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Previewing Metaverse Fashion Week: Digital fashion’s big experiment

Behind the scenes, there are jitters about how designs will translate in Decentraland’s virtual world, known for its more cutesy motifs; concerns about proximity to other brands; tensions about press coverage; and overall uncertainty as to who will attend and if they will buy.

“It is this big experiment that is coming to life,” says Evangelo Bousis, co-founder of Dundas, which recently digitised the look it made for Mary J Blige’s Super Bowl performance and is participating in the first-ever Metaverse Fashion Week (MVFW). “We are all participating for the first time – that is the beauty of all this – but you do get nervous,” Bousis admits. “We get worried because it’s an extension of the brand, and we want it to be on brand.”

Plans and preparations are coming down to the wire. Designers are taking their time committing to final concepts, requiring urgent implementation by about 50 tech firms, says Sam Hamilton, creative director at Decentraland Foundation. And, the digital performance of two leading names in music are still not confirmed.

“It’s not to do with fashion specifically, but the physical world versus the digital,” he says, speaking to the adjustments and novelty needed to adapt to a fashion week in the metaverse. For many brands, this is the first time appearing in a virtual event. For everyone involved, this is the first time participating in a virtual fashion event of this scale.

MVFW, which starts this Thursday 24 March on virtual real estate platform Decentraland, is the largest digital fashion event to date. It is open to anyone, and a full schedule will appear online. Ongoing events throughout a four-day period include a handful of shows, alongside showrooms, stores, panels, virtual parties and NFT drops. It’s also become a major crossover event for mainstream fashion, with brands including Paco Rabanne, Dolce & Gabbana, Etro, Tommy Hilfiger, Dundas and Cavalli set to join digital firms such as Auroboros and DressX.

For both participants and observers, the event is a highly anticipated collective experiment. In some ways, the fact that this event exists at all is enough to impress. “Obviously you set expectations high, but we also have to go in with an open mind and take risks,” Dundas’s Bousis says.

Brands will be measuring success more on quality of execution than on quantity of sales or attendees, says Shashi Menon, founder of NFT marketplace Unxd, which has helped usher brands including Dolce & Gabbana and Etro into metaverse projects, including this one. While appetite for digital experimentation has accelerated over the past two years, there is some concern among luxury brands that tech can have a “dehumanising” aspect, he says. “Removing some of that [physical] magic can create a fear that they are losing what makes them special in the real world, so we are showing it’s possible to retain and extend that, versus replace it.”

Menon applauds the extent to which established brands at MVFW are “willing to be playful and experiment with the medium”, which is an important point: every brand that enters the space ultimately informs the narrative that influences whether additional brands want to enter. “The more they see successful use-cases that provide a reference and take away the fear, the better it will be,” he says.

Decentraland itself will be under scrutiny, as it is expecting a host of first-time visitors and developers in hopes that many will stay long after the digital parties have emptied out. Decentraland’s primary competitor is The Sandbox, and if successful, this event could be a fashion coup.

Early adopters Gucci and Adidas, for example, have begun developing virtual real estate on The Sandbox, and are not slated to participate in MVFW. Some sources say this is in part because big brands with the budget to host their own virtual events do not want to share the limelight with others. To this end, Decentraland’s Hamilton says, high-end brands, accessible brands and digital fashion brands will be largely segregated during the four days, while avoiding overlaps in runway shows.

“We are trying to be super decentralised and fair with everybody,” Hamilton says, “[There is] a lot of friction between brands in fashion; they don’t want to be positioned next to someone else and everyone wants the most limelight they can get, so we don’t want to be in a position where they are making judgement calls. We don’t want to bill something as ‘the main event’.”

Tentpole shows still anchor the inaugural schedule. Thursday will debut with a Perry Ellis show followed by shows and parties hosted by Dolce & Gabbana and Philipp Plein, who will show digital-only designs. On Friday, Anrealage and Etro will show, followed by an afterparty from digital fashion brand Tribute Brand and DJ Icykof. On Saturday, Cider, Fresh Couture and The Fabricant will show, followed by an afterparty hosted by Italian luxury sneaker brand Hogan and NFT marketplace Exclusible with DJ Bob Sinclar. On Sunday, Dundas will show, digital art producers The Vogue will show a collaboration with streetwear brand Hype, followed by the Placebo digital fashion house; digital luxury brand Auroboros will close MVFW, with other events to be announced and subject to change.

This represents a mix of digital and physical natives appearing on the same calendar, and strategies differ. Dolce & Gabbana will show a bespoke collection of wearables specifically created for MVFW and not based on a previously existing collection. Etro will show gender-neutral designs that are debuting digitally and will be sold in both digital and physical form. Dundas will present a 12-look show that includes some pieces taken from the new physical collection and others created exclusively for this event. While Dundas’s designs won’t be directly shoppable, they will be shown in a virtual store; Dundas’ Bousis says that eventually he hopes that people will be able to simultaneously buy both digital and physical versions.

Other physical natives planning to participate include Nicholas Kirkwood, with a pop-up shop and special wearables; as well as Forever21, Selfridges, Fred Segal, and Imitation of Christ, with luxury watch brand Jacob & Co. and Estée Lauder as the exclusive beauty brand partner, among others.

See now, wear now

In addition to showing digital collections, brands will be opening stores and planning NFT drops to drive sales during the event.

Tommy Hilfiger, in addition to showing its spring/summer 2022 collection, will sell wearable NFTs for avatars that are also redeemable for physical items, through a partnership with Boson Protocol. 3D renders of signature styles, such as varsity jackets and hoodies, will float among visitors within the virtual store.

Dundas designed a gallery-like showroom replete with a panther emblem in the middle, a place for avatars to hang out on the second floor and an attention to the aerial view in addition to the traditional world perspective.

Jacob & Co. will reveal the fourth in a series of digital watch NFTs in a popup space, and Etro will also have a popup store. DressX, in partnership with the Metaverse Travel Agency, will show a specially designed collection for the event, available as NFTs on its website; owners of specific “Metahelments” can also wear them via AR. DressX has rebuilt its Decentraland store to include a pop-up including Faith Connection, and is unveiling its partnerships with designers Mert Otsamo and Piero D’Angelo, including sales of its first physical twin, through Boson Protocol.

A handful of emerging brands have also tapped technology from Boson Protocol to directly link NFT sales with physical counterparts, including Cider, Ikks and Chubbies shorts.

Attendance rewards and street style

Some brands are using wearables and NFTs as giveaways. Estée Lauder, as the exclusive beauty brand, is giving away up to 10,000 NFTs, created with makeup artist Alex Box, known for her surreal looks, and based on the brand’s Advanced Night Repair serum. Visitors who “step inside” the product’s brown bottle will receive the Proof of Attendance Protocol (POAP) NFT, represented by the artwork, to give their avatars “a glowing look”.

Similarly, digital artwork platform Known Origin is rewarding people for visiting its digital fashion exhibit called “Cult Couture,” which will feature digital fashion by artists such as Soze, Jon Sanchez, Fabeeo Breen and Charli Cohen. Attendees will all receive a “digital-cloth-covered” POAP by artist Midwest Misfit; those who register for a (free) ticket in advance will get a secret link to an extra POAP, granting access to a VIP party area.

How will street style, a recurring element of fashion month, show up in the metaverse? People attending the Cult Couture gallery are encouraged to upload screenshots of their avatars to Twitter for a chance to win digital fashion NFTs.

Digital designers are also offering to dress notable attendees. The avatar used by metaverse consultant Cathy Hackl, for example, who was recently given the symbolic title of honorary chair of the event, will be dressed by blind fashion designer and accessibility consultant Natalie Trevonne.

Rebecca Minkoff will dress virtual influencer Kuki AI in NFTs from Minkoff’s first digital fashion collection and Sophie the Robot will be dressed each day in different designers’ pieces.

“Given that it is so much harder to communicate as fluidly in the metaverse, fashion has a way more pronounced impact and opportunity,” Unxd’s Menon says. “In real life, it already plays an important role in identity and self-expression, but then you also have language and body language. In the metaverse, that is way less pronounced.”

There are other practical considerations for organisers ahead of the show, including making it easy for guests to join (brands send a link to drop people into specific locations, says Hamilton, which can be done via special invite or on social media). There are a few real-world challenges that have been mitigated, Bousis, of Dundas, says. “We haven’t had a front row to worry about, which is quite great. I am sure that will change, but for now, we don’t have to think, ‘Who are the top editors who will go?’”

That doesn’t mean that more than 70 brands and partners aren’t still clamouring for press attention. Web 3.0 projects generally run on hype, and MVFW’s organisers say that the sheer interest is proof enough of its potential.

As of yesterday, two celebrity music performances were in the works, says Hamilton, keeping the names under wraps because, with just two days to go, negotiations weren’t final. “Everyone recognises this as a live experiment,” Menon says. “None of us, including those producing it, know what will happen. It’s like building a plane and producing instructions and writing the manual while the plane is in the air.”

This article was originally published on Vogue UK.

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