I hover on a red carpet in front of the Royal Albert Hall in London. The cameras explode in flashes. A great hubbub surrounds me. I pose hard, sporting the sharp white tuxedo I chose for the British Fashion Council’s annual Fashion Awards ceremony, my fluffy pink tail sticking out of the Bianca Jagger-inspired look.
Yes, you read that right: my tail. In a surreal twist, I witness a simulacrum of the ceremony in the metaverse, the social-meets-gam-ing virtual landscape where so many trendy things seem to be happening these days: from Balenciaga’s excursion to Fortnite to a virtual experience of the Gucci Garden. And the appearance I chose is that of a pink squirrel-like creature with, I discover, a squirrel’s propensity to climb on every object it comes in contact with. As I walked around the room, listening to the host of the evening, Billy Porter, intoning “Fashion is culture! from the scene and the impulse purchase of a Gucci baseball cap (which costs me 100 Robux, aka the currency of Roblox, the gaming app I use), I have a weird flashback to the in-person fashion events I used to attend in the heyday of early 2020.
Granted, they don’t hold a candle to reality, but for millions of users, these virtual platforms are a way to feel part of the exclusive world of fashion and to use style to experiment in a way that real-world limitations may not allow. According to Christina Wootton, Vice President of Global Brand Partnerships at Roblox, “A lot of times when you hear people who’ve experienced it virtually, they talk about it like they’re actually there.” (Increasingly, the virtual and the real are colliding: The evening also included a new award for metaverse design, presented by a digital Alessandro Michele. This year’s recipient: a well-known Roblox user and digital fashion designer as cSapphire.)
While many associate the metaverse with Mark Zuckerberg’s one-on-one time with his virtual avatar, the term is actually 30 years old. It was coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson to describe virtual reality space that mimics physical space. For some participants, these interactions are a way to experience not only style, but also identity. Users can choose from several male and female avatars to explore their gender identity and can customize their height and body proportions, says Maura Welch, vice president of marketing at Together Labs, a technology company that operates the platform. IMVU metaverse.
Last spring, seven brands, including Collina Strada and Mowalola, presented their collections as part of what the media likes Paper billed as the first Metaverse Parade. The platform has 200,000 active creators; for the show, each designer was paired with a designer. (Collina Strada’s design even found its way into the real world, via a dress that designer Hillary Taymour debuted on the platform and then designed IRL for Kim Petras to wear to the Met Gala.) broadens the audience and allows people who can’t drop that money on fashion to be able to experience it,” says Welch. “It’s super stimulating.”
Empowering, perhaps. But it’s also kind of weird, as someone who’s been immersed in tactile fashion for a decade and a half, to move through this imaginary space as if I’ve been uploaded into the consciousness of a Philip K. Dick character. . It doesn’t feel natural to interact with people as an imaginary character on a screen. Welch challenges me to consider how much I already do. “If you think about how much time you spend in your digital space versus your real space,” she points out, the former is starting to trump the latter for many of us.
We may not dress up as fashion-forward pink squirrels, but we fiddle with details or create new identities online, whether it’s changing our Zoom backgrounds, customizing our Tinder photos or retouching our appearances on video calls. “If you ask someone from Gen Z whether a friend has been made online or in real life, they actually see no difference,” she adds. And during the pandemic, IMVU’s ranks of active users have increased by nearly half, suggesting that people are flocking to the metaverse as a social space.
For some, it’s a kind of style utopia without rules. Maybe you’re not comfortable dressing in the clothes you want to wear, or you’re worried about what people will say; the metaverse removes much of that friction. “The more time you spend in this virtual space, the more important your online identity becomes,” says Wootton. “You can come in and say, ‘I want this to look like me in the real world’, or maybe you want it to be completely different. It’s great to be able to do that without worrying about how people will react. people, because a lot of people on the platform are so much more tolerant and that’s where you experiment and express yourself in different ways.
Metaverse advocates also see it as a way to finally do what is much talked about: fixing fashion. While there are concerns about its energy consumption, the estate is otherwise sustainable, waste-free, and infinitely renewable, without the environmental and labor costs associated with fast fashion. For designers, especially young aspirants, it’s also a win. There are, after all, no supply chain issues in the metaverse. You don’t need an expensive degree or expensive bolts of fabric to start creating. And you can get instant feedback, says Welch: “If you publish something in the catalog, you’ll know right away: what do people like, what don’t they like? They will tell you. Netizens are particularly interested in customization, which is shaping up to be the new couture, with e-workshops packed with wannabes.
After making my Fashion Awards debut, I spend day two in the metaverse as two very different entities. First, I’m a blank-faced model, visiting the Gucci Garden on Roblox in a developer’s intricately pixelated recreation of Florence. I wander through space, collecting flowers for my head, then a Matrix-like maze of neon lights, where I collect stripes for my outfit. Digital versions of products from the Italian house are also offered.
When the experiment started, Wootton told me, “People were setting their alarms because they were just like, ‘I can’t miss this drop. , where prices were sometimes higher than in the real world. Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit tweeted on the fact that a virtual version of the house’s Dionysus bag, the physical version of which is priced at $3,400, was resold for the equivalent of $4,115, adding: “Watch this space”.
Then I indulge my sporty side at the Ralph Lauren Winter Escape pop-up. This time, I’m a generic athletic, wearing a Polo-branded parka, doing a series of wholesome activities meant to generate “joy,” which serves as sort of a bargaining chip in this space. I jump on rocks, ice skate, roast marshmallows and sip Ralph’s Coffee. Alice Delahunt, the brand’s director of digital and content, notes that even though the technology seems state-of-the-art, the designer has always been focused on building the world. “When you walked into a flagship store like 888 Madison Avenue, you were transported to the Double RL Ranch” — the designer’s Colorado getaway — or an Aspen or Round Hill cabin in Jamaica, she says. “We think it’s the perfect brand to exist in the metaverse.”
Even though this all seems incredibly far from reality – and lacks some of the texture of real-life interactions, not to mention the sensual pleasure of wearing clothes and evaluating the appearance of others – it could soon be our reality. What the Metaverse lacks in daily friction, it makes up for in other ways. And as we continue to replace physical interactions with digital ones, that might start to feel more normal than doing things in person.
“The same way we looked at websites maybe 15 to 20 years ago, now we need to look at the metaverse and understand what our strategy is there,” Delahunt says. And this strategy translates into real dollars: the brand has already sold 164,000 digital products on the Zepeto platform. She points to the blue ski sweater she’s wearing: “What really excites me about the digital world is: Is it changing over time? Does it change and adapt to my context, my environment, my mood? Did I earn something for wearing it a certain number of times and therefore unlock the next level of a community activity? (I could definitely monetize the latter, depending on how often I repeat the outfits in the actual verse.)
The possibilities are endless, and not just online. As established designers journey into the metaverse and virtual creators dip their toes into the real world, it all becomes a feedback loop. Which means you might see cSapphire’s wares strutting down a runway near you one day.
This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of SHE.
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