[Header image provided by Auroboros.]

Borne Out Of Necessity: Digital Fashion Shows In Their Infancy

It’s a brave new world for digital fashion shows. September 2020: New York, London, Milan, and Paris proceeded with their fashion weeks. While a handful of megabrands presented their collections physically, most opted for digital fashion shows. From the comfort of their own homes, many more people were welcomed behind the fashion industry’s velvet cordon to witness how brands of all sizes embraced the challenge of displaying their visions in a digital format. However, subsequent criticism made it clear that striking a balance between creating a spectacle, composing a compelling story, and showcasing the actual clothing would not be easy. As we move further out of the pandemic’s grip and in-person fashion shows are greenlit once again, what will remain of the strides taken in this new digital direction?

To an extent, the digital fashion shows of September 2020 levelled the playing field between big and small brands. The fashion show space was more democratised and fashion’s notoriously high barrier of entry and obsession with exclusivity was abated.  For the first time, access was granted on a global scale and the spike in viewers was significant. Take Dior for example, who opened Paris Fashion Week with their spring/summer 2021 collection. The show was livestreamed worldwide on a dozen different platforms and viewed by 95 million people – a surge from the autumn/winter livestream a few months prior which reached 12.3 million views. The show also gained 27 million views on TikTok and Chinese equivalent Douyin, and the hashtag #DiorSS21 was used 360 million times on social media platform Weibo.

An image taken from one of Gary James McQueen's digital fashion shows, staged with the help of Unreal Engine.
Image provided by Gary James McQueen

Power players made standout contributions: Balenciaga with a music video featuring their collection in a nocturnal promenade of Paris; Burberry’s video journey through the mountains with models on the back of a moving vehicle was dramatic and captivating; and Louis Vuitton’s offering as they blended the digital and physical by utilising a green screen for images on the walls alongside the physical runway. Certain smaller brands also flourished, including Jason Wu who hosted an intimate rooftop display that was also digitally accessible. Another was Marine Serre’s film “Amor Fati”, and Khaite who delivered an augmented reality experience where invitees could view items by scanning a QR code and they would then materialise in 3D on their phones.   

Growing Pains

What traditionally fuelled the fanfare of fashion shows in the capitals – the location, models, guests – became irrelevant. What mattered was how much a video or experience could entertain, engage, and astonish the audience. The various contributions from brands were met with both praise and criticism. There was a high expectation that the big names would set a new standard for how fashion is presented. However, the sentiment was that audience engagement was absent, potentially due to a lack of compelling cinematic storytelling. It also seemed that there was nolonger-term strategy implemented by anyone. Some suggestions for what could have been interesting to see more of were along the lines of Gucci’s mini-series or a fashion show in the form of a game.

A further example of the potential of real-time and offline rendering when they are deployed to serve digital fashion shows.
Image provided by Gary James McQueen

Chanel, Dior, and Louis Vuitton forged on with the effort to return to normal life and did not go fully digital. In the end, these were the most successful of the season according to data tracking company Launchmetrics, which measures success using Media Impact Value (MIV). MIV aims to represent the impact, in financial terms, that is generated by media placements and mentions made by influencers in the fashion, luxury, and beauty space. This lets companies track the return on investment of their marketing strategies. The success of in-person shows is not surprising, as the fashion glitterati still seem to crave a physical show, but these displays defied the challenge to invent something new within the digital methodology that was not just temporary.

Unencumbered creativity is a significant benefit of digital fashion as a whole, and a key touchstone for combined physical and digital fashion shows.
ImageS provided by Auroboros

At the heart of the problem was that many shows were simply a series of looks, many in a catwalk format, which was sufficient for dedicated fans but was not enough to draw the average viewer in. What really worked were offerings with a human element as seen in Bethany Williams’s video celebrating mother and child, or Roksanda’s film, featuring three generations from one family of women. In a similar way, Miuccia Prada and Raf Simmons engagement with the audience at the end of the online runway earned major points.

Game Engines Powering Digital Fashion

A brand that captures futuristic fashion without losing the human touch is Auroboros, founded by Paula Sello and Alissa Aulbekova. A particular highlight was the closing of Metaverse Fashion Week (MVFW), hosted in Decentraland’s VR platform, in a collaboration with musician Grimes. In May 2022, the brand announced that it had received an Epic MegaGrant which is awarded to novel and creative projects built with Unreal Engine (UE), and to ventures that contribute to the open-source 3D graphics space.

Image provided by Auroboros

A fellow recipient of an Epic MegaGrant, and leader in this digital endeavour, is designer and artist Gary James McQueen. In 2021, McQueen created the Guiding Light digital fashion show on UE which features 20 menswear and womenswear ensembles in an otherworldly setting. Each item can be viewed in a digital showroom and is downloadable for augmented reality try-on before garments have been physically created. The digital garments can also be purchased via DressX, a “digital closet” where customers can upload pre-existing photos of themselves and have the image sent back to them wearing McQueen’s latest design.

McQueen spoke to The Interline about how the future of digital fashion shows is likely to unfold. “As the technology advances and audiences become more accustomed to it, I think we will see more designers lean towards the endless creativity opportunity digital shows provide. Giving brands the opportunity to sample and showcase their fashion in a more sustainable and inclusive way.” Fully embracing the new digital age may be necessary, but may still be daunting for some who are looking to do so. McQueen offers: “never be fearful of pushing boundaries and exploring new technological approaches. Expect challenges along the way but stay uncompromising in your vision.”

An example of the artistic possibility space inherent in digital fashion shows.
Image provided by Gary James McQueen

An ecosystem of software is supporting the creation of gamified fashion shows. Game engines like UE provide the venue and models, cloth simulation programs like Marvelous Designer provides the garments, and real-time 3D painting tools like Substance Painter provides the texture for the garments. With these advancements, making the creation digital fashion shows more accessible, they require highly specialised skillsets, so only the biggest brands will likely be able to produce at the highest level. This introduces some career opportunities for digitally inclined designers and a way for big brands to maintain their premium status.

The Future Is Now: Digital Fashion Week New York

Today, with September’s fashion weeks imminent, one event stands out as breaking ground in combining the best of the digital and physical worlds: Digital Fashion Week New York (DFWNY). To be hosted on the rooftop at the Gerber Innovation Centre, designers are invited to create a mini-collection of 10 or more looks for the physical runway show as well as a digital twin for each physical item. Founder Clare Tattersall spoke to The Interline about the event. “Digital Fashion Week New York is different from traditional shows in every aspect,” she explains. “At traditional shows you know what to expect – whereas we provide new and innovative immersive experiences every season.”

Image provided by Gary James McQueen

An interesting aspect of DFWNY is how it highlights the question of the utility of digital fashion. “It’s one thing to look at a runway show, but we are looking at how you will wear digital fashion in your everyday life. What is the value of digital fashion to the broader public?” Presently, the most common way to wear digital clothing is within games as skins, but it is predicted that soon it will become more mainstream on social media. Aside from the shows as we knew them pre-pandemic, how does the event compare with other digital fashion shows that have taken place? Tattersall comments: everyone now is in the race to ‘show’ fashion in the Metaverse, but we are looking beyond that. Fashion is for wearing, for identity, for self-expression and we are focused on not just looking at fashion in the Metaverse, but how you will use it in the Metaverse.” 

A New Opportunity For Sustainability

Digital fashion has substantial potential on the sustainability front. This is fortuitous given that the fashion industry currently being responsible for up to 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. The question is, how much of an impact will digital fashion shows, as well as digital design, really impact the future of sustainable fashion?

Image provided by Auroboros

This representation of our world digitally is not for free but must be created using powerful computers running for a lot of time. In this way, it is not dissimilar to how some cryptocurrencies derive their value in part from the amount of energy required to mine them. That said, increased computation means increased burden on the environment, which needs to be weighed carefully from a sustainability perspective. Likely this burden will still pale in comparison to the benefits of reducing the demand for physical fashion. Clare Tattersall elaborates: “in the past few years, there has been a rapid acceleration of people wanting to ‘wear’ digital clothing, to reduce their physical wardrobe. Without the use of physical materials, without the pollution from dyeing and producing samples or final garments, the removal of global shipping – the impact is enormous.” However, one thing remains crucial: it is going to be a team effort. “We look beyond the visual beauty of digital fashion and bring companies to the table to discuss how, together, we can create a better, more sustainable, kinder, more ethical industry. Tattersall says. “I don’t believe that we can set an end goal for sustainability. It is a constant journey, we need to constantly improve how we create, produce and wear fashion.”

Looking Ahead: A Hybrid Reality

For some, nothing can replace attending a fashion show physically: the grandiose settings, the energy created by the lighting and music, and the rush of seeing the clothes in person. However, for others, the emergence and acceptance of the new digital fashion status quo is nothing short of liberating. The good news is that, going forward, much of what we are going to see will likely be a hybrid of both. This should allow for more conversations and contributions in the right direction of a more environmentally-friendly fashion industry. Ultimately, when developing digital fashion shows, the ability to connect to the audience remains critical and presentations that showcase the human experience will always be the most memorable.