Because of the overwhelming response, Carlings decided to experiment with merging the physical and digital world to give garments a “digital afterlife,” dropping the first augmented reality t-shirt at the end of last year. With a graphic logo that acts as a tracking point for a smartphone, wearers could choose between four designs using Spark AR technology on their phones. “We aren’t naive — it’s not like we believe that all clothing will be digital in the future,” Mikalsen explains. “But since we launched, the idea of digital fashion has exploded from a fringe idea to talk of the town.”
Since the advent of Carlings, Tommy Hilfiger has announced its plan for a fully digital design process by 2021, and Louis Vuitton released a collection for League of Legends. Digital fashion house The Fabricant sold the first “digital couture” dress to be auctioned on the blockchain, for $9,500.
Nathalie Nguyen and Dominic Lopez, founders of the virtual and physical clothing brand Happy99, have a different idea of what digital-only clothing should be. Since posting their first digital shoe, in 2018, they’re not interested in editing Instagram photos for customers. Instead, they look to AI clothing as something to help build brand identity and ultimately open up a dialogue about what it means to consume. “All of our shoes are in a sense ‘real,’” Nguyen tells Teen Vogue. “Are they physical, consumable products? No. But in the same way that people like a picture, engage with it, comment on it, and share it with their friends, they have consumed the product.”
Nguyen and Lopez post-digital designs in the hopes of building a loyal fan base whose members are happy to appreciate the products without their own image being part of the experience. They have, so far, been successful, attracting fans from all walks of life, including Angus Cloud from Euphoria. Merging digital and physical items, Nguyen explains, and using narrative storytelling to create a “universe” around the brand, rather than just the products, is an important step to more mindful and sustainable consumption.
Those who have had the opportunity to “wear” digital-only clothing, like Swedish stylist, designer, and Youtuber Lisa Anckarman, who modeled the first Carlings collection, have had a digital experience shared by few people. “My followers loved it right away. Of course, it took a while to process the whole concept, but looking back on the feedback, my comments were filled with excitement and curiosity,” Anckarman tells Teen Vogue. “For me, it could be an easy and green way of showing off my creativity and futuristic style. I know a lot of influencers that would be interested in using digital clothing if there were easy ways to use it. An app where you could pick from different brands would be great.”
While buying a design for a single photo may seem indulgent to some, reducing textile waste makes it worth exploring further. With digital-only clothing already gaining interest among influencers, it’s not hard to imagine a future where one-off outfits (or experimental and haute couture pieces) don’t have to be physically made. This makes digital clothing perhaps the most creative solution to fashion’s environmental footprint yet. As Mikalsen puts it: “You simply can’t stop creativity with regulations, no matter how negative and ruthless this fashion impact is on the environment. You have to be innovative.”
There’s no denying that those who venture into the digital clothing space are creating innovative work in relatively unexplored territory, but the current flaw with AI as a sustainable solution is that it has yet to prove in a scalable way that it can replace fast fashion sales. As more designers and brands explore the area, it’s only a matter of time before we have that answer. In the meantime, we should all be less afraid to post that outfit twice, for the sake of the planet.