Metaverse is a portmanteau for “meta” and “universe,” meaning a transæcendent level of the universe. Neal Stephenson used the term for the first time in 1992 in his novel “Snow Cash” to describe a virtual and interoperable (e.g., network built on operated reciprocally systems) world, where a hacker and pizza delivery driver for the mafia, Hiro Protagonist, lives through an avatar from a first-person perspective.

After the optimistic narrative of the ’70s of science progress and space age and the dystopic vision of the future in the ’80s with cyberpunk culture and artificial intelligence, the metaverse was born from technologists’ dream of the early 1990s. The idea of a digital second life has grown with the popularity of gaming and today we can see the accelerated development of this virtual world where tech experts predict we will get used to shop and socialize as digital avatars.

Our photo albums are already hosted on our phones and in the cloud, our music collections are gathered in playlists available online. Even though we may not realize it, the pandemic accelerated the transition of activities into the digital world: we work remotely on zoom and our social networks was the expression of a digital identity and became a place to meet friends.

In July 2020, Naomi Campbell opened the first digital version of Paris Haute Couture Week and yesterday, on March 24, we attended the first Metaverse Fashion Week. Hosted by Decentraland, until March 28, historical and digital native luxury brands will virtually present fashion shows, organize events—including talks or even afterparties—and sell digital collections in digital lands and stores. For this event, luxury brands as Paco Rabanne, Dolce & Gabbana, Tommy Hilfiger, or even Elie Saab are joining digital-first brands as The Fabricant, Auroboros and DressX.

Caroline in Decentraland, one of our co-founders.

Is the metaverse to be a replica of the real world or a space removed from any physical reality?

Selfridges has built Electric/City, a virtual city inspired by the fashion capitals of the world, where users are able to shop exclusive physical and digital garments.

Today, fashion brands still make most of their revenue from clothes manufactured in the physical world from woven fabric and ordinary yarn. One of the biggest challenges they are facing is to transform real-world garments into digital variants that can serve a virtual storefront while communicating the desirability of their physical creations.

In February 2021, RTFKT, the virtual sneaker brand made an exceptional sale of NFTs developed in collaboration with the crypto-artist known as FEWOCiOUS. In 7 minutes, the brand sold 600 pairs of sneakers for an amount of 3.1 Million USD. In addition to the NFT collectible, buyers received a physical pair.

We observe that today the streetwear and NFT world have many similarities and that both markets are speculative, where scarcity and exclusivity are the most important factors for collectors.

It is also thanks to a common graphic and aesthetic universe with gaming that streetwear brands manage today to create and sell fantastic and fully fictional products that connect with their public. On the contrary, luxury brands today still tend to reproduce their physical collections despite that crypto craftsmanship can't and doesn't aim to reproduce tailors or embroiderers know-how. Luxury brands are still learning from this nascent market and are working with tech creators to understand how to address this new trend.

Image credit: Auroboros.

According to a Vertue’s study, 70 % of people report having purchased digital items to create or enhance their digital image.

Crypto-consumers are not only gamers, and gamers are fashion customers. “Fortnite fans are three times more likely to be Supreme fans than other gamers; the Sims community, meanwhile, is far more interested in Converse.” (1)

Users are either trying to recreate an exact replica of their in-person identity or create multidimensional identities, reflecting Gen Z’s values for identity fluidity. That’s why, fashion has a role to play. There is not just one style among consumers in the crypto community. Fashion remains an important means of individual expression and users are eager to spend money to reveal their style and uniqueness.

Many believe that digital fashion can create more inclusive spaces and experiences, outside the physical and discriminatory constraints of the real world. The metaverse is supposed to allow people to explore new modes of identity. Is it a realistic possibility in a virtual universe that we already know is ruled by mechanisms of exclusivity?

(1) Vogue Business, 28 february 2022

Credit: Artwork from artist Rute Merk.

The metaverse is meeting several new consumption trends: fluidity and individuality, transparency, and collaborative creation. This virtual space allows them to personalize their experience and express their own identity in a boundless environment. The space and interactions are managed in a transparent system based on traceability and blockchain, a peer-to-peer network tracking every asset and transaction. This digital universe, built on a decentralized approach, will promote collaboration and co-creation between users, creators, developers and any other actor like brands, answering the need for customers to become actors of the creation and industry.

DAOs — decentralized autonomous organization— promise to be organizations represented by rules encoded as an open-source software, controlled by the members, and not by a central government or boards of decision makers.

If the metaverse creates a world of unlimited possibilities, it retains and reproduces some of the norms and practices of the physical society. Take for example the notion of accessibility, particularly strategic in the fashion industry.

Gucci will favor a more complex accessibility process to its digital assets, thus maintaining scarcity and cultivating a more selective market, whilst Adidas, with a wider audience and a strong pop-culture identity, plans to offer a more democratized entry to its virtual area and products.

For luxury brands, either in the physical or virtual world, it’s all about building hype and encouraging involvement, especially among insiders. In the metaverse, brands maintain their identities and status with the same mechanisms of exclusivity by regulating access to information, price or time with drop mechanisms for example.

Credit: Artwork from artist Ram Han.

According to Matthew Ball, Managing Partner of EpyllionCo, the metaverse revolution represents a new wave to computers: “It’s about being within the computer rather than accessing the computer. It’s about being always online rather than always having access to an online world.”

All the players embark on the experiments without questioning the impact of that innovation, since it is complicated to envision its evolution over time.

Today, the NFTs and metaverse market is speculative and not necessarily part of our daily lives yet because all the technological components that could allow us to truly lead a digital second life are still in development. For instance, wearing digital clothes will become a habit when we will have advanced augmented reality wearables. Yet it's interesting to follow the innovation process that is being under construction.

Decentraland Map.

We are not able to predict whether the metaverse will improve or increase society’s current challenges. Yet we know that gamers spend about $100 billion on virtual goods, and 46% of gamers are women. Among the younger generation, gaming is becoming an increasingly important part of entertainment, ahead of films and TV shows. Gaming is now a leading entertainment market, and fashion brands have a role to play in this strategic market.

Beyond a desire to live outside of institutionally regulated norms of the real world, younger generations also consider the environmental and social commitment of brands in their purchasing decisions. For now, we cannot conclude that the metaverse will reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry, but we may predict that physical production will never be entirely replaced. The fashion industry will become a hybrid manufacturing model combining digital and physical creations and activities.

If physical and digital experiences complement each other and continue to be developed concurrently, this means that the production activity behind them leads to a cumulative environmental impact.

According to Bloomberg, the production of a digital garment emits 97% less CO2 than a physical garment but minting and mining NFTs requires a massive amount of energy consumption in the physical world.

We all know that the energy transition is not fast enough. It is therefore extremely important to ask ourselves how this great technological revolution will impact our planet and try to take steps now to ensure that the metaverse could evolve to be consistent with the necessity to care for the environment.

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Metaverse: is it worth it? What we know so far