In pure Carrie Bradshaw style of “I couldn’t help but wonder,” I have found myself recently thinking about this new “digital fashion” phenomenon and whether this means that physical clothes will eventually become irrelevant as our lives will be moving online and into metaverse platforms in virtual worlds. You only had to read the fashion press of the last few months to notice an increasing number of digital fashion releases, NFT collections, and articles studying this new phenomenon – and branding it as “sustainable.”
Our avatar versions can’t go around naked, and brands are here to solve the problem. And if you don’t have an avatar yet (like me), you will probably soon be able to stay in your pajamas for Zoom meetings (forgoing the casual leggings and dress-up top we’ve all been wearing the past two years), wearing a Gucci “shield” in the same way you can fake your environment with beautiful screens while working from bed.
I remember Marco Bizzarri, CEO of Gucci giving a lecture at the London College of Fashion in 2017 during which one student asked him how he would reconcile Gucci’s own sustainability agenda with the company’s need to keep producing new clothes season after season. He shrugged and
said that while he didn’t have an answer yet, surely the only way would be for Gucci to become more of a content producer and diversify its business model. Fast-forward a few years and Gucci has become one of the first brands to have a virtual world, with digital products and gaming too. It is called the Gucci Good Game. Marco was right–and looking at it through this lens, it is a genius move. If you can keep your company profitable while not producing more physical clothes (with all the consequences this implies), surely, it’s a win.
But, as you probably know by now, for the last 10 years I have been particularly invested in the harsh reality experienced by the 70 million real people currently entrapped in the fashion supply chain to meet our insatiable consumption appetite, which is fed by a multibillion profit-making fast fashion model that now is presumed as being the norm. My first question is, what does this new virtual revolution hold for these 70 million people – the garment workers who are predominantly young women? We’ve already seen the consequences a global pandemic had on them, with brands refusing to pay for placed orders and cutting subsequent bookings without any responsibility towards the workers at all. Adding this new “virtual revolution” to an already existing problem of exploitation could spell a social crisis on a scale we haven’t yet witnessed – the dystopian nightmare, which we are all pretending not to be a part of. Predicting the future is a perilous business. And I don’t have an answer for you yet. But we need to stay vigilant and not let history repeat itself. Sustainability is not only about environmental justice, but, much more importantly, social justice. We need to make sure inclusivity and equality are fundamental pillars of this revolution.
My second question is, is it also truly sustainable from an environmental point of view? What are the metrics we will use to measure this? CNN recently reported on the limited data available about the reduced impact of digital fashion, quoting a sustainability report from digital fashion startup DressX saying digital garments emit 97% less carbon than physical ones. But how did they measure this? As we know by now, data can be manipulated, and reporting can be stirred according to what a business wants you to see. DressX states on its website, “We share the beauty and excitement that physical fashion creates, but we believe that there are ways to produce less, to produce more sustainably, and not to produce at all. At the current stage of DressX development, we aim to show that some clothes can exist only in their digital versions. Don’t shop less, shop digital fashion.” The devil is in the details and the sentences “Don’t shop less” (so continue to feed consumerism) and “At a current stage of DressX development we only sell digital fashion” (implying it may start selling real clothes in the future) set alarm bells ringing in my head.
This epoch promises plenty of disruption, but whether this is welcome depends on how we steer a course through change. The one superpower we have – and which we have the duty to use – is our action to push for the right governance and accountability. We don’t need our avatars to be better versions of ourselves.
Originally published in the February 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia