ICYMI, fashion NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) are the talk of the town. From the Fortnite x Balenciaga collection to the first digital fashion magazine cover on Vogue Singapore, to the “Baby Birkin” NFT of an animated baby growing in an Hermès Birkin bag. Most recently, a sold-out collection of NFT Karl Lagerfield figurines at the 3D Tech Festival 2021.
Are you still with me?
If you, like me, find it hard to follow the latest metaverse inventions, allow me to catch you up to speed. According to an article published on Fashion United, “NFTs are nothing more than JPEG files. These non-fungible tokens are, in a sense, digital certificates of authenticity that are usually secured via blockchain technology and are thus tamper-proof. NFTs come from the art and gaming sectors.”
Digital garments v.s. Fashion NFTs
Before we proceed, it is important to make a caveat that digital fashion extends into different forms: digital garments and NFTs.
The former can be replicated and is applied to a wearer’s image with software programmes like Photoshop. Whilst NFTs have unique tokens which have their ID registered to one block on the blockchain.
To get further clarification on the distinction between NFTs and digitally coded garments, London-based Digital Designer Jariel Ann Tan explains:
“Digital garments can take many forms. Like AR (augmented reality), you can hover a phone over someone’s body and the system tracks the body and puts the garment on top. Or it can be done with CGI (computer-generated imagery), which is made in post-production: you take a picture of the body, scan it, and you put the garments over, on the computer.
But with NFTs, it is not necessarily a medium, it is more of an outcome. So you can list however the garment takes the form (for example, AR) as NFTs, and you can sell your creations on the Metaverse.”
Ashwini Deshpande, Head of 3D and Design Production at Republique explains that NFTs “are a whole market of their own, fueled by the desire to invest and own prestigious original copies of artworks.” While digital garments are “all about dressing your online persona in order to be able to express yourself. The two overlap to form fashion NFT’s.”
Whether in response to a global pandemic that greatly reduced travel or a pivot in skills and pique in interests coming from designers and artists during the lockdown, digitalisation of fashion has taken centre stage, now more than ever.
With questions around whether fashion companies should start hiring chief officers of the metaverse, the integration of digital fashion into mainstream consumption has definitely taken shape.
Conversations around digital fashion have evolved to become more than zero-waste pattern cutting processes and debates around Lil Miquela, the OG digital influencer.
The risk of over-simplification: The digital fashion dissonance
The fashion industry has never been more “sustainability-focused” than it has become now. With major fashion corporations announcing climate neutrality commitments and rapid adoption of technological advancements, marketers have begun to brand digital fashion as an alternative to (over)producing and consuming in the physical world.
As a wearer of clothes who finds the tangible connection with clothing more appealing than the fanfare of digital outfits or the possibility of living entirely within the metaverse, I am skeptical. I am hesitant to grant digital fashion a status beyond a novel distraction from the real problem: overproduction.
Climate and culture journalist, Whitney Bauck tweets, ‘I’m here to yell about digital fashion again, this time for @vogueaustralia, and I will not stop until we as an industry stop publishing oversimplified “digital fashion = most sustainable!” takes.’
In a rebuttal to self-serving claims that digital fashion takes up less carbon footprint than physical production processes, Bauck cautions in the article that: “NFTs in particular can have a shockingly large carbon footprint” because of blockchain systems.
Bauck continues that NFTs “rely on technology that processes large amounts of data, which in turn needs powerful computers that ultimately rely on electricity from fossil fuels. According to one estimate, creating an average NFT is equivalent to driving ‘500 miles in a typical American gasoline-powered car’”.
Tan echoes these misgivings, noting that, “Although digital fashion is celebrated as a pathway to sustainability, or the next frontier of sustainable fashion—since there are no issues of water consumption and practically all physical waste is eliminated—it leaves behind a big ecological trail: Carbon emissions. To list something online on the Metaverse, takes up so much energy.”
Additionally, we should be taking note of the difference between the ecological impact of garment collections designed digitally from scratch versus digital garments that were first made/sampled physically and then replicated digitally with 3D software by 3D artists.
Companies may be able to take advantage of the novelty around digital fashion in marketing strategies to push for more sales of physical or digital clothing.
For Deshpande, there are significant efforts in driving home the sustainability agenda when it comes to digitally designing garments from scratch. The difference in this is that the conversations around digital fashion have to be distributed throughout the entire fashion supply chain and system.
To not just focus on the hype of a digital outcome, but to pour research effort into expanding the potential of aiding custom on-demand garment manufacture. “[This] is an exciting prospect for sustainable fashion as it would reduce overconsumption and wastage drastically,” says Deshpande.
Building a new system: Digital fashion as a force of resistance
My knowledge of what goes into the making of digital fashion is limited and has its shortcomings. It would be unfair of me to comment on digital fashion—as a design practice, and as wearable art, without speaking to digital fashion designers like Deshpande and Xiaoling Jin.
For Deshpande, designing digitally means that she has more scope for experimentation because it is a faster process to drape, cut, etc. and doesn’t produce waste. She prefers designing digitally because the flexibility of designing digitally “[breaks] all the barriers and restrictions that came with traditional fashion design and the use of physical fabric.”
For London-based Humanwear and Digital Designer Xiaoling Jin, her digital design journey was greatly pushed by the pandemic. When it became impossible to return to studios to create physical samples and garment collections, Jin made a necessary pivot: designing digital collections.
Jin also points towards her experience of having more design freedom. “Designing digitally [gives me] more freedom to create more stuff without [the] restriction of the space, material, structure. [W]hile physically designing needs to consider more about these parts, physical fashion has its beauty about the texture, touch…”
Touch. What is clothing without the element of touch?
In the aforementioned article, Bauck points towards a living question: “if fashion is no longer tied to physical needs like protection from the elements or constrained by physical realities like gravity, what might it become?”
As a wearer of clothing that is physically and emotionally connected with the clothing I choose to wear and hold onto, digital fashion garments still feel like a stretch too far right now.
Digital outfits, often one’s first gateway into experiencing the realm of digital fashion, remain to be financially unattainable and not accessible to an average clothing wearer. It may be oversimplistic to say that digital outfits and fashion NFTs could democratise fashion in terms of cost, when these are items that aren’t practical or necessary for the real world.
In this 28-minute video created by Youtuber Safiya Nygaard, which has garnered 2.8 million views on the date of writing, Nygaard tries on digital clothing from different digital fashion brands available in the market.
Price points of the digital garments range from what you would expect to see on fast-fashion sites, to full looks in the range of the thousands. The responses she received on her looks, without revealing that the outfits are photoshopped onto her image, were varied in enthusiasm and scepticism.
Nygaard concluded in the video that she is still “pro digital fashion”, as she “like[s] the idea that virtual fashion can be untethered from reality, and can be purely about imagination and fantasy.”
I can’t help but think that digital outfits can be useful for content creators and internet influencers providing an alternative to buying new fashion items to keep up with creating the types of content they are known for.
Get acquainted with The Metaverse or reclaim agency in The Real World?
If we are speaking of cleaning up the fashion industry; digital fashion, at best, is a stop-gap solution to the systemic issue of waste in the fashion industry, and at worst, another source of producing-for-profit and mere strategy of deflection and marketing for brands, adding to the environmental impact of making and wearing clothing.
Fashion, Culture and Beauty Writer Laura Pitcher rightly points out that, “[t]he sustainable opportunities created through digitalizing the fashion industry should not make us shy away from the same level of critique as the current fast-fashion model, to ensure the future pathway puts people and the environment first.”
For Jin, her work is rooted within working against the current system that rewards rapid turnover of clothing production. “As a digital designer, the system that I am proposing is a silent rebellion against the fast fashion culture. I am creating a personalized service via a digital space where garments can be designed and visualized online using digital tools. Garments are only produced on demand after a purchase order thereby reducing unnecessary fashion waste.”
There is no denying that digital fashion—the forms we know of now—are birthed from the frustration of resource inefficiency, inaccurate data projection and the reality of the current state of fashion.
Aimed at providing an alternative to physically producing clothing, digital fashion is innovative and creative problem-solving. It captures what the fashion industry has needed for the longest time: cross-industry collaboration for new ideas and ways of execution.
Where do we go from here? To critically humanise digital spheres, which means to be accountable in addressing the ethical and legal challenges of digital fashion, are we more prepared for its impending scale and reach and rate of assimilation into our lives?
Ultimately, we have to criticise the existing structures of power: who belongs to the handful that would benefit most from this tech-driven disillusionment?
What does it say about the state of fashion, and the state of the world, if life in the metaverse becomes more desirable and sought after?
About the Author: Xingyun Shen
Seeking to address the importance of intersectionality when analysing fashion sustainability, Xingyun is the Country Coordinator of Fashion Revolution Singapore and runs @noordinaryprotest as a platform to call for a shift in mindset. She reimagines a more equitable fashion industry through her work, which centres the planet and its people at the core of its intentions and operations. She currently works with The Fashion Pulpit, Singapore’s first clothing swap retail space, on research and education projects to promote greater sustainable fashion literacy and re-introduce new ways of speaking about our clothes.