Striking a pose in the mirror, Swedish model and stylist Lisa Anckarman shows off a new jacket with a difference on Instagram – though it fits her perfectly in the photo, it’s a virtual design that does not exist in real life.
She is among a number of trendsetters embracing cutting-edge technology that offers the opportunity to sate appetites for fast fashion while dramatically slashing the emissions, pollution and labour abuses linked to the garment industry.
“I really liked the idea and the aspect that it’s good for the environment,” Anckarman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she discussed her virtual styling.
“Actually I think it maybe looked too good because people didn’t really get that it was digital.
“People were asking me ‘Where did you buy this?’ and I was saying, ‘It’s digital’, and they were like, ‘No, at what shop did you buy it?'”
Fashion is one of the world’s most damaging industries – it is responsible for about 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, sucks up scarce water and creates vast amounts of pollution and waste.
But the desire for the latest look is only increasing. Global fashion sales grew by about 4.5 percent to $1.7 trillion in 2018, found analysts at McKinsey and Company, who said social media is bringing trends to consumers at an ever swifter pace.
Some businesses are now looking to meet the demand for new styles through digital designs, with Scandinavian fashion firm Carlings convincing its customers to pay real cash for virtual clothes that are digitally “fitted” onto users’ photographs.
“It was kind of scary (launching it) but the response was so overwhelming that we were convinced we were on to something,” said Ronny Mikalsen, the firm’s brand director.
The first Carlings designs, costing between 10 euros ($11) and 30 euros, sold out and a second digital collection is due to be released in spring 2019.
High fashion low emissions
Digital clothes create far lower emissions than physical clothes as they cut out the long, labour-intensive process of sourcing materials, producing fabrics, making garments and shipping them worldwide.
While virtual styles may still be niche, experts say they are set to grow as technology seeps into more aspects of human lives.
Younger generations in particular are keen to curate their online personas as much as their real-life image, said Matthew Drinkwater, the head of the Fashion Innovation Agency based at the London College of Fashion.
On Instagram you have to ask “how much of that is a real person and how much is an enhanced version or a way they wish to portray themselves?” he said.
The increasing use of filters on social media that can add cute dog ears or a flower crown on top of a photo or edit video in real time to make people vomit rainbows shows how people are already using digital effects to play with their image, he said.
“In a very simple sense people are beginning to enhance or alter the way that they look,” he said. “You can begin to see a drift towards this merging of physical and digital.”
Shopping habits are already changing to meet the demands of online images: nearly one in 10 people have bought clothes to wear once, with the aim of sharing their outfit on social media, according to a survey of 2,000 Britons by finance firm Barclaycard last summer.
“If you get caught wearing the same clothes too many times it’s seen as a bad thing,” said Morten Grubak from the Virtue creative agency, who came up with the Carlings campaign.
“One of the worst things you can write under images is ‘Not again’, making the hint they have posted that outfit before.”
Some involved in virtual fashion said they had set out to offer a new solution to the industry’s climate damage and waste rather than trying to persuade consumers to buy less.
“Right now (environmental campaigns) are always about, like, how much water did we save producing these jeans and people don’t care about that,” said Grubak.
“Instead of getting angry with people doing fashion on Instagram, how can we innovatively solve that problem by adding a new platform?”
Other companies said they had taken a deliberate decision to avoid the traditional fashion market entirely.
“We’ve made a very clear point of never wanting to be a physical fashion brand,” said Kerry Murphy of Dutch digital fashion house The Fabricant, which creates only virtual designs.
“We believe the world does not need more clothing. It’s an incredibly wasteful and polluting industry. That’s why we very consciously said we want to re-imagine fashion.”
Digital design also opens up new possibilities to play with fashion, from using fabrics like rubber which would be relatively uncomfortable in real life through to dabbling in exotic skins or even physics-defying fantasies.
“Clothing will definitely have a different meaning because it does not have the same functionality as physical clothing,” Murphy said.
“People can wear fire or they wear rain or they can be a dinosaur, so the possibilities are limitless.”
Those involved in the digital design industry said it will not offer a complete solution to fashion’s emissions and waste problems, but it can help by encouraging people to update their existing wardrobes with virtual flourishes.
And as technology advances, virtual fashion could sashay into the mainstream, said Drinkwater.
Within a decade, people could regularly wear high-tech glasses that can apply digital effects over what the wearer sees in real life, he predicted, meaning virtual clothes will no longer be restricted to a computer or phone screen.
“Could you imagine a point where your existing clothes could be constantly updated through digital design? Could we be downloading content that could portray ourselves differently? Would that stop us from simply buying more product?” he asked.
“That potential is really quite exciting.”