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Digital Fashion: Trending Toward Inclusivity, Accessibility and Sustainability

The fashion industry has historically been built on exclusivity. The creators of haute couture innovate for the runway, and then a rare few mortals can own these exquisite creations that confer luxury status. However, these innovations create the basis for trends (cuts, colorways, embellishments, etc.) that are then widely adopted by the industry and mass-manufactured and consumed. You may remember the famous cerulean blue sweater scene in The Devil Wears Prada, where Miranda Priestly lectures Andrea Sachs on her “choice” of attire, explaining the complex chain from runway innovations to department store fashions to fast-fashion offerings.

But fashion, like the rest of the world, is facing a new reality. Digital fashion and NFTs offer the opportunity to both democratize fashion AND reinforce its exclusivity. And this tension may very well bring together disparate aspects of style in unexpected ways. This split seems to have its fault line between digital/meta fashion, which focuses on inclusivity and accessibility, and NFT fashion, which is all about promoting and monetizing scarcity and exclusivity. It’s right there in the name: a ‘non-fungible token’ by definition creates a unique digital identifier that cannot be copied, substituted, or subdivided, and that’s recorded in a public blockchain so anyone, at any time, can certify authenticity and ownership.

Image credit: Gucci Virtual Sneakers

Established luxury fashion brands are getting in on the digital fashion (r)evolution by licensing digital reproductions of their physical goods for use in numerous games and mobile apps that allow users to customize “themselves” in the experience. Gucci has virtual sneakers, while BurberryLouis Vuitton and Prada are mimicking their apparel and accessories. While these brands still hold exclusivity as a calling card, each of these digital items is a fraction of the cost of their physical counterparts, thereby giving a taste of luxury to a significantly larger potential customer pool. This accessibility, paired with their still ultra-premium branding, makes luxury brands the perfect players to benefit from digital fashion design.

Image credit: Louis Vuitton / Square Enix

For brands, NFTs represent the evolution of the digital experience from a financial perspective. Rather than simply licensing their content, NFTs offer the creator a unique value proposition – the ability to specify a permanent percentage share in the proceeds of EVERY sale, not simply the first sale. In fashion, we see NFTs quickly gain momentum. For example, Jacob & Co. recently launched their first NFT watch. Dubbed “NFT SF25 Tourbillon”, the NFT is a 10-second animation displaying various cryptocurrencies in a style similar to the real-world version’s split-flap system. Starting at an opening bid of USD $1,000, the NFT fetched $100,000 at the conclusion of the 24-hour online auction.

Image credit: Jacob & Co NFT Watch

Interestingly, for both NFTs and digital fashion, there’s tremendous opportunity to have the physical play off the digital and vice versa. Dolce & Gabbana is partnering with UNXD to release NFT boxes that will offer digital and physical apparel, as well as metaverse and real-life access to events. On the non-NFT side, we can imagine purchasing wildly unique digital fashion that isn’t constrained by the laws of physics, but we can also imagine digital clothes that are identical to our actual apparel — sneakerheads showcasing the latest kicks without ever opening their box or fashionistas wearing the same outfit as their digital avatar. It’s a little bit like American Girl selling doll dresses and identical real-life dresses so kids can be twins with their dolls. And one significant benefit of the digital space is its focus on analytics, which provides the brands with valuable insights into end-user trends.

Image credit: Dolce & Gabana DGFamily Gold Box

In the very near future, your meta-closet may well be more important to you than your physical closet.

To this point, we’ve focused on luxury fashion brands because they’re the trendsetters, like it or not, Andrea Sachs. But things get really interesting when we look beyond established luxury brands, and even beyond fashion houses that depend on the physical at all. Purely digital fashion houses and marketplaces are popping up everywhere — The FabricantDRESSXAuroboros, and XR Couture to name a few. These are exciting creators that show the flexibility of digital fashion, particularly when we think of those who create fashion.

Image credit: The Fabricant Digital Denim Project

Creators of fashion, no longer constrained by physical limitations, can instantly become “fashion designers” and bypass the current gatekeepers. All you need now are design skills, passion, and a computer. In essence, there are no more gates to keep, with all due apologies to Miranda Priestly. However, like so many things, the ability to monetize ultimately determines who will survive in the long-term.

Image credit: XRCouture

To speak broadly of monetization first, the potential of digital fashion and NFTs is obvious. Games are certainly the first place to look to see the vast potential. Skins for in-game characters are already a major business. Epic Games made $50 million from one set of Fortnite skins! That same model would apply to any brand of digital clothes your avatar could wear in any of the metaverses currently being built.

The question for fashion brands now is who’s the right digital partner to best position your brand for your future customers. And how best to utilize these new technologies to both greatly expand their base of customers and, at the same time, offer their new fans a way to share in future profitability. This new model can rightly be called “create-to-earn.” So perhaps the place for brands looking to lead in the emerging digital fashion world is not just setting trends, but also fostering an environment where their customers can become, in some sense, true partners in raising the ideals of what fashion is and what it can become.

This article was initially published in SSEAMS.

Amber Bezahler

B-school Meets D-School

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