I was more than a little mystified when Gucci recently dropped its US$12.99 Virtual 25 sneaker, which featured swirls of green, a fuchsia tongue, and sky-blue accents.
Not just because they were suspiciously affordable. Not because they looked more Balenciaga than Gucci. Not because the wiry click-and-tighten “shoelaces” remind me of Footjoy golf shoes. But mainly because they can only be “worn” in virtual worlds such as VR Chat, a massive multiplayer online game (never heard of it), and Roblox, a gaming platform (never heard of it either).
It’s not the first time designer brands have dipped their toes into the metaverse — the January 2021 launch of Gucci x North Face saw Pokemon GO (which I have never played) avatars wearing the collab’s costumes.
In 2020, Snapchat partnered with Ralph Lauren to let users dress their Bitmoji avatars (nope, I haven’t got one) virtually with the brand’s latest outfits.
In 2019, Louis Vuitton’s creative director for womenswear, Nicolas Ghesquire, designed a championship trophy and a series of designer skins for League of Legends, a popular multiplayer game (which I haven’t tried). Then, he created actual physical pieces to complement the digital ones.
As quartz.com notes: “Fashion is rarely just about utility. It’s also a means of self-expression and a way to communicate status and identity. With lots of shoppers today seeking ways to signal these attributes in the digital world as much as the physical one, it’s created an opportunity for fashion to go virtual.”
According to Forbes.com, “…billions of people are living and spending their money online through their avatars within these (virtual) worlds … the main way the creators of these games make money is by selling stuff inside … gamers want avatars, skins and collectible content … This is all expected to reach US$50 billion by 2022”.
The CEO of Wanna (the company that Gucci collaborated with to create the Virtual 25), even predicted to Business of Fashion that “in five or maybe 10 years, a relatively big chunk of fashion brands’ revenue will come from digital products”.
I mean, I get it when gamers drop cash on weapons, spells or loot boxes to boost their magic powers or firepower. But spending US$50 billion on digital clothes that don’t improve your score … what for?!?! Especially when I’m sure game designers already provide enough free costume, hair and accessory options for avatar dress-ups, just so the optics are more attractive and PG-friendly than having bald, naked digital people (with pixels over their nipples, pubes and butt cracks) running around slaying monsters and/or one another.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m quite a tech dinosaur. And you’re right — aside from two email addresses, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn accounts (which I check only about once a week), Spotify and Netflix subscriptions, my preferred setting is IRL.
Apparently, I’m also a fashion dinosaur because all the clothes, shoes and handbags I have ever owned in my life have been real objects. Gasp, I even recall dressing my paper dolls and Barbie dolls in physical outfits when I was a little girl!
More recently, Voguebusiness.com proclaimed that “non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are all the rage” in the fashion industry.
After trying not to think about mushrooms, I set about Googling the definition of NFT. It is a digital asset, whether an image, a video or an audio file, that’s unique and cannot be copied, whose digital ownership is tracked through blockchain.
Okaaaaaaaaaaaaay. But what’s that got to do with fashion?
Wwd.com explains the “usefulness” of NFTs, which no fashionista worth her Birkin and Louboutins ever knew she needed until, like, 5 milliseconds ago: “They can act as a digital certificate of authenticity and ownership for a particular asset. They can’t be copied or hacked. And that makes NFTs very valuable. If a luxury brand puts out a virtual-only NFT collection, buyers would be able to prove they own the real thing and not a digital knock-off.”
Excuse me while I wipe off bits of my brain, which has exploded all over my iMac and desk.
So, imagine if I were to one day decide to create an avatar and venture into an online game wearing an eye-catching designer couture “skin”. Or if I bought THE original digital image of a designer dress from a particular collection, and then posted an image of myself on social media “wearing” the virtual dress.
I assume all sorts of complimentary comments would flood in from techie hipsters. “Hey, I notice you’ve got on the latest limited-edition digital threads from Brand X”. Would a normal “thank you” suffice, or do I then have to reply “It’s the original, not a copy. Wanna see my non-fungible token?”
Somehow, it all comes across (to me, at least), as beyond ludicrous. It’s like in the 90s, when it was trendy in some (rather tacky) circles to leave the store tags of suits hanging out, so everyone would know they were Wearing Designer Clothes.
Apparently, some fashion insiders believe that NFTs’ scarcity and ability to accrue value can bring digital fashion closer to real fashion.
The only parallel I can think of is that bygone era when Ty Beanie Babies were all the rage, such that their scarcity and ability to accrue value brought stuffed toys closer to real gold bars. Of course, the bubble burst when “collectors” realised they could have just bought gold bars instead of stuffed toys.
And since sustainability in fashion is so important these days, website uxplanet puts forth this argument in support of virtual fashion: “In real life, you could have a minimalist capsule wardrobe. Meanwhile, on social media, your digital self could be expressive with hundreds of new clothing items. In short, you get the best of both worlds.”
Really? To me, it actually seems like the worst of both worlds, spending all that money on clothes that don’t exist, only to have nothing to wear. And in the meantime, think of all the electricity being consumed in the creation and dissemination and blockchaining and encryption of digital fashion.
Hasn’t GenZ ever heard of a children’s fairy tale called “The Emperor’s New Clothes”?
Tracy Lee was former Editor-in-Chief of ELLE Singapore and former Editor of Her World Singapore. When not typing on her iMac, she explores the real world and fine-tunes her golf game.