Journalist Sarah Magliocco on how the metaverse has become a fashion hotspot.

The internet is evolving once again before our eyes. Shifting from the clunky, pixelated sites many of us grew up with, to going completely interactive, three-dimensional and customisable.

Akin to worlds only previously dreamed of in science fiction films like The Matrix and Ready Player One, the metaverse is now a reality, and - eternally the early innovator - the fashion industry is tripping over its Yeezys to get in on the action.

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What is the metaverse?
The metaverse is simply part of the next iteration of the internet. The term is actually 30 years old, originally coined by the sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson to express a virtual reality space that can replicate a physical one.

When the dawn of the internet age began, it was with Web 1.0, or the "read only" web. The internet was used for the exchange of information only, an encyclopedia of information to be passed from one database to the other.

Web 2.0, the internet we know today, introduced interactivity, media hosting, and social media, with user experience at the forefront of software design. Web 3.0 is the next stage, where people's digital and tangible lives become even more entwined. While it might sound to some like a 90s sci-fi dystopian concept, the metaverse will be part of Web 3.0, and is less intimidating than the jargon surrounding it makes it seem - no black latex trench coat needed.

Most people first heard the term "metaverse" thanks to Facebook, when Mark Zuckerberg's behemoth company rebranded itself from Facebook to Meta, promising to deliver the future of social media connectivity via metaverse hang out spaces.

They are currently testing their virtual-reality social media platform, Horizon Worlds, a space where up to 20 avatars can socialise at one time, exploring and building their own tailored online world.

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Barriers do not exist
This brings up the age-old question: what will we wear? Jeans and a nice top might be bar-hopping appropriate, and we all know to pack swimwear for the beach, but what dress code does the metaverse demand, and how will this purely pixelated wardrobe manifest itself into our lives?

It is human nature to want to look our best, and present ourselves within the realms of our means. For most people, that expression is done through personal style, and so it is little wonder that the fashion industry is leading the charge when it comes to actualising our appearances in the digital world.

The limits of our earthly reality do not exist in the metaverse, and while a diamond encrusted suit or a dress made of fire might be beyond what our bank balances or the boundaries of modern dressmaking stretch to, those barriers simply do not exist online.

The metaverse is opening up endless possibilities for designers, retail brands and consumers, but while the everyday fashion customer might not yet be engaged in the metaverse in a conscious way, it’s already part of our lives.

From paying to attend a Zoom comedy show during the pandemic to engaging in games like Farmville on Facebook back in 2009, society already has a taste of being immersed in - and paying for - a purely digital experience.

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Gamifying fashion
Gamers are leading the way down this path, already part of vastly complex universes complete with rich storytelling, global group interaction and shelling out to upgrade their experiences.

Those who played Club Penguin, The Sims or Habbo Hotel again will be familiar with the concepts of community and construction that hallmark digital social spaces. For now, digital fashion is being used as a tool to point consumers towards real goods by fashion brands, but we have also seen brands create concepts for purely cybernated means.

An internet destination that many readers, particularly those with children, may be familiar with is Roblox. In fact, Roblox is sometimes described as a primitive metaverse.

Its audience is made of kids aged about 9 to 14 and amateur game developers - people who want to build without the constraints and expense of traditional game construction software. Gucci partnered with Roblox in 2021 and invited visitors to embark on a unique trip in the virtual Gucci Garden on the platform.

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Moschino has had collaborations with The Sims universe as far back as 2019, and in 2021 Balenciaga brought high fashion to Fortnite, making a collection of looks or "skins" that users could purchase for their gaming avatars to wear in game.

Brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Etro and Elie Saab have taken part in the first ever Metaverse Fashion Week, which disrupts the traditional seasonal and trans-Atlantic pattern of fashion weeks across the globe.

Via the metaverse, you can be sitting in your home in Ireland and engaging with people in the USA, South Korea, Paris and other international fashion capitals while witnessing the finest in digital fashion strutting past you on a virtual runway.

Someone who has attended such events, and has a stylish avatar of her own in Sandbox, the third-largest metaverse based on the Ethereum blockchain, is Ashley McDonnell, Galway native turned metaverse nomad who sits as Chairperson of Digital Business Ireland in tandem with her role at global luxury powerhouse PUIG.

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Innovation FOMO
According to her, luxury brands are paving the way in the metaverse after a slow start in the social media sphere, and thrive thanks to the exclusivity metaverse spaces can provide.

Why has luxury fashion darted down the runway at breakneck speed to get in on the metaverses trendiness? It’s simple, really: "I think it's two things. Firstly, fear of missing out; the fashion industry was very late to the digital game. I remember in 2016 when I was doing my first internship at LVMH Group [the luxury conglomerate that houses top tier brands, including their namesake brands Louis Vuitton, Moët and Hennessy] and Celine still was not on Instagram," Ashley told RTÉ Lifestyle, linking in from her Swiss office.

"We were still finding it hard to convince them that it was important to build a presence on Instagram. There was a big fear about not wanting to be late again, because the later on to something you are, the more costly it is."

While FOMO is a factor, the luxury industry is well served by the concept of Web 3.0, as it lends itself to the aspirational element that high fashion historically holds.

"For luxury designers, because those design pieces are meant to be rare, exclusive, and limited edition, it all made sense because it’s the exact same thing when it comes to NFTs [Non Fungible Tokens, which essentially represent the financial security of a digital good, made of data stored in a blockchain], they’re meant to be rare, they’re meant to be exclusive," Ashley mused.

"Web 3.0 is interactive, creative, expressive, and you have this ownership element with NFTs. You can’t have a fake NFT, because authenticity is going to be engraved within the product. That authenticity element makes it a lot easier for luxury fashion houses to view Web 3.0 in a positive light because they will be less afraid of counterfeit digital items."

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Care instructions
When it comes to owning an expensive handbag or a snazzy coat, we know how to take care of these tangible goods, with things like insurance, repair warranties, garment bags and a reputable dry cleaners, but for NFTs it’s a little different. Ashley explains that the customer is solely responsible for the security of their digital goods.

"It’s down to the owner to safeguard their access codes to the different platforms that they engage with. The level of cyber security involved in these platforms is incredible, that’s why you hear of people 'crypto-mining.’ They are trying to recover all of the cryptocurrency that people have completely lost access to and will never find again, because they have lost their access codes. It is essential that the individual safeguards whatever they own in terms of cryptocurrencies or NFTs, and then on the flip side you think 'well, how do brands stop themselves from being imitated?’"

This brings up the famous case of the MetaBirkin. It takes years to have access to buy an iconic Hermès Birkin handbag, no matter how much you’re willing to pay or what lengths you’re willing to go to. If Hermès does not deem you worthy, you’re not getting near this coveted piece of arm candy.

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Real life Birkins sell for anything between $40,000 and $500,000, and artist Mason Rothschild sold art featuring his own reimagined versions of the bag, portraying them covered in goo, rainbow hued fur and with fruit duct taped onto them. The NFT line of "MetaBirkins" launched at the 2021 Art Basel festival in Miami and sold for record prices.

Hermès is suing the artist in the U.S. District Court of New York for alleged trademark infringement and dilution, misappropriation of its BIRKIN trademark, cybersquatting, false designation of origin and description, and injury to business reputation: yikes.

Rothschild has countered that he used a disclaimer to distance himself from the brand, and likens his art to Andy Warhol’s use of consumer goods such as Campbell’s soup cans in his famous 1962 print series. The case will set the tone for how far artists can push the boundaries of artistic freedom within the metaverse, and will be another driver for brands to own their own voice within the metaverse space.

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Physical and digital as one
For many brands, there is also a focus on the physical and digital garments complimenting one another, and the maintenance of history and integrity alongside manoeuvring into the mainframe.

The best example thus far is Paco Rabbane’s Unwearable Dresses NFT collection, which reconceptualized the designer’s famous debut collection of "unwearable dresses" from the mid-90s, which saw dresses made of non traditional materials take a turn down the catwalk.

These dresses, which would be immensely uncomfortable if not borderline impossible to wear in the real world, are perfect fodder for digital dressing, as the limitations of perceptible matter don’t exist. The money raised from the sale of the online dresses was put towards doing up the Paco Rabbane archives, preserving fashion history for future generations to see and be inspired by.

This can also be seen in brands exploring the idea of "twinning" - when you purchase a luxury handbag, you are also given an NFT version, which allows you to prove the authenticity of your physical bag.

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Sustainable statement
Clothes in our current era are no longer just fabric representations of personal expression, but moments to broadcast on social media. Metaversal fashion is a new way to make the same online impact without the unsustainable side effects of garment production.

People can already download and purchase outfits for their social media feeds via digital fashion design platforms like Dress X, which allows you to browse clothing, choose an outfit and have digital tailors fit the clothing on to a photo of you, ready to post on social media in the latest, wackiest or most reality warping clothing.

While the luxury industry and boutique digital design with a higher price point has been dominating the space so far, we are starting to see fast fashion brands catch on to the hype.

Dress X just released a collaboration with a high street shop Bershka, offering designs for as low as €1.99, making it an entry point for people with smaller budgets to start considering their online wardrobes. Bershka’s collab with Dress X has eight AR fashion pieces available, a departure from previous collections made by the likes of Burberry, Balenciaga, Off-White and Dolce & Gabbana for the site.

Gap, American Eagle and Forever 21 have also made their moves into the space via collaborations with Roblox, so we are due to see in the coming months how the wider fashion industry will respond to the increasing demand for digital designs.

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Disrupting fashion and more
As for how that demand will increase, the natural passage into the metaverse for the majority of people, fashion fans or otherwise, will be experiential. "It needs to be events and experiences," said Ashley. "The first Meta Fashion Week has already taken place at the beginning of this year. Some brands completely imitated what they did in real life and recreated their pieces in digital versions, and then you had other brands who went all out, which is the way I think it should be."

"That lends itself to a whole different realm of creativity and expression, again not limited by the textiles and materials we want to use when we design virtually. I think more and more we will see festivals and events happening where we no longer tune into something via Zoom, we instead join up in the metaverse. That will disrupt the fashion industry, the beauty industry, education and more," McDonnell says.

Needing something for your avatar to wear to these events will help metaverse explorers display their personalities through their online ambassadors, and traverse the wider realms of the metaverse platforms through their wardrobes, like a very fashionable, wifi-driven Narnia.

In the very, very near future, instead of showing up late to the party because you had a wardrobe malfunction, it might be because you were waiting for your dress to download.