Singapore-based Unmatereality is a company that specialises in creating interactive virtual assets and avatars. And it wants to take this symbiotic relationship further by creating an immersive digital realm with ADA—a specially-crafted virtual universe in which fashion is one of many digital assets that are both uniquely accessible and addictively gamified.
Esquire Singapore caught up with Andy Ku, the charismatic CEO of Unmatereality, via a Zoom booth in Seoul in April last year to find out how the company plans to become the world’s largest repository of digitally-rendered goods.
ESQUIRE: Hi Andy, how’s it going, and where are you now?
ANDY KU: I am in Seoul, Korea. I’ve been stuck here for the past six months.
ESQ: Where is your team based?
ANDY: We are a Singapore-based company but most [of our] developers are based in Korea. The biggest R&D Centre is in Seoul, and we also have some offices in Beijing, a small office in Paris, and another small development studio in Rotterdam. We also have a person based in LA now… and I still need more people! Since April we have been getting all these inquiries and requests from the brands, and recently we have launched a Balmain virtual showroom which I believe is the first interactive, real-time based time based virtual showroom.
There have been a few attempts to create (virtual showrooms) But they have been mainly in video presentation format, which for us it’s not very challenging. Because both I and my entire development team come from a gaming background, we really care about making everything real-time-based, controllable, and interactive, which is not what the video format does. So that’s where we think the challenges are. Along with what is interesting and fun. That’s our expertise and we can also add on extra gamification layers.
ESQ: Were there any unforeseen challenges since you guys were launching something so new?
ANDY: When we launched the Balmain showroom, it was really successful and Balmain was super happy. But the timeline that we had for this will shock you. The deadline was June 14 but the actual final female key looks were only done on June 11th. So we had literally two and a half days to go and scan, digitise everything and make it into an interactive function. All in two and a half days [laughs].
ESQ: Welcome to fashion time. That’s pretty much how the fashion industry works [laughs]. How did you get to be co-founder and CEO of Unmatereality?
ANDY: It actually goes back to 2010 or 2011, more than 10 years ago when I launched an online-based fashion game. Even back then we had the world’s best outfit technology and our business model was selling [astounding] virtual fashion. Back then it was all designed in-house, so it was all our own label in our own designs. That was our business model for this fashion game, and we did really well, averaging USD83 per user on a monthly basis. The game was launched in eight different countries and South Korea was our biggest market.
We did well and I ended up selling this company to one of the biggest game companies. This was when I had the idea about incorporating real luxury brands and digitising their fashion to sell as virtual items, what I call ‘virtual commerce’. We believe that we could increase our USD83 average spend to USD120. But this was back in 2012 and I didn’t know anybody in the fashion industry and I couldn’t get anywhere with the local or APAC offices for the brands so we gave up on that. And we just keep selling our white label in-house designed virtual items and eventually, I sold the company and left in 2013.
In 2016, I met one of my partners Elizabeth (von Guttman). She had all the right connections and access to luxury brand houses because she was also the publisher of an offline magazine called System. With Elizabeth and Alexia (Niedzielski) I decided to found a new company similar to what I had done previously but focusing on the mobile platform and working with real luxury brands.
We have the know-how and the technology already so we were able to put together quick, beautiful looking demos for the brands and through the introduction of Elizabeth, I finally had the opportunity to meet the right people at the luxury brands. We made progress one by one and convinced the brands and now we have over 40 top luxury brands on board with us.
ESQ: What are some of these big brand names?
ANDY: We have Dior, FENDI from LVMH, Gucci from Kering, Prada, Moncler, Sacai, Thom Browne… A lot of interesting young rising brands as well, l like Marine Serre and Alyx. And we are adding more brands on a weekly basis.
ESQ: So ADA is currently in its testing stage?
ANDY: It’s currently in the beta stage in China. We have an interesting joint venture partnership with Sina Weibo in China, And we’re going to have a vigorous soft launch Testing but by September, I believe, there will be a full-scale launch in China, Korea, and a few other territories including Singapore. And we expect to roll out globally including to the US and the European Union soon.
ESQ: I think a lot of people are excited to join in, especially due to COVID-19 forcing people to be stuck at home for the foreseeable future.
ANDY: The next big market for brands and fashion is not China but the virtual world. If you think about it, the luxury brands are only able to monetise from a small percentage of the population that is privileged enough to be able to afford the pieces. If you flip it, it means that they have not yet been able to monetise from the other 99 percent of the population. So with the new business model selling fashion as a virtual good, which I think will become a legitimate asset class, It is now an opportunity for these brands to capture from everybody now in this virtual economy. This is also potentially the most sustainable and eco-friendly business model that any fashion brand could ever enjoy going forward.
ESQ: I like the idea of being able to combine sustainability with producing more fashion assets. That’s something new. Usually, it's the reverse.
ANDY: [Brands] can also launch this first and collect the user data and then use that data to become very selective about what you bring into actual production. And you can reduce waste as much as possible through user testing and user data.
The fashion industry didn’t really have the luxury of meaningful data, especially in the pre-product stage or during the launch stage, so this is another way for them to gain meaningful user data before they even go into production and bring it to the stores.
ESQ: But that’s it, isn’t it? Data is the new currency because it enables you to produce according to demand, to empower mass customisation and allow you to produce something that someone actually wants, at a price that they are willing to pay. Not to mention being able to know so much about the individuals in your community that it allows brands to really target customers and position themselves effectively. That seems like an efficient way to get a better experience for both sides.
ANDY: That’s right. It is a brand new revenue stream for the fashion industry, Which I think is an untapped market and will be just as big as the real commerce opportunity as an untapped future.
ESQ: Can users actually buy pieces of clothing that they see in real life or is it only in the virtual world?
ANDY: Users always have the option to buy the actual items. When they want to buy real goods, we link them up to partners or brands and their e-commerce sites. On the brand side, we offer brand new revenue streams by converting their designs to virtual assets and selling them as virtual items. At the same time, it is free marketing and a traffic booster to their eCommerce sites.
ESQ: I’m sure brands will like this a lot, that it’s not just in-game, but also a whole universe you've created that extends beyond the virtual realm. So you can do something in the game, but there’s also the potential to do something in real life at the stores.
ANDY: Yes, and it’s not just you and your avatar, we also provide a room that you can personalise. It is all about individual expression through your avatar and how you dress and the kind of furniture pieces you choose. It extends not just into fashion but also into a whole lifestyle.
ESQ: Do you work with furniture brands or other industries as well?
ANDY: We would love to. That’s our next target: furniture, and even cars and electronics manufacturers… We are starting with fashion but we are going to expand into these different areas. There are so much that we can do and in the end, the goal of the company is also to become the number one library holder of digital goods based on real goods. You come to find all the virtual versions of fashion, cars, daily life goods… anything that is tangible. Even humans. There is a function where you can actually hang out and engage with your favourite celebrities.
ESQ: Think about how it would be 50 years from now if you look back, you'd an entire virtual repository of what people’s lives were like. Unmatereality would have all that information.
ANDY: That's right and the way that we find out about how people work or what people do is through data collection and we know what people are consuming and what they are interested in, not only in fashion but in anything else. And this has become one of the biggest testbeds for all companies that are about to launch anything or introduce anything to the world.
I want every company to come to us first and launch (their new products) digitally first, get the meaningful data before launching in the real world. I want this to be a testbed and platform for all brands and all companies out there and at the same time, we also always provide additional revenue streams to our partners.
ESQ: What about celebrities? Or famous athletes?
ANDY: We have been digitising some of the celebrities and their digital versions can stay within the world of the avatars and start making money. We have a lot of different business models. Digital versions of all celebs can already start generating revenue, so you don’t actually have to work anymore. Instead, the digital version will do all the work and you just collect payment [laughs]—it’s a revenue share model. They don’t have to age either.
ESQ: It feels like a sci-fi story come to life. And not in the distant future but right now. Will there be integration with the other social media channels as well?
ANDY: Yes, any content the user creates can instantly be shared to their social media, Facebook, WeChat, Instagram, Weibo… Of course, we would like to work with other social media as well. We are not competing with anybody else, you know, we are working with everybody and we are enhancing their business. It’s all about a win-win situation.
ESQ: Essentially, you’re creating a platform for a new generation of creatives.
ANDY: We're actually working with selected designers to create digital-only fashion pieces for us. We are in the R&D stage but, as you said before, we want to make this a platform where anyone can create their own designs and submit them or create a look and become a digital fashion designer, or even create their own brands on this platform.
We want to be the pioneers and we want to be the ones paving the way and I don’t mind that someone builds a similar thing. I’m more interested in defining and creating the next way and a new business model and how people interact with others and how they buy things online. Our efforts are to create and define the next culture.
ESQ: So how do users connect with each other?
ANDY: Think of it as a 3D Instagram. We have a very similar social function, just like Instagram, and we can visit each other’s rooms and there are places where we showcase other people and the content that they create, or through the game interactions. You can go to your friend’s room and visit them, follow other people and be followed, just like on Instagram.
I’m just grateful to be able to make a positive impact and change in the fashion industry. If you think about how the fashion industry conducts its services in general it hasn’t changed properly in many centuries. Finally it’s time and it may be kind of ironic that someone like us who has no fashion background should be making this kind of disruption.