Dystopia for some, El Dorado for others, the metaverse has become a societal phenomenon in just a few months. Crypto-pragmatically, luxury brands have set out to conquer this new territory: a world peopled with digital avatars but as yet ill-defined in its contours, for much remains to be discovered and imagined. Is it a speculative bubble? A paradigm shift in the way we consume and live fashion? Place your bets!
It was in 1992, in Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, that the word metaverse – a portmanteau of meta and universe – first appeared. Thirty years later the buzzword remains blurry around the edges, so infinite do the new world’s promises seem. “There’s a definition of the metaverse that’s slightly more poetic than the technical one: the metaverse is the future of our social life,” says Stefano Rosso, CEO of BVX (Brave Virtual Xperience), a business unit of the OTB group that develops projects and content for the virtual world. “It embodies a new environment in which human beings can be themselves but in the form, color and manner they like. It’s a fascinating and stimulating reality that enables people to become another version of themselves, different from real life.” A virtual world more real than life in which we interact through the digital mask of our “avatar,” our digital “super-self.”
From Canal+ to The Sandbox
But let’s rewind the story a bit… In 1997, before Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, Somnium Space and The Sandbox (all metaverses built on blockchains), before Roblox and Fortnite (prototypical metaverses), the French cable channel Canal+ launched an online digital universe called Le Deuxième Monde (The Second World). Its users would receive a CD-ROM containing a 3D map of Paris for installation on their computer. This would enable them to create an avatar, walk around the city, meet people and converse in a chatroom. In 2003 Second Life offered a more user-friendly version of the metaverse and developed a local currency called the Linden dollar (L$) – convertible to U.S. dollars. The “residents” of this cyber-world could interact, teleport, create content (clothes, buildings, objects and such), undertake real-estate transactions and even make use of sexual services. Some amassed very real fortunes. In 2007 a Germany woman of Chinese origin, Anshe Chung (her avatar’s name), made the cover of Fortune: she had earned more than a million (genuine) dollars selling parcels of land and renting apartments and villas in this virtual universe.
Photo: Second Life.
Other precursors to the metaverse were role-playing games like World of Warcraft, which came out in 2004. While gaming has become mainstream entertainment and its own form of media, the Matrix movies (1999, 2003 and 2021) and Ready Player One (2018) have prepared our minds for the metaverse’s advent. And the pandemic has only accelerated things. Virtuality consumed our lives during the lockdowns, and the new technologies have developed and spread at incredible speed over the past two years. “Six months during the pandemic was the equivalent of five years’ research and development. Moreover, the metaverse as a subject became commonplace in record time. We’re past the ‘gadget’ stage and have reached maturity with immersive spaces. We now know how to develop much more diverse and precise aesthetics. Once past your teenage angst you leave behind basic ‘cyberpunk’ and ‘cyber-apocalyptic’ designs and start creating much more sophisticated and interactive universes,” say Lena Novello and Mado Scott, co-founders of the digital-design studio Acid. And audiences follow. On April 23, 2020, American rapper Travis Scott staged a historic virtual performance on Fortnite, the online game published by the American giant Epic Games, which counts more than 350 million players and has become a pop-culture phenomenon. This eight-minute concert, during which a giant avatar of the rapper performed several of his hits, drew an audience of more than 12 million.
Metaverse Business Unit, NFTs, crypto-artists…
By 2025 revenues from virtual worlds should be approaching $400 billion, as the fashion world has not failed to notice. In December 2021, Balenciaga launched its Metaverse Business Unit, appointing its former head of digital, Eric Pires, to lead it. A month earlier the OTB group (which owns Diesel, Maison Margiela, Marni and Jil Sander, among other brands) created BVX, a “center of excellence” designed to expand the group’s presence in the metaverse space. Not a day goes by without some brand’s unveiling an NFT (non-fungible token), a collaboration with a crypto-artist, a gaming platform or the purchase of virtual real estate. It’s a race to get out the word. In the span of a few months Moncler collaborated with Fortnite, Marc Jacobs staked a claim on Animal Crossing and Ralph Lauren staked a claim of its own on the Roblox platform. For its bicentennial Louis Vuitton gave birth to its own video game, among whose prizes are NFTs, including a dozen by digital artist Beeple – known for a digital collage that sold at auction for $69.3 million. In 2019 the French fashion house was already a pioneer in the domain, dressing the avatars of the famous video game League of Legends. In May 2021 the virtual space Gucci Garden (originally conceived by Alessandro Michele and located in Florence’s Palazzo della Mercanzia), incorporated into the online game Roblox, showed the public’s interest in the purchase of virtual fashion. Players were invited to stroll about the luxurious palace’s reproduction and buy virtual Gucci items to dress their avatar with. The Dionysus handbag sold for 350,000 Robux ($4,115). In a “real” shop the same article costs $3,400. Then, in late March 2022, Decentraland hosted its first Metaverse Fashion Week, gathering a total of 70 brands, including Paco Rabanne, Roberto Cavalli, Etro, Tommy Hilfiger, Dolce & Gabbana and Philipp Plein.
Photo: Fortnite x Balenciaga.
But the most “crypto-opportunist” or “crypto-pragmatist” brands are to be found in sportswear. “Nike, for example, has gone all in with the metaverse,” says Gaspard Lézin, a student at the Institut Français de la Mode who is writing his thesis on virtual fashion. “In 2019 the brand was already striking a deal with Fortnite to get the Air Jordan 1 into the game. It made a big move in December 2020 by acquiring the NFTs start-up RTFKT.” Founded in 2020 by three associates, among them Benoît Pagotto of France, RTFKT made a name for itself within months. In February 2021 the sale of 600 pairs of virtual sneakers designed by the artist Fewocious brought in $3.1 million (in just seven minutes). The start-up announced revenues of more than $100 million for 2021. Metaverse proponents will allay any doubts: “It’s all quite real, not science fiction.” In September 2021, Dolce & Gabbana broke records auctioning off nine pieces from its digital Collezione Genesi in the form of NFTs for $5.6 million. But why spend so much on virtual objects? It seems absurd, after all, to buy an article of clothing you cannot wear. Well, that’s where fashion’s psychological dimension comes into play.
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The « flex » and social distinction
The quest for social distinction survives the transition through the screen and lives on particularly in our avatar: our double, itself endowed with an ego. “Dressing your avatar in rare or even unique items is becoming more and more of a show of force for star gamers in search of exclusive stuff, who like to show off during virtual events,” says Paul Mouginot, an engineer and co-founder of metaverse agency bem.builders. “You buy virtual objects out of a desire to possess and collect, as when you buy a work of art, for example, but also for the ‘flex’: to show others that you own something rare,” says Luc Jodet, co-founder of the Arianee blockchain protocol. Your (real) wardrobe might be full, but no one can see inside… “Why would I want a collection of things that nobody can see when I can have a collection of digital objects visible to all?” The question comes from Ian Rogers, chief experience officer of Ledger, a well-known crypto-wallet firm, who spoke in November 2021 with Imran Amed, founder and editor-in-chief of The Business of Fashion.
Let’s take the example of the “luxury accessories” known as CryptoPunks. These amount to some 10,000 NFTs, each representing a unique character, all highly pixelated digital works automatically generated by an algorithm. Anyone can examine a CryptoPunk, but a given CryptoPunk will belong to one and only one person. The sales record is held by CryptoPunk 3100, which in March 2021 sold for $7.58 million. “It’s like collecting a Warhol; ‘if you have one, you are one.’ To ‘flex’ nowadays you can post a photo of your CryptoPunk on your Twitter profile, the way Jay-Z has done, for example. Figures in the tech world will even use their CryptoPunk as an avatar on their LinkedIn account. To acquire an NFT like that is to buy a ticket to unique experiences, access to sneak previews, special events, adventures… It’s a bit like having a Visa Infinite card. In any case, it’s a sign that you belong to a very private club,” says Paul Mouginot. Since its creation by Yuga Labs, in April 2021, the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT collection (of ape heads) has, for its part, generated more than $2 billion. “Possessing a CryptoPunk or a Bored Ape is also a way for people to recognize one another, because in the absolute few people can identify them. I think that these days Bored Ape is as valuable as the brand Supreme,” says Luc Jodet.
Toward a purely NFT fashion collection?
In addition to the one for social distinction there exists a desire for “conquest.” To be accepted into crypto communities you must know and abide by the codes. “Snoop Dogg conquered his territory on The Sandbox by exploring the platform as a subculture. He waited a while before revealing himself as the person behind the avatar Cozomo de’ Medici, whose NFT collection was reputed for its good taste,” says Paul Mouginot. Cozomo de’ Medici dresses in items specially designed by 3D designers – unique models tailored in the manner of the haute-couture era. A slew of virtual-clothing brands – The Fabricant, Tribute Brand, DressX, Replicant fashion, Carling, etc. – are waiting in the shadows for customs to evolve and avatar numbers to rise so that they can expand their business. Fashion brands could launch their own lines of virtual items and make their whole collections into NFTs: every sale of a physical item could include a token that would enable the customer to wear its virtual version in the metaverse.
For many people believe in a back-and-forth between the virtual and the real world. In its own conquest of the metaverse Adidas has associated with several players in the crypto-world: Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), the cryptocurrency investor Gmoney and the comics creator Punks Comic. In December 2021, the collaboration gave rise to a first Adidas Originals NFT collection, which provided access to virtual clothes on The Sandbox, with real-world hoodies – the “merch” – available exclusively to members of the club.
Photo: Bored Ape Yacht Club x Adidas.
Other companies are betting on hyper-realistic fictional universes that use photogrammetry. Among them is the French group Barney, a specialist in brand virtualization. The public, it would seem, identifies more easily with worlds that closely resemble reality. “Our mission is to create a bridge between the physical and the virtual world, by developing solutions that are very easy to use and deploy. We’re focusing on creativity and photorealism to take the know-how of fashion and luxury brands and reproduce it as faithfully as possible in virtual worlds. We’re creating CGI content and augmented experiences that respect the brands’ heritage while also adopting the new aesthetic codes,” says Elise Horwitz, director of Barney’s creative studio, Barney Studios.
The development of metaverses offers a wealth of possibilities for a new generation of digital malls and shopping experiences. What lies in store? Ways for users to try on clothes in virtual spaces, experience them holographically on their body, judge the fit and buy them with a click. “We’re developing post-ways to consume and live fashion by amplifying the real world, rather than replacing it,” says Mado Scott. At present brands are entering the metaverse by proxy, through some very popular platforms (such as Fortnite or Roblox), but can we expect them in time to create worlds of their own? “We receive a lot of inquiries in that area,” adds Lena Novello.
The crypto-rich and the specter of a speculative-dystopian bubble
Fashion might be sociologically soluble in metaverses, but it is economically soluble as well. There exists a community of crypto-rich people who are ready to click “buy”: a community apart, split into several groups with their own particular semantics. First you have bitcoin’s “early adopters,” the mining pioneers who have profited from the explosion in the currency’s value. Then you have the “hodlers,” who refuse to sell their cryptocurrency whatever the pressure from the market’s irregular drops. And finally you have the “crypto-traders,” or “flippers,” who buy only to sell almost instantly, for quick profits. “But so far the number of crypto-wallet users remains below the number of internet users in 1997, which is a very limited number of people,” cautions Paul Mouginot. Which doesn’t mean the numbers won’t skyrocket. In 2021 volume in cryptocurrency exchange amounted to more than $14 trillion, by comparison with 1.8 trillion in 2020. “Why so much money invested in the virtual world when inequalities abound in the real one?” crypto-pessimists wonder. Others fear a speculative bubble. Collectors will hold a piece of modern art for two years on average, but the average hold for an NFT is only 30 days. “What we’re seeing is irrational exuberance, with trade constituting a big share of the market. NFTs of no artistic merit are bought and then sold to generate profits, until the day when no one wants to be left holding the ‘hot potato,’” says Luc Jodet.
Vincent Cocquebert : “ These cocoons are equal parts seductive and alienating. The question is, are they becoming a substitute for something that these days seems to be slipping away from us: the common safe space of our planet and all who inhabit it with us?”
Still seen as a futuristic-apocalyptic world in the collective imagination, the metaverse can at times stoke fears of dystopia. These virtual worlds provide an escape, an elsewhere to repair to, but they can also lead people to shut themselves in. They can serve as a isolating cocoon that dispenses with “what we hold in common” (le “commun”), to borrow an expression from Vincent Cocquebert, author of La Civilisation du cocon: pour en finir avec la tentation du repli sur soi (Arkhê, 2021). “These cocoons are equal parts seductive and alienating. The question is, are they becoming a substitute for something that these days seems to be slipping away from us: the common safe space of our planet and all who inhabit it with us?” So the scholar wonders. The least technophilic among us worry about the mass of data these platforms could collect, and about the creation of worlds that both lack intimacy and track users ever more intrusively. Certain experts, meanwhile, have recently expressed fears that metaverses will instill “false realities.” In November 2021, Louis Rosenberg, a pioneer in augmented-reality systems, wrote an article in Big Think warning of the potential dangers of these platforms and the risk that the technological layers set up between us and the data holders could be manipulated. In other words, third parties could introduce “layers of pay filters” enabling certain users to see specific tags over the heads of other individuals/avatars, the better to “label” them. “We’d use this layer to mark individuals with flashing boldface words, like alcoholic, immigrant, atheist or racist,” writes Rosenberg, adding: “Virtual superimpositions could easily be designed to exacerbate political division, ostracize certain groups, or incite hatred and distrust.” He’s not the only one to glimpse a “fake news world” of skewed, distorted reality lurking in the shadows.
For now metaverses are developing outside any legal framework. In December 2021, a young woman who had taken part in a beta test before the official launch told of suffering (through her avatar) “a sexual assault” on the Horizon Worlds platform, the metaverse of Facebook (Meta). On a corporate scale, this January, the Hermès fashion house found itself thrust into a (meta-)dispute, filing a lawsuit in New York against an artist who had created NFTs, called MetaBirkins, that take inspiration from the brand’s famous fur handbags. “In web 3.0 there are neither states nor sanctions. It’s the Wild West,” says Benjamin Chiche, founder of Barney. “Brands are going to have to choose their partners very carefully to avoid abuses.” Not to mention digital pollution, which, though invisible, is all too real. “There’s law to be passed, a hierarchy to invent. Right now there is no meta-police or meta-security. We’re aware of the ethical and environmental stakes that these new worlds can raise,” says Mado Scott. “In fashion it’ll also be necessary to imagine new organizational structures, like virtual press bureaus and casting agencies for avatars,” says Lena Novello. “All of us at Barney are 25 to 35 years old. We feel we have a responsibility. We feel we belong to the generation in between, the one that will bridge the gap between technology and art, gaming and design, the metaverse and fashion. The metaverse is more than a technological subject. It’s also societal, and we have our role to play,” adds Benjamin Chiche.
Problems of inclusion and pedagogy
On paper the metaverse looks like a place to meet people and socialize. “We estimate that 30 to 50 percent of the users on Second Life have at some point found themselves with a social or physical handicap,” says Aurore Geraud, a researcher at the Atelier BNP Paribas. “There is testimony on the web on the social and psychological relief that virtual communities can offer. An autistic LGBTQIA+ person tells of finding in the World of Warcraft community the kind of refuge and support that she could not find in the real world.” For now, though, distrust reigns. Researcher Joy Buolamwini, of the MIT Media Lab, has already called out the sexist, racist and transphobic biases of the algorithms, devised for the most part by white men infusing the technology with their prejudices. How can minorities be included in the new world if they have no hand in its creation? It’s a topical question in light of the many debates over constant improvement of the UX (the user experience), debates that exclude the societal concerns of inclusivity.
As for cryptocurrencies, four years ago most of their holders worked in tech. Today much simpler systems enable ordinary people to set up a crypto-wallet and make transactions. “Our generation made the transition from the Nokia 3310 to the iPhone 13. We’re very malleable and very open to innovations. I’ve no doubt we’ll easily adopt the new customs,” says Benjamin Chiche. “But we’re still missing an element of education, and pedagogy. It’s another part of our profession to introduce the public to these new means of consumption and interaction,” adds Lena Novello.
Mark Zuckerberg is hoping a billion people will be in the metaverse 10 years from now. “The” metaverse? Will there be only one, or will several emerge? Will one metaverse prevail? Or will we be able to pass fluidly from one platform to another? Will we be able to wear our World of Warcraft armor at a concert on Decentraland or our Gucci sneakers at the movies on Roblox? “From the user’s perspective it’s both frustrating and time-consuming to create a separate account for every platform. That’s why interoperability and interconnection between metaverses will be the great challenge in years to come,” says Stefano Rosso. “We’re at the start of a revolutionary medium. It’s like the arrival of the Lumière brothers’ first films. We’re on the verge of a new world, concludes Mado Scott, where everything remains to be discovered.”
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