The process of dematerialization that has affected aesthetic objects for decades appears to have left fashion untouched. In comparison to the intangible outputs of Conceptual art, virtualized architectural projects and speculative design, even the most radical fashion creation cannot rid itself of fabrics or whatever materials can be sewn, folded, pinned, and ultimately wrapped around a human body. Fashion’s indissoluble ties to its industry have also prevented designers from contemplating virtuality as a creative end to itself, one that would not necessarily lead to a commodifiable collection; compared to the many “paper architects”, few fashion designers evade the productive chain. Most commonly, the “virtual” is appropriated by fashion in visual references to digital culture, with armies of cyborgs, avatars, and the like.

It goes without saying, however, that today the experience of fashion mainly consists in scrolling Internet images rather than encountering factual garments. Innumerable fashion websites, blogs and online shops amass users of clothes-as-images, unconcerned with the actual wearability of the items they peruse. Telfar’s famed “Get the Look T-shirt” addresses precisely the “parallel life” of clothes in the world of images. A white T-shirt bearing a print of one of the collection’s runway outfits, it replaces the traditional fashion experience with its virtual accessibility.

Images on fabric possess great potential to disembody the fashion product. In contrast to the printed pattern, which tends to enhance the material quality of the cloth’s weave, as is the case with some of Kenzo’s and Prada’s recent collections, printed images stimulate a continuous stratification of visual surfaces. When flattened against a backdrop, these surfaces transform the garment into itself a synthetic, rather complex image.

Raf Simons’s men’s SS15 collection uses images explicitly in order to produce a virtualizable perception of the cloth. It features surfaces, specifically fronts and backs of shirts, T-shirts, sweatshirts, vests and coats, on which clusters of images are printed. Their subject matter is vast and seemingly random. It includes, among much else, an oil rig, the designer’s parents, clip-art of a marijuana leaf, a fantasy spacecraft, a sunset, a logo for a fictional company, tropical fish, and a portrait of the designer as a young man. Rather than decoding this constellation, one might consider how these images are chaotically displayed and superimposed on top of one another: they mimic a casual computer folder of image files displayed as thumbnails. To touch them is to expect to move images, as if interacting with a haptic surface.

In Dolce & Gabbana’s women’s and men’s SS14 collections, the fabrics always bear a single image, a black and- white photograph or an etching of ancient ruins. It flattens the surface of the garment to the point where each stitch, possessing the clear function of fitting the cloth around the body, could be perceived as a blotched image, a glitch in the file code. The garments seem like walking pictures – they function in a realm of non-wearability.

The subtraction of material from a piece of clothing has, in the history of fashion, usually meant either the rather iconoclastic gesture of reducing the item to a mass of shreds, or the conceptual deconstructivist drive to impoverish a garment to the point of its essential structure – to its mechanics, one would say, meaning the functional apparatus that allows for its wearability. Complicating this story, Comme des Garçons’s men’s SS15 collection features a variety of meshes, whose iterations stimulate an elaborate dialectic between subtractions and augmentation of material. Here, weaves virtualize themselves into grids. Along the runway, the outfits evolve from printed lozenge patterns in meshes that overlap over blazers and trench coats to gradually become mesh trench coats and sweaters. The mesh wraps around the body like a virtual grid produced by a 3D-modeling software to grasp the concrete object and turn its volumetric shape into a digital code. The apparel is as if virtualized into a shell-like surface where tactile stimuli are rendered as visual information.

The limit case of this phenomenon can be traced to two mesh sleeveless T-shirts included in MSGM’s men’s SS16 runway show. Irregular and organic, on a closer inspection these nets reveal themselves to be urban grids of cities, above all New York and Milan. Cut-out city blocks uncover the naked skin and the strands stand in for the streets. In these pieces, the city map, a device that nowadays exists only as the nth function of tablets and smartphones, fuses with the garment. Here, the clothing both replicates and functions as an image, which, as if returning full circle, has acquired the uttermost material depth.

Michele D’Aurizio is a writer based in Milan.

This text appears in the Spike Art Quarterly N° 45 and is available for purchase at our online shop .