It’s a hard to imagine the next fashion frontier having its roots in the likes of Farmville and Fortnite.
But as James Gaubert tells Design Week, it was seeing how much money his son was willing to spend dressing his Fortnite avatar that got him thinking about his next step in the fashion world.
Gaubert is the founder of Republiqe, a digital fashion house which launched last year. The online platform offers users a choice of a selection of fashion items, from basic t-shirts and jumpers to luxury dresses, none of which will ever be made in real life.
As he explains, new generations of consumers are willing to step beyond the physical world – if they’re already willing to spend time and money in virtual games spaces, then perhaps digital clothing worn on digital avatars is the next logical step for the fashion industry.
The work of the “digital tailors”
The digital fashion offered by Republiqe comes at a fraction of the cost of real-life pieces. Gaubert says users could pick up a diamond-encrusted ballgown for just over £20, if they so wished.
Users browse the catalogue of collections, and at point of purchase supply the company’s “digital tailors” with an image of themselves. These 3D design experts then fit the chosen piece to the person in the picture, for them to then use how they please.
Designers use a combination of four programmes to make this happen, Gaubert reveals. Clo 3D is used to design the clothing itself, followed by a programme called Daz to build avatars and mannequins. Finally, Marvellous and Photoshop are used to tailor a garment to size.
“We use a lot of programmes to get our final result, but it’s no different from the many different machines and processes you’d use to create a real-life piece,” he says.
“I’ve seen people being paid $2 a month making trainers that retail for $1,000”
It’s around £15-20 for most of Republiqe’s digital dresses, according to Gaubert. While this amount of money might baffle some, it’s clear there is a market for the items, which are more affordable than their real world high fashion equivalents by some distance.
Beyond monetary savings, Republiqe’s clothes also have a significantly lower impact on the environment. There are no raw materials to harvest, no fabric wastage and no air freight. Additionally, there are no unethical labour practices to contend with.
With more than 20 years’ experience in the fashion industry, Gaubert says he’s seen first-hand the kind of working conditions that go into not just today’s fast fashion brands, but also pieces for more luxury labels.
“I’ve seen people being paid $2 [£1.50] a month making trainers that retail for $1,000 [£770],” he says. He points out the recent Boohoo labour scandal in Leicester as proof this is happening closer to home, as much as it is overseas.
“For all of this to happen during the production of a garment, and then for that garment to be worn once and thrown away seems like such a waste to me,” Gaubert says.
“We’re essentially allowing them to be their own digital avatar”
As Gaubert explains, digital clothing is not new. Manufacturers have long used digital versions of pieces behind closed doors, to show to wholesalers or buyers. Republiqe simply seeks to bring consumers in on the action.
“We’ve effectively taken the tech developed for behind the scenes digital fashion and fused it with the mindset of a group of consumers that are willing to dress up avatars,” he says. “We’re essentially allowing them to be their own digital avatar.”
As with any new idea that provokes behavioural change, Gaubert says he is prepared for people not to “get it” right away. But as digital revolutions in other industries show – he gives the example of the fintech boom – there are people willing to give new things a try.
And with everything on offer designed in-house, he says Republiqe is positioned to consistently offer what consumers want, whether that be an alternative to a popular crop top, the aforementioned diamond dress, or seasonal outfits for Halloween or Christmas. In response to the pandemic, the brand has even designed a range of face masks.
“Opens up the world of luxury fashion to everyone”
While Gaubert’s platform may have been inspired by a video game, it isn’t positioned as such. Other digital fashion offerings, however, encourage gamification. Drest, a fashion styling app, is one such example.
Founded and created by former Harpers Bazaar editor-in-chief Lucy Yeomans, Drest is a response to an industry desperate to reach millennial and gen-z audiences “in a radically new way”. Like Gaubert, Yeomans was first prompted to pay attention to digital clothing after seeing the time and effort her Facebook friends were putting into their virtual farms on Farmville.
Yeomans explains the concept for Drest is simple: players adopt the role of a fashion stylist, and are handed all the tools that she had at her fingertips during her time as editor of a magazine. These tools include “the latest fashion, models, hair, makeup, props and locations”. Crucially, every item available to play with in the game is available to shop in real life through its partnership with e-commerce platform Farfetch.
But why is dressing digital paper dolls such an engaging pastime? Yeomans says its because platforms like Drest “provide a level playing field”. The majority of the clothes in Drest’s wardrobe are from luxury brands like Gucci, Stella McCartney and Burberry; allowing users to explore and discover these styles for free “opens up the world of luxury fashion to everyone”, she explains.
“A toolkit for everyone involved in fashion”
Brand collaborations are a huge part of the Drest offering, Yeomans tells Design Week. The in-house Drest design team works with fashion experts from houses across the world to develop immersive brand worlds and experiences in game, as well as to digitise real-life garments.
While Drest is a tool for luxury brands to engage new audiences, Kerry Murphy, founder of The Fabricant, an Amsterdam-based design studio that bills itself as the world’s first digital fashion house, says digital fashion more generally is an important tool for designers, stylists and content creators alike.
“These platforms can be part of a toolkit for everyone involved in fashion,” he says. The Fabricant’s own avatar platform, LEELA, aims to offer a host of benefits: digital try-before-you-buy to reduce the likelihood of real-life pieces of clothing being returned, thereby saving brands money; the provision of new revenue streams and exposure for emerging designers without a physical store presence; and fresh pieces for content creators to lessen their environmental footprint.
In a sense, Murphy says we should be looking at this as a whole new retail experience, which has the potential to one day rival bricks and mortar stores. No doubt the current global pandemic, which has pushed consumers around the world out of stores and online, will serve to accelerate this trend.
“We’ve been so used to consuming fashion in one way, it’s been the same for decades,” he says. “This is something new and it’s where the fun is.”
“Wearing it digitally is seamless”
For all three speakers, perhaps the biggest benefit of digital clothing is its creative possibilities, available for consumers and designers. As an example, Gaubert points to a dress available for purchase in Republiqe’s Halloween capsule collection which is made from broken mirrors and concrete (pictured above right).
“To wear a dress made out of shards of glass and concrete would be dangerous, heavy and very uncomfortable in the real world, but wearing it digitally is seamless,” he says. Digital production has none of the constraints of the physical world like colour, price or material, he adds. “I can simply click my mouse and change the colour or fit of a garment, whereas in the real world that would involve a whole new production process.”
Additionally, avatars allow consumers to sidestep the often-limited depictions of a garment on e-commerce sites.
“Shoppers are always keen to see the many different ways they can style or wear a certain piece, and magazines and ecommerce sites have limitations when it comes to styling, often showing only one, two or possibly three ways of how a piece can be worn,” Yeomans says.
“We’re never going to mitigate the need for physical pieces”
The rise in popularity of digital clothing, and other digital fashion applications, is sadly not yet mirrored in fashion study at university level. As Gaubert explains, because it often takes years to bring a new element to a course, digital practices may not be taught to trainee designers for some time.
For this reason he is frequently asked to guest lecture at establishments to give prospective fashion designers a look into what the future might look like.
“For people studying fashion, it will always be very important for them to understand how to use a pair of scissors or appreciate different fabrics, but equally, I think it is only going to become more important for them to understand digital too,” he says.
“We’re never going to mitigate the need for physical pieces – let’s be clear that digital fashion offers none of the practical benefits of real-life coats and shirts and trousers – but as for the emotional connection we make with our clothes and style, digital fashion is going to become an increasingly important part of our industry.”