The digital clothes you can buy - but can’t wear

Two pictures where models are wearing digital fashion. On the left the woman is wearing a blue dress and beige jacket. On the right the woman is wearing a red layered top.
These clothes aren't real - they are virtual. Credit: DressX

By Digital Presenter and Producer Mojo Abidi

We're all used to online clothes shopping - but what about buying new clothes that you never actually receive?

A new trend is seeing people buy virtual clothes that are superimposed onto photos of themselves to share on social media.

Like a normal online store, customers select the garment they want and click buy.

But they also provide a photo of themselves and within 48 hours, the image is sent back - with their newly purchased clothes digitally altered on, ready to share with their followers.

It might sound like the premise of a Black Mirror episode but it is very much a reality.

DressX is one of the growing number of digital fashion houses.

Based in Los Angeles, it was started by Daria Shapovalova and Natalia Modenova after learning that people were buying new one-off outfits solely to take pictures for Instagram.

They say the pressure of social media is leading to a culture of overconsumption and fast fashion.

Some of the digital garments on the DressX website Credit: DressX

“Let’s face it, we live in a social media world,” says Shapovalova.

“Instagram has made us believe that other people have limitless wardrobes to choose their outfits from, making us look for the cheaper and more affordable clothing options so we can buy more.

“To produce new and unique content, we need new and unique outfits. It’s leading to an excessive buying of clothes.”

They believe digital fashion could be the solution.

The clothes on DressX start at about £19 and go up to £188.

However, once the digital clothes have been edited onto one image, you have to pay again if you want the same clothes on another image of yourself.

DressX launched during the coronavirus pandemic in July, and in its first four months had more than 200 clients.

The digital clothes are superimposed onto photos sent by customers Credit: DressX

The concept may seem outlandish but Francesca Muston, vice president of fashion at the trend forecasting firm WGSN, says the fashion industry is actually late to the party - with gamers like Fortnite fans spending a total of millions on skins for their avatars.

“At first it may seem ludicrous to spend money on a dress or hoodie which doesn't exist in a physical form but when you consider it as an investment in your online profile it makes more sense", Muston says.

“As our lives move online, so do our identities, whether that's through character gaming such as Animal Crossing, or on a more simplistic level, through stickers on WhatsApp.

“Our online profiles are quickly becoming part of who we are and how we project ourselves to the world.”

It appears the pandemic has amplified this digital shift.

“We've become used to socialising via video calls and as part of that we've become very accustomed to virtual backdrops, whether that’s outer space or the local pub,” says Muston.

“A virtual dress or pair of sneakers is just the next step along this route so it is really not as far-fetched as it may first appear.”

Diana Ronsal has bought around 20 digital garments - including this $80 dress Credit: Diana Ronsal

One of DressX’s customers is Diana Ronsal who says it is the creativity which attracted her.

“I love digital fashion because it’s an amazing way to express yourself and try things that you might never buy in real life, maybe because of the style or price.

“It’s innovative, it’s creative and it’s green - what a combo,” says the 29-year-old.

Ronsal has purchased around 20 different virtual garments which she models to her Instagram followers, spending more than £670.

The Safer Internet Centre warns that there is immense pressure, especially on younger people, to manufacture unrealistic online identities.

A spokesperson for the UK-based organisation says: “Social media has a fun, creative side. There is an element of exploring, fantasy, trying new things - it’s like dressing up.

“But the presence of influencers and celebrities can makes users feel like they must look and present themselves a certain way, which can be an impossible standard.

“It’s important users recognise that images are often filtered and enhanced, and what you’re looking at on social media isn’t necessarily reality. Or it can link to self-esteem issues and mental health problems.”

The original image of a customer on the left - with their digital garment superimposed on the right Credit: DressX

Nearly one in ten Brits admit to buying clothes just to post photos on social platforms, a survey for Barclaycard found.

Perhaps, surprisingly 35-44 year-olds are the biggest culprits, with nearly one in five buying clothes to wear once for a social media picture.

Our addiction to fast fashion sends 300,000 tonnes worth of textiles to landfill and incinerators every year, according to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Commitee.

Modenova says: “We’re giving everyone the opportunity to keep up with the pace of social media and shop more, but leaving almost no environmental footprint.”

DressX says producing a digital garment emits 97% less CO2 than a physical garment.

Shapovalova adds: “We share the beauty and excitement that physical fashion creates, but we believe that there are ways to produce less, produce more ethically, or not produce at all.”

Whether the concept of digital fashion can really help the environment will come down to whether enough people are prepared to give up the thrill of buying and wearing new clothes and are instead willing to spend their money filling up their virtual wardrobes rather than their real-life ones.