The term “metaverse” is easily the buzzword of the year. For the purpose of clarity for this article, we will be using Tony Parisi’s (Head of XR Ads/E-Commerce, Unity Technologies) definition of the metaverse:
“[The metaverse] is the sum total of all publicly accessible virtual worlds, real-time 3D content and related media that are connected on an open global network, controlled by none and accessible to all.” (Source)
Identity is a deeply complex concept, defined in psychology as the qualities, beliefs, personality, looks, and/or expressions that make a person. In the physical world, who you think you are can take many forms - your career, your hobbies, the people you surround yourself with (or want to surround yourself with), and your family / heritage / personal history. The way you express who you are to others takes just as many forms - what you wear, how you act, how you speak, and how you interact with the spaces you move in and out of.
What does this look like in the digital world? Over the past 15 or so years, social networks have become intertwined with our daily lives. Our digital personas only show pieces of our “real” lives but are increasingly an important element of self-expression.
Online, there are many structured ways that you can share who you are. Social media is a clear example of this. For example, you can share your professional and academic accomplishments and milestones on LinkedIn while following pages or joining groups that align with your interests on Facebook. Expression has broader reach but also introduces unique limitations; you are simultaneously able to communicate with a wider audience while being reduced to only your words or fixed pixelated images.
Gaming is a digital medium that solves the limitations of self-expression in social media by providing context for interaction and digital bodies (avatars). Since the metaverse is the interlocking of these virtual worlds, gaming is the ultimate digital medium.
Each piece that you wear is a medium to express your identity. Well described by The Eclectic, a South African creative collective, “Behaviour theorists refer to clothing as an ‘artefact of extended self’. Each possession in your wardrobe signifies a sense of cultural belonging as well as a personal style. Our possessions are a mode to organize ourselves within our subcultures, while still displaying uniqueness. Traditional garments signify cultural affiliations, age or ethnicity. Contrastingly, modern garments are customized for individual self-expression in the context of heterogeneous spaces. Fashion allows us to visualize and interpret pop-culture symbols and iconography. In this sense, we define fashion and it defines us” (Source).
While clothing is an effective, diverse, and creative medium to express identity, historically, it has been tightly tied to consumerism. The clothing industry has matured to the point where the general public is disconnected from the value of the materials and the means of production. Fast fashion has enabled production of some pieces to cost pennies - with the environment paying the actual costs - and have led to larger, more frequent production scales. $460b of clothing in good condition is thrown away per year (Source) while the average household wears < 50% of their wardrobe (Source). I won’t fully delve into the ethics of fast fashion in this article but some helpful reads can be found here and here.
Digital fashion provides an ethical alternative to traditional fashion. Historically in gaming, wearables were limited to realistic everyday clothing or pieces that are appropriate for the universe and/or time period the game takes place. For example, in games like Sims and Second Life, players are limited to purchasing clothing that one could find in any traditional retail store while in games like Runescape or World of Warcraft, you can outfit your character with gear specific to its combat class.
These earlier iterations of customized wardrobes in gaming did not cater very well to people that want to craft their own digital identities. With the rise in popularity of the metaverse, the need for a more permanent and interoperable identity is becoming more and more pertinent. It is clear that consumers want this digital identity to represent themselves. From a study done by the Institute of Digital Fashion, 29% of survey respondents said that while escapism was the main objective for entering virtual worlds, people still want the option and the ability to create an idealised, representative version of themselves within those worlds. Meanwhile, 87% of all respondents say their digital identities coordinate with their “IRL” identities (Source).
Digital fashion offers a blue sky of creative opportunity and a means of exploration and extension of one’s self-expression. Furthermore, 92% of respondents said that customisation is important when creating virtual avatars and “surreal” (meaning not the same style as their in-person identities) was the #1 type of clothing that consumers want to see in virtual worlds (Source).
This is even further enabled by the lack of “real-life” physics constraints - digital avatars can have shoes that emit flames and dresses with tendrils that ebb and flow. One showcase of these “out-of-this world” styles is Auroboros’s Biomimcry collection (Source).
Today’s fashion optionality in gaming provides only moderate creativity and customization. A majority of games with this feature offer cosmetic designed and sold by the developer are free-to-play games such as Fortnite (>1080 skins), Call of Duty, League of Legends (~1250 skins), and Rocket League while a small number of UGC-enabled games like Animal Crossing and Roblox allow for users to design custom patterns.
However, fashion in gaming has matured to the point where real-life brands are trying to enter. League of Legends partnered with Louis Voutton to create prestige skins for its 2019 World Championship Finals (Source), Marc Jacobs and Valentino outfits have been replicated by the brands in Animal Crossing (Source), and Burberry created skins for Honor of Kings (Source).
While digital fashion has made leaps and bounds in recent years, it is important to call out the siloed nature of these assets - every piece of clothing referenced above can only be utilized in each individual game (i.e. lacking interoperability).
Outside of gaming, the digital fashion industry is still maturing and the best way to describe the market as a whole is fragmented. Each of the below components is maturing independently, only in some instances partnering with 1-2 others:
Digital-native fashion houses - Companies specializing in the design and sale of high-fashion clothing and accessories. These companies are limited to utilizing Augmented Reality and dedicated (and limited) social platforms. Some examples include The Fabricant, RTFKT, and DressX.
Creator agencies and tools - These are companies that focus on creating digital replicas of existing products or those that create technology, tools, and platforms to enable creators to create digital versions of their own designs.
Marketplaces - These are digital marketplaces where digital fashion assets can be bought and sold. Some examples include DressX, Digitalax, and the Dematerialized.
Platforms for utility - These are places where digital assets can be used. It is important to note that, currently, this does not include full metaverse utility as, per our earlier definition of the metaverse, these assets are not interoperable across the entire digital ecosystem and are limited to AR, Social Networks, Digital Avatars, and limited gamified experiences. Some examples include Decentraland, Facemoji, Genies, and Astra by Thrill Digital.
Infrastructure - These companies hope to provide the infrastructure to enable the creation, sharing, sale, and use of digital fashion in the metaverse. Some examples:
We are seeing digital fashion in its infancy and there are 3 things that are needed to bring digital fashion into the metaverse:
Make digital creation easier for designers - Currently, a majority of traditional designers do not have the right tool set or knowledge base to bring their creations to life in a digital and interactive 3D space. This is evidenced by the activity we are seeing by brands in partnering with agencies to provide this service. To unlock the volume of content needed in the metaverse, creation must be simplified and accessible to all.
Enable better discoverability, exploration, and adoption by users - There is not a Farfetch for digital fashion - current solutions are limited to fashion houses with their own product and agencies promoting their partnered products. In order for users to fully explore their digital identities through fashion, clothing must be more easily found and purchased by users through better marketplace aggregators.
Digital assets must be interoperable across digital worlds - This is the most important since to truly bring digital fashion into the metaverse, the collective of publicly accessible virtual worlds, real-time 3D content and related media via an open global network, clothing must be able to be brought across every digital experience.