Approaches to Designing Digital Fashion

The way something looks is often defined by how it is made. Digital fashion is no exception. Modes of production leave their mark.

Until recently, digital fashion could only be found in games.

From League of Legends skins to Elder Scrolls cloaks, digital clothes were only produced by highly specialised developers to clothe the residents of their own virtual worlds.

Elder Scrolls Online cloak. Image Credit: Elder Scrolls Online Forum

And the clothes certainly looked the part. Coloured by the game’s lore and encrusted with its symbols, digital clothing was intimately tied to a virtual world’s aesthetics. The clothes reflected, in their entirety, the conditions of their making.

A Whole New (Digital) World

Over the past decade this has all changed. Easy-to-use design tools have flooded the internet and opened up the world of digital fashion design to anyone with spare time and a computer.

With tools catering to all skill levels—some developed for traditional design use (CLO3D) and others for platform-specific cases (User Generated Content creator tools such as those found in Roblox)—the landscape of who can create digital clothing has been completely redefined. Now, young or old, technologically trained or not (most Roblox players are under the age of 16), we can all be digital designers.

But this is not to say that all clothes are created equal. As with anything, when people flock to a single activity, trends come to emerge. And we've noticed that these trends are not only shaped by the makers but on a larger scale by the conditions of making, be it through curation, co-creation or craft:

1. Curation

Not so natural selection

Easy access tools lead to mountains of (digital) material. An unfiltered UGC digital fashion marketplace—made up of millions of player-made items—would arguably be a small piece of hell, impossible for any platform to hold let alone any consumer to parse through. So, how do these platforms respond? Many attempt to filter their feed with a careful process of selection, only putting the best on show.

Where to see it?

Take Roblox. The majority of content on the platform is not produced by Roblox itself. From the games (aka. “Experiences”) that anyone can play, to the digital clothes sold on the marketplace (aka. “The Avatar Shop”), content is made by its users. But with a free hosting service and super simple provided creator tools, sourcing enough content is certainly not the issue.

Rather, with nearly 50 million daily active users at the end of last year, Roblox knows that if it lets everyone be a designer it would drown. Therefore, to combat this, it created a competition, where interested candidates are subject to a selection process run by a judging committee. In order to sell your wares through the marketplace, you must first submit your designs to the curator board. If approved, you will be given free range to set up shop and distribute as you please.

Many other platforms which rely on their users for content take this same approach. Look at The Sandbox with its Creator Fund or Decentraland’s Curation Committee. In each case, to be lucky enough to sell your wares, you first have to be selected. Therefore, although each platform spoils its users with its very own plug-and-play creation tools (like voxEdit), selling is earned not promised.

Of course, this kind of competitive process means that the design outputs look a certain way. In the case of the user generated competitions, quite simply, the clothes look like the winners. The designs are extremely memorable.

How to spot it?

One glance at the The British Fashion Council’s top picks of their favorite Roblox designers or even a quick scroll through the top selling Decentraland wearables shows that curated competition sourced design favours the quirky.

With accessories (sunglasses, gadgets and hats) coming out as the most popular items, mixing and matching is customary. Often with overflowing personality, these products’ popularity can be pegged to their ability to add even the smallest character to an avatar’s otherwise basic outfit. In digital environments with few opportunities to express oneself, many look to these winning accessories to present an individual flair.

Christmas CyberPunk Eyewear. Image Credit: OpenSea, Decentraland Wearables

Check out The British Fashion Council’s top Roblox Designers: cSapphire, GENKROCO, inkwaves, Reverse_Polarity, Sparklings.

2. Co-Creation

We're all in this together

If you aren’t into competing, but still want to create, there’s always the option of putting your own stamp on a pre-made design. Many platforms, conscious that enjoyable virtual experiences are founded on a user’s personal input, have adopted co-creation as their chief approach to digital design. Everything from simple t-shirt templates on Roblox, to the much more advanced Fabricant-style approach, make use of co-creation in order to allow users to take part in the design process but with minimal exerted effort.

Where to see it?

Look again to Roblox, the king of content.

Through a very clever co-creation tactic which encourages more paying users, Roblox ties co-creation to membership. Those willing to become paying members of the platform enjoy a greater level of design opportunities. Essentially a tiered access to blocky craftwork, their free program allows all users to co-create t-shirts whilst only the very lucky paying members can additionally co-create shirts and pants. Membership means a larger wardrobe on which to give your design input.

Through these extraordinarily uncomplicated templates, Robloxers differentiate themselves from their virtual neighbors. But some, with the help of longer sleeves, differentiate themselves more than others.

Roblox shirt template. Image credit: Roblox Developer forum

In the wider digital fashion ecosystem co-creation goes way beyond shirts made of blocks. With far more intricate design elements, templates and patterns, The Fabricant Studio takes on a similar approach to enable everyone to become a designer. Users customize the designs of the platform's enlisted 3D artists, using details and trims to individualise their creations.

How to spot it?

Big. Bold. Colours. With limited design freedom, people usually try to make a statement where they can. As is made clear by the abundance of same-same shirts in the Roblox catalog, this approach to design often produces mass amounts of near interchangeable garments with essential variations in colours or pattern where the user makes their mark.

The Fabricant Studio. Image Credit: The Fabricant.

3. Craft

The art of fashion

In an internet inundated with pants and shirts, that which is distinct often gets the spotlight. That’s at least one explanation for the growing attraction to newer, highly crafted, digital fashion work. Because it's the product of a much more skilled approach to digital clothing creation, not everyone can do it. It takes skills that the average UGC-er doesn’t have.

Where to see it?

With the launch of digital clothing simulation technology, such as CLO3D (which was released in 2009 but has consolidated its digital-first user base over the past 8 years), many more people have been able to create extremely artful digital designs without producing them for a platform.

From star designers like Stephy Fung and Scarlett Yang, to Zemengze and Xidentity, the intricacies of these pieces show that they not only took time to make, but took time to learn how to make. Often coming from other artistic professions like 3D design or even traditional fashion, a high level of skill is necessary in creating these clothes. The approach attracts a self-selective bunch, prepared to put in the time and effort necessary to master their craft.

Created by Yimeng Yu. Image credit: Yimeng Yu

How to spot it?

With the use of much more advanced creator tools, the designer-class can make clothes that look strikingly different from your average UGC attire. The art is in the detail, it’s in pushing the boundaries of what clothes can be by experimenting with what digital tools can allow. Therefore, you might spot this approach in a sculptural silhouette or in a technically extraordinary material rendering.

Mostly, when you see these clothes, you understand them as different—special in that they have been made by an individual creator with an artistic objective in mind (which is not to say that the millions of Roblox shirts are not a special kind of art form in and of themselves).