what is digital clothing?
Exploring whether this is a potential answer to Instagram-inspired over-consumption, or just a gimmick.
Fashion influencers live and die by their outfit posts. A quick Instagram search of the immortal hashtag #ootd spews up more than 219 million posts, plenty of which are tagged by people likely to wear the clothes once, just to get that post, before relegating it to the back of their endless wardrobe. Or at least that’s the theory of Norwegian retailer Carlings, which recently launched a collection of ‘digital clothing’ which can be e-fitted to users’ photos for a small cost. “In the last decade, fashion has moved from the streets to social media,” explains Morten Grubak, Creative Director of Virtue Nordic, and one of those behind the clothing campaign. “Platforms like Instagram are now virtual runways for millions of people that are expressing themselves in the most unimaginable ways. [They’re] pushing fashion forward at the speed of light.”
Naturally, the collection is custom-built for today’s digital age. There’s an obsession with tech written across the capsule line: metallic tracksuits; streaks of lightning and printed codes adorn backless chaps; there are explicit nods to the digital realm through slogans like ‘Artificial Excellence’ and ‘I’m Not A Robot’, meta when ‘modelled’ by CGI influencers like Perl. The designs are custom-built to spike engagement.
It’s easy to be skeptical of a collection you can’t actually wear (the site comes with a disclaimer, ‘you will not receive a physical version of this item’, which seems to have confused some Instagram users), but it has its benefits. “In reality these clothes cost thousands and will usually be worn once due to their recognisable design, so we’ve sort of democratised the fashion industry by selling the digital collection at £15 per piece,” continues Grubak. “We’ve also opened up a world of taking chances with styling without leaving a negative footprint on the world.”
The footprint he refers to is, of course, of the carbon variety. The fashion industry thrives on overconsumption, and influencers have arguably intensified this –– to the huge detriment of the environment. “Online influencer marketing has massively ramped up overconsumption, and fashion hauls make me want to hurl,” states Bel Jacobs, a freelance writer whose work explores the industry through the lens of sustainability. “It’s fashion at its most superficial: it’s all about speed of consumption and, as far as I can tell, looking like everyone else. I once wrote: ‘fashion has power because it plays with our deepest insecurity: how we appear to others’. Online influencer marketing manipulates that insecurity.”
It’s undeniably true that influencers tend to see clothing as content. Many buy entire collections to film their unboxing and then return them to companies which will likely down-cycle or dispose of the clothes, exacerbating the environmental impact of an industry known as one of the world’s dirtiest.
“We see [the collection] as one of many solutions, hopefully,” Grubak says of the positive change digital clothing could generate. “No clothing brand can fix the waste problem alone, but every brand has a responsibility to do something. This project is meant to push and inspire them to think differently.” He also underlines the importance of profit. If this collection succeeds in creating a new, more sustainable revenue stream, innovators will have to keep up.
Fashion has been having somewhat of an AI moment recently. Lil Miquela’s slick aesthetic and focus on social justice landed her a Prada Instagram takeover this year, whereas black CGI model Shudu attracted headlines as well as accusations of taking bookings –– like a recent Balmain campaign –– from actual models of colour. Digital fashion is a hot topic, but the industry is exploiting real people, like garment workers, and models speaking out against sexual harassment are being largely ignored by the industry. “I think about the disconnect between clothing and the processes behind them,” Bel says, “and I’m wary of anything that exacerbates that. I think digital clothing takes that disconnect even further: the clothes aren’t even there.”
While it’s important not to overstate the viability of digital clothing as an ultimate solution, it could at least work to level the playing field for influencers without the cash to splurge on new outfits to capture as ‘content’. “There’s definitely a trend of wearing one-off pieces for social media and then returning them and selling them on,” says Stephanie Yeboah, a blogger and freelance writer with years of fashion industry experience. “It seems almost taboo to wear the same thing more than once –– like you’re not moving with the times.” Crucially, retailers have adapted to fit this mentality. Sites like Klarna allow purchase of clothing on credit and next day delivery is becoming commonplace. “It seems we’re in a rush to wear the ‘Next Big Thing’ to receive clout from brands and audiences,” Yeboah says .
But not everyone can access the Next Big Thing. Some can’t afford it, and others simply don’t have the luxury of buying it in their size. The influencer competition is cutthroat and, like the world more generally, creators who are cis, white, slim and wealthy have the upper hand: they can buy better equipment, stock up on new clothes and post photos which are deemed conventionally beautiful. Stephanie –– who writes eloquently and passionately about both race and body image –– confirms this: “Thin privilege, pretty privilege and white privilege are instrumental to some influencers’ success, and brands tend to work only with people that fall within these categories, completely disregarding the fact that their consumers are of all different shapes and sizes.”
I float the idea of digital clothing as a solution to this. An e-fit should technically have no sizing restraints, so couldn’t this range democratise the industry and allow plus-size influencers to ‘try on’ the buzzy garments that brands often unfairly assumes they don’t want? “It would be easier for plus size creators to make on-trend content,” replies Stephanie, “but there’s no point advertising clothing that would never be accessible for women in real life. We’re already at a point where barely any high-street shops cater for plus-size customers; I’d say the priority is making sure they have access to tangible pieces to shop for before creating digital pieces that will never really exist.”
Both women share the sentiment that digital clothing is an intelligent idea which might not be able to fix fashion’s very real problems, but it is at least innovative. Discussions around fashion tech and sustainability tend to focus on down-cycling technology (how to make machines which maximise the potential of fibres), smart textiles and 3D printing, but they can miss a key question: what’s the role of clothing in today’s digital age? For many, clothing still brings tangible joy. It can be beautiful, sentimental, cosy and culturally important; it still serves a real purpose. But for others it becomes material to attract new viewers, and public appetite is so insatiable that this material needs to be released almost constantly.
If nothing else, digital fashion could at least mitigate the real impact of overconsumption driven by haul culture and Instagram shopping, and it could theoretically democratise the class-driven influencer game by making on-trend clothes accessible to those who might not be able to buy them in reality. It’s not a catch-all solution, but it is a step in the right direction which demonstrates that tech could galvanise real innovation. There are IRL problems which need to be addressed, but the Carlings collection doesn’t necessarily need to distract from them. Instead, it could work alongside the brands fighting for change to shift industry standards for the better.