Dematerialising Fashion: Is Screen Wear the New Streetwear?

All images courtesy of Balenciaga.

As the events of 2020 and 2021 forced the closure of physical spaces and compelled many of us to stay at home, the Metaverse emerged as a place we could still dress up for and go to. Fashionistas sought solace on virtual domains, and the Metaverse quickly found a new following in the world of fashion. And when real-life fashion events got cancelled during the lockdowns, virtual influencers and Metaverse stakeholders opened online boutiques, staged virtual catwalk shows and invited avatars to digital hang-outs.

Words by Bradley Quinn

The Metaverse was born out of Gaming, where participants use avatars to play on virtual reality platforms. Initially, the avatars were dressed in virtual garments known as ‘game skins’, graphic downloads that changed the appearance of digital game characters. They gave way to branded skins created by fashion designers specifically for use on gaming platforms. Gamers pay for the digital skins, which are priced according to their uniqueness and the brands they are associated with. In September of 2021, Balenciaga created a series of virtual game skins for their collaboration with Fortnite. The game skins resembled designs made for Balenciaga’s Autumn/Winter 2021 and Spring/Summer 2022 collections and were also available as physical garments. Gucci designed digital skins for avatars in a partnership with Roblox, who powered Gucci’s digital Garden Experience.

Historically, fashion had always been slow to embrace emerging technologies. Even as the 2020s rolled in, the industry seemed to be stuck at the dawn of the digital age. At a time when many real-life events shifted from offline to online, most brands reconceived their catwalk shows as digital events. The shows were streamed live for online audiences, but with little scope for interactive content in replay versions. Surprisingly little had changed in fashion streaming since Helmut Lang launched the first online fashion show in 1998, when the designer filmed and webcast his Spring/Summer 1999 collection. Despite Lang’s vision for an interactive future, the traditional streaming format remained the industry standard, with few brands taking advantage of the new technologies that emerged over the years.

Short films produced by designers such as Hussein Chalayan and Hedi Slimane brought new technological innovations to fashion streaming as early as 2004. Productions directed by Mario Testino, Nick Knight and Alexandre de Betak made film a new medium for showcasing products online. As the fashion film genre gained momentum, it filled a gap in the creative market where directors and performers such as Chloë Sevigny, Dita Von Teese, Tilda Swinton, Chris Cunningham and Bruce Weber could present work alongside brands such as Marc Jacobs, Yves Saint Laurent, Vanessa Bruno and Yohji Yamamoto. The brands who told their stories through digital productions engaged global audiences in numbers far greater than physical events ever had.

Despite the heady mixture of art, film and the scope for escapism they offered, fashion film never gained the interactive potentials provided by immersive platforms. In the Metaverse, fashionistas can engage with participating brands, join immersive shopping experiences and purchase virtual products online. The Metaverse breaks free of 2D limitations to take users into 3D environments where AR and VR, along with other emerging technologies, convert 2D images into participatory 3D experiences. Metaverse technologies power 3D e-commerce stores where consumers can explore virtual products and try on fashion accessories and garments.

In March of 2022, the first ever Metaverse Fashion Week was launched. The event was hosted on virtual reality platform Decentraland, where digital products are bought and sold by users who chat, interact and play games. Participants at Metaverse Fashion Week included fashion brands such as DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, Etro, Paco Rabanne, Dolce & Gabbana and Prive Porter, as well as popular NFT creators like DeadFellaz, 8SIAN, Fang Gang, The Mortiverse and The Sevens. Users could take front row seats at 3D catwalk shows, access exclusive events and share user-generated content. As users purchased virtual fashions online, they could also order the physical version directly from the brand and pay for them via digital wallets.

All images courtesy of Balenciaga.

As the marriage of physical and digital realms creates fresh potentials for brand engagement, it also brings new opportunities to individual stakeholders and collaborators. Interactions with virtual influencers steer consumer buying decisions and shape trends emerging in Metaverse fashion. Unconnected to any offline physical personalities, virtual influencers have a unique cachet that can generate vast followings in the social media. On average, their engagement rate on social media is more than three times higher than those of human influencers. Some virtual influencers are created and controlled by a brand they represent exclusively; others form partnerships with a range of independent labels.

One of the best-known virtual influencers is the hyper-realistic Lil Miquela, who works collaboratively with both luxury and emerging brands. She projects a strong personality, and frequently advocates for social justice. Followers can delve into Lil Miquela’s backstory, which describes her as a musician and a ’19-year-old robot’ living in Los Angeles. Likewise, virtual influencer Noonouri is also an advocate for social justice. Noonouri has worked with brands like Marc Jacobs, Versace and Balenciaga. Her doll-like appearance conveys a different approach to the human-like character of Lil Miquela. Both are as popular as Shudu, a virtual influencer frequently described as the world’s first digital supermodel. Shudu is represented by digital modelling agency The Diigitals and has partnered with brands such as Salvatore Ferragamo and Tod’s.

As fashion aligns with virtual realms, the digital skins, garments and accessories created for Metaverse platforms promises to change how garments are made and consumed. For brands, there is huge potential to engage new consumers as they transform product design into an interactive, personalised experience. The Metaverse enables fashion consumers to showcase virtual identities and creates scope for user-generated content. It also offers an ever-expanding marketplace where innovators, influencers and entrepreneurs can thrive. Right now, virtual designs can materialise as physical garments in any season and are already being produced by consumers on-demand year-round. Eventually, Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer cycles will become less important, and the virtual fashion industry will be free of the real-life challenges holding it back.

Author, journalist and content producer, Bradley Quinn is an expert on wearable technology and emerging trends. He has written several books, including Techno Fashion, UltraMaterials, Textile Futures, Design Futures, Fashion Futures and Textile Visionaries. Bradley is based in Paris, where he directs Bureau Bradley Quinn, a branding and communication agency.