Virtual Clothes: Solving Fashion’s Eco-Problem?

One of the things that bothers me most about lockdown (yes, I realise this is an extremely first world problem), is that all fashion choices go out the window. No longer can we get that satisfaction of carefully choosing a brilliant outfit and showing it off to the outside world. Now, the norm (for me, at least) is to wear trackies, a hoodie and slippers, or worse (and probably much less hygienic), my pyjamas.

A year ago I probably would have relished the cosiness of that. The growing trend of digital fashion shows I’m not the only one for whom fashion dictated by cosiness and comfort is wearing off a little.

What ‘digital fashion’ boils down to is choosing and buying virtual clothes and shoes (yes- there’s absolutely no physical item produced) and showing them off online. The clothes are dressed on a digital avatar or plastered onto an image of a person that really exists. So much of our identities are now constructed online through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram anyway, that the trend sort of makes sense.

Except that some of these ‘clothes’ cost a fortune and they’re not even real (in the physical sense of the word)! Businessman Richard Ma spent £7500 on a virtual dress for his wife in 2019 made by Dutch startup The Fabricant, which is one of the most significant companies working in this area. Interestingly, he saw it as “an investment” with “long-term value”, and believes that “in 10 years’ time, everybody will be ‘wearing’ digital fashion. It’s a sign of the times”.

The concept is slightly weird, but seems to be gaining popularity by the minute. If Mr Ma saw it as a “sign of the times” back in 2019, it’s most definitely a sign of our times. As we know, fast fashion production (actually making thousands of tons of physical items of clothing) accounts for a huge, huge proportion of greenhouse gases and waste. So the digital fashion trend is, in part, a quite ingenious response to global warming since it is naturally zero-waste.

“Thanks to rigorously conducted research”, says The Fabricant website, “[we] have scientific proof that digital fashion not only makes you look great, it also enables the traditional fashion industry to shift its behaviours to help relieve the pressure on our planet’s ecosystem.”

To practice what they preach, The Fabricant have been careful to add scientific evidence to their claim that digital fashion is the answer to fast-fashion: they co-operated with Imperial College London to produce this report, which shows just how much of a difference virtual clothes can make to the planet.

Like so many of these digital trends, it is yet to be seen whether the virtual can replace the physical. It seems pretty far-fetched to imagine that we can all be happy with purchasing virtual clothes over the real thing, but it is certainly a step towards solving the viciously unsustainable cycle of fashion production which seems impossible to break.

Maybe digital fashion can never replace real clothes. But if they make even an inch of difference on the environment, then why not?

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