Against a cliffside backdrop with lush greenery, DressX cofounder Daria Shapovalova models an expertly tailored denim jumpsuit with horn buttons and brass trimmings. Made by Soorty, a manufacturer that produces denim for major brands such as Calvin Klein and Zara, her jumpsuit is one of hundreds of thousands of garments made in their factories in Pakistan this year. While research has shown that denim production is one of the most polluting and resource-intensive activities in the fashion industry, Shapovalova’s particular garment doesn’t carry the same weight. Her jumpsuit is purely digital—created through software to be showcased on platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat.
Digital fashion has been growing in recent years, and it represents a tremendous opportunity for both designers and consumers. But there’s a real danger that it could repeat many of the pitfalls of traditional fashion, particularly around discrimination and access. Although digital fashion brands are engaging in more environmentally sustainable practices by default, the majority of them aren’t actively addressing the foundational inequalities that start at design and production.
While digital fashion is rooted in gaming, it is going increasingly mainstream. Just recently, the wardrobe options in the vastly popular video game Animal Crossing, for example, got a major upgrade when H&M announced a line of recycled outfits in collaboration with Games of Thrones star Maisie Williams. In short, digital fashion has been given a novel, more mass-market role that is increasingly becoming part of the everyday life of nongamers as well.
Miquela, the self-proclaimed robot influencer who has collaborated with brands such as Apparis and Givenchy, has been instrumental to the progression of digital fashion on Instagram since 2016. Since then, a slew of computerized influencers have also joined the scene, and a plethora of filters have been added to the app, all of which have been embraced by H&M and other major retailers as a means of tapping into the promise of a new, more equitable tomorrow.
After all, IRL fashion is inherently inequitable. It is one of the most exploitative industries when it comes to production, and it is prohibitive on the consumption side. Garment workers are often paid wages so low that they are called “starvation wages”; meanwhile, certain pieces of clothing are so expensive that they prohibit large portions of the population from purchasing them. Throughout history, there have been many attempts to democratize the system—most notably fast fashion—but none of these efforts has been wholly successful so far, and they come with their own problems. Digital fashion is the latest attempt, and it presents the possibility of transforming fashion, not only by limiting the environmental footprint but by making items dramatically more accessible.
Prices for digital clothes and accessories are a fraction of their real-life counterparts. A pair of ISDKV virtual sneakers currently retails for about $14, whereas a similar set from a sustainable brand such as Allbirds costs at least $100. These lower prices break down financial barriers to entry for those who want to consume fashion but have limited resources. This is an enormous advantage that sustainable IRL fashion brands struggle to provide, ultimately feeding into a system that stigmatizes people of lower incomes who cannot access more costly “slow” fashion.
In this respect, digital fashion also bridges the physical gap between retailers and consumers. A client in Paris shopping the latest DressX digital collection need not fly to Kiev, where the studio is based, in order to try on the clothing. All they have to do is send in a picture on which they want their digital clothes showcased, pick out the clothing, and head to the checkout page. DressX then tailors the pieces onto their image, and it’s ready in less than 24 hours.
Accessibility is also improved with more sizing opportunities that can cater to a highly diverse spectrum of genders, sizes, and (dis)abilities. Off-the-rack clothing can be a source of physical discomfort and frustration, as it tends to be designed for cisgender, non-disabled consumers, and usually only up to a size 18 (or XL). This kind of exclusionary shopping affects people who wear extended sizes as well as LGBTQIA+ and disabled consumers, who often can’t find comfortable, functional, and stylish pieces to wear, contributing to feelings of inadequacy and rejection, including body dysmorphia. Digital fashion, meanwhile, provides a safe space for experimenting with different styles that can define and articulate who they are. It can serve as a means to establish identity, social relationships, and communities.
But while digital fashion promises to become an important tool to achieve diversity of representation for disadvantaged, marginalized, and minority groups in society, it also has limitations that are barely addressed in contemporary discourse. Access to education is one of them. Digital fashion design requires a unique skill set that draws from both the tech and fashion worlds. On one hand, these designers need to be trained in, and capable of, using programming languages and various software programs, including video game engines and high-end hardware. Not only can the cost of the necessary tools be prohibitive, but learning how to use them can also be expensive and time-intensive. At the same time, for digital garments to fit precisely and realistically, digital fashion designers need to have a solid understanding of anthropometry (measurements of the human body), ergonomics, and the properties of the real-life materials that they are trying to imitate.
Moreover, a significant but overlooked issue concerns that of the creators of digital fashions. Since this is such a new job category, no reliable statistics exist for the demographic makeup of digital fashion designers. However, stats for related jobs indicate that those creating digital garments are not from the same groups as the marginalized groups for whom digital fashion could be a game changer. Career development website Zippia has found that in the United States, only 25% of software engineers (of which a subset are actively designing fashion) are women, and almost 54% are white. Statista’s worldwide figures are even more disparate; they found that a mere 8% of software developers are women, and only 1.2% are non-binary, gender-queer, or gender non-conforming.
If one of the main arguments in support of digital fashion is its ability to serve the marginalized, what happens when its development is in the hands of those with overwhelmingly socio-economically privileged backgrounds? The Institute of Digital Fashion (IoDF), a digital fashion studio and retailer, weighed in on why these issues are major obstacles to the healthy advancement of the industry in an online interview. “The industry’s biggest challenges are the current traps of the IRL fashion industry. In brief, if we mirror these, we are lost!” its founders state. Recognizing these issues, founders Cattytay and Leanne Elliott Young are taking steps to help it develop on a socially conscious path.
At the heart of IoDF’s mission is its championing of queer 3D makers, women, and ethnic and racial minorities in the creation of digital fashion. “The fashion industry as a whole is fixed on tradition: body types, gendered fashion weeks, design processes, and the retail sphere. Let’s build a different version of that tradition! An important part of this work is paving the way for marginalized gender identities to thrive in the tech sector by amplifying their voices.”
Unless the digital fashion industry sets certain standards while it is still in its infancy, its future may not be all that different from the present-day reality of IRL fashion.
Sara Emilia Bernat and Doris Domoszlai-Lantner are cofounders of Fashion Forward, a not-for-profit think tank established to challenge the conventional discourse around the fashion system. Bernat is a sociologist and brand strategist; Domoszlai-Lantner is a fashion historian and archivist.