The Age of Fluid Identities
We are living in a time where a whole generation [Z] sees no real distinction between the physical and digital worlds. As age-old constructs fall apart, this generation seeks more experiences to identify with — experiences that are not only memorable and shareable [on social media], but also an outlet to discover and express increasingly fluid identities.
Fashion has always been the predominant way of expressing one’s identity, but today that is no longer a guilt-free avenue. People can’t help but feel judged for their fashion choices — what you should buy, where you should buy from, how much should you buy, whether you should buy at all — retail therapy comes with a price much higher than money.
Fashion, A Dirty Word
While the rise of digi-tech has provoked the use for innovative digital experiences even in the otherwise traditional space of fashion, today, fashion is plagued with the label of being a global pollutant. A rising wave of “woke” consumers are demanding more sustainable alternatives, and this need is perpetuated by online fashion influencers who dominate the rules of fashion on social media and hence in reality. (There has been a 200X increase of “sustainable fashion” haul videos created, and a 13X increase in the views of these. Also, the top 5 fashion innovations in 2019 were all efforts to reduce environmental impact.)
We are buying more clothes but using them less.
Consumer as Co-creators
The desire for a perfectly curated [Instagram] life gets fuelled by the on-demand and personalised consumer needs that are disrupting the traditional business model for fashion brands; marking the onset of a new wave of fashion consumers — as co-creators.
This co-creation drive, which is still nascent IRL, has roots deeply entrenched in the digital lives of consumers, through gaming. Games that allow users to style models or player “skins” with digitally rendered clothing designs have proven to be a far more stable revenue model than many retail brands themselves.
The video game sensation, Fortnite, which disrupted more than the gaming landscape, made $2B from in-game skin purchases only. Not because the skins gave players any special powers or skills to play, but simply because they added a cool factor, giving players a personal edge in a space which has been very prescriptive.
The Need to L̶i̶v̶e̶ Show Our Best Lives
If we dig a little deeper, we start to uncover the innate reason for this spurt in our obsession of digital avatars. While social media gave us a channel to display our lives to the whole world, it also added all sorts of unseen pressures to present only our best selves — and digital avatars offered an easy avenue to do just that.
Here was a chance to make our aspirational selves a “reality.” We started using Bitmoji, an app that allowed us to communicate digitally with a cuter version of ourselves. Then came Facemoji, and it quickly gained popularity among 2M+ subscribers only because it allowed us to create virtual avatars of ourselves. Apple’s Memoji added a branded stamp of approval on our self-presentation behaviour a.k.a. the need to display our better selves.
What this tells us is that digital identities have become a powerful means of self-expression — of our aspirational selves — in a virtual environment where you can be who you want, buy what you want, wear whatever and how much ever you want.
Fashion’s Redemption: Digital-Only
Our need to wear [more] clothes to feed our digital identity is not going away anytime soon, but it may just wear out the planet. To pay off their sustainability debt brands can tap into this need [to save our planet] and carve out a new niche for the future of fashion — one that is digital-only.
Digital-only fashion comprises digital clothing and accessories that only exist virtually. The garment never exists in reality, yet what you pay for is the same satisfaction of seeing yourself in a perfectly curated outfit that you can upload to your digital feed.
As the dark cloud [of physical constructs] threatens the future of the fashion industry, digital-only fashion offers more than just a silver lining — it offers a promise to uphold the aspirational “display lives” of consumers, without burdening their wallet or the planet.
The Future of [Digital-Only] Fashion
So how can brands lean into the world of “phygital”?
1. Think of digital beyond data: With digital-only fashion, brands have the opportunity to co-exist with their consumers and gain credibility rather than just data from their lives. By offering designs that consumers have the liberty to choose and access in a digital-only environment, brands can lower the barrier to [purchase] entry without ever entering the privacy of their lives.
2. Make retail therapy sustainable: Producing digital-only designs to their physical counterparts, fashion brands can get a head start on their road to the accountability of the world’s demands. Yes, establishing credibility in the digital-only realm will require an investment in this niche craft, but when the trade-off is paying off your sustainability debt with an innovative business model, the price tag seems worth it.
3. Feed the experience economy: In a world where the ability to stage experiences is the new social currency, brands pioneering digital-only fashion as a medium of self-expression can promise it all — a personally curated experience beyond constructs — powered by real interactions in our digitally native lifestyle.
4. Be technology champions: The rise of technology in this online world has led to the birth of endless digital subcultures. From influencer marketplaces and interactive virtual experiences to advanced AI collectives — fashion can find a role to play [in them all] by means of digital-only collaborations between designers and technologists who are building the new aesthetics of life.
5. Embody your own digital avatar: As self-expression becomes more of a necessity to build meaningful connection, this construct becomes applicable to brands as well. A personified digital-only brand avatar — that can act as a virtual companion to consumers — can enable brands to offer consumers highly sought after immersive, and more human, interactions in our digital lives.
We are living in a time where a whole generation [Z] is living #thegramlife, feeding their phones before they feed themselves, using a digital app for every single thing you can think of, upholding social values far beyond the generations before them — and yet are continually seeking new ways to express their individuality.
As we move towards a more phygital future, the role of digital-only will be to reinstate the self-expression of fashion and grow beyond the hype to a better business model, and even way of life — one that is sustainable, inclusive, and fluid.