A Brief History of Digital Fashion

What is Digital Fashion? Where did it come from? When will it take over the world?

The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote:

"Why brilliant fashion-designers, a notoriously non-analytic breed, sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, is one of the most obscure questions in history; and, for the historian of culture, one of the most central"

Anyone who knows fashion understands that most fashion designers are highly analytical. Why? Because fashion works in the business of identity, so those who dress the world need to understand how people want to be seen now and how they’ll want to be seen in the future.

Identity suffers from the constant need for evolution. Both on a micro and macro scale. Who we are as individuals evolves through our lifetimes, and who we are as a society evolves over tens or even hundreds of years.

Moving at the speed of singularity, Digital Fashion, a minute blip in fashion’s 1000+ year history, has already gone through numerous cycles as humans define, and re-define, who and what they are in virtual spaces.

And so, to ground our explorations into Digital Fashion’s future, the DRAUP team felt that a brief Digital Fashion history lesson was in order.

1) The spawn of in-game outfits: HeavyWeight Champ - 1976

Heavyweight Champ (lost SEGA arcade boxing game; 1976). Image Credit: Screenshot of Heavyweight Champ via Lost Media Wiki

1974 saw the first representation of a human player in a video game with the game Basketball.

Not long after came experimentation with how these digital humans could be dressed in Heavyweight Champ (1976). Comically basic compared to the intricately rendered Digital Fashion of today, these shorts still work to dress, with the end of each line defining the silhouette of the player. Like art made with one painted stroke, these shorts show how few moves are needed to count as clothing.

2) You only wore it if someone saw it: Habitat - 1986

Habitat by LucasFilm. Image Credit: LucasFilm Entertainment Company via The Verge

Habitat, a 1986 game by LucasFilm, is considered the first graphical MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) aka. the very first game to include other people in a world which continues to exist once the player has left.

As the first game to allow 16 people to play simultaneously much of the game’s allure was its player-to-player interactions.

Entering through a home computer, players created themselves in the game and lived out their characters’ lives. With no game-play objectives per se, digital clothes took on a whole new significance as a part of the story; determining how players related to one another and to their virtual selves.

3) A (Christmas) party to remember: Runescape - 2001

Runescape Partyhats for sale. Image credit: via player auctions

Digital collectibles are a dime a dozen these days, but in the early 2000s, Runescape’s Christmas party showed the world just how digital goods develop value.

Game developer, Jagex, gifted guests with virtual crackers at their festive soiree, with some containing gold or silver bars and others producing party hats. Many of these gifts were later abandoned. Some were sold on the marketplace or even given out for free.

Until all party hat production was discontinued…

As is common in tales of supply and demand, the scarcity of party hats transformed it from a discardable item into a coveted collectible. Their price then skyrocketed.

In a short amount of time, a party hat went from a throw-away item to the ultimate symbol of Runescape wealth. Even after 20 years, the legacy of the party hat lives on with some hats (often blue ones) going for billions in gold.

4) The rise of the skins model: Fortnite - July 2017

Red Jade Outfit (released 2019) in Fortnite. Image Credit: Fortnite via Fortnite Wiki

Fortnite is a Massive Multiplayer Online Game now boasting over 80 million monthly active users, with the average player having spent 432 hours immersed in the existence it provides.

Integral to Fortnite’s draw is the central role that fashion has come to play within it. As a free-to-play game, game maker Epic generates its revenue through skins – interchangeable virtual outfits which players buy for their avatar (spanning 1270 outfit choices as of early 2022).

With an average player spend of $108 per-year on their digital outfits, skins have become a multi-million dollar monetization opportunity for Epic, transforming the game into an e-comm company that could give the likes of Farfetch and Net-A-Porter a run for their money.

5) Early collabs: The Sims X Moschino - 2019

Sims X Moschino Collection. Image Credit: Moschino via Harper’s Bazaar

The year was 2019, the designer Jeremy Scott, the category millennial nostalgia.

Moschino, the brand that mixed models with MaccyD’s, launched a 37 piece collection within cult-favorite The Sims, bringing to life the term ‘phy-gital’ to great acclaim.

Rather than gaming merch, Moschino allowed players to share clothes with their characters. With a downloadable capsule collection pack for $9.99, the physical counterpart collection, ranging from swimsuits to dresses, went for much more.

6) The first of its kind: The Fabricant Iridescence Dress - May 2019

The Fabricant’s Iridescence Dress. Image Credit: The Fabricant

In May 2019, the price of Ethereum was beginning to rise ($261 give or take), and with Dapper Labs’ network clogged by the sheer volume of users vying to consume digital kittys, the value of virtual goods slowly climbed in the consciousness of the crypto savvy.

The Fabricant, the OG Digital Fashion House, auctioned off the first ever item of ORL (On Real Life) clothing (that’s clothing which could be worn on a human) for $9,500, to much indignation from the press.

Just like a piece of physical couture, Richard Ma, a Canadian Entrepreneur, had the pleasure of the digital dress being fitted onto his wife; or rather her photo as Amber Jae Slooten (Fabricant Founder) intoned ”A new cult is rising. The digital world is coming and we are no longer bound to physical space.”

7) Lockdown highs: Animal Crossing: New Horizons - 2020

Net-a-porter’s Animal Crossing island. Image Credit: Net-A-Porter via Wallpaper

I’m inside. You’re inside. We’re all inside. (Animal Crossing!!)

During peak lockdown everyone from T-Pain, who gave us a personalized tour of his crib, to a range of entrepreneurs (most notably dominatrixes) turned to the cute & creative Animal Crossing, furthering their friends, finances and fashion flexes, all whilst trapped indoors.

Spawned by a flurry of user generated content, where players took fashion into their own hands, brands ranging from Gucci to Sandy Liang, Marc Jacobs to Valentino and Isabel Marant to H&M (and even Net-A-Porter) set up their own in game presences via virtual pop-ups and digital drops.

8) The well-dressed online persona: Tribute Brand - 2020

Image Credit: Tribute Brand

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve been exposed to the proliferation of the Creator Economy — currently comprising of over 50 million Instagrammers, TikTokers and podcasters, attracting audiences from amongst the 4.5 billion social media users of today.

Pandemic induced, but ultimately inevitable, brands and marketplaces creating Digital Fashion which can be worn by humans garnered attention in mid-2020.

With everyone restrained to their homes, feeling increasingly experimental, and growing more comfortable with virtual interactions by the day, $50 on a virtual dress became ever more palatable.

Within this boom of ORL clothing, and indicative of its audience, Tribute Brand emerged as a clear crowd favorite for content creators, just as much for its to-die-for silhouettes as for its pander to millennial nostalgia (Shego Spawned, Matrix-esque and every bit the third element).

9) Collectible culture: RTFKT Studios - 2019

ATARI SNEAKER SHINY ltd edition. Image Credit: RTFKT Studios

In 2019, three employees of leading esports team FNATIC began building a blue-chip digital brand to hit feet everywhere.

Fully familiar with the importance of digital goods, and aware of the formal repositioning of sneakers as assets rather than items that StockX spawned, the trio began with a simple pair of virtual Jordans (with a futuristic Nike like logo in white light).

Four months later, RTFKT (pronounced artifact) sold out $3.1 million worth of digital sneakers in 7 minutes through a drop with NFT artist FEWOCIOUS, before partnering with a series of crypto-cultural movements ranging from Cryptopunks and Atari to Jeff Staples.

Since then, RTFKT has become a global leader, defining what it means to be a digitally native brand in an age when every brand has a digital wing…

10. Brands hitching a ride to the moon: Tom Sachs Rocket Factory - August 2021

Okapi NFT from Tom Sachs: Rocket Factory. Image Credit: Tiffany & Co.

It’s March 2021 and every man, woman and child wanted to be selling or buying NFTs.

Fashion brands began to realize that a Roblox partnership or Animal Crossing island might not cut it, as financial empowerment became a crucial part of virtual worlds.

Detailed with child-like scrawls: the rocket factory from artist Tom Sachs, became the archetypal NFT bluechip for brands and collectors alike. The project was unique with 1) every NFT accompanied by a rocket which could be launched into the sky 2) buyers able to mix and match ‘rocket’ parts to make their own NFTs.

With the traditional art world fueling its allure, the Tom Sachs Rocket Factory beckoned brands with titles like ‘Deez Nuts’ for the Hermes rocket, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ for the Chanel rocket, or ‘Okapi’ for Tiffany’s rocket, which the jeweler went on to acquire for $380,000.

Nothing to do with clothes in themselves, these rockets launched traditional brand identities into the NFT-sphere.

11) The bag that shocked: The Gucci Roblox Bag - May 2021

‘Gucci Dionysus Bag with Bee’ listing on Roblox. Image Credit: Roblox

No stranger to the forefront of fashion, Gucci (the first to debut AR sneakers) made its entrance into Roblox peak pandemic, just as the platform was nearing 150 million monthly users and experiencing an 85% growth in daily active users from the year before.

Using what game theorist Jamie Madigan terms ‘time added scarcity’ Gucci drummed up demand for its digital pieces by sculpting a virtual world and releasing items in a 2 week drop with varying rarities.

The digital Dionysus bag (scarcest item of all) originally sold for $5.50. Just as with the Runescape party hats before it, synthetic scarcity led to demand and the bag's price increased exponentially on secondary marketplaces.

Eventually, to much press frenzy, the digital Dionysus was resold for $4,115 SURPASSING that of its physical counterpart (retailing for $2,700). The event brought to the fore the true power of digital-only fashion goods.

12) Adidas’s good connections: Adidas - December 2021

Bored Ape Yacht Club #8,774, Adidas 'hashtag NewProfilePIc.' Image Credit: @adidasoriginals

In partnership with some of the most influential crypto-fluencers and projects (Bored Ape Yacht Club, PUNKS comic and Gmoney) as well as acclaimed artists (Zach Lieberman), Adidas released a series of Metaverse-native Adidas Originals. These spanned 30,000 items and earned them over $22 million in one afternoon.

This inaugural ‘Into the Metaverse’ NFT gave holders the benefits of physical goods tied to the projects (like the very tracksuit Adidas’ Ape wears) as well as access to digital experiences.

However, most of all, through high-profile partnerships with NFT projects, Adidas learnt the power of branded digital communities.

With targeted whitelists (meaning those named get first dibs on the product) for the majority of their NFT sales, Adidas reaped more than just financial rewards for their partnerships. In piggybacking off a partner's project hype, Adidas could engage a new digitally-native audience they could begin to understand.

13) Going Ape$hit: Gucci - March 2022

10KTF X Gucci. Image Credit: Gucci

Gucci’s partnership with the Meta-native designer Wagmi-san (the creator behind the deeply Web3 native accessories store 10KTF) saw accessories designed by Alessandro Michele to be worn by NFTs from 11 of the most popular NFT projects (from World of Women to Cool Cats).

As a fashion brand, Gucci was clever and thoughtful whilst staying true to its origins: dressing NFTs in the way it has historically dressed celebrities and film stars. And, with these virtual avatars costing holders astronomical prices (a Cool Cat NFT was sold last October for $1.13 million USD) the brand capitalized on the new territory for status — ultimately layering status symbols onto new status symbols.