When Mark Zuckerberg announced last October that Facebook was changing its name to Meta, he used a cartoon-like avatar dressed in a skeleton costume to help illustrate this next chapter’s immersive qualities. A crude example of how fashion could function in the metaverse, it was so widely mocked on social media that Meta later tweeted Balenciaga, asking, “What’s the dress code in the metaverse?” A tongue-in-cheek attempt at sartorial relevance, this question is now being asked by many in the industry as digital fashion opens up new possibilities in product innovation, company revenue and self-expression.

As a means of customizing an avatar, digital fashion is nothing new. For many of us, it was introduced during childhood through choosing a player’s outfit while playing a beloved video game. But lately, with the fashion world getting on board, dressing avatars has become increasingly high-end as brands like Louis Vuitton and Sandy Liang create skins and clothing for characters in popular games like League of Legends and Animal Crossing, respectively. But as our virtual lives continue to expand, so too will the definition of digital fashion. In 2022, it has already grown beyond avatar apparel to include everything from the digital design of real-world clothing to clothing design that’s sold as an NFT (non-fungible token) to digital clothing that’s rendered onto real people.

Brands are already investing big in digital fashion through the current craze for NFTs, which are digital assets that represent real world objects like art or clothing that are bought and sold online. In January, Gap introduced its first NFTs in a limited-edition drop of collectible hoodie art created in partnership with Brandon Sines, the artist who created Frank Ape—a mythical creature that embodies positivity and a familiar face in New York City street art. “As part of our mission to create enduring customer relationships, our teams are constantly innovating,” said John Strain, Gap’s chief digital and technology officer, in a press release. With its rarest NFTs going for US$435, they’re also fetching a far higher price tha what you’d find in Gap’s bricks-and-mortar stores. And in December, Nike acquired NFT fashion start-up RTFKT (pronounced “artifact”), valued at some $42 million, for an undisclosed amount. “This acquisition is another step that accelerates Nike’s digital transformation and allows us to serve athletes and creators at the intersection of sport, creativity, gaming and culture,” Nike president John Donahoe said in a press release.

Digital fashion is a natural fit for brands (like Nike and Gap) that trade in youth culture, but it has also become a playground for some legacy fashion houses. Leading the digital runway revolution is the aforementioned Balenciaga, whose creative director, Demna Gvasalia, has long been lauded for using fashion as a communication tool. Keeping pace with the digital world, Balenciaga both launched a collaboration with video game Fortnite and staged a deepfake fashion show last year. Titled “Clones,” it was a CGI production starring Gvasalia’s long-time muse, artist Eliza Douglas, whose face was scanned onto models wearing the (real) collection. “Now, at Balenciaga, I think we’ve established the fundamentals to start and to continue to work the right way. We now work with other creative mediums of expression like communications and digital, and this is a huge part of the success of the label,” Gvasalia said in an interview with vogue.fr.


Of course, going virtual hasn’t been without growing pains. In January, when artist Mason Rothschild introduced a MetaBirkin NFT—a fuzzy digital interpretation of Hermès’ most iconic handbag—the French house fired back with a cease-and-desist letter, citing the protection of “Hermès’ commercial interest in its trademarks.” In response, the creator did what any digital native would do and posted on Instagram, writing, “There is a moving tide of innovation and evolution, and it is your role as a fashion powerhouse to amplify young creatives and artists rather than stomp them out. Your actions can help determine the future of art in the metaverse.”

Helping traditional brands like Hermès ease into this brave new world are companies such as the Institute of Digital Fashion (IoDF), which has partnered with the likes of Alexander Wang, Selfridges, Nike and Balenciaga. “We are working with brands across art, culture, fashion and tech sectors to create a new vocabulary for the metaverse,” explain IoDF co-founders Cattytay and Leanne-Elliott Young, who are based in London, England, in an email. They point to inclusivity, sustainability and accessibility as some of the advantages that digital fashion has over its physical forebears. “We are diving into the future and [exploring] responsibilities of our industry in the metaverse, working beyond old paradigms to rewrite the fashion narrative and support brands going forward in this new digital arena.”

On a practical level, buying a digital garment from something like DressX, an online shop that trades exclusively in digital fashion, is somewhat easier than buying a physical piece from an e-commerce platform—after all, there will never be a sizing or material-quality risk. After buying a digital garment, the shopper simply uploads a photo of themselves for the seller to apply the garment, manipulating it to the client’s unique body shape and size.

With the number of mobile-augmented-reality (AR) users expected to be in the billions by 2023, and with hands-free AR glasses predicted to become ubiquitous in a few years (Apple is expected to launch its own AR headset this year), digital fashion is just getting started. The widespread adoption of AR will be a huge leap in allowing for a seamless integration of wearing and viewing digital fashion. (Think wearing comfortable, sustainably made loungewear IRL while in the metaverse your AR couture gown is on fire.) Indeed, many virtual fashion designs lean toward the fantastic, featuring otherworldly elements like tentacles, wings or water.

For U.K. designer Roksanda Ilincic, the beauty of the metaverse is that anything is possible. For her fall/winter 2022/2023 presentation at London Fashion Week, Ilincic partnered with the IoDF to create an NFT dress, which is also available in a £5,000 limited-edition 3-D animation render that comes with software files so that an avatar can wear the dress in the metaverse. With Web 3.0 still in its infancy, Ilincic believes that fashion can only enhance the metaverse and those who occupy it. “I would hope that the metaverse can become a place where many different generations and groups of people can find beauty,” she told The Guardian. “Fashion has so much to offer. It brings with it not just glamour but a history of design and creativity, which can make for a richer digital environment.”

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