The Emperor’s New Clothes: Digital and Crypto Fashion

Carry Me, Frank Nitty 3000

The digitization of fashion has been a long-awaited and anticipated development, and we’re not referring to online shopping. We’re talking digital fashion houses, virtual avatars on the catwalk, and luxury fashion NFTs. The latter should come of no surprise considering how NFTs have already taken the art and entertainment industries by storm and are now encroaching upon the seemingly elusive terrain of high fashion. Despite initial trepidation due to complicated logistical questions posed by blockchain technologies, fashion brands are finally ready to take the plunge.

One of the most exciting companies in the digital fashion space is The Fabricant. Based in Amsterdam, The Fabricant positions itself as a leading purveyor of digital couture that can be used and traded in virtual realities. Their mission is to show that clothing does not need to be physical to exist, envisioning ‘a future where fashion transcends the physical body, and our digital identities permeate daily life to become the new reality.’ What does this mean in practical terms? It’s one thing to own and admire a work of art that solely occupies the digital plane, but surely a pixelated jumper cannot replace the wool knit hanging in your closet? Of course not, brands like The Fabricant do however provide a unique opportunity for consumers to own a digital garment that has been specifically tailored to a photo or video of them. The company hires classically-trained fashion designers to work in a ‘digital atelier’ to design, fit, and code each garment. In addition, the agency side of the business is responsible for securing brand partnerships, has created 3D models of garments for Under Armour, Tommy Hilfiger, and Puma in an effort to mitigate their carbon footprint.

UFF3R, Antoni Tudisco

Marketing themselves as eco-friendly, digital fashion houses note their lack of physical manufacturing as a major impetus towards a more sustainable future. By eliminating production, transportation, packaging, and other pollutive practices, their hope is to reduce the excessive emissions and waste endemic in the fashion industry. Partnering brands also have a lot to gain, saving time and money normally spent in the process of sending clothing samples from headquarters to factories and back. Its practicality could perhaps extend to influencers and online personalities who often promote clothing on social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Yet, it remains unclear whether this will be enough to offset the environmental damage generated by NFTs.

In 2019, The Fabricant auctioned the Iridescence Dress, a piece of digital couture made in collaboration with CryptoKitties, at the Ethereum Conference. The world’s first digital-only blockchain clothing, the NFT sold for an impressive 9,500 USD. This sum might seem inconsequential compared to what Beeple’s Everydays digital collage fetched at Christie’s, but at the time was remarkable for what was then a nascent market. Since then, The Fabricant organized a 3D fashion design competition with Adidas and Kode With Klossy, celebrity Karlie Kloss’s nonprofit which empowers girls to learn to code. The top 20 submissions were auctioned as NFTs with proceeds going directly towards the artists and additional donations to Kode With Klossy.

Established fashion houses are equally keen to explore their options in entering the NFT space. Vogue Business has confirmed with multiple industry sources, including a spokesperson for Gucci, that it is only a matter of time before the legacy brand releases an NFT. Not only would digitizing high-end goods supply companies with a new source of revenue, but also make them more accessible to the public. This March, Gucci debuted its most affordable shoes yet, a pair of digital sneakers that only cost 11.99 USD. No stranger to digital footwear, Gucci launched an augmented reality feature in the ‘Sneaker Garage’ section of their app that enables users to design and try on their own shoe based on parts of existing models.

Marketplaces for digital fashion collectables are still in their early days. One example is Decentraland, a blockchain-based virtual reality platform where players assume avatars and purchase outfits from its wearables market. This concept is not entirely new, for years, game developers have profited from players buying in-game skins; Fortnite raked in an estimated 2.4 billion USD from skins sales in 2018 alone. Decentraland’s biggest grievance lies not in its merchandise, but discordant user experience especially for newcomers. A handful of brands and retailers have uploaded NFTs onto marketplaces like OpenSea and Nifty Gateway, but digital fashion startup Neuno seeks to remove barriers obstructing user experience. One such benefit for prospective customers is the ability to buy NFTs with their credit cards, eliminating the need for owning cryptocurrency. Currently, Neuno is working with five luxury fashion houses on minting NFTs, coming exclusively to the FLOW Blockchain. Besides marketplaces, the distribution could take place via in-game merchandising, digital-only product lines, cross-game collections, sponsorship endorsements, and more.

The Meta-Pigeon Boss, RTFK Studios

The fashion world has not been left unscathed in the wake of Covid-19, resulting in the cancellation of in-person events and travel bans, but as the saying goes, where one door closes, another opens. Last summer, fashion tech company Bigthix created a fully digital live-streamed fashion show involving 3D avatars that took place on the 5th and 8th of June. Its co-founders Shivang Desai and Chandralika Hazarika devised the idea when a client had asked them to curate a virtual photoshoot of their clothing on the avatar of a famous supermodel. Instead, they made a short demo video of the supermodel’s avatar walking a runway along with still captures. After the video went viral, Bightinx was invited to put on a World’s Ocean Day themed virtual fashion show for Fashinnovation’s Worldwide Talks. The show presented clothing from an international selection of designers and brands and virtual avatars of real models from HOP Models USA.

In a similar, but more ambitious vein, this past February saw the emergence of the first-ever Crypto Fashion Week. The schedule consisted of workshops, exhibitions, and talks hosted on Clubhouse, Twitch, YouTube, and the metaverse, attracting designers, artists, industry professionals as well as technology and digital fashion enthusiasts. Among the impressive line-up of guest speakers was none other than Kuki, a transhuman AI-powered by ICONIQ. Co-organizer Lady Phe0nix hopes Crypto Fashion Week and future events can foster a collaborative arena for digital and crypto fashion, which are steadily becoming ingrained in the daily industry dialogue. Perhaps the 19th-century Danish folktale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ foreshadowed the rise of digital fashion: immaterial yet extant in the common imagination.