As we make our way out of the strangest year many of us have ever experienced, there are certainly behaviors and customs we’ve developed that will long outlive our time spent in the pandemic.  This time last year, our digital and physical lives merged and we collectively became used to looking online for entertainment, creative expression, fitness, mental health, education and connection.  

But even before the whole world was locked inside, the advent of new technologies and social networks were already giving rise to a new era of influencers, brands and communities. The global pandemic accelerated our need for inter-industry collaboration and catapulted digital tech to the forefront of denim design and production, but the most exciting opportunity for growth right now is to capitalize on our online life.

Technological advances have enabled clothes and objects to exist purely for social media. As people flex more of their lives online and become increasingly concerned about sustainability, digital clothing is fast becoming a reality for fashion. Gen-Z, who are the main cohort of this movement, are true digital natives: from earliest youth, they have been exposed to the internet, to social networks, and to online life. That context has produced a hyper-cognitive generation that are living out hybrid identities using the digital world as a major form of self-expression. This new form of artistic expression is not only earning them enormous followings, but it is shifting the aesthetic of fashion in the process. 

Soorty's "Imposible Jean" in collaboration with Fabricant.
Tommy Hilfiger teamed up with Fabricant to digitize their entire SS22 collection.

Instagram has become a virtual runway where clothing is content. Armani was one of the first brands last year to show its FW20 collection virtually in a completely empty theater in Milan. A move that was made out of Corona-induced necessity, set in motion what became the new normal of fashion weeks; digital models, digital backdrops and digital clothing. 

Designers are exploring the future of digital fashion by producing photorealistic, 3D designed, digital-only clothing collections, and customers are buying in. The concept might seem outlandish, but gamers have been spending real money on digital ‘skins’ for years and many companies have already made successful inroads in the digital clothing world.

Brands such as Fabricant, Carlings and Tribute Brand create products that are designed to live and be experienced only in the virtual realm and even Pakistani mill, Soorty launched “The Impossible Jean” project in 2018 in collaboration with Fabricant. Gucci was one of the first luxury retailers to expand into the realm of VR earlier this year when their release of $12 dollar virtual sneakers, that exist only digitally, sold out in a matter of minutes.

Tribute Brand

The success of Gucci’s digital sneaker release was followed by the May 17th debut of the Virtual Gucci Gardens inside Roblox, the wildly popular meta verse gaming platform. The two-week art installation aims to add a level of immersion and personalization that pushes the limits of virtual and real-world experiences. “It’s whatever we can imagine. We’re building… a system where any piece of clothing works on any avatar,” says Roblox founder and CEO David Baszucki.

While this gives users the ability to distinctively and individually build their online personas, it is also offers brands a new route in reaching new audiences. As games have virtual realities have become the new go to hangout spot, brands are using their virtual presence to grab hold of a whole new market.

“Most of these kids aren't on Instagram or other platforms — this is their social network.”

— Cathy Hackl, Chief Metaverse Officer at Future Metaverse Labs

While many millennials and Gen-Zers experienced their first concerts IRL, many of their younger counterparts’ first live music gig was on Roblox. Just as we’d ask for $20 for a night out with friends, they ask for $20 worth of ‘Robux,’ the games digital currency, for a night online with friends.

Gucci Garden Roblox Exhibit

Meanwhile, H&M have recently played with the sustainable narrative, teaming up with Maisie Williams and Animal Crossing to recycle virtual clothes. Nintendo’s virtual platform is already a fixture in the fashion industry, with Valentino, Jacquemus, Marc Jacobs and Bode launching pop up shops and limited collections in the past. However H&M’s ‘Looop Island’ aims to take virtual fashion one step further, enabling players to buy clothes and dress up sustainability, then recycle their digital wardrobes for new ones. The new venture has been met with greenwashing scepticism, but promoting sustainable decision making online will no doubt have a greater impact on younger generations.

So what’s the natural next step in this digital movement and what does it mean for denim? As designers, retailers and creators alike have begun to recognize the value technology holds for the future of design, we’ll see a further merging of our physical and digital landscapes. 

Digital clothing uses minimal physical resources and as long as crypto-currency isn’t used, it has almost no carbon footprint. 3D rendering also gives the consumer a hyper realistic impression of a piece of clothing before they buy, enabling made-to-order manufacturing, meaning less waste in this highly wasteful industry. Leading digital platform, RTFTK Studios proved this recently with their ‘Punk Project’ where 10,000 on-of-a-kind NFT sneakers can be “forged” or redeemed for a real pair of your NFT kicks on the 22nd of June.

RTFKT X Ev Bravado NFT

But the key benefit of digital design is its accessibility without investment: creatively speaking, the medium allows for much wilder experimentation and more playful, risky collaborations as inventory and manufacturing are no longer an issue. Hyped denim designer Ev Bravado sold his first NFT jean in March 2021 for over $11,000 without even touching a piece of denim.

The impact digital design can have on our fashion system as well as our day to day lives is becoming tangible so it’s time to get online and seize the opportunities.

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