Fashion is ready to enter a new era – or so the digital fashion expert Daniella Loftus believes. Drawing on her experience in blockchain, sustainability and corporate innovation, Loftus founded This Outfit Does Not Exist, a platform aimed at facilitating the fashion industry’s move towards digital modes of creation and consumption. Over the past year she has witnessed a boom in digital fashion, which she says is showing no signs of diminishing.
“It began as a trickle,” she says, citing developments such as Gucci’s collaboration with the avatar creator Genies in 2018 and the launch of The Sims 4 Moschino Stuff Pack in 2019. “Everyone thought I was crazy. It was such an uphill battle to convince brands and newspapers. At that point I had to scour for any news related to digital fashion, but by May 2021 I had too much choice. It was colossally driven by the NFT explosion. NFTs had become interlinked with high culture and that has a tie to fashion. Through that it became a legitimate route to monetisation.”
A quick scroll through This Outfit Does Not Exist’s Instagram account reveals that Loftus is an aficionado of innovative, avant-garde clothing. The catch? It’s digital. In one post she’s wearing a pair of trainers that are on fire, the flames licking around her ankles. A longtime follower of fashion, Loftus tells me she only wants the best of virtual design. “When I started a year ago, the augmented reality technology was so horrible that I literally couldn’t do it – sometimes my sleeve would fall off. When it’s luxury fashion, people’s minds will switch off the second they see something mildly glitching, so when it comes to my platform we go for the most groundbreaking in digital design, with the best render quality.”
Although you can’t get the sensory experience of touching silk or leather with digital fashion, there are compelling trade-offs. “Virtual [fashion] designers can create a dress that shimmers and moves like oil or one made of water or scarab beetles. They can also link it to external conditions like time, so the item would decay over a matter of days in the digital space, or it could react to the price of bitcoin, like a kind of online Tamagotchi. Virtual fashion can look as good as the physical stuff, and it can be reliable too,” Loftus says, referencing the high-end digital fashion house Tribute Brand, which will only “accelerate in growth”. A collective whose members have previously worked in fashion, CGI 3D modelling, UX (user experience) design and coding, Tribute Brand describes itself as “leading the way in contactless and cyber fashion”.
The impetus for this technology to develop is strong because it not only satisfies demand but could be a solution to many issues the fashion industry is currently facing. While Loftus doesn’t believe we will ever be a digital-clothing-only society – “it would be really sad, in all honesty” – she’s excited about the possibilities for brands and consumers. By integrating digital design into their back-end processes, brands would have the power to forecast demand in an unprecedented way. In theory they could put out their designs on social media, without having to make them, to gauge interest. From there they could transition to a made-to-order model. “Eventually I’d love to see zero-stock e-commerce stores where you click and then the item would get made. That would be huge in terms of environmental impact,” she says, pointing to research that found that, in the UK, women over 16 wear an item of clothing just seven times before discarding it.
On the other hand, consumers would have the opportunity to experiment with their identity without the commitment of ownership – which in turn could lead to more considered buying choices. “I just want to wear really out-there clothes all the time,” Loftus says. “I remember going to a Mugler show and really wanting to own the clothes. With digital fashion I can do just that but at a fraction of the price. That literally made my life. The way the fashion industry works is by consistently incentivising us to experiment with our identities, which is why the slow fashion model has taken so long to take off. But with digital fashion we can redirect our need to experiment. Perhaps you can buy into trends in the digital space and then put the money you save into IRL slow fashion purchases. They complement each other.”
Digital fashion also has the capacity to financially empower people. It is incredibly hard to break into the traditional fashion industry for young designers, and the sunk costs – those expenses incurred during the initial stages of their careers that are unrecoverable unless they go on to become hugely successful – are astronomical. According to Loftus, digital fashion gives them the opportunity to have their designs amplified through algorithmically generated advantages. This naturally extends to influencers – if you can make money from content creation, she posits, then why not spend £50 on a digital dress that would otherwise cost you £2,000 IRL? “It’s more sustainable and maybe more creatively interesting. Monetisation is something I really geek out on, because within digital fashion, creators can really be empowered, as well as women who have traditionally spent money on clothes and never gotten anything back. They can start becoming earners.”
But it’s not just fashionistas who can benefit from digital fashion. One unexpected cohort that is already leading the way in this sector is gamers. “In Fortnite, you have your basic or default skin that you come into the game with, so your first virtual outfit. We’ve been seeing a phenomenon that when someone doesn’t wear an advanced skin, which they buy with real-life cash, they’re actively chastised by the community, even though it has no impact on game performance,” Loftus says. “I’ve found this so interesting because gamers are not traditional fashion lovers – they’re probably sitting in their room in a baggy T-shirt! But there’s been a transition where they’re behaving like they are ‘fashion’ people and essentially bullying each other for not wearing the correct thing. For me, that was the biggest indication that digital fashion is going to engage an entirely new audience.”
Loftus also believes that it will really snowball when it comes to the direct-to-avatar economy. This is, of course, something that is getting a lot of airtime thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s declaration that the metaverse is the future of the internet, as well as the growing prevalence of NFTs. “There’s going to be a really interesting psyche change within the average person that we’re going to be seeing in the next couple of years,” Loftus says. “We have 3.24 billion gamers and 4.5 billion social media users [worldwide], and when Facebook says they’re now working towards a metaverse, we’re going to stop just dealing with curated, static images of people. If you’re walking around as an avatar in a social network, that’s going to lead to widespread adoption almost instantaneously, because you need clothes and you need to self-express.”
It’s unsurprising, then, that digital fashion is now being picked up by arts and design colleges like the University of the Arts London. And I agree with Loftus, it is exciting – but can it be truly democratic, I ask her, when nascent designers surely need a certain level of tech knowledge to enter the digital fashion space. “That’s the biggest challenge we’re facing at the moment,” she concedes. “There’s a massive disparity between those who can [and can’t] get to grips with the software – especially those from traditional fashion backgrounds. We need better education from the traditional fashion schools on how to break into this.” Loftus herself will soon be running a designer residency with the media hub and NFT consultancy VerticalCrypto Art through which fledgling fashion creatives will receive training in the technology.
“People who are doing digital fashion now often come from animation backgrounds rather than fashion,” she continues. “And truthfully it’s hard to substitute the type of creativity you can get from people who are fresh out of fashion school. But I think it could be interesting to see a new hybrid individual. When I’ve spoken to some of my favourite creators in this space, they’ve been really interesting. One was a gamer on World of Warcraft who realised that she couldn’t wear the virtual dresses she wanted so she went to Central Saint Martins to understand design.”
It’s hard to deny the momentum and possibilities within the digital fashion arena. Loftus predicts that even more brands will start dabbling in it within the next six months. “There’s starting to be a greater consciousness about what digital fashion done right is, but soon brands will be hiring entire teams to work across it, not just small marketing divisions. Many magazines are already covering digital fashion, and next we can expect celebrities to start championing it too. Digital fashion offers a means of empowering creators and bringing in talent, and it’s not gated. It’s the exact opposite of how high fashion has traditionally operated,” Loftus asserts. “Isn’t that so exciting?”