Demystifying the metaverse and its relationship with fashion

Idiots guide to the metaverse | Soho House

What exactly is the Web3 world and why is the fashion industry so invested in it? We asked the experts to break it down for us

Tuesday 18 October 2022      By Emma McCarthy

Even within the cutting-edge, lightning-fast, agenda-setting world of Planet Fashion, the metaverse is an entirely new frontier. I’ve spent the last 11 years working in the industry – eight as a fashion editor on a newspaper. I know the new-in section of NET-A-PORTER like the back of my hand and can identify a red-carpet creation faster than Google. But ask me anything about the metaverse and I’m struck dumb. And frankly, a little frightened – I feel like I’ve only just got my head around TikTok. 

Although many are reluctant to admit it, I’m not alone. Recently, Susie Lau (aka Susie Bubble) – the OG style influencer who was blogging back when most of today’s YouTube stars were still in nappies – revealed on Instagram that she, too, has ‘been a bit of a metaverse sceptic’, describing it as ‘this great unknown’. In the post, she dons her ‘first on-body dip into wearable digital fash-ons’ – which roughly translates as a mind-bending inflatable flower dress, designed by Central Saint Martins graduate Celine Kwan, in partnership with AR fashion pioneers DRESSX, which exists only as an NFT, bought with cryptocurrency, in the virtual reality of the metaverse. 

As I said, baffled. Yet, everywhere you look, the metaverse is increasingly hard to ignore. According to analysts, its global market value currently stands at $47.48bn and is projected to surpass $678.80bn by 2030. In March, more than 100,000 people attended the first-ever Metaverse Fashion Week on virtual real-estate platform Decentraland (though from what I hear it was a bit of a flop). At the British Fashion Council’s Fashion Awards in December, the inaugural Fashion Award for Metaverse Design was scooped by Roblox designer cSapphire in a nod to the central role digital creators will play in our future, while some of the industry’s biggest names, from Gucci to Balmain, have invested heavily in creating virtual worlds and digital versions of their catwalk collections.

But what is it? Where is it? Why is it? And will it really transform the way we view, wear and consume our clothes? For answers, I turned to Soho House member Leanne Elliott Young, digital strategist and self-anointed ‘metaverse mama’.

Idiots guide to the metaverse | Soho House
Idiots guide to the metaverse | Soho House

What is the metaverse? 

Together with world-leading 3D maker CattyTay, Elliott forms The Institute of Digital Fashion (IoDF) – a platform that seeks to blur the lines between physical and digital to make virtual fashion a reality. Since founding the IoDF in 2020, the duo has joined forces with industry stalwarts such as Balenciaga, Nike and the V&A to demystify the metaverse, closing Roksanda’s LFW show at the Tate Britain with a demi-couture NFT garment and ‘dressing’ supermodel Kristen McMenamy in an AR filter on the red carpet. So, if they can’t tell me what it is, no one can. 

Reassuringly, Elliott says I’m right to be baffled. ‘The biggest issue with the metaverse is the confusion around what it actually is,’ she says. ‘It’s not one place, it’s many – it’s AR and VR, it’s 3D digital spaces, it’s gaming engines, it’s interoperable, and importantly all backed with blockchain. The fact is, it hasn’t even been built yet – this is why it’s so exciting, but also confusing to most.’ 

She uses a good analogy to help explain the concept to technophobes like me: ‘The metaverse is to us what the internet was for our parents or grandparents. Imagine asking anyone at the birth of the internet to predict an iPhone, its usage and its significance.’

‘It’s like the early days of websites,’ says serial entrepreneur Dom Faber, founder and CEO of Yabal and long-time member of Soho House Berlin. He uses another analogy that every ageing millennial can identify with. ‘It’s a bit like The Sims,’ he says, ‘but with real-world impact.’ It is this ‘real-world impact’ that separates the metaverse from the gaming world, which already exists. Yabal, for instance, specialises in live music shows staged in a virtual world. ‘Artists perform live shows as avatars,’ he explains. ‘The artist is really performing at the same moment the fans are watching in the virtual world. Even though they might be thousands of miles away from each other, they feel almost like being in the same room. It gives artists and businesses a new format to bring in global audiences at one large live event.’ 

The misconceptions around the metaverse 

Faber says the most common misconception around the metaverse is ‘that you need a VR headset to enter it’ (to access Yabal’s shows, you ‘just need a web browser and a good internet connection’). 

IoDF’s takeover of London Fashion Week in September also offered attendees a gateway into the metaverse through their smartphones, via QR codes on access points including billboards and physical recycled metal tokens – even Elliott and CattyTay themselves were physically ‘unlockable’. 

Another common misbelief is that it’s created by Facebook/ Meta, with Faber explaining that it’s the work of many developers, each contributing different virtual worlds that will all eventually be connected to create one big metaverse. ‘This means your avatar can buy virtual items in one world and take them into another.’

Idiots guide to the metaverse | Soho House
Idiots guide to the metaverse | Soho House

Fashion and the metaverse

Fashion is a subject I understand well – but what does shopping look like in the metaverse? 
Are people really buying outfits that don’t actually exist? The short answer is yes. So-called digital ‘skins’ have already proven to be a lucrative market in the gaming world, with the market predicted to reach £36bn by the end of 2022 and key platforms such as Fortnite reportedly earning nearly £220m a month in skins alone. 

When you think about it, it’s no coincidence that fashion and the metaverse are happy bedfellows. While fashion is, by its very essence, a physical manifestation, it’s also a means through which we can express, transform and reinvent our identities. The idea that you can be anyone – or anything – in the metaverse is enabled by the ability to alter your appearance. You may live in sweatpants in the real world. But given the choice, would you choose to wear the same in the metaverse? Or next season Prada head to toe? Or maybe even a couture leotard that changes colour with your mood, because why not? 

But while all this may be true, I am no gamer (except from a mild addiction to Candy Crush) and I wouldn’t spend my hard-earned cash buying cool outfits to shoot avatars with rayguns. However, I have been known to dabble with the filters on Snapchat and carefully curate my posts on Instagram. Faber believes that, in the future ‘most of today’s 2D-scrollable feed-based social apps will disappear and be replaced by immersive worlds.’ 

Really, given the next logical step from a mobile computing age to an immersive one, could my perspective change as the visibility of my virtual identity becomes more prominent? I certainly wouldn’t rock up to a fashion show in a bad outfit. Would a virtual one attended by my avatar be any different?

Idiots guide to the metaverse | Soho House
Idiots guide to the metaverse | Soho House

Why now?

Right now, some people are buying NFTs because they’re sold with a real-life version too. Last year, crypto-native brand RTFKT (pronounced ‘artefact’ and now owned by Nike) collaborated with 19-year-old digital artist Fewocious on 621 pairs of NFT trainers, which also featured a physical double, making the equivalent of £2.24m in just seven minutes. Elliott calls this ‘twinning with NFT-backed assets’ and she thinks this is something we’ll see more of as a means through which to lure newcomers into the metaverse. 

Speaking of ‘luring’, I, like most out there, worry about whether the metaverse is a safe space. ‘There is this sort of inherent undertone of darkness or addiction associated with it. We have Hollywood to thank for that,’ says Elliott, drawing parallels between The Matrix and Ready Player One. ‘But I think it has a lot to do with newness.’

What does the future of fashion look like with the metaverse? 

Certainly, there is no shortage of sceptics out there worrying about the darkest corners of the metaverse or The Emperor’s New Clothes nature of clothes that literally don’t exist. And as this new technology flexes its potential, there is a lot of sci-fi-sounding talk of how digital fashion might integrate into our life off screens, too – i.e. through augmented reality glasses that would enable anyone to see how people wear NFTs on the street. Personally, I find this quite hard to swallow. Just because something could happen, doesn’t mean it will. But one very good argument in digital fashion’s favour centres around sustainability. 

Imagine a world in which a new design graduate doesn’t have to go into debt to produce a debut collection and stage a fashion show. Or the carbon footprint of the collective fashion press was erased without the need to jet around the world to attend the international catwalk collections. Or that fast fashion fix, purchased for a Friday night and destined for landfill after just one wear, was made from pixels and not polyester. Imagine that.

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