The day after New York Fashion Week ended, when I can only presume the majority of fashion tastemakers were nursing hangovers from exclusive afterparties the night before, I was at the self-proclaimed real “future of fashion” instead. Located inside a nondescript SoHo storefront, I experienced ZERO10, an augmented reality app that lets users purchase and photograph themselves in digital-only clothing. The company of the same name had set up, in its own words, the first physical pop-up store with digital-only clothing.
“Featuring almost nothing physical, the space has been designed for people to create, interact, and explore through content creation, fitting the virtual items through augmented reality using only their smartphones,” read the company’s promotional material for the pop-up.
Let me tell you: It was weird.
According to my guide, Anna, the theme of both the space and the digital fashion items designed specifically for the event was ’90s video-game nostalgia—which meant that the walls, couches, and ceiling were covered in green, white, and gray checkerboard patterns and clothing named things like “Video Game Pants” were available to try on in the app. A stand selling (physical) matcha offered concoctions with names like “Billie Eilish’s hair in 2019”; further into the space, influencer types milled about. But the main attraction, Anna told me, was the cluster of dressing rooms at the back. There, users could “try on” digital clothing using an app on their phones or a phone preloaded with outfits that had been placed in the room.
I posed in a hoodie and sweatpants set that matched the checkerboard pattern of the fitting room, then I “tried on” a leopard print pullover that was intentionally low-resolution, making me feel like half of an 8-bit video game character. A greenish shawl shimmered and clung ethereally to my arm as I raised and lowered it. Then I tried a pair of slim fit bluish-silver pants, and the illusion was shattered: I saw my hip poke out of the boundary of the AR clothing. Did I just get body-shamed by digital pants?
ZERO10 (and other apps like it) design and sell digital-only clothing that can be worn the same way filters work. This means you can post a picture of yourself in an outfit that doesn’t exist. Whether these companies sprang up around a true or perceived need is still up for debate: Daria Shapovalova, the co-founder of one such company, DressX, recently told McKinsey analysts that she valued the market for digital fashion at $31 billion. In her estimation, gamers, influencers, and youngsters would make up the clientele willing to drop money on virtual threads.
“First, there are those Millennials who immediately understand the idea of digital fashion and are active shoppers of luxury goods; they want to try something new, so they use it to elevate their social media,” Shapovalova told McKinsey. “Then there are Gen-Z customers who are on platforms like Snapchat or TikTok, where video is becoming the main communication tool rather than the still image.”
As these retailers see it, we’re all born naked in the metaverse.
If you buy that argument, there’s a financial reason for digital fashion to exist. But is there any other? Many of these companies’ messaging reads like buzzword spaghetti thrown at a wall: pushing physical boundaries, allowing for self-expression in the metaverse, and promoting sustainable fashion have all been used as industry talking points, but this doesn’t match up with how real people are experiencing digital fashion today.
The fact of the matter is that digital-only fashion hasn’t flown off the rack, per se. At ZERO10’s popup, the crowd seemed sparse—I checked with an employee, who confirmed that roughly 200 people were visiting the space over the course of a day. The physical space, particularly the fitting rooms, confused May, an employee at a tech company who came to the popup because of an interest in “different retail experiences.” Although it was “a little weird,” she decided the popup was an “homage to classic retail.”
Both in my experience, and on the app’s official platforms, the clothes glitch and don’t seem to fit right. If the point is to cater to social media influencers who already routinely use image-altering apps like Facetune, you’d expect the clothing to look like the real thing—or at least, not leave collars floating in midair next to your neck.
“There's a lot of room for improvement in the fit,” Celine, an art-criticism graduate student who attended the pop-up and posted about it on Instagram, told The Daily Beast. Rather than make any kind of statement about the future of fashion, she decided to post pictures from the popup to be candid and “quirky.” But she said she would not be likely to spend money on digital-only fashion (which are offered in addition to free outfits, sometimes as NFTs.)
Perhaps the most dangerous misconception about digital-only fashion is that it’s a green, guilt-free alternative to the well-known labor and sustainability issues associated with fast fashion. “Sustainable self-expression” seems to be a selling point for these companies’ products,
Yet there seems to be zero consideration for the energy it will take to power the metaverse. Digital fashion is being heavily linked to NFT buying and selling with cryptocurrencies—something that poses real and devastating environmental impacts. Currently, existing research has focused primarily on how aspects of the metaverse can lower carbon emissions, and future work to quantify the energy expenditure of processing, trading, and hosting digital selves and belongings like AR clothing is needed.
But a more pressing issue is that digital fashion hasn’t found its raison d’être. How young people see themselves using digital fashion is different from how brands currently sell to them. Celine, for instance, said she would like to see a future in which digital fashion offers an accessible alternative for all bodies and abilities and “fits” these bodies well.
For digital fashion to bring cohesion to a user’s online personas, there would have to be greater integration across platforms and technologies, Celine said. Outfits that can be worn in AR, VR, video games, and that exist as NFTs are, for the most part, separately made and can’t become part of a unified “brand.”
Greater affordability and customizability in what’s offered today would also potentially draw in new users and make them feel like they can use digital fashion as a form of self-expression. But that won’t happen if a handful of small companies continue to corner the digital market in the hopes of turning a profit. The lack of democratization reeks of the classic rulebook used by physical retail and traditional business, Celine added.
“It’s really just feeding into the well-oiled machine that is capitalism in America,” she said.
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