In 1837, Hans Christian Andersen published The Emperor’s New Clothes—a tale about two travellers who trick a sovereign into believing they have woven garments that are invisible to those that are too incompetent to see them. Proud and vain, the emperor and his court willingly buy into the deception, pretending to be able to see and admire the ‘invisible’ clothing. The entire village grudgingly joins in the self-deception, when the emperor parades the ‘clothing’ through the town. This self-deception lasts until a child points out that the king is naked.
While it might have been mortifying for the sovereign but fast-forward to now. Today, influencers in skin-tight bodysuits or barely-there underwear snap photos of themselves to be dressed in digital versions of clothing that exist only as a virtual layer; paraded on social media for likes and clicks, and one gets the sense that the fashion-obsessed emperor would feel right at home in the metaverse.
But what of the child who points out the king’s nakedness?
Before we get to that, for the benefit of newcomers, let’s start with the basics: what is the metaverse?
By Wikipedia’s definition, the metaverse “is a hypothesised iteration of the Internet, supporting persistent online 3-D virtual environments through conventional personal computing, as well as virtual and augmented reality headsets”.
In other words, it’s not quite here in all its full glory yet. Still, different companies are
definitely in the race to build a seamless, virtual experience that allows users to cross over and interact with other virtual realms and experiences through their computers, phones and VR/AR headsets and gear. With Facebook changing its name to ‘Meta’, brands like adidas and Gap making their forays into the space, the past year’s enormous trade volume of digital art nonfungible tokens (NFTs) and high-profile virtual collabs by both luxury and main street brands, the metaverse seems like the next digital wave that brands will need to learn how to navigate, or be left high and dry.
Perhaps more relevant for retail, the metaverse “also translates to a digital economy, where users can create, buy, and sell goods” according to a recent article by Wired. This point is crucial for brands. Think of the untapped market potential where the world is now your virtual oyster. And not just one world either. The same article highlights how “a metaverse might allow you to create a persona that you can take everywhere as easily as you can copy your profile picture from one social network to another”. Instead of being tied to just one platform.
The world’s first digital-only fashion house The Fabricant has been one of the pioneers in this space. Working with brands like Puma, Under Armour, AAPE+ and most recently Timberland, The Fabricant has leveraged collaborations and cutting-edge technology and artistry to create hyper-realistic digital clothing that pushes the boundaries of what fashion is. And it is not alone. As the technology improves and digital artists are recognised as creators and designers in their own right, digital clothing companies have forged strategic partnerships to reach new, digitally-savvy and trend-conscious audiences.
After all, why not widen your reach with a product that no longer requires extensive supply chains and produces significant manufacturing waste. In a recent article, Vogue Business mentioned how “XR Couture, The Dematerialised and DressX have all launched in recent months as places for designers to sell and for customers to buy digital-only designs”. DressX’s co-founder Daria Shapovalova goes further, comparing digital fashion with luxury fashion’s entry-point products such as lipsticks and fragrances, increasing accessibility to a brand and widening its reach and influence.
Brands can leverage digital apparel to tap into a broad audience without producing a single physical garment. This has especially appealed to smaller brands looking to seed influencers with less costly 3D virtual garments instead of actual clothing. In addition, the collaborative nature of virtual fashion—which requires input from different companies, each specialising in unique tools and technologies—enriches the cross-disciplinary platforms that could easily give rise to innovations that will further boost this nascent industry. And consumers benefit too; the digital realm opens new possibilities for designers, with styles that would not be possible in the real world, finding their place naturally online. Direct-to-consumer multi-label brand Farfetch launched its Pre-Order service for brands on its roster such as Off-White and Balenciaga, in partnership with DressX and Threedium, producing realistic 3D renderings for the first fully-digital influencer and editorial campaigns last year.
Even global fashion weeks have dabbled in digital couture. The Fabricant collaborated with Australian Fashion Week, creating the Afterpay Digi-Couture experience where visitors could try on a specially-designed virtual garment in a digital dressing booth. Visitors then had their photos taken by a fashion photographer who sent the images to digital fashion retail platform DressX. There, the Animator Overcoat—a digital garment cued by the 1999 sci-fi film The Matrix—was fitted for every person. DressX then e-mailed the digitally dressed photo back to the wearer to share across their social channels, creating an organic marketing campaign that extended beyond Australian Fashion Week.
Last year, independent luxury concept store Machine-A, in partnership with The Institute of Digital Fashion, launched a digital rendering of its Soho boutique through an AR Instagram filter. The public were encouraged to access the digital experience via QR codes, made visible on billboards around central London. Once scanned, people could access the live experimental showing of autumn/winter 2021 collections from various designers including Richard Quinn and Martine Rose. Beyond the fashion shows, the virtual shop also featured works-in-progress along with personal messages from each designer explaining their inspiration behind each product. The digital interface allowed for immediate feedback by the public on product prototypes and greater access to what is normally a closed-door process, encouraging a more engaged approach between consumer and designer.
"Brands can leverage digital apparel to tap into a broad audience without producing a single physical garment. This has especially appealed to smaller brands looking to seed influencers with less costly 3D virtual garments instead of actual clothing."
FASHION GOES HIGH TECH
As to the designs that are morphing in the digital realm, Instagram (owned by Meta) has become a launchpad for digital artists showcasing their works to a larger audience. Franco Palioff is an Argentinian 3D virtual artist based in Berlin who creates incredible digital 3D art and renderings under the handle @francopalioff. He created a 3D-focused AR filter for the Lucas Leão fashion show in Brazil, the first time such a thing was launched in the country. VR/AR tools by talented artists should lead to an expansion of digital fashion pieces that would not be possible as apparel in real life, broadening the creative scope of how we now define fashion.
Bridging that gap between the fantastical and the wearable, one immediately thinks of Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, whose technologically innovative designs have been exploring the capabilities of clothing, the body and technology since launching her eponymous brand in 2007. Van Herpen’s designs subliminally transcend the possibilities of couture with technical virtuosity, creating collections that are physical manifestations of the incredible (her autumn/winter 2018/19 Syntopia collection in collaboration with Studio Drift’s Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta comes to mind). Closer inspection reveals the unparalleled creativity, engineering and technical prowess and perfectionist approach leveraged by her and her team. More recently, Ryunosuke Okazaki, whose ready-to-wear spring 2022 collection debuted at Tokyo Fashion Week, is another designer whose creations look as though they have emerged directly from digital renderings. Subliminal swirls and layers cover his models as they seem to float across the runway amid a delicate miasma of wearable sculptures, bridging the gap between the fantastical and the real with a sartorial flourish. One hopes that the introduction of more tools to make digital fashion creation more accessible, resulting in a richer and more diverse community of artists and designers, will, in turn, give rise to more inclusive fashion viewpoints.
THE GAME IS AFOOT
Brands teaming up with gaming companies to launch in-app virtual clothing isn’t new, but it’s become more common in recent years. The technology’s improved, which accounts for one reason. And another is that, well, so many people play games online. Millions! And all those eyeballs riveted in-game make for a marketer’s wet dream. Imagine laser-focused attention on your brand across a specific demographic that you can target with pinpoint accuracy. The 2019 League of Legends World Championship in South Korea had 99.6 million viewers. As part of the event, Qiyana and Senna, two League of Legends champions, were dressed in in-game Prestige skins designed by Louis Vuitton’s artistic director of women’s collections, Nicolas Ghesquière. The same skins were available for players to purchase during the championships.
Last year, Gucci showcased a two-week-long virtual Gucci Garden space on Roblox to celebrate its 100th anniversary, coinciding with the real-world Gucci Garden Archetypes launch unveiled in Florence, Italy. Visitors could purchase and wear exclusive Gucci virtual items directly in the experience, creating a whole new revenue stream and market potential for the Italian brand, collaborating with other popular virtual games like The Sims, Animal Crossing and Tennis Clash. Meanwhile, industry behemoth Epic Games just announced it is joining forces with Balenciaga and its creative director Demna to create exclusive outfits for Fortnite’s 400 million users after the brand debuted its virtual fashion game Afterworld.
But what about merch?
"One hopes that the introduction of more tools to make digital fashion creation more accessible, resulting in a richer and more diverse community of artists and designers, will, in turn, give rise to more inclusive fashion viewpoints."
Adidas’s partnership with NFT brand Bored Ape Yacht Club, NFT collector GMoney and Punks Comic, an NFT comic series drawn by Chris Wahl for Marvel and DC Comics, came hot on the heels of Nike’s partnership with Roblox to create Nikeland—an immersive 3D virtual experience on the popular gaming platform. Nike also announced its acquisition of virtual shoe company RTFKT for an undisclosed amount. The metaverse-first company creates highly collectable digital products that merge culture and gaming through innovative and cutting-edge technology and was founded just last year.
The speed at which cryptocurrency-based application Web3 is evolving and the kinds of activations and partnerships created make this an exciting time for brands quick on the uptake.
Apparel brands looking to enter the metaverse need to do their research to find a company that specialises in digital fashion in a way that aligns with their vision and brand DNA. For consumers, this means an expanded range of products that might be more accessible than the company’s core products, including virtual editions of high-end luxury pieces at a fraction of the price, such as the Gucci Virtual 25 sneaker that launched at USD12.99 on the brand’s app. Or it might mean a limited physical item offering to a dedicated and loyal fanbase. After all, why stop at digital when customers could also access a physical rendition of their virtual purchases?
Last year, RTFKT launched a series of NFT wearable footwear that included access to forge a complementary pair of real-world physical sneakers for owners of the NFT brand CryptoPunks. Ten thousand of these highly covetable pairs of shoes were produced—one for each CryptoPunk holder. Meanwhile, Under Armour’s virtual sneaker collection—the Genesis Curry Flow NFTs launched last year at USD333—is now going for five figures on NFT marketplace OpenSea.
The gamified experience will probably be the most popular route, so shoppers can expect to see more brands teaming up with artists and games to provide a more immersive experience beyond just click-to-buy.
Gap recently announced that it will be launching NFTs in the form of a series of digital hoodie art, with different levels of rarity at different price points. Rare and epic tiers will be rolled out. Gap is partnering with American artist Brandon Sines, creator of the Frank Ape cartoon character, and is pushing out the gamified experience to encourage fans to purchase and collect the NFT hoodies.
And collaboration is key. Making a move into the metaverse means a lot of moving parts and it pays to work with the right companies who have experience in virtual gaming and marketing activations. Nothing is worse than an application or activation that doesn’t deliver what it promises or glitches.
Things are moving fast—artificial intelligence body modelling company Bold Metrics just unveiled the world’s first Body Data NFT technology for users to mint their own body data NFTs. According to the press release: “Shoppers with a Bold Metrics Body Data NFT in their Coinbase, MetaMask or other Ethereum wallets can instantly get apparel size recommendations on websites, access in-store concierge services, and generate avatars for use in popular Metaverses like Decentraland and The Sandbox.” (Full disclosure: The author also works with Bold Metrics.) If successful, this creates a seamless shopping experience between the virtual realm and real-life where with a click you get your selected apparel made to exactly your measurements.
Think of it as made-to-order, coming to a metaverse near you.
The virtual realms and digital fashion at the moment are full of potential but still in their early stages. That kid—you know the one—he who called out the king’s nakedness, he and others like him will still be around.
But if brands, artists and innovation play their cards right, it can result in a fashion metaverse for everybody (even the kid who called him out). Except, it would be, in a weird way, tangible and real. Only time, and tech, will tell.