To coincide with the launch of a unique, limited-run digital and physical collection, we worked with the team behind PhygitalTwin to examine why the inflexible nature of the traditional fashion structure makes it a poor fit for the grassroots communities and growing influencer culture that are defining the future of fashion. Together, we look at why a combination of on-demand production and combined digital-physical clothing could offer both an easy entrypoint for a different generation of creators, and a new avenue for bigger brands.

Despite a record-setting year for luxury giants, power in fashion is no longer consolidated in the hands of established names – and the authority to drive new trends has never been more distributed and decentralised than it is today.

That’s a sweeping statement. So what does it mean in practice? 

Influencers and content creators have carved out a channel between brand and consumer that’s steadily circumventing the traditional route from designer to buyer. Swap a runway show and a renowned editor for an Instagram Reel and an eye for “inspo,” and you have the right idea.

But as glib as that sounds, this shift in the balance of fashion has big business implications. New figures from South Korea suggest that 70% of shoppers who follow style influencers go on to buy the products they spotlight. Advertising spend across other channels will very rarely deliver return on investment on that sort of scale.

And while everyone would say they were largely aware of the rise in influencer marketing pre-pandemic, fewer among us will have kept tabs on the sector’s development since. As a consequence, it may be news that social fashion figureheads are part of an industry that’s more than doubled in size (to more than $16 billion USD) between 2019 and 2022.

It should be no surprise, then, that brands are pouring money into influencer partnerships. Their reasoning being that, if an increasing share of trend creation and curation is happening outside the established fashion ecosystem, it will benefit them to foster rather than fight it.

images provided by phygitaltwin & Dr Robin B: digital garment (left); physical garment (right).

For influencers, the influx of sponsorship dollars has been a major boon. But while brand relationships might remain a cornerstone, new regulations are tightening the rules around disclosure of the nature of promotions, casting some uncertainty over the shape of the future.

In some cases, this could be the trigger for influencers seeking a different way forward: designing and manufacturing their own products. Even without this catalyst, in fact, many influencers have already come to a similar conclusion, and have set out to close the loop – not just creating trends, but responding to them, too.

But in both scenarios, those social media personalities will find that making their own clothing is not as simple as they might have hoped. Because while influencers have successfully sidestepped the fashion system in some areas, in others – and especially in sourcing and production – the historic industry structure is simply the only option on the table.

And it’s a structure whose doors have remained closed to new entrants. Until now.

The steep onramp to traditional fashion

The first barrier to entry in fashion is one that almost anyone can cross, with enough creativity and perseverance. Identify or build an audience, develop an understanding of what products and categories that demographic will buy, and design garments, footwear, or accessories that will resonate with them.

Where fashion’s onramp grows near-vertical, though, is what needs to happen next: procuring materials, trims, and components, and booking manufacturing capacity at a facility that’s capable of producing at the right price and the right quality, without compromising on environmental or ethical values.

For buzzy designers or influencers with smaller followings, the way forward will be essentially shut. Short-run orders of the kind they will need to commission are simply not profitable enough for producers or suppliers to entertain, and the spectre of minimum order quantities (MOQs) will hang over any attempt to negotiate.

This is a hurdle that these people can step around to some extent through group purchasing power, or crowd-sourced pre-sales. But broadly speaking the cogs of fashion won’t turn for smaller players because their inertia is just too expensive to overcome.

image provided by phygitaltwin & Dr Robin B.

And more established creators, and influencers with much larger communities, will face the flipside of the same problem. Because the mechanics of the supply chain are set up to reject small fabric orders and minimal manufacturing contracts, this leaves mass production as the only possibility. Which sounds fine until we remember that so much of fashion’s difficult legacy of overproduction and pollution stems from exactly here – and sustainability is an area where independent creators and influencers are held to account by their audiences.

To put it bluntly, the only real way into actually creating fashion to date has been to be big enough to become part of the problem.

This is also before we consider the fact that fashion is a difficult business to make profitable at the best of times. And 2023 is certainly not the best of times:

  • Production costs are high.
  • Margins are razor-thin.
  • Demand planning and forecasting are less forgiving than ever.
  • Time to market is slow.
  • Return rates are huge.
  • Consumer and regulatory scrutiny and the demand for data-backed transparency are intense.

It is, to summarise, not a great moment for anyone to try and break into fashion through the traditional route. 

But unlike the past, where there was no other way around, a confluence of different technologies could now enable influencers, creators, and a new generation of designers to tap into democratised, on-demand, short-run production at the same time as seizing the opportunities presented by digital fashion – with the potential for a new model of fashion to emerge where the two intersect.

The dawn of digital collectibles

An alphabet soup of buzzwords and acronyms dominated the fashion conversation in 2022: digital fashion, NFTs, VR/AR, Metaverse and so on. But behind this thought cloud are a series of both cold realities and compelling new avenues for new creators to sidestep the traditional fashion system and to connect with their audiences in entirely new ways.

First, the facts. A lot of clothing is worn just once.

Some of this is down to seasonal buying patterns, but a lot is directly attributable to purchasers having an extremely narrow aim: to be seen wearing an outfit on social media, after which that outfit has outlived its usefulness.

For the industry at large this is a significant problem for sustainability reasons, but for influencers it poses both a unique challenge and a fresh possibility space. 

For the creators themselves, digital-native garments (either manually fitted as an overlay to a photo, or in real-time through body projection mapping) offer a much more flexible, environmentally-friendly way to “wear” clothes without the environmental overhead. And for people who have so far been shut out of the business of fashion for commercial and logistical reasons, those barriers melt away when digital fabrics replace physical ones, and when production capacity is measured in rendering time.

For their audiences, digital fashion can deliver both a new way of engaging with the creators they care about – a chance to own and wear a limited piece that, in turns, unlocks novel experiences that would be impossible to deliver through any other channel. And this sits on top of other digital-only opportunities like virtual try-on and the potential for new frontiers of self-expression in one or more digital worlds.

But like the hard-coded infrastructure of physical fashion, digital fashion has its own rigid structures and barriers to entry, as well as suffering from fragmentation at the platform level. 

images provided by phygitaltwin & Dr Robin B: physical garment (left); digital garment (right).

While the benefits of creating digital garments and using them to engage with consumers in new ways are compelling on paper, there has so far not been a straightforward way to create an interoperable digital asset that can function as both a wearable, a collectible, and a certificate of authenticity without recourse to multiple different solutions and environments.

And while wearing digital fashion is often held out as a simple solution to fashion’s legacy of overproduction, the two strands have so far diverged: uptake of digital fashion has not been directly translating into a reduction in physical production.

The ideal solution, then, might be to bring all these strands together. To find a way to replace time-and-resource-consuming, high-volume offshore manufacturing with demand-driven, digital, domestic production that has either low or no minimum order quantities. To centralise parts of the fractured digital fashion ecosystem in a way that ties up verifiable scarcity, provable authenticity, and digital asset usability.

And to fuse the two at the point of purchase, creating a whole that earns the overused label “phygital”.

A proof point for phygital

This is exactly what PhygitalTwin, a London-based disrupter, is proposing. Their eponymous, turnkey platform is designed to allow creators of all sizes to produce on-brand styles as sustainably as possible through localised on-demand digital production, to complement them with digital twins to unlock new markets, and to tap into the possibility space of verifiable digital ownership and audience engagement.

Launched in late 2021, PhygitalTwin is a direct response to the limitations of the traditional fashion infrastructure that founder Louise Laing experienced firsthand during a career that spanned the full fashion spectrum – from international luxury to streetwear start-ups. Laing conceived PhygitalTwin as the vanguard of a new model for fashion – one that delivers both quantifiable environmental and social change, as well as offering creators a direct route into both digital fashion and on-demand production.

Dropping on February 14th, PhygitalTwin’s inaugural collection, FiT Rx, will showcase this new model in action. Created in partnership with Los Angeles-native health and wellness influencer Dr. Robin B – who has more than 500,000 Instagram followers – the collection bridges physical and digital. 

Twelve physical pieces will be sold, each of which is only manufactured on-demand, using sustainable fabrics, digital fabric printing, and specialised manufacturing hardware. Each physical garment is also matched, at the point of production, with a digital collectible that functions as a wearable, a collectible, and an entry ticket to Dr. Robin B’s VIP community – a channel for exclusive video content, personalised experiences, priority access to future drops, and more.

Those physical pieces are also joined by six digital-only outfits that shoppers can buy independently of the physical products, and which embrace the broader horizon of digital expression and creativity, but with the same principle of scarcity and collectibility built into both.

In conjunction with Exclusible, PhygitalTwin will also be hosting a true phygital event to celebrate the launch, with what they refer to as combined “IRL/ URL activation in real time”. All guests will be able to scan into the metaverse during the event, and anyone not able to attend in-person will be able to join by exploring an immersive virtual space.

image provided by phygitaltwin & Dr Robin B.

Dr. Robin B is a prime example of the kind of new creative we talked about earlier in this feature: someone with measurable influence and a captive audience for whom own-brand fashion is a perfect fit, but who would previously have encountered locked doors in both physical production and digital interoperability.

“I am thrilled to partner with PhygitalTwin on this debut collection…” she said in a pre-launch statement. “With the increasing toll that fast fashion takes on our planet, I am so grateful for the opportunity to provide my audience with sustainable fashion choices whether they’re wearing the pieces online or in public.”

But this collection is also part of a much, much larger addressable market. At the launch event for FiT Rx alone, there will be a crowd of influencers with a collective following of millions, and even this cohort is just the tip of the iceberg in the gigantic expanse of the athletic and sneaker market – a sector where limited edition physical production and collectible digital drops are already proven models when they’re deployed separately.

And while fitness and footwear influencers are a logical fit for this model, the landscape of web-enabled communities is vast. Videogame streamers, for example, boast one of the largest and most dedicated communities there is (streaming platform Twitch was approaching a high watermark of 3 million concurrent viewers in 2021) and they form part of an even wider stable of YouTube stars, content creators, and influencers in other categories – all of which have crossover potential with apparel.

These are personalities whose audiences look to them for endorsements of other products to a historic extent, and who are primed to follow the example of other creators who have successfully launched their own in-house apparel lines despite having little in the way of direct relevance to fashion. 

To put it simply: there are countless audiences out there who will buy the right clothing if the influencers and personalities they connect with are able to produce it without saddling themselves with the unnecessary weight of the established fashion infrastructure.

images provided by phygitaltwin & Dr Robin B: digital garment (left); physical garment (right).

With this knowledge, having both digital and physical streams makes a great deal of sense. As well as using NFT-backed digital collectibles as a way to reward, grow, and engage their communities, the same digital assets can be used to power virtual try-on (avoiding the perils of overproduction), reduce returns, and unlock new revenue streams.

Those same capabilities are also likely to provide creators with the smoothest onramp that has existed to date for the production of physical fashion. Rather than steaming straight ahead with producing physical goods, they have the possibility of testing the market with digital assets before ordering material or requesting a sample run.

And when the time does come for production to start, triggered by demand, these audiences could have access to something traditional fashion has never had before: a network of localised, domestic production nodes that can bring those products to life physically without excessive resource consumption, pollution, or overproduction.

From a sidestep, to a next step

The FiT Rx collection could prove to be a standard-bearer for a different model, because of the implications it has for further democratising both physical and digital fashion. While PhygitalTwin is heavily focused on this limited edition launch – which takes place very soon – their work also holds a great deal of promise because it demonstrates the viability of a genuine way around fashion’s walled garden, provided their model can scale.

And while this feature has concentrated on the power of a phygital approach to fashion for influencers and communities, the same combination of on-demand production, scarcity, and digital identity could also prove to be a viable route for bigger brands who are looking for greater flexibility and new experiences in their routes to market.

For now, consider following PhygitalTwin and Dr. Robin B on Instagram to keep a finger on the pulse of influencer fashion and to keep tabs on how the potential of Web3 becomes more universally accessible over time. But in the slightly longer term, we should perhaps be prepared for a real alternative to the fashion system – one that uses digital as a way to explore new markets, and on-demand production as a tool to break down the doors of established ones.

About our partner: PhygitalTwin turns customers into designers and collaborators and brands into co-creators. A SUSTAINABLE, ECO-CONSCIOUS on-demand transformative model delivers at speed, with maximum efficiency, allowing users to mirror themselves both in and out of the metaverse. We make your dreams into real and your real into virtual with our fully integrated 3D platform and micro factory. Our purpose is to ignite new forms of creativity and ultimately unlock viable revenue streams for our users; enhance social experiences, build communities and make new connections.