In 2020, London-based fashion designer Scarlett Yang created a garment that looked like glass, changed texture in response to temperature and weather, and dissolved if you left it in water. This wasn’t a sci-fi fever dream or magic trick, but a design made possible by modern technology. Yang’s clothing was made from algae extract, which formed an intricate, leathery lace when cast in custom-made 3D molds before being treated with silk cocoon protein. To bring this impossible-looking creation to life, Yang began by experimenting with virtual designs: using software to run through various silhouettes and simulations before she got to the stage of making it. To showcase the startling results, she turned back to her screen. She had made a physical dress, but she also presented it in digital format, inviting viewers to observe four different renders of the angular, shimmering gown as it slowly plunged into the ocean.
“I’m super passionate about combining these elements of science, digital tech, and visual fashion,” Yang explains. Like a growing number of designers, this interest means moving fluidly between the worlds of virtual design and physical manufacturing. Sometimes she designs clothes that could never actually exist. “There’s more creative freedom in the digital [realm], there’s no constraints, no gravity,” she says. At other points, she switches back and forth, bouncing designs from the virtual to the actual to figure out some of the trickier logistics of, say, bringing a translucent, biodegradable gown to life.
Yang was among the designers who recently participated in the first Metaverse Fashion Week. Unlike fashion week as we normally know it—a sensory overload of bustling crowds, eye-catching outfits, and sought-after invites—this took place in a virtual-world, browser-based platform called Decentraland. Anyone with a computer could join, sending their avatar to jerkily wander through shopping malls and catch shows from brands including Etro, Tommy Hilfiger, and Roberto Cavalli. Yang’s contribution was a series of virtual “skins” in collaboration with contemporary artist Krista Kim and Amsterdam-based digital fashion house the Fabricant, featuring materials delicate as dragonfly wings.
Fashion houses like The Fabricant, DressX and the Dematerialised don’t sell physical clothes. There is nothing to touch or try on. Customers can’t order a piece to wear on a night out or hang in a wardrobe. Instead, these stores specialize in something intangible. Browsing their wares, one might find lilac puffer dresses that weightlessly float around the body, or silver armor sprouting twitching stems. Depending on the design, customers can pay to have an image of themselves photoshopped to feature one of these fantastical garments, see it overlaid as an AR filter on videos, or even purchase the piece as an NFT.
The metaverse is changing the way we understand fashion. We could move freely between different 3D worlds and communities with the help of virtual and augmented reality. Currently it’s being used as a catchall term to describe everything from luxury labels teaming up with game developers to outfit players (think Balenciaga x Fortnite, Ralph Lauren x Roblox, or Lacoste x Minecraft) to the kinds of dress-up opportunities offered by those digital fashion houses who’ll deliver you a social-media-ready photo for $30. It’s also increasingly covering brand experimentations in hybrid collections, like Dolce & Gabbana’s nine-piece physical-digital capsule show last year that made nearly $6 million.
Digital designs are not yet big earners compared to physical clothing (hampered by racism scandals and the pandemic, Dolce & Gabbana still reported overall sales of more than $1 billion in 2020–21), but the fashion world certainly sees the metaverse as a potentially lucrative new market. The digital fashion industry could be worth $50 billion by 2030, according to figures from investment bank Morgan Stanley. The overall worth of the fashion sector by the end of the decade is harder to estimate, although market intelligence platform CB Insights places it at more than $3 trillion.
“Right now, for the most part, digital fashion is mainly being used as a marketing tool to redirect attention to actual goods by fashion brands,” says Lavinia Fasano, foresight analyst at London-based strategic foresight consultancy the Future Laboratory. However, she sees the rise of the gaming sector as an example of virtual fashion’s potential profitability. The gaming market is worth more than the video and music industries combined, with much of that money made from selling skins and other in-game objects and accessories. This is really where digital fashion started—remember agonizing over what to dress your Sim in?—so it makes sense that it might suggest some future cues for the industry, as well as provide an easy initial step for brands looking to dip their toes into the world of virtual clothing.
Ultimately, the interesting question isn’t about profit but how the metaverse might radically affect the way consumers dress, shop, and think about fashion. Will we all end up wandering around Blade Runner–style virtual cities, clad in winged dresses or tentacle headpieces? Like Cher Horowitz in Clueless, might we start each day by browsing through a digital wardrobe? The latter option is relatively possible now, thanks to a number of apps where one can log their clothes, with an extension of this found in the ability to “try on” virtual garments or accessories before buying them—a process that will streamline as the technology improves.
As the actual and the digital blur further with technologies like VR headsets, we could even end up possessing clothes that clad our corporeal and virtual selves in tandem. “Physical garments can be authenticated as NFTs and have a digital twin,” says Marjorie Hernandez, cofounder of the Dematerialised and of the blockchain platform Lukso. This means that people could have “a seamless transition between their favorite IRL fashion collections and merge them right into their digital world.”
Garments minted as NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are digital assets registered with unique data stored on the blockchain. This means that even though an image of a virtual dress could be seen or even saved by anyone on the internet, the person who purchased it—whether as a unique one-off or part of a limited run—can prove their ownership, and subsequently sell or trade it, with the value increasing or decreasing just as with a physical garment.
Lavinia Fasano thinks the consequences of NFT garments could go much deeper, potentially reshaping the way we understand value altogether. “It could represent a seismic shift in the way that we understand luxury, scarcity, and value,” Fasano says. “One of the major premises of NFTs is that the more you see an image, the more cultural value it accrues, and the more expensive it will be. It’s also a space where creating a derivative project of something only serves to reaffirm the value of the original.” Like Pop Art, it goes against the fundamental idea that luxury’s main value exists in possessing something that others don’t. She cites the physical fashion example of American designer Telfar Clemens’ hugely popular handbags, which eschew the usual price points and air of rarefied exclusivity associated with designer goods to instead offer an affordable, ubiquitous form of luxury. Clemens’ brand motto is, “Not for you—for everyone.”
An even further-reaching possibility could be a total shake-up of the fashion system, which might involve side-stepping major labels altogether. “New fashion creators have the same chance of building a metaverse-native brand as a heritage label, without ever needing to have a presence in Paris or New York,” says Michaela Larosse, head of content at the Fabricant. To create digital fashion, the only tools required are a computer and the right form of design software like Clo3D or MarvelousDesigner. It has already led to some literal overnight success stories, like Tribute Brand: a Croatia-based cyber fashion company founded by Gala Marija Vrbanic. Vrbanic previously showed physical collections at London Fashion Week, but within two days of first posting one of her hyper-futuristic digital designs on Instagram, she was being contacted by Vogue Business. “It’s totally unimaginable for something like this to happen to a brand that is not based in a fashion capital,” she says.
The metaverse has huge imaginative and creative potential for fashion designers. “This space will allow many young creators around the world to flourish,” Marjorie Hernandez predicts. “I believe we are coming to the new era of art and a completely new wave of creators.” For some, like Tribute, it means being able to push at the limits of what fashion means, (Vrbanic says, somewhat sadly, that she was recently vetoed from releasing a collection of virtual wearable boxes because they were a bit “out there” for their customers.) For others like Scarlett Yang, it allows them to toggle between using that design software for wild online creations and putting it to use to puzzle out the logistics of cuts, fabrics, and production of real garments before a single stitch or print takes place.
To Dutch couturier Iris Van Herpen, the coexistence between physical and digital clothing is a crucial part of her practice. Her elaborate collections fuse cutting-edge techniques with ancient, organic forms. She’s been working with digital designs since 2009, when she began animating her pieces before making, 3D-printing, or laser-cutting them. The combination, she says, “makes it possible to harmoniously connect nature with the future as a new visual language.”
Van Herpen frequently collaborates with kinetic artists including Philip Beesley and Anthony Howe. In 2019, she and Howe developed a motorized Infinity Dress. Inspired by perpetual motion, it featured a delicate aluminum and stainless-steel white exoskeleton covered in feathers that hypnotically revolved around the model as she walked. This ability to animate first and try out different movements is what gives garments such as these the uncanny look of virtual pieces, similarly seeming to ignore the rules of physics: sometimes to the point that, Van Herpen says, viewers don’t believe what they’re actually seeing.
To her, the current strides forward in virtual fashion are welcome. Two years ago, she began working on her own metaverse to give her digital looks a proper home. “I am very excited by the hybrids of the physical and digital spaces,” she says. “The sky is the limit, as architecture, fashion, and science will entwine like never imagined before. We are still building, and this is not released yet, as for me technology is a tool only, not an end goal or vision.” For Van Herpen it’s all in the craft: The digital quality needs to be on a par with her physical haute couture to make it worth sharing.
Utopian ideas abound when talking about metaverse fashion. At its best, it suggests a boundary-breaking, imaginatively expansive realm where we can express our identities more freely and embrace new and ambitious forms of creative work. The reality is that, like much of the rest of the fashion world, a lot of it is still boring, badly designed, and claiming to be more transformative than it is. Wandering around Decentraland, it doesn’t feel a million miles away from much older virtual world games like Club Penguin or Habbo Hotel.
We’re also not getting rid of real fashion any time soon. Not everyone is going to be enthused by the idea of dressing an avatar or buying a jacket that doesn’t exist. People do still need clothes to wear to work, to go out in, to live their corporeal lives. However, the metaverse potentially holds interesting solutions to some of the more “real world” problems created by the fashion industry, especially when it comes to sustainability.
“Fashion is in such a terrible state,” says Leslie Holden, cofounder of the Digital Fashion Group. “This industry is a real mess.” The former head of fashion and design at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, Holden is referring to the numerous problems besetting the industry, from graduate employment prospects to the environment. The fashion industry is hugely wasteful. In 2020, management consulting company McKinsey predicted that, if nothing changes, by 2030 fashion would be responsible for 2.7 billion metric tons of carbon emissions a year. It is of paramount importance that the industry cuts down how much it produces and pollutes. Designers are already remedying this in their physical work with use of upcycling, deadstock fabrics, and recycled textiles. But there might be other routes too.
“We really believe that a digital approach is a pragmatic answer to the industry’s sustainability issues,” Holden explains. One proposition is that, in an extended version of something like Metaverse Fashion Week, brands could create digital showrooms and shopfronts where customers order what they want from hyperrealistic renders of garments. This means those garments are only put into production once they have been purchased, and there is no guesswork or excess stock that goes to waste. It also narrows the gap between creator and product, potentially involving them more closely in every stage of the supply chain.
Another proposition is that rather than blurring our online and offline selves, we keep them separate. One simplistic explanation for the rise in fast fashion lies in the desire to showcase clothes once on Instagram before discarding them again. Paula Sello, the cofounder of hybrid and physical couture fashion brand Auroboros, sees their way of working as an ethical decision. “For us, creating wearables for avatars in the metaverse is a way to extend [the presence of our garments] on social media, with the help of AR,” says Sello. “In our couture physical collections, we focus on details and made-to-measure craftsmanship work.” To put it another way, people could enjoy a virtual version of the garment that they would like to buy to post on social media, without the waste associated with fast fashion. It’s an interesting vision for clothes consumption: combining infinite creative possibilities and ways of dressing up in the virtual sphere with the slow-burn pleasure of attentive craftsmanship, small product runs, and highly individualized pieces worn in real life.
The digital world isn’t for everyone. Among many designers, even those working in high-tech fashion engineering, the hand is better than the screen or mouse. Kinetic designer Lisa Jiang, who creates motorized organza garments that curl around the body like smoke, and TikTok sensation Cameron Hughes, who walks his viewers through the creation of dresses with feathers that rise and fall like they’re breathing, are both adamant that the pleasure comes in making tangible garments. “With digital fashion … you can do anything,” Hughes says. “But getting stuff to actually work in the real world is like a little bit of magic.”
Many of us feel the magic of clothing, too: the feel of a particular fabric; the powerful sensation of wearing something that bestows confidence or comfort or professional standing. But the metaverse doesn’t have to take away from that. If anything, it might make us more receptive to thinking about how we understand and use dress across all areas of our lives. In future we might end up wearing highly engineered textiles or unexpected silhouettes that would otherwise never have existed. “That’s where the beauty lies,” Van Herpen says. “When the borders are gone, when physical and digital creativity are tantamount.”
Fashion Design: Scarlett Yang; Fabric Material: Krista Kim