Fashion is no longer about clothes as purely physical garments. The pandemic pushed designers, brands and retailers towards digital and immersive technologies. As stores shuttered and fashion shows went online, so did the clothes - in digital format, that you can’t actually wear.
Luxury brands started minting NFTs (non-fungible tokens; unique digital assets that only exist digitally but can cost tens of thousands of pounds), and digital-only designers and collectives are making waves, partnering with mainstream brands to bring them into the realm of cyber fashion.
Even some of the top models these days aren’t human (life-size android artist Ai-Da is both a creator and model, while virtual influencer Lil Miquela has 3m followers on Instagram).
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While virtual fashion isn’t quite mainstream - yet - many have high hopes that digital fashion can be an antidote to the excesses of fast fashion and the waste associated with all aspects of fashion (over)production. The Metaverse is full of endless potential and uncharted territory. Here’s how fashion is getting involved.
At its heart, fashion is all about celebrating creativity, but it has long been an industry plagued by criticism; from a continued lack of inclusivity and representation to utter disregard for the climate and an elitist perspective when it comes to who decides what’s “in fashion”.
Data visualised by Vogue Business
Virtual fashion presents new opportunities not only for fashion to go beyond the physical garment, but for a radical reimagining of the status quo - a democratisation of fashion that allows anyone with a computer and the right software to showcase their vision. Creating from a digital-only perspective also encourages the kind of out-of-the-box thinking and design that can only happen when clothes don’t need to serve a particular purpose, exist as physical garments or adhere to the proportions and build of a human body.
While we started hearing all about NFTs and digital fashion collaborations during the pandemic, luxury fashion brands have been dipping a toe into the virtual realm for a few years, primarily through gaming. After all, video games are where the customers are, helping luxury labels attract youthful new audiences and build up brand loyalty.
Looks from the Balenciaga Afterworld collection
Often, these digital flirtations have been accompanied by physical collections, like when Louis Vuitton partnered with Riot Games on prestige skins for League of Legends in 2019. Balenciaga’s fashion show for its Autumn collection 2021, Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, was released as a video game and the brand’s latest collaboration with Fortnite takes Afterworld as a jumping off point; Balenciaga’s wares will appear in the game, as well as stores. Ralph Lauren recently launched a virtual world, full of Polo-clad avatars, on Zepeto.
Ralph Lauren's digital avatars on Zepeto. Image rights: Ralph Lauren
Even though it’s still in its nascent stages, digital fashion is wildly popular among those in the know. In fact, a digitised version of a garment can achieve a level of cult status that outstrips the standing of the already-cult physical item. Case in point? Gucci partnered with Roblox to create a digital Gucci garden; in the game, the Italian luxury brand’s Dionysus bag with bee sold for 350,000 Robux, or around $4,115 (it was a super-exclusive drop, available for only an hour a day on two days of the partnership).
If you think paying four figures for an item that only exists within the realm of Roblox is shocking (the bag isn’t even an NFT, so can’t be used outside of the game), here’s the kicker: the bag exceeded its IRL cost of $3,400.
NFTs are another playing field for luxury fashion brands: in August 2021, Burberry, no stranger to gaming (its B Bounce game, with an avatar racing to the moon in a monogram puffer gilet, made its debut in 2019) launched its first NFT in partnership with Mythical Games’ Blankos Block Party, while Louis Vuitton announced the stunningly atmospheric Louis the Game in celebration of its 200th anniversary, an app which rewards players with NFTs from Beeple, while giving you facts about the storied fashion house and luxury malletier’s history.
While luxury brands are primarily experimenting with the Metaverse through exclusive game partnerships and NFTs, there’s a whole slew of designers and labels who specialise in digital-first fashion (aka “screenwear”) whose names will soon be on your radar, like London-based Auroboros, a “tech couture house” that shows during London Fashion Week and Tribute Brand, which launched during the pandemic and has already created a one-off garment with leading labels Jean-Paul Gaultier and Sacai.
Watch the #GaultierParis show by #Sacai at home like Mahmood. Wednesday, 7th at 2.30PM (CEST) on https://t.co/nUWSUw5toA.— Jean Paul Gaultier (@JPGaultier) July 5, 2021
3D jumpsuit powered by Tribute Brand.
Art direction and production by Bureau Future. #JeanPaulGautlier #Sacai #Mahmood pic.twitter.com/CyMjPE8tv2
Damara Inglês, a self-proclaimed “fashion tech cyborg,” is another designer pushing the boundaries of what fashion means in the Metaverse and exploring how virtual fashion experiences can change our relationship to fashion by providing an antidote to fast fashion. Her newest project, a Snap Lens filter called “Exodus” that grows with the body and encourages the user to immerse themselves in the moment.
Platforms for digital dressing and NFT fashion are also gaining traction, like RTFKT, known for its limited-edition NFT streetwear exclusives. RTFKT’s NFT sneaker sales from crypto-artist FEWOCiOUS made over $3 million in less than seven minutes. Another platform for digital fashion, DRESSX, recently partnered with Farfetch on digitising pre-order looks from designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Off-White, to promote the new campaign without using up environmental resources, while The Dematerialised is a digital-fashion marketplace that’s partnered with Soulland, Rebecca Minkoff and Karl Lagerfeld on exclusive NFT and digital drops.
“In the Metaverse, known as web 3.0, which is the immersive version of the internet that’s under development right now, fashion will be huge. Our transactions, interactions and experiences will be conducted in multiple virtual worlds, and for each of these we’ll utilise personalised avatars to represent ourselves,” explains Michaela Larosse, head of digital content and strategy at digital fashion house, The Fabricant. The Fabricant just launched a digital fashion co-creation platform, The Fabricant Studio, with the goal of democratising fashion in the Metaverse by turning anyone into a creator who can mint and model their own NFTs.
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Virtual fashion’s future isn’t just about the clothes: from AI models to immersive fashion retail experiences, which bridge the physical and the digital, there are many ways to start experiencing the power of technology in pushing fashion in new directions. Even the rise of online styling platforms like Stitch Fix, which helps customers cultivate a more thoughtful capsule wardrobe, embrace technologies like AI to match customers to garments that suit their style.
In some ways, fashion isn’t just looking to the Metaverse for opportunity and inspiration. It’s an industry in search of salvation; after all, fashion is responsible for 10% of our carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply. While digital fashion can help curb overproduction and prevent needless landfill waste, NFTs come with their own massive carbon footprint and generate emissions whenever one is bought or sold. The eco-impact of these digital-only designs is still being explored.
“All of these avatars will be dressed in digital garments that express parts of our identity; who we are, what we do and what we believe in, and this is key to The Fabricant’s mission to build the wardrobe of the Metaverse. It’s likely that we’ll curate multiple digital ‘selves’ relevant to various environments and audiences, with garments that communicate in ways appropriate to the interaction or environment,” Larosse adds.
And that’s the real beauty of fashion in the Metaverse: its endless possibility. Not only when it comes to the countless iterations of garments imagined by designers from all walks of life, and all over the world, but also from discovering and projecting all those new versions of ourselves.