Instagram is well-known as the social media playground for fashion influencers. Most of the activity to date is seen with apparel designs the person is actually wearing, though—showing off a new purchase or favorite look. #ootd’s (“outfit of the day”) proliferate. And when it comes to augmented reality, Instagram has pretty well mastered face filters. But the platform hasn’t really attempted to apply the technology to the clothes the user is actually wearing.
That is, until Carlings, a Swedish retail company, entered into an exclusive partnership with Facebook and Instagram to produce a first-of-its-kind augmented reality (AR) T-shirt—functional only on those platforms.
Spark AR, Facebook’s AR studio, developed the functionality of the AR component. The physical T-shirt itself, which can only be ordered from the Carlings site, is a plain white tee to the naked eye, with the exception of some black text on the sleeve and a logo near the center front of the shirt collar. Once you activate the filter on Instagram, that logo becomes a functional part of the design. It serves as a tracking point for your phone’s camera, so that the associated Carlings filter can properly superimpose a graphic of your choice onto that blank canvas no matter which way your body bends or turns. (Carlings emphasizes that the technology is still in beta, so “don’t move too fast.”)
But unlike typical fashion sales, which require buyers to make multiple purchases in order to keep up with trends, the point of this shirt, according to Carlings, is that you don’t have to buy another one. A variety of filters allow the wearer to switch up the graphic on the shirt whenever they feel like it, and the company plans to release even more filters, potentially on a continuous basis, so the wearer can make a topical political statement even as the news cycle spins faster and faster.
Most of the designs currently on the site are very much oriented to the sort of ironic, memeified design aesthetic of Gen Z (which honestly, makes sense, because the designs themselves are digital-first). Almost all the designs on the site relate to the climate crisis: “Stop denying our planet is dying”; “I’m sure the dinosaurs thought they had more time too.” And one outlines the ever-present nature of toxic masculinity: it’s “24/7.” In a very on-brand move, Virtue, the creative agency by Vice, also collaborated on the project.
You might wonder why there’s appeal in walking around town in the digital age’s equivalent to a graphic tee printed with invisible ink. According to Dezeen, Carlings CEO Ronny Mikalsen said that the AR function “makes the product more versatile and long-lasting.” Sure to the untrained eye, it could be any shirt—the memorable wow factor happens after a camera is pointed at you. Some may find the concept gimmicky. But Instagram and Facebook filters themselves are really a practice in playfulness. And depending on the person’s following, it could be a way to get more eyes on your message, without having to buy into the fast-fashion mantra of buying poorly made clothes on the cheap in order to participate in a trend—and then ditching them.
Carlings says the T-shirt “takes a classic design pillar of youth rebellion”—the graphic tee—”and reinvents it for the digital age.” But a major caveat is that users can’t design their own (Carlings does say they accept suggestions via email). And of course, a choice of graphics pre-designed by an agency associated with the likes of a major company like Facebook kind of undercuts the outsider appeal they suggest. What we can say either way is that an AR tee sure does bring a whole new meaning to doing it for the ‘gram.