«Digital fashion items don’t need physical resources and can work for the benefit of our environment». In conversation with digital fashion entrepreneur, Regina Turbina on sustainable consumption through virtual clothing
Factorizing the ubiquity of digital fashion: online media, conscious consumption and the pandemic
Is digital fashion merely a trend nearing its peak? From crypto wallet enabled NFT marketplaces, and e-commerce for photoshop-styling, to the original precursor, gaming skins; the diffusion curve is fast and furious. Digital fashion is as much an adaptation as it is innovation. Fueled by an awareness of conscious consumption; obsession with online media and restrictions imposed by the pandemic. When successive global lockdowns led to abandoned runways, fashion shows went virtual; the boredom of lounging in pyjamas, opened doors to experimentative digital wardrobes. The pandemic is lauded for catalyzing many facets of the fashion industry – digital fashion included.
The first such collection debuted through gaming skins in a 2019 collaboration between Louis Vuitton and League of Legends; later produced in physical pieces as well. Since then, many luxury labels have traversed this landscape. This includes Balenciaga with Fortnite in 2021 and Gucci with the gaming platform, Roblox.
Gaming avatars have segued into virtual identities requiring virtual garments – just as individuals’ time spent online clocks upward of eight hours per day. The idea of physically non-existent clothing,created using computer technology and 3D software, is also a huge step in the direction of conscious consumerism. However, this concept currently caters to the influencer community; with slower action to solve bigger operational issues within an archaic industry. «Digital fashion is a new expression of self-perception and interaction with the virtual world. It is an opportunity to express yourself without harming the planet». States Regina Turbina, founder of NFT marketplace, Artisant and the digital fashion e-commerce, Replicant. She shares her thoughts on what digital fashion is made for and how it can enable sustainable consumption.
Introducing ARTISANT, fashion NFT marketplace
«As a fashion designer, I entered this new world by creating items for myself; trying them out on my own photos and posting them on Instagram. A community of people became interested in them and asked for custom designs on their photos. So I started Replicant as a marketplace where people can try digital garments but can’t own them». Analogous to a multi-brand e-commerce but for virtual-only clothing, Replicant was launched in May 2020.
Now it has over thirty six cyber designers, over two hundred garments in the catalogue; and more than one thousand orders delivered. Breaking down what happens behind the scenes, Turbina explains: «Customers choose an outfit from the catalogue. Then they upload any photo of theirs, pay for the look; and within forty eight hours we try the digital garment on their photos and send it to them. It works just with CLO3D and Photoshop softwares». From digital trench coats in reflective textiles to avant-garde experimentation; digital fashion explores conceptual and defiant looks.
Artisant: a WEB3 project
Turbina’s larger ambitions were focused on a digital space for exchanging and creating fashion NFTs (non-fungible tokens) through a decentralized platform using blockchain and crypto-wallets. «With Artisant we unite artists, digital fashion designers, brands and tech to provide an opportunity not only to purchase wearable art as an NFT but also instantly use it. It is a perfect licensing tool, a cornerstone for the creator economy which is a big part of our mission and vision». Artisant is a WEB3 project working on the decentralized Ethereum network where all payments are enabled using the native crypto currency token, ether (ETH).
The platform empowers designers to mint, sell, buy and resell fashion non-fungible tokens; creating economic opportunities for the digital fashion community. Vying to become a dominant name in this playing field, Turbina reveals that Artisant has already sold above seventy five NFTs for 18 ETH since its launch in November 2021. Much of the industry is currently riding the NFT wave. From luxury brands like Karl lagereld, Gucci and Burberry to sportswear names like Nike and Adidas. While proponents believe that digital fashion and NFTs might be made for each other; the consumer base of each barely intersects – one attracts the social media obsessed, the other lures investors.
Targeting consumers: influencers versus investors
«One of the cornerstone functions of clothing is the social one. Your image is always a statement, display of your mood, interests, and your self-identity. Digital clothing can go much further here than its physical predecessor», advocates Turbina; as virtual clothing is unshackled by physical restraints of practicality, textile construction, color or speed of production. As a concept, this appeals to fashion influencers who thrive on the use-and-throw regime. In order to keep their social feeds fresh with new fashion.
Migrating from selling on re-commerce platforms like TheRealReal and Vinted to curating a digital wardrobe can be seen as a conscious approach to consumption. The question critics put forth is whether this new product category can charm an audience that isn’t social media obsessed. In a survey by Squarespace and The Harris Poll, out of two thousand GenZ and millennials; sixty percent of the former and sixty two per cent of the latter believe that taking care in presenting yourself online is more important than how you do so offline.
The commoditization of digital fashion
This considerable disparity between IRL versus URL identities lends more credibility to the commoditization of digital fashion. In response to which avatar is gaining importance, Turbina vocalizes her thoughts. «It’s not yet a twenty four hour presence for either. Some people find how you look in real life more important – skin, hair, makeup and dressing. For some people, such as developers in silicon valley, how you look on the internet is more important». This aids in substantiating the use of digital clothing for any professional with an online brand or presence. Revealing Replicant’s consumer typology, Turbina says: «Everyone buys digital garments – the bloggers are just a small part of our customers. Sixty per cent of our orders are futuristic fashion and twenty percent of them are usual digital fashion clothes».
WEB3 model for collectors and traders of digital fashion
Meanwhile, a new market has shaped up for fashion NFTs. It distinguishes itself from influencers by its sheer knowledge of blockchain, crypto trading and virtual assets. These consumers of digital fashion, trade in NFTs, with the belief that these might be the reigning currency of the metaverse in the distant future. «Artisant is a WEB3 model that is not for influencers but for collectors and traders of digital fashion. They buy these garments to add to their own collections and to help fashion designers – its community power».
There exists a third category of consumers. Virtual influencers that exist only in the digital realm and are synthesized as human lookalikes. Conceptually implausible half a decade ago, names like Lil Miquela and Noonoouri are now household names in their niches. Online retailer YOOX launched virtual influencer Daisy in 2018; while Puma created Maya last year for its South East Asian fanbase. Turbina shares that Artisant has also made sales to two virtual influencers since its conception.
Claiming to bridge sustainability and consumerism
Digital fashion lays claim to tackling overconsumption and wastage. This is rooted in the belief that virtual clothing can potentially eclipse the demand for tangible garments. Certain professional niches and age segments of consumers that are completely dependent on their social avatars might be drawn to the idea of a digital wardrobe; reducing their consumption of single-use wear and inadvertently becoming conscious consumers. Comprehensively, these designs cannot replace real functional clothing at the moment. But there is a glimpse at the sartorial future that awaits as technology changes the fabric of our being. To conclude, the arena of digital fashion has the macroscopic potential to pave the way for a more sustainable business model, where overproduction, and as a consequence overconsumption, is diminished.
Solving fashion’s macro-scale issues with pixels
With a production cycle rooted in sustainable ideology, the virtual clothing industry converts factories into a single device. Supply chains to block chains and retail outlets and transportation to e-commerce and online interactions. This eliminates some of the biggest culprits in the industry when it comes to environmental pollution and human rights. «Digital fashion items don’t need physical resources and can work in benefit of our environment,» explains Turbina. Beyond the lure of unrestricted creative expression, digital clothing enables designers to minimize waste at the start of the production cycle.
«With these designs you don’t need to create multiple fashion samples physically. You just make one digital garment and try it on different avatars, sizes and body types using software. Later these design templates can easily be used for physical production. Brands and designers can present their new work digitally, collect pre-orders, and then produce limited capsules». This process can enable an on-demand production system, scrapping old-school models steeped in wasteful inventory; deadstock and overproduction, green profiting both seasonal and fast fashion brands. Artisant replicates this concept in a D2C scenario; with an augmented reality digital fitting room that customers could use before placing orders. Recently launched in collaboration with start-up IN3D, this virtual trial room is currently functional on Artisant’s website. As a space where users can scan their bodies creating personalized avatars to try on digital garments.
Is the grass greener with digital fashion in the picture?
According to the founders of DressX, a pioneer in digital fashion commerce. «The production of a digital garment emits ninety seven percent less carbon dioxide than a physical garment. We also don’t need any water during the production of digital items. Thus production of such a garment, on average, saves three thousand liters of water per item».
This lends to the belief that substituting even one per cent of physical clothing with their digital versions, could save five trillion liters of water. It can eliminate the annual carbon footprint of the fashion industry by up to thirty five million tonnes. In addition, talking about resources required to produce a digital garment, Turbina explains. «Designers need to have knowledge of producing physical fashion garments. This because it is equally important in digital fashion designing. Apart from that, we need a laptop, internet, textures from a texture biblioteca and I think two liters of tea».
Despite a greener footprint, virtual labels are part of the climate controversy. Mainly because minting of fashion NFTs onto crypto networks results in high carbon emissions. Advocates of digital fashion stand adamant on this point of contention – they believe this environmental cost can be reduced faster than the fashion industry’s overproduction. Eco-friendly solutions for minting green NFTs are already in construction such as Palm, which exists within Ethereum.
The business of marketing digital fashion and its consequences
Having outlined its necessity in working towards a sustainable future, the rhetoric of digital fashion is yet to create actionable proof. Deep pocketed brands experimenting with the intention of claiming singularity, over this nascent industry have reduced its potential to marketing gimmicks. Moreover Critics have labelled digital fashion as futile capitalism.
Brands have invested huge amounts in proving them right. Gaming collaborations, virtual concerts, purchasing metaverse real estate for digital-only stores (tested by Gucci and Nike) have taken precedence. Therefore, there has been slower action to tackle logistic and production drawbacks in the industry. For instance, contending for maximum real estate in the virtual world seems to be a priority as the future of fashion. Digital wardrobes are being created for online identities partaking in social interactions, professional meetings and even entertainment and travel.
JC Sekar, founder of AcuiZen, a company that enables people centric digital transformation of businesses, voices his concerns. «Digital fashion in the metaverse may be an easy way for people to feel good about themselves. However, we need to watch out for the unintended consequences. Could the ease of switching between avatars lead to compulsive obsession and eventually depression?». He further elaborates on the immediate effects that continued online presence could encourage, proposing the term virtual health. «With Metaverse around the corner I fear virtual health (if there is such a term) – is going to be the new crisis. It could be mental health on steroids and metaverse could leave the larger society worse off».
A fashion designer and entrepreneur who founded the platforms Replicant and Artisant. This occurred during the pandemic to further her interest in digital fashion as an economy. In additionhe has also collaborated with Puma for their first digital collection and launched her own brand Ophelica in Russia.