The Hermès Birkin bag is one of the most coveted fashion accessories in the world. Even as a loyal Hermès customer, you will be put on a waiting list before you can buy one, for at least €6,900.
The French luxury house was therefore Not fun when American artist Mason Rothschild came up with a virtual variant in November last year: the MetaBirkin. On the OpenSea online marketplace, it offered 100 unique copies as so-called non-fungible tokens (NFTs). In fact, these consist of nothing more than a digital image of a Birkin-type bag, made of brightly colored (faux) leather in various colors and patterns, attached to a virtual title deed that can be resold online. Buyers turned out to be willing to pay upwards of €40,000 for a bag that is made entirely of pixels. Hermès filed a lawsuit in January for trademark infringement. No decision yet, but OpenSea has removed MetaBirkins from their platform for the time being.
Hermès was caught off guard by MetaBirkin, but many major fashion brands are taking the plunge to sell virtual pieces, from accessories for your character in a computer game to virtual clothes you can project onto your body on Snapchat using reality technology. increased. Also in the coming three-dimensional internet, called the metaverse after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, you can dress up as the virtual personification of yourself, your avatar.
The growth of digital fashion is aided by the rise of NFTs. These property titles, registered on the blockchain and paid for with cryptocurrencies, make virtual goods unique and tradable. This technology has already led to the advancement of digital art.
Nike bought RTFKT (pronounced artifact), an all-digital sneaker brand late last year. Since the beginning of February, Gucci has been offering virtual gadgets (dolls, caps) under the SuperGucci name. Balenciaga announced a new business unit dedicated to the metaverse in December 2021, following a successful experiment with character clothing in Fortnite.
MetaBirkins are far from the only virtual fashion items that have been paid high prices for. RTFKT made $3.1 million early last year selling just 600 virtual sneakers. On the Roblux gaming platform, a digital Gucci bag was sold for $4,115. That doesn’t seem to be changing. Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, the world’s largest luxury conglomerate, stated in an interview with the fashion site fashion business that “our goal is not to sell virtual sneakers for ten”.
As the supply and excitement mounts, the question is why would you want to own a digital garment in the first place?
The Internet is changing from a two-dimensional experience to a spatial world, says Bas van de Poel (35). He is co-founder of Modem, a design and innovation studio in Amsterdam that, among other things, investigates the possibilities that the metaverse will offer in the future. “You’ll need a digital wardrobe for that,” he says. “Certainly because the time we spend online will continue to grow.” According to investment fund Ark Invest, in 2021 we already spend 38 percent of our free time online. By 2030, Ark Invest researchers expect this to be 52 percent. Van de Poel himself has already bought a digital sneaker: NFT from the NBA collection of the digital brand Space Runners, which he can wear in the Sandbox game world.
Fashion brands aren’t just jumping into developments to tap into a new source of revenue. Another important reason, says Van de Poel, is that they struggle with sustainability. “With virtual fashion, they can sell more clothes with less impact on the climate.”
“Virtual fashion helps solve the problem of overproduction and excess inventory,” said Karinna Grant, 43, co-owner of The Dematerialized, an online virtual fashion department store with Marjorie Hernandez. “NFTs offer a new way to design, buy, own and experience fashion that has a lower impact on the environment.”
Virtual items paid for with cryptocurrencies are bad for the environment if the currency, like Bitcoin, requires enormous computing power. Sustainable cryptocurrencies like Solana, which use technology that consumes less energy, can change that.
In The Dematerialized web store you will find digital sneakers, boots, dresses and sweatshirts from different brands. You can buy and trade the garments as NFTs, try them on your own body using Photoshop or augmented reality, and in some cases wear them in game worlds. You can get a virtual pair of sneakers from €10, but a virtual real coat with matching shoes was sold for €9,000. The platform has sold more than 5,000 NFTs and has 15,000 subscribers who are kept informed of new articles through a newsletter.
How much craftsmanship goes into designing a virtual garment? One of the pioneers of the burgeoning world of digital fashion has his office at Bloemenmarkt in Amsterdam. The Fabricant is a digital fashion house that designs virtual garments in collaboration with brands like Adidas and RTFKT, online platforms like The Dematerialized, and digital worlds like Decentraland. 3D designer Anna Lisa Liedtke (36) shows a virtual dress on her screen. “Designing virtual fashion requires as much craftsmanship as physical fashion,” she says.
We want to create something exceptional, with new textures and shapes.
Anna Lisa Liedtke 3d designer
Liedtke graduated from the fashion academy in Mönchengladbach and previously worked at Hugo Boss, where she learned to design with 3D software that she now uses for digital garments. “Half of our team is made up of people with a fashion background and the other half is made up of 3D designers with no fashion background.” The Fabricant now employs 38 people. Young fashion companies typically have a small team, but The Fabricant is organized like a tech startup, funded by venture capital investments.
“Digital fashion is a new genre. We don’t just want to replicate what’s possible in the physical world,” Liedtke says. “We want to create something extraordinary with new textures and shapes that sometimes play with gravity. It can be surreal.” iridescent, the virtual couture dress that The Fabricant broke into in 2019 and sold for $9,500 at a blockchain auction in New York, appears to be made of flowing water. The dress was Photoshopped onto the buyer’s body.
Liedtke uses 3D software developed to speed up the process of designing real garments in the mainstream fashion industry. In addition to a three-dimensional model of the design, in which you can change the fabric from silk to shiny metal with a single click, there is the two-dimensional pattern that could be cut from the fabric. He uses his “real” fashion world experience to provide virtual garments with realistic details. “The surfaces of 3D garments often appear too flat. It is better to keep some properties of physical garments.” She mentions the way actual fabric drapes, with folds and creases that move along with it, and ‘creases’, the slightly jagged effect that a sewn seam causes in the fabric.
Buyers are men.
Wearing a virtual fashion garment is still quite complicated, because the digital world in which you can wear clothes is still under construction. Liedtke says NFT shoppers are overwhelmingly male, even at The Fabricant, where most clothing is designed for female body shapes. Grant describes his clients as “young technology and design enthusiasts, mostly millennials.”
The actual “wearing” of a virtual fashion item now only happens in game worlds, with Snapchat filters, or in post-processed photos and videos. For example, at the Dress X web store in Los Angeles, you can purchase a digital fashion item that is Photoshopped into a photo of you. It is not NFT, and you pay for a garment between 25 and 50 dollars. You can then display that image on social media. It is not a bad idea, if we take into account that for influencers, and the people who want to be, clothes are mainly designed to be shown through the screen.
Snapchat already offers a fast and fun way to wear digital clothes live, a free way full body filter (so no NFT) which Liedtke demonstrates with his phone. He opens the Snapchat app camera, selects a filter with a garment designed by The Fabricant, and points at me. Between the desks in The -Manufacturer’s office, I can be seen on Liedtke’s smartphone screen wearing a futuristic virtual dress that appears to be made of purple-blue metal. Snapchat’s body tracking software adapts the garment live to my body’s proportions and movements. It’s still not completely smooth, but the effect is impressive.
Another problem with digital clothing is that you still can’t effortlessly carry it from one digital world to another. Wearing the same jacket in a video conference as in a game requires ‘interoperability’, and it’s not there yet.
Grant predicts that the digital craze will go mainstream once a single virtual world, like Facebook’s metaverse, becomes dominant across generations. Liedtke expects a lot from the new augmented reality technology that Apple is likely to bring soon.
For the moment, virtual fashion is still something for pioneers, people who know how to navigate the labyrinth of platforms, concepts and technologies. But for the generation growing up with Snapchat and TikTok, virtual hangouts are already a given, as is paying for digital items like special skins or other upgrades in games. If you’re in any doubt about the existence of virtual fashion, says Karinna Grant, “just ask an eight-year-old if there’s an item online they’d like to have.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on March 5, 2022.
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of March 5, 2022.