeed logical that it may. One obvious solution to this is to offer phygitals as part of a digital fashion project.

    The other is in-game wearable or skins (with impressive utility), which tend to have the most success (if executed correctly) at attracting new and younger consumers.

    Today, C-Suite unease around digital fashion is simple; it’s still not clear what value digital fashion can add in each area of the value chain (design, production, marketing, commerce, utility and disposal). I, like many others, are working on the best way to demystify this, alongside data to back it up.

    Consumer fear and hesitation from C-Suite execs is holding widespread adoption of digital fashion back. Photo: Zero10
    Consumer fear and hesitation from C-Suite execs is holding widespread adoption of digital fashion back. Photo: Zero10

    The year of redemption?#

    These fears have backed digital fashion into a corner. Attracting mainstream fashion consumers requires us to evolve from focusing solely on the product, to offering solutions to human needs.

    From Digital Product Creation tools that serve the demand of designers and ergo businesses to be more efficient and sustainable in the manufacturing process, to virtual try-on, which can de-risk physical purchases and reduce returns, digital fashion is slowly but surely showing signs of potential ubiquitousness.

    Take for example, the Digital Product Experience, also known as DPX. Using digital product passports, brands can boost their authenticity and storytelling credentials, create and build loyalty, optimise wearability and, most importantly, bring the joy back into fashion.

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