You can never be seen wearing this clothing in public

Tan Weiyun
Designers unveil collections that exist only in cyberspace. The trend may redefine style and prove an eco-reset for the industry.
Tan Weiyun

As digital models walked on a virtual runway last month when Shanghai Fashion Week was moved online, the message was clear: The era of cyber fashion has arrived.

The tech-driven virtual world is set to revolutionize the entire fashion industry – what we wear and how we buy it – and overhaul the way we define style.

Some may view all this as marketing hype, but signs abound that digital clothing is here to stay and is making its mark in the industry among a younger generation habituated with the metaverse.

It's a trend that accelerated during the outbreak of COVID-19, when many fashion brands paused physical catwalk shows and turned to short films or virtual showrooms to release their seasonal collections.

You can never be seen wearing this clothing in public
Ti Gong

Knitting brand Nanknits held a virtual runway show during Shanghai Fashion Week in June.

In cyberspace, people can create, wear and trade virtual garments. Designers produce clothing that may exist or may not, using 3D software and computer-generated imaging technologies to yield super realistic visual effects.

Cashmere, leather, or even water or fire. You can choose the material of clothing and add surreal touches, such as hooked barbs all over the body or a giant metal mermaid's tail.

Last year Gucci worked with the tech company Wanna and released its Virtual 25 digital sneakers, selling for only US$12. That compared with Gucci's actual men's sneakers priced at around US$800.

You can take photos or make videos featuring virtual footwear because technology can scan photo, find your feet and slip on virtual shoes. The design of those shoes can be modified and shared on social networks. In fact, they are like real shoes except that you can't wear them down the street.

You can never be seen wearing this clothing in public

Gucci's Virtual 25 digital sneakers

"Self-expression and the feeling of self-satisfaction will continue to be as important as the need for self-fulfillment and are part of our innate human nature," said Yanie Durocher, founder of Pompom Platform and co-founder of SanPOM Platform, which focuses on digital clothing.

For the generation born after 1995, "second lives" online have become important, and fashion adds to cyber-image. Many young people spend up to eight hours a day online, creating a parallel life that often blurs the boundary between reality and fantasy.

"I believe there will be less distinction between the physical and digital world," Durocher said. "Real vs unreal becomes irrelevant. Every person on the planet can have the chance to express themselves, no matter their race, gender or social status."

As one of the pioneers of digital fashion, SanPOM opened its Chinese official account on the popular social network Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book).

There, computer-generated models clad in a variety of fabrics and other materials strut with impossible sheen on virtual runways that may be under the stars, deep in the sea or in a glittering ballroom.

SanPOM has a mix of designers. Some have worked only on digital outfits and have never handled actual fabrics; others have experience in the real world of fashion and are venturing into cyberspace for the first time.

"Our 3D specialists create digital copies of 'real' outfits under the supervision of designers," said Alexander Kaunas, a co-founder of SanPOM. "But the most exciting part of this process is the collaboration of classic and digital fashion designers who supplement one another to make something new."

You can never be seen wearing this clothing in public

Digital-only clothing is a way for young people to show their personality in cyberspace.

In the real world, high fashion can be costly. It appears that is also true online.

Tribute Brand, a commercially successful digital fashion brand established in 2020, produces a top that exists only online and costs US$699.

After buying something from Tribute Brand's online store, customers send in large, high-quality photos of themselves, and a technical team produces computer-generated imagery using the photos.

In short, a body is clad in a chosen fashion in a post-production project.

All the collections of Tribute Brand are sold in limited editions. Each time new digital outfits are released, they are snapped up within hours.

Sensing huge business opportunities, more companies and fashion brands are adopting strategies to expand in the metaverse.

Last month, social media brand Meta announced plans to launch its Avatars Store, where users of its social media platforms can dress digital avatars in big fashion brands such as Balenciaga, Prada and Thom Browne at greatly reduced prices to ready-wear clothing.

You can never be seen wearing this clothing in public

The digital-only dress "Iridescence" sells for US$9,500.

The push to digital fashion reduces the carbon footprint of an industry long berated for its lack of environmental conscience.

"Waste is an ongoing issue in the industry," Durocher from SanPOM told Shanghai Daily. "About 80 percent of wardrobes are worn less than five times. At the same time, we have the paradox of the human need to follow new trends faster than before. A digital driven experience could potentially solve this issue and give fashion an eco-reset."

At June's online Shanghai Fashion Show, knitting brand Nanknits made a big splash with his collection entitled "Future Era of Love."

The collection was powered by Kornit Digital, a fashion technology company that provides complete digital-printing solutions.

You can never be seen wearing this clothing in public
Ti Gong

A fashion blogger in a digital creation by Nanknits

The company has committed itself to saving 4.3 trillion liters of water and 17.2 billion kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions by reducing overproduction in the fashion industry by 1.1 billion items by 2026.

"We've tried virtual fashion and made physical printing outfits to show how they look both online and in reality," said Mani Chen, marketing director of Kornit Digital Asia Pacific. "This is the perfect crossover of reality and virtual. The metaverse is a big deal now. It creates an environment that is always sustainable and waste-free in water and energy, with zero stock hoarding."

It might seem absurd for anyone to splash out money for a garment that can't be worn out on the streets. But, hey, it's all about fun and the chance to wear something new and exciting for that perfect Just-in-Time photo.

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