Digital fashion – beacon of hope or fall of an empire? 


March 2024

Photo by:

Paavo Lehtonen /The Fabricant, Intiimin kosketus -exhibition, Design Museum Helsinki

Will digital fashion save the world from overconsumption? Will tomorrow’s fashion designer also need to be a coder? Can the metaverse satisfy the need of materialist happiness and even soothe our own body image? 

Once the pandemic started in 2020, interest in digital fashion more or less exploded. Gaming companies and fashion houses teamed up for collaborations, and many virtual meetings discussed visions of the possibilities of digital clothing items. The sudden trend has since somewhat calmed down, but plenty is still brewing right below the surface.

The buildup of digital fashion is also visible in Finland. Fashion design education in the country has started to put a growing emphasis on teaching 3D tools and the research of digital fashion. The commercial fashion circuit in Finland has also taken note and started to investigate the possibilities of digital fashion. As one example, the international Exthereal conference held in 2021 included many pioneers in the field. The iconic design house, Marimekko, expanded into the metaverse by creating a flower meadow and an avatar in a hoodie on the Decentraland platform. 

Digital fashion can be examined from two viewpoints. Its academic context includes any and all fashion using smart technology, whether through production methods or dressing up in virtual creations. Generally speaking, the term refers to products that act as digital 3D models in design processes, or pieces that are designed exclusively for the virtual realm, meaning items that do not exist physically. Digital fashion can be worn with the help of filters or, for instance, in virtual gaming worlds. The online game platforms, Fortnite and Roblox, have collaborated with fashion houses, while the DressX company sells digital looks in the form of filters. 

Postdoctoral researcher Natalia Särmäkari from Aalto University offers some thoughts on digital fashion according to her own doctoral thesis work, and the ensuing research on the topic thereafter. Särmäkari has delved into the topic from the various perspectives of designers: profession, authorship, and ownership. 

Natalia Särmäkari

Smart technology can help fight overconsumption            

In theory, the metaverse can be an arena to satisfy shopping cravings. It can be one way to influence consumption patterns. Even online products may include a certificate of authenticity, which in turn creates further value to a product. 

“Maybe our world is heading in a direction where you can get a new going out top on the metaverse”, Särmäkari guesses. 

But beyond a shopping craving, an even higher importance may arise from the wider definition of digital fashion which implies that any finished products – including physical ones – belong to the sphere of digital fashion. 

At the present moment, the challenges of overconsumption are linked to production as the phase that forces products to be fabricated in enormous quantities – more items means sinking production costs. This pattern leads to fabrics being ordered in hundreds of metres, even kilometres, and cut in stacks. The seams are sewn up in an efficient production cycle. This way, a large quantity of clothes can be produced quickly and cost-efficiently.  

When clothes are made in big quantities, even too much at a time, a portion might be sent directly to dumps, and a major part needs to be sold at discounted prices. This has led to a single-use culture of clothing. Such a way of working runs completely contrary to the idea of a more sustainable society – one where there are as few items of clothing as possible, and only necessary things. 

“A major challenge for the fashion industry has long been to produce as few products as possible that serve their users as well as possible. Ideally, only clothing that can be sold and that is needed would be made. Smart technology can be used to analyse users and understand their needs and urges, so the supply can be better adjusted”, Aalto University’s Dann Mensah explains. 

Mensah has researched digital fashion and the use of smart technologies especially in terms of machine learning, production, and their opportunities regarding diversity.

“Technology ought to be developed in a direction where the on-demand production of clothing would be more profitable. This way, we could reach a point where surplus clothing would not even be produced.” 

Dann Mensah

Digital fashion drafts new patterns for the industry 

Mensah’s interest in more diverse design started from a personal need – he had trouble finding tops in stores with long enough sleeves. 

Many can relate to this feeling. Mass-produced items send out signals that the user doesn’t fit the clothing, when in reality clothes are made in standard sizes with no room for customisation. It is completely natural that a piece of clothing will not be a perfect fit. 

“I believe that digital fashion has the potential to have a positive influence on the perceived body image of people. The fashion industry is currently quick to communicate that consumers are too demanding or the wrong shape. Would it be relevant any longer to make a distinction between men’s and women’s collections if all products were made as custom orders through digital development?”, Mensah asks. 

The typical pattern-making process is based on limited rounds of measurements. The most complex mathematical formulas used for patterns are simple multiplications. A few measurements do not yet give much shape. 

“I’m currently researching how we could automatise pattern-making to perfectly fit different sizes and shapes of bodies. An alternative production chain is needed. Hopefully, in the future, smart technology can help make customised clothing the new normal.”

Särmäkari also believes that digital fashion can change the world of fashion – if the work is done. When referring to filters, there is also a big risk that the borders of reality and the metaverse start to blend and become confusing to understand as people see more and more features that follow certain unified beauty standards. It is, however, not too late to influence how digital fashion culture will evolve. 

“I see plenty of opportunities in digital fashion. The rules of sizes and fits don’t apply to the metaverse, because in the digital world clothing items fall perfectly on avatar bodies. Avatars, meaning virtual characters in games and other platforms, are often perceived very personally and intimately. Through avatars, people can realise themselves more freely than in real life. On the other hand, the limits and ideals of reality also guide our behaviour in virtual worlds.” 

Is digital fashion a threat to fashion culture? 

Digital fashion will shape the fashion industry. As a concrete example of change, traditional collections are not necessary in digital fashion, which is also a visible trend in pop culture at large. Musicians, for example, used to release entire albums, but now it has become common to drop one track at a time. Designers need to assume new tools and also share their authorship with artificial intelligence. Digital fashion culture also includes a strong ethos of community, where users are invited into the creation process. Designers can in turn let their imagination run wild given that physical limitations are nonexistent in the metaverse, and the definition of functionality is different – a piece of clothing in the metaverse doesn’t need to offer protection from the cold or rain, but the outfit needs to be a credible fit for various narratives and functions. 

While the development of digital fashion still involves question marks and the culture is still in the making, the new consumption modalities of fashion also include many kinds of expectations and hopes. 

“Perhaps in the future, the gaming industry will also employ clothing designers. The dynamics between designers, pattern-makers, and producers will most likely become more seamless. Designers can widen their own scope as the digital world grants freedom to create anything”, Särmäkari sums up. 

At least at the moment, digitalisation, digital fashion, and the metaverse are not seen as a threat to fashion culture or the work of designers. 

“When you’ve seen a lot of AI models, you’ve also seen their weaknesses. Digitalisation can’t surpass designers. If someone can come up with AI technology that makes designers completely redundant, then I’ve fundamentally misunderstood something about the field”, Mensah says. 

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