In March 2022, the first virtual fashion week was held in Decentraland. According to Enterpreneur.com, Metaverse Fashion Week (MVFW) drew 108,000 unique visitors across the four days. A new wave of designers is reimagining fashion as a digital space. They use games, apps, NFT, and virtual influencers to design and monetize their pieces. What was once a tactile and material sector is now extending into the metaverse. A new visual culture is forming, and perhaps even an entirely new posthuman aesthetic. Think of the digital fashion of Auroboros and The Fabricant, or the virtual streetwear in Ready Player Me. Virtual fashion has a long history the past decades in games such as Second Life and The Sims. Players designed beautiful outfits and skins, and shared these on virtual market places. By now, fashion designers are learning to craft digital haute couture.
What’s the use of virtual fashion? For one, it allows us to express our digital identity in new ways. That’s important, since we spent more and more of our time online. Dresses and apparel can be designed in radically new ways in the metaverse. New textures, moving dresses, different shapes – virtual fashion does not have to abide by the laws of nature and gravity. In that sense, it can also be more inclusive, since it can be separated from our physical bodies.
Digital fashion can be artistic, otherworldly and impressive. A current exhibit of virtual fashion in Design Museum Den Bosch on Screenwear shows alien models, virtual influencers like Shudu Gram and the NFT haute couture by The Fabricant. Any type of avatar can wear these pixel outfits, from virtual influencers to fictional characters and real-life models. How is this trend enfolding, and where is it taking us?
Mediating Luxury Brands
In 2021, Gucci designed a digital pair of sneakers called The Gucci Virtual 25. It could be worn in an AR app, as well as in Roblox and VRChat. The sneakers were quite affordable compared to the brands regular pricing, and ranged from $8.99 to $12.99 depending on the app in which they were purchased.
Gucci is not the only brand that has experimented with virtual fashion. Today, brands can also team up with metaverse applications. Ralph Lauren has partnered with Fortnite to create a fashion collection. As stated in Vogue: ‘The US brand has designed in-game clothing for Fortnite that will feature the brand’s polo player sitting atop Fortnite’s llama logo on digital fashion pieces including two “Polo 1991” jumpsuits. Physical merch including sweaters and polo shirts, some with the reimagined logo and others inspired by digital skins on Fortnite’.
Fornite’s Ralph Lauren collaboration is an affordable one. That fits the game, which is especially popular with younger audiences. The digital pieces are sold for the equivalent of circa $10 while the physical pieces range from $59.50 to $188. Fashion that might be out of reach for consumers in real life, thereby becomes more accessible in the metaverse.
Other brands collaborate with avatar creation tools, such as Bitmoji or Ready Player Me. Adidas for instance created Ozworld avatars in collaboration with Ready Player Me, as a “a unique offering generated based on individual personalities rather than physical appearances.” The pieces can be embedded in VR chat, Somnium Space and many other digital spaces. Consumers could create and claim their avatar on ozworld.adidas.com, which sadly went offline a while ago. The campaign launched in parallel with the physical Ozworld collection, and was also part of its branding.
To certify this digital fashion, many brands turn to NFT’s. Earlier this year, Nike also released a collection of virtual sneakers, Cryptokicks. It consisted of 20,000 virtual sneakers, certified as NFTs. One sneaker, designed by the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami made the news when it was bought for $134,000.
The value of NFT sneakers is described well by Design Museum Den Bosch: ‘Such a sneaker is a unique digital “non-fungible token” (NFT), a concept that is increasingly common in the art and fashion world. The digital shoe can be saved and later sold or worn by gamers in the metaverse – the entire network of all virtual worlds, Artificial Realities and the Internet.’
Digital fashion doesn’t necessarily have to be paired with blockchain, but many brands choose to do so at the moment. The idea behind this is that NFT’s allow users to truly own these assets, trade them, resell them and have them certified on the blockchain. From this perspectives, these digital items are more than collectibles and online accessories, but also circulate as assets that can be used and owned in multiple apps.
Designing Digital Couture
Digital fashion doesn’t always need a real-life counterpart. Some designers focus exclusively on the digital market, such as the virtual fashion house The Fabricant, based on Amsterdam. They made the first fashion NFT which was worn by Johanna Jaskowska and sold on the Ethereum blockchain for an equivalent of $9.500. The Fabricant creates unique collections and uses digital tools to their advantage. In collaboration with virtual shoe designer RTFKT they designed a gender-fluid fashion line, inspired by the Renaissance, called RenaiXance. They describe the collection as:
“RenaiXance asks us to challenge the status quo through the digital world. The collection includes 9 NFTs each rich with their own folklore, based on gaming characters but remixing their aesthetic to correspond to The Fabricant’s ‘Pluriform’ design philosophy. Our belief is that fashion should be fluid and genderless – in the digital terrain we can express multiple selves and identities.”
The collection features pieces named after videogames and avatars, such as Kratos look, Hero look, Jack look. While the collection aims to be genderless, the names seem to be references to male avatars, such as Kratos from God of War. The designs, meanwhile, have long skirts, crop tops and dresses with different pieces of armor and chainmail. Masculine and feminine are blended, but only to an extent.
The vision of The Fabricant is to create a new language in digital fashion: “The real value of 3D is that it enables us to be way more creative and to create situations that we haven’t previously seen, which allows for this new aesthetic language; a new way of expressing our creativity that really speaks to young, digitally savvy audiences,” Murphy told Vogue Business.
Digital fashion houses and fashion designers are steadily emerging, many of them focused on creating pieces for the metaverse. An interesting initiative is IKON-1 by Nick Knight, one of the world’s most leading fashion photographers. Knight has always had a passion for the digital and 3D. He recently did a big NFT drop with model and Instagram star Jazelle or @Uglyworldwide. The digital artworks feature not only digital fashion, but also make-up, hair and more created by over 40 innovators, and curated by Knight and Jazelle. These assets resulted in 8,000 one-of-a-kind artworks, which Jazelle has also prominently showcased on her Instagram account. I personally find them very beautiful, and if you go to Design Museum Den Bosch you can also see a documentary around the collection with insights from Knight.
A New Aesthetic
Digital fashion can push the boundaries of the real world. Inspired by digital subcultures and visions of the posthuman, it can enhance our bodies in new ways. The art of Harriet Davey, for example, embraces an otherworldly aesthetic through a non-binary alien avatar. Rather than a digital equivalent or mediation, virtual fashion can be a new aesthetic and language. It has the potential to be a fully new medium and style in its own right. Separated from offline constructs such as gravity, gender, bodies and known textures, digital fashion can be something completely different. Cutting-edge, innovative, and wild. A blend of costumes, animation, crypto and gaming.
This type of fashion has inclusive and sustainable potential. We can be whoever we want to be. Perhaps we cannot afford Gucchi in real life, but we can embrace it in the metaverse. Paired with NFT’s, however, the fashion becomes much less sustainable. Luckily blockchain companies work towards a more environmentally-friendly model, for instance through proof-of-stake. Regardless of blockchain, I do believe that there is potential for digital items and assets. The trend of digital fashion has been here for decades, and it’s finally maturing. Pixel fashion is here to stay.
Thanks to Design Museum Den Bosch for inspiring this short blog on digital fashion