Digital Fashion’s new Material Expression


Digital fashion and 3D CLO modeling has been all the fashion community has been able to talk about recently and for good reason. Not only is it breaking barriers of entry to the high fashion and couture spaces, it is much more environmentally friendly. Clearly making a digital model of a dress, pants or shoes is less costly to the environment than using leather and plastic fibers but why in the world is everyone getting so excited about it. Well, from my understanding of the rise of digital fashion and digital art like NFTs, it serves as a safer space for a new generation of fashion consumers, curators and creatives alike. Companies like Auro Boros, XR Couture, Dress X, The Fabricant, Institute of Digital Fashion, The Virtual Fashion Archive and Carlings are all entering a completely new era of design and creative thought when it comes to how we perform material expression.

Johanna Jasowska before and after The Fabricant’s digital couture piece

In the past material expression has always been what you wear shows the culture and ideologies that you believe in. As Patrik Aspers and Frederic Godart put it in Sociology of Fashion, 2013, fashion in recent history has been used to show political and social change as well as modernity and capitalism. These are all intrinsically linked the more words like Fashion, Trend, innovation, fad and style are intertwined. Fashion has often been highly connected to the development and modernization of western and economically north countries[1]. After world war two and the emergence of the “thirty glorious years” experienced by Europe and in way Japan and the US, fashion became a way to express discontent with the ruling classes and that is where you get the terms teenagers and subcultures; think punk, rude boys, rock and roll. My own research towards finding connections to music subcultures and fashion subcultures suggests that fashion is indeed time related and is a reflection of one’s own perception of the world we live in[2]. Economically, in contrast to Becker and Murphy, 2000, who said that “the utility does not directly depend on consumption or status of anyone else,[3]” I believe that especially in modern expressions of fashion in the digital 21’st century, there are individual, micro-level, grassroots ideologies and cultures that shape a person’s perception of what to wear and how to wear it to show off the niches that they are into. It has always been the physical pieces that one wears that identify what those niches are. With the large step to digital fashion and fashion archiving, physical pieces will no longer be used to interpret one’s material expression. All the interpretation is done digitally, online rather than in person. This opens up a world of accessibility to the industry that has never been seen before.   

Carlings Website

In 2018, Carlings developed its first line of digital pieces with great success. They made it so you sent them a picture of yourself and they would tailor the outfit you purchased onto you as if you were actually wearing it. Kicki Perrson, brand manager at Carlings, Sweden proudly stated that,

Similar to how one would design their character however they want in a video game, these companies are taking the idea of a digital identity and getting models and influencers to take a part in it. Now that the young generation that has grown up on digital ways of learning, processing information and displaying your own identity is a bit older, 20’s and 30’s, these same people can take part in a “democratized[5]” industry. Making fits and look books for your Instagram, really only lets you use an outfit once, and certain pieces you own a few times before the unspoken rule of not posting an outfit twice comes into play. furthermore, for most young adults like myself, we are the most money and time restricted generation. It is hard to pay the bills, working long hours for not so good pay, while a very small percent enjoys vast untaxed wealth. Digital fashion bypasses these constraints almost completely. Prices for these clothes are much lower than their physical counterparts and are also environmentally friendly because they are digitally produced. When the fashion industry is one of the lead producers of waste and emissions in a dying natural world, it is hard to come to terms with that as someone who wants to identify with the industry[6]. There is no longer time or space for exclusions of BIPOC, murderous wages in sweatshops and dumping waste all across the globe. Even if the brand tries their best to be inclusive, most fashion houses have tumultuous and problematic histories. To want to enter the fashion industry has been to ignore the past, ignore the tragedy and ignore the world around us and that cannot happen anymore. As much as influencers and fashionistas want to look pretty and blaze their own trail in terms of creativity and beauty online, all these clothes and fit pics play into mass consumption under capitalism. The feeling that you have to be with the next trend, that you have to identify with certain aesthetics to become popular all takes its toll. Digital Fashion provides a space for unique identity presentation without most if not all of those drawbacks. Therefore, this new digital formatting provides an anti-fashion and anti-establishment ideology for the user.

“By selling the digital collection at £15 per item, we’ve sort of democratized the economy of the fashion industry and at the same time opened up the world of taking chances with your styling, without leaving a negative carbon footprint[4].”

Animal Crossing characters with personalized clothes

You may ask; how is this different than just photoshopping yourself wearing designer clothes? The 3D garment allows one to wear it in the photo as it would fit the person in real life, which is very difficult to do in normal photoshop. In addition to that these are experimental pieces that are just now going mainstream in the fashion community. Therefore, the clout and prestige of getting one of these garments puts you in a different class of online personality alone. These aren’t just logos, not just gamer tags, not just decals like in Fortnight or even Roblox, these are designer clothes that you can virtually wear[7]. In my opinion this vast difference in couture level art compared to in-game purchases is a huge step for the fashion community. As someone who wants to get into fashion archiving and fashion research, two companies are ahead of the game in showing the world just how beautiful and full of expression archived clothes can be once they have been revitalized using digital and 3D modeling.  

Between The Virtual Fashion Archive and the Institute for Digital Fashion I see massive potential with how archived pieces can now interact with the world[8][9]. With a starting collection of pieces from the FIT museum collection, the founders of The Virtual Fashion Archive 3D have modeled pieces from Issey Miyake, Thierry Mugler, and Claire McCardell all well-known designers and plan to expand their digital closet even further. To get all the correct measurements of the archived clothes they carefully found measurements, sketches and visual references to design and present them as perfect as possible. After documenting the garments, taking extensive photos for textures and designs they use the 3D program CLO to remake the garments to virtually simulate them in motion[10]. This extensive reverse engineering process lets the archivists put another perspective to the piece that would have otherwise never been seen on another person in the rest of its existence. To allow more and more people the ability and accessibility to see the craftsmanship and elegance of these pieces as if they were watching it on the runway is the ultimate goal of The Fashion Archive[11].

Photos and 3D models of fabric
Part of the Digital Fashion Archive’s collection

Digital fashion and digital archiving are directions the fashion community is largely behind in because of the exclusivity that it has demanded. This has made for a cutthroat industry that does what it takes to produce what it wants. This cycle, intrinsic to capitalist ideologies of material expression, need to be halted for many reasons that I shortly talked about earlier in the blog. I believe that it will not take long before digital fashion becomes a normal change that brands will have to make. Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton both have started to create a more digital image for their brand. The beauty of digital fashion is unmatched and the potential is limitless as it pertains to how this will affect future generations who are used to being in a digital world and how you present yourself online.       


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[1] Patrik Aspers and Frédéric Godart, “Sociology of Fashion: Order and Change,” Annual Review of Sociology 39 (2013): 171–92.

[2] Brimmer D Morrison, “Cultural Exchange Between Japan and France: Orientalism and Self-Orientalism Through Fashion and Music,” The College of Wooster, 2020

[3] Aspers and Godart.

[4] Sara Semic, “Influencers Are Now Buying Virtual Clothes They Will Wear On IG But Never Touch IRL,” ELLE, July 2, 2019, https://www.elle.com/uk/fashion/a28166986/digital-fashion-dressing-virtually/.

[5] Semic.

[6] “These Platforms Want to Be the Farfetch of Digital Fashion | Vogue Business,” accessed June 22, 2021, https://www.voguebusiness.com/technology/these-platforms-want-to-be-the-farfetch-of-digital-fashion.

[7] “These Platforms Want to Be the Farfetch of Digital Fashion | Vogue Business.”

[8] “The Virtual Fashion Archive — A Collection of Archival Fashion Garments Brought to Life in New Digital Dimensions.,” accessed July 1, 2021, http://www.virtualfashionarchive.com/about/.

[9] “Institute of Digital Fashion,” accessed July 1, 2021, http://institute-digital.fashion.

[10] Super Bureau, “Fashion Beyond Physicality,” Medium, December 10, 2019, https://medium.com/@superbureau/fashion-beyond-physicality-486d71b05dae.

[11] Bureau.

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