Have you ever sunk a couple of hundred bucks on a video game like Fortnite, where the outfit you buy exists solely in the virtual world to be worn by your virtual character? If so, then you can make sense of a new trend in the fashion scene: The rise of virtual clothing, similar to NFTs when you think about it.
“When I first started talking about this, my friends were like, ‘What are you talking about?'” said 27-year-old Daniella Loftus. “But my 14-year-old cousins understood it immediately.”
For many, the idea of buying clothes that don’t exist is a conceptual leap too far.
But emerging digital fashion stores are tapping into a growing market – not actual clothes but digitally generated outfits that stores simply photoshop onto a customer’s photos or videos to be posted onto Instagram and elsewhere.
Soon they are likely to become a way to dress your avatar when interacting in online games and meeting places, all potentially while reclining in sweat pants in your own home.
British influencer Loftus sees so much potential that last month she gave up her job with a fashion consultancy to devote herself full-time to her website, This Outfit Does Not Exist.
Her Instagram shows the potential of virtual clothing that doesn’t need to obey the laws of physics – from a shimmering silver liquid pantsuit with tentacles to a wobbling pink creation with lasers firing out of her bustier.
“Digital is coming to overtake physical. Kids are asking each other: ‘What skin did you have in this game yesterday?'” said Loftus.
Isabelle Boemeke, a Brazilian model and influencer, is already an avid buyer of digital outfits.
Online, she is known as Isodope and merges high fashion with a serious commitment to clean energy and environmental activism.
Her other-worldly style fits neatly with her message.
“I wanted to do something very eye-catching and bold. If my videos featured me wearing a T-shirt and jeans, they wouldn’t have the same appeal,” Boemeke told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“Models nowadays have the freedom to share more about their personal lives and personalities. I’m a big nerd and I love expressing myself in different ways through fashion or makeup.”
That’s the demand, so the supply is coming fast.
Outfits on digital fashion store DressX range from $25 hats to strange jellyfish-like dresses for hundreds of dollars.
“Every brand in the future will be on board with digital fashion,” said DressX co-founder Daria Shapovalova.
Its own research says 15% of customers are doing so for Instagram posts, and almost a quarter found it satisfied their need for a new item of clothing.
“You don’t necessarily need physicality to experience the thrill of wearing an extraordinary garment,” said Michaela Larosse, of The Fabricant, which sold the first-ever digital-only dress in May 2019 for $9,500.
“We will all have a digital self, we’ll have an avatar and you’ll be able to communicate something about yourself, who you are, what you’re interested in, through the iteration of your avatar.”
Environmental concerns are also key to their appeal.
The traditional fashion industry is one of the biggest pollutants and waste generators on the planet – a point made by Extinction Rebellion protesters who stormed the Louis Vuitton catwalk in Paris on Tuesday.
“I know many women who buy an outfit, wear it once for a single photo and never again,” said Boemeke.
“They could reduce consumption and waste by using digital fashion for a few of those posts.”
The pandemic was an obvious accelerator for these businesses.
“People were stuck at home with nothing to do. They had nowhere to wear those beautiful clothes,” said Loftus.
She is clear that digital fashion is not yet for everyone – and may never be.
“I don’t know if a lot of the people who do this stuff online actually want to meet people in person. I think that a lot of their needs and desires can be satisfied online,” said Loftus.
It may also prove a great leveler – a way for anti-social people to (almost literally) shed their skin and adopt another.
“You might be an accountant with a wife, kids, and you’re happy being quite mundane in real life, but then the way you want to express yourself in these virtual worlds is totally different,” she said.