Crowned one of Gartner’s top five impactful technologies of 2022, the metaverse is marketing’s latest buzzword. For those unfamiliar with the term, the metaverse is a future in which humans will interact and exist in a digital world through technologies like augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) and holograms. This digital revolution is old news for the fashion industry: they have been trailblazing their way into the metaverse since 2019.
This digital movement started with luxury brands selling “skins,” a term for gaming avatars’ clothes and accessories, on popular sites like Roblox. In 2021, Gucci partnered with the social app Zepeto to provide users with a 3D version of their 2021 collection. Before that, in 2020, Balenciaga advertised their then-upcoming line in the videogame Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, while Louis Vuitton designed custom items for League of Legends in 2019.
Why do luxury brands care about gaming—a chaotic digital world that clashes with their elegant and classy image? The brands are capitalizing on a consumer insight that many industries missed. Gamers care deeply about their avatars—enough to purchase costly digital outfits for their pixelated pals. The fashion industry’s investment in gaming foretells a glistening future for digital fashion, which is currently becoming a reality.
A global survey of over 3,000 consumers found that 47% are interested in digital clothes, with 87% having already purchased some form of digital fashion. This growing demand and interest for digital clothing have birthed fashion companies that are exclusively digital, whose purpose is to dress consumers for the metaverse. The Fabricant, an American label founded in 2018, sparkles as the crest of this wave of new brands.
Operating solely as an e-commerce site, The Fabricant allows consumers to create, mint, and trade digital clothes as NFTs. Users can wear these pieces through avatars and AR filters in different virtual realities.
The Fabricant Studio is where consumers create these garments. The process begins with fashion brands uploading three-dimensional templates onto the platform, which creators then select and modify. These templates contain fabrics, trims, and accessories exclusive to the brand, and they are only available on The Fabricant. Creativity and innovation shines in this space, as the Iridescence Dress, the video attached to the top of this article, exemplifies.
Next, users modify their templates, combining accessories, materials, and colours to create personalized NFTs. Once complete, these garments are unique: there is only one version, and the user becomes a co-creator with the template designer. Royalties from the sales of these creations are equally split between the template providers and co-creators.
Consumers can buy these pieces on the Fabricant Marketplace, a platform built on the Flow blockchain. Purchases require Flow tokens, which necessitate a Blocto wallet. A Fabricant garment amounts to about 50 Flow (approximately 80 USD).
Why Digital Clothes?
There are other companies dabbling in digital clothing and the metaverse. Norwegian fashion brand Carlings sold out their all-virtual collection “Neo X” in 2018, while Tribute Brand has been selling virtual dresses since 2020. Digital fashion is not a rarity, nor does it show signs of plateauing. Why does it work, and what is the appeal of marketing through clothes consumers cannot touch?
Popularity of the Metaverse
An example of a digital outfit from Stephy Feung’s wardrobe from The Fabricant.
Part of this trend is due to the metaverse’s relevancy: the list of big brands delving into this digital world is increasing. This metaverse migration works well for fashion brands. They offer products that can easily transfer from real-life people to avatars: clothes and accessories.
Brands are also invested in the customer experience opportunities that the metaverse provides—fashion brands included. This virtual landscape supplies consumers with novelty and engagement. Customers can mingle in and explore digital spaces rather than repeat the “walk into a store, buy something, and leave” formula that has permeated retail for decades.
Luxury Fashion Paradox
Yet, the appeal of digital clothes spans farther than the novelty and intrigue of the metaverse. This “wow” factor will eventually fade—marketers cannot make decisions based solely on novelty. Fashion brands investing in digital clothing likely have more to do with the luxury fashion paradox.
Luxury fashion brands require high exposure and awareness but need to maintain a controlled level of sales. This situation has created a balancing act: consumers must perceive luxury fashion as exclusive without products being scarce enough to harm profitability. The solution lies in brand image. Luxury fashion often boasts an exclusive reputation through selective distribution, limited selling periods, and restricted access. In truth, they are often more accessible than their first impression suggests.
Companies like The Fabricant have perfected the paradox. The Fabricant Studio introduces a new method of exposure and awareness not currently available in the physical world: open access to the designing process. Today’s consumers are largely unfamiliar with designing, considering the process secretive. The Studio eradicates this mystique, raising consumers on the same level as global brands and considering them co-creators. The easy-to-use nature of the Studio also brings accessibility to consumers unfamiliar with 3D design software.
Additionally, thousands of avatars in the metaverse wear, trade, and observe digital fashion. After all, the metaverse includes lush pastures like Roblox and Fortnite, which attract millions of daily users. Avatars’ appearances are imperative to popularity and acceptance. Having them sport a custom fit from Tom Ford or a limited-edition ensemble from Balenciaga will boost the desire and demand for the brands’ products.
However, The Fabricant maintains the illusion of exclusivity. Their products are original: there is only one. This uniqueness mimics limited-edition items in high fashion. Just as there are only 85 Louis Vuitton Royal Wedding Petite Malles worldwide, there will only ever be one of each Fabricant garment. Other co-creators may use the same templates, but they will not modify them using identical designs, colours, cuts, and trims.
Another mimicry of physical fashion brands is digital clothing companies providing certificates of ownership and authenticity. Physical brands often supply authentication proofs to differentiate their products from fakes, such as the NFC tags in Burberry creations. NFT brand projects are also becoming more common in countries like China. Consumers of The Fabricant can rest assured knowing their avatars are donning authentic, genuine, and exclusive fashion.
Distribution and purchase methods also play into this exclusivity. Luxury consumers want their products to be recognizable to mass audiences but disprove mass distribution. The idea is that “me and a few more, but not everyone” should purchase these goods. Accordingly, companies must sell luxury products in distinct locations, separate from other merchandise. Consumers want the luxury fashion items available in a different tab or section when clicking onto a retail site. The Fabricant and other digital fashion brands satisfy this need for separation. Fabricant items are only available in the Fabricant marketplace and in “seasons,” for specific periods.
Body and Gender Inclusivity
The destiny of fashion and beauty is inclusivity: clothes and makeup suited for different body types, races, and gender identities. In 2016, Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty hit the jackpot with its wide variety of foundation shades. Then, Louis Vuitton’s transgender and gender-ambiguous models drew the most attention and acclaim in their 2018 fashion show. The customers of tomorrow are Millennials and Gen Zs, who value inclusivity and diversity.
In a study of 630 Americans of different ages, genders, sexual orientations and races, 76% of Gen Zs and 72% of Millennials considered diversity and inclusion essential topics for brands to address. A total of 51% of those same Gen Zs wanted brands to be more diverse in advertising and branding. It is not enough for companies to claim inclusivity. They must prove these values in advertisements and consistent messaging. For an industry as dependent on its brand image as fashion, brands must be cautious of how consumers perceive them. The items that are successful in 2022 and will likely be successful in the coming years are those that consider a wider variety of consumers.
76% of Gen Zs and 72% of Millennials considered diversity and inclusion “Extremely/Very Important.”
Where physical fashion trails behind this change, digital fashion excels. Virtual clothes perpetuate the idea that fashion is for all body types and identities. Anyone can wear anything in the metaverse, revolutionizing “one size fits all.” Brands dabbling in virtual fashion is a demonstration of their dedication to inclusivity.
Increasingly, the idea of creativity and boundless self-expression is overtaking fashion. Consider the rise in androgynous fashion that has been taking place since 2020. Research conducted this year by Screenwear Paper found two different fashion trends in the metaverse: people who replicate their real-life selves and those who experiment in trends they would not dare touch in real life. Digital fashion focuses primarily on the latter, providing genderless and size-less pieces and destroying constraints that exist in physical fashion, such as limited size availabilities and narrow colour selections.
Intersections Between Physical and Virtual
Viewing fashion as exclusively physical or digital is a mistake. The industry is veering towards “phygital,” an amalgamation of digital and physical. Companies relied on digital selling and distribution methods during the pandemic, and these practices are expected to continue. Brick-and-mortar stores will merge online and in-store techniques to usher consumers down the purchasing funnel. True to fashion’s futuristic nature, this change has already taken hold of the industry, with digital clothing traversing into the physical world.
More and more fashion brands are offering augmented reality try-on methods, where consumers “try on” clothes from home. The vision is to have customers wear items through the internet, using 3D virtual fitting technology on pictures and videos. Brick-and-mortar customers are, on average, spending less time in stores but purchasing more in person. This contradiction suggests that people prefer in-store purchases but do their research online. Virtual try-on would encourage brick-and-mortar sales and make top-of-funnel activities easier.
An example of AR try-on technology.
This technology is not static. It moves as your body moves and offers a realistic view of how products look from different angles and various movements. Social media sites such as Snapchat and TikTok offer sneak peeks into this innovation. Both sites include AR filters that overlay different makeup styles and clothes onto users. Snapchat even offers advanced cloth simulations, mimicking how physical clothes behave on bodies.
Some try-on methods use avatars. Online platform Drapr uses body scanners to construct realistic 3D avatars for its users. Then, they dress these avatars in clothes the customers are interested in purchasing.
Advanced try-on technology is not widely available. Unfortunately, shoppers cannot visit the Tommy Hilfiger site to find virtual try-on features that superimpose a cardigan on their selfies or transform them into avatars. However, companies are investing in this innovation and hope to bring it to life within the decade.
Augmented Reality Clothes
Digital clothes exist outside the metaverse as well. Companies like DressX, a virtual clothing brand, bring the digital into the physical. DressX photoshops digital clothes onto real-life pictures and videos, targeting social media influencers with this service. The aim is not to see how clothes look on customers but to allow influencers to publish themselves “wearing” their purchases. Considering influencers purchase almost 9% of clothes for content creation and return them afterwards, marketing digital clothes to social media users is a clever tactic.
A DressX garment on a YouTube influencer.
Metaverse Fashion Shows
The apex of fashion’s foray into the metaverse is ‘metaverse fashion shows.’ These are fashion events hosted exclusively in the metaverse, many of which advertise real-life products.
Decentraland, a 3D virtual, browser-based world, held a fashion week in March 2022 (coined MVFW). This event was public, and during the week, it featured diverse brands, designers, and galleries. Well-known companies in attendance were Forever 21, Dolce&Gabbana, and, yes, The Fabricant. While the event was online, attendants could buy the advertised products in real life—all they needed was an Ethereum wallet.
These shows support fashion’s movement into phygital. While physical stores will always be necessary for purchasing, the metaverse could be where brands centre their marketing and engagement strategies. Ultimately, the goal of the metaverse is to push visitors to purchase real-life products and visit physical stores.
The Future of Virtual Fashion
Dress X is close to perfecting its combination of digital and physical. Time, however, is a significant constraint. It takes days to photoshop their products onto photos and videos, forcing customers to wait and creating bumps in an otherwise seamless mixture of online and offline. Though DressX is not yet there, the future of phygital clothes is immediate.
With Zoom registering 3.3 trillion meeting minutes in 2022, life is sprinting online, specifically onto video-meeting platforms. AR technology is scrambling to accommodate this shift. For example, Zoom offers real-time makeup filters that overlay lip colours and blush onto faces during meetings. We may see brands partnering with video platforms in the next few years, allowing users to “wear” digital clothing in video meetings through filters.
A consumer would impress co-workers with the newest Holt Renfrew blazer in a weekly Zoom meeting when they are, in truth, dressed in a ratty pyjama shirt. Thanks to their clever decision to purchase a digital Holt Renfrew garment and connect it to their Zoom account, their co-workers will see them at their best.
These digital fashion purchases would also be available to customers’ avatars. Their digital versions could don the same garment in different virtual realities—a shared closet for the physical and virtual self.
This closet would trigger a new trend for fashion retail: dual purchases. Consumers would buy real-life products that come with a digital version for the metaverse. While no company is offering such deals now, some consumers take matters into their own hands. VR fashion influencer Leah Ashe revealed to the New York Post that when she purchased a Gucci GG Marmont bag, she also bought a digital version for her Roblox avatar. She intended for them to match.
There are hundreds of luxury knockoffs on sites like Roblox. Users create Roblox versions of Burberry, Chanel, Prada, Dior, and other luxury products. Recently, Hermes was enraged by their Baby Burkin being sold without their permission in the metaverse. Evidently, there is a demand for digital fashion to mirror real-life fashion lines. To prosper in the metaverse, brands must make their digital clothes identical or similar to their physical offerings.
Dual purchases would require phygital stores. Augmented and virtual reality technology can help bring this hybridity to fruition. Picture this: a consumer walks into a store and picks a product. Then, they use the in-house tablet or an AR/VR mirror to see how that same outfit looks on their metaverse avatar. Depending on the customer’s preference, they can buy both a physical and digital copy of the product or just a physical or digital version. The consumer decides on digital. The cashier sends the outfit to the customer’s email in seconds. This digital file can also link to the customer’s Zoom account.
The age-old question of “What should I wear?” now has a follow up: “What should I wear in the metaverse?”
Social Media Manager, Future of Marketing Institute