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Fashion in the Metaverse

Updated: Jan 16, 2022

For now, the metaverse is still just a twinkle in the eyes of sci-fi authors, tech entrepreneurs and digital artists. Is digital fashion even relevant to the meta-discussion?

Woman with sunglasses standing in a virtual game urban environment

Getting dressed for next-gen reality

Mark Zuckerberg said the word metaverse so many times during his long and slightly unsettling presentation at Facebook Connect that the sound of his voice has been haunting our subconscious ever since. But despite Mark's best efforts, much of the world isn't convinced of the awesomeness of the metaverse just yet.

It's hard, after all, to get excited about the "next evolution of social connection", as the company formerly known as Facebook claims on their website, when there's no timeline in place for its creation, and when a mega-corp is attempting to reassure us that "the metaverse will be a collective project...created by people all over the world" while at the same time literally rebranding themselves as Meta.

Although the term is occasionally used interchangeably with the internet, the metaverse most of us are talking about these days - that limitless, all-encompassing digital universe - only exists in theory. And as is so frustratingly often the case, the technology we need to build the metaverse hasn't yet reached the same level of sophistication as we would like it to.

Digital identities and cyber styles

So what about digital fashion? We might not be there quite yet, but if the metaverse everyone’s dreaming about were to be built sometime in the future and used by a majority of the digitally literate population, then the digital fashion being designed and "worn" today would be laying the philosophical and technical groundwork for how we interact with fashion in that brave new virtual world.

While fashion as an industry is notoriously slow at adapting to new trends like inclusivity or having a sense of humor, even the most traditional of luxury houses have begun to recognize the potential of digital fashion. It seems the fashion industry doesn't want to miss the boat this time: Nike recently acquired RTFKT, and Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton have released digital collections to be worn in games like Fortnite and League of Legends.

There's no more convincing to be done anymore. We might not yet be jacking into a virtual world, opening our virtual closets, and dressing our avatars for the day, but digital fashion is already all around us.

There are plenty of ways to express style and visual identity online, including:

  • Live streaming - from shopping TV to casual GRWM (get ready with me) streams

  • Following virtual influencers and their communities

  • Using AR technology to enhance static images

  • Buying skins in-game

  • Buying digital garments to be 'worn' in photos on social media

  • Starting and organizing a collection of fashion NFTs

  • Experimenting with digital makeup AR overlays

  • Viewing textile and art collections in virtual museum exhibitions

  • Browsing through digital fashion archives

...the list goes on.

Comforting sci-fi escapism

The discussion on digital fashion, which went mainstream in 2021, is very exciting, and not just to the shareholders this burgeoning industry promises to deliver insane sums of money to. Far more interesting to academics and creators is digital fashion's capacity for providing an outlet for creative self-expression, as well as how its aesthetics reflect a changing world.

Unbound by physical restrictions, digital fashion can defy notions of reality and transform its wearer in a way that real clothing cannot. Designers have more control than ever before. They can design based on new parameters, like time. A digital garment could change its appearance over two or three years, or evolve before our very eyes like a Pokémon.

Aesthetically speaking, much of digital fashion is inspired by the visual cultures of science fiction with some some modern twists thrown in. Since the world is excited by the otherworldly nature of digital fashion, most garments seem to fall somewhere between having the shiny, futuristic feel of outfits designed for space travel or the black-and-neon punky looks that people in the 80s thought hackers would be wearing in 2020.

In fact, the "sci-fi everything" hype has also visually manifested itself in IRL collections from houses like Salvatore Ferragamo, Balmain and (of course) Balenciaga - and after a year of inescapable references to the metaverse and blockbuster film releases like Dune and The Matrix Resurrections, this trend seems likely to continue in 2022.

Is the metaverse the final frontier for fashion?

Digital fashion is shiny, exciting, and new. But like most shiny, exciting and new things, that also means digital fashion has the potential to distract us from bigger problems at hand.

And lest we forget while we're busy oo-ing and aah-ing over headlines like this, fashion has caused the world a lot of big problems we're supposed to be focusing on right now. You'd be excused for wondering why, if unwanted garments are piling up in landfills and business is booming for ultra-fast fashion companies - among a long list of other planet-and-society-harming offenses - we're not focusing our innovative energy on developing technologies that can help change society for the better, like green-tech solutions for tackling waste and supply chain issues.

The cynical answer to that question is thus: the metaverse represents a whole new world for companies to promote an entirely new category of products in. After all, a universe of endless dimensions owned by Mark Zuckerberg or any other tech billionaire with his fingers in the pie would no doubt be full to the brim with virtual ad space. It's no surprise that as other corners of the internet are becoming increasingly insusceptible to the digital marketing tactics that have buoyed sales across many industries for the past decade, fashion companies might view the metaverse as a light at the end of the post-covid-slump tunnel.

It's hard to get excited about digital fashion's future potential if you think the metaverse is going to be similar to the real world in all the wrong ways, like if it becomes a place where the wealthy can modify and tweak their surroundings to suit their liking while the rest of us are treated as an afterthought - or worse, as abundant fountains of data to be profited off of. That's why, as digital fashion is still in its infant stages, it's incredibly important that consumers and creators have a say in defining its appearance, functionality, and cultural and social significance going forward.

Fashion is a valuable part of society, a means of personal expression, and a way to appreciate and share our cultural heritage; it can be a costume or a disguise, give us a sense of belonging and community, and be as fantastical or real as we want it to be. Whether our virtual and physical realities will be completely merged in the years to come, making it hard for us to discern reality from fiction - or making it hard for future generations to understand why anyone ever cared about splitting those two realms of existence in the first place - or whether the metaverse turns out to be nothing more than an overhyped tech bro fever dream that everyone is eager to leave behind as we emerge into a delectably tactile, post-pandemic era defined by a desire to wear luxurious textiles, one thing is certain: physical and digital fashion will peacefully coexist to inspire and bring joy to human beings everywhere.

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