Currently, there seems to be a contradiction in the narrative around the metaverse. While many think the whole concept is hanging on by a digital thread, there are those in the fashion industry, and beyond, that continue to support its relevance and are convinced that it’s going to continue to grow. The latter includes some of the biggest names in fashion (Dolce & Gabbana, Adidas, and Tommy Hilfiger, to name a few) who made significant investments into Metaverse Fashion Week last month, and who generally continue to drive their metaverse presence further. One thing is for sure, the metaverse is evolving. While it hardly had a concrete definition to begin with, it seems clear that the metaverse is changing shape, coming of age (depending on who you believe), and frequently experiencing major shifts in its taxonomy, location, and overall perception.
What even is the metaverse right now? Nobody really knows, and at a time when its nature is constantly morphing, pinning down an answer is perhaps more difficult than ever.
Critics – and there are several of those here at The Interline – might suggest that this continuous shape-shifting and goalpost-moving is just a way for metaverse proponents to circumvent the reality that their vision has so far not lived up to expectations. But amidst the dissenting opinions, there are still suggestions that the metaverse is something brands should persevere with. Does the answer lie at one of those two extremes, or somewhere in the middle? Let’s explore.
Untangling the Metaverse, Digital Fashion, and Web3
There are a variety of different definitions of the metaverse. One that is descriptive, while also abstract and open enough to keep some room for the future, is from its origin: Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash. Here, the metaverse is defined as a virtual world where users appear as avatars to socialise, work, shop or play. In a more modern interpretation, author Matthew Ball’s acclaimed book ‘The ‘Metaverse’ suggests the following attributes for the space:
- massively scalable, interoperable, real-time;
- synchronous and persistent characteristics; and
- continuity of data, identity, history, entitlements, objects, and payments across worlds.
Some of the most popular metaverse spaces (Roblox, Decentraland, The Sandbox, Minecraft, and Fortnite) certainly fit within Ball’s definition to a minor extent, but key watchwords like “scalable” and continuity are more noticeable by their absence. What we currently observe is a bunch of nascent attempts to become a large enough player that sheer gravitational pull confers the status of “the” metaverse by default. That is, after all, a strategy that’s worked in numerous other tech sectors, so it’s not an entirely faulty assumption to believe it might happen here again. But it hasn’t happened yet.
Next, it’s important to define what digital fashion is, and how it relates to the metaverse. Kerry Murphy, co-Founder and CEO of digital fashion house The Fabricant, spoke to The Interline and explained: “Digital fashion is an industry that already exists independently of the metaverse and will continue to grow regardless of its evolution.”
That might, on the surface, look like a very convenient distance being placed between an idea that still has legs – digital fashion, to be worn on avatars or mapped to human bodies, manually or through AR projection – and one that’s starting to stumble. But The Fabricant can justifiably claim to have planted its digital fashion flag well before the metaverse leapt into fashion’s lexicon, and while the studio had a clear presence at Metaverse Fashion Week 2023 (more on that from The Interline soon) it seems likely that the designing and wearing of digital clothing, footwear, and accessories is on a divergent path from the one being taken by the metaverse itself.
There’s one more definition we need to get out of the way. Another metaverse-adjunct concept is Web3, which refers to “a catch-all term for the vision of a new, better internet” according to its founder, and which uses cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and blockchains to decentralise power and allow users to have more ownership. Web3 often appears in the same breath as the metaverse, and while the two are not synonymous, a lot of what Ball lists as his core characteristics of the metaverse are currently being hitched to the crypto horse.The best way to make digital objects, identities, payments and so on persistent and interoperable is – at least according to Web3 proponents – tokenisation.
The most ready example of how these two topics are moving forward in unison is the aforementioned Metaverse Fashion Week, which is hosted by Decentraland. The crypto-backed land speculation side of that business has been de-emphasised recently in favour of its current face as a real-time playground, but the association is inextricable because the founding principle of Decentraland is that it’s an interactive layer on top of highly risky investments in real-estate and digital goods.
As a consequence, it’s currently difficult to have a conversation about the metaverse without also having one about decentralisation – whether that association is a favourable one or not.
Speed Bumps On the Road To the Metaverse
With the building blocks out of the way, let’s take a more clinical perspective on the current manifestations of the metaverse. What has been a success so far and what has not?
First: while Meta (the company) sells the vision for the metaverse as being a fully immersive, embodied internet, necessitating the use of a virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display (HMD), this vision seems to have stalled. VR headsets are still largely clunky and expensive, and can come with the issue of causing motion sickness and physical pain for users after a certain amount of time. AR/VR glasses could seemingly solve this problem, but are still a long way from being ready for the mass market.
Notably, standalone VR hardware (such as the Meta Quest 2) is extremely limited by its mobile chipset and short battery life, while tethered hardware (like the PSVR2, Valve Index etc.) are require a separate purchase of a device to do the actual rendering – i.e. a PS5 or a hefty PC. And at a time when consumer spending is on a downward slope, the idea that the metaverse can be a democratising, universally accessible place is counter-indicated by the commercial reality. Which has led to something of a vicious cycle.VR adoption rates are low because hardware is expensive and the experiences currently available don’t justify that investment, but ploughing money into creating better experiences is a ticket expense with no current return; building the VR-centric, embodied metaverse will come at gigantic cost, but if everyone loses interest in the vision in the interim, then that money will not be coming back.
Secondly, seamless interoperability between worlds has not yet happened, and there’s no real timeline for it happening. Porting our avatars from leisure in Roblox to vocation in Decentraland is still only a dream, and while some real-time engine owners (especially Epic Games) are clearly very keen on allowing for ease of asset reuse between their own IPs, and between other games that run on Unreal Engine, at the SDK level, this is still ecosystem lock by another name.
Understandably, true interoperability is an enormously complicated task that no one company can achieve, and one that will require internet infrastructure, hardware investment, commercial openness from the video gaming world, and other VR/AR spaces to harmonise their proprietary protocols.
There has been some progress made in this regard beyond the single-engine level, such as that by the Open Metaverse Interoperability Group (OMI) who are working towards designing and aiding in the implementation of a set of standards for adoption. But this, as well as standardisation, is still years away from reaching maturity. Another challenge, especially for smaller brands, has been the struggle to identify a pathway into the metaverse that delivers a measurable return in ways that traditional digital advertising can’t, and these brands are thus not seeing its value in the shorter-term – making either pragmatism or bottomless pockets (not normally the domain of small brands and independent designers) a requirement.
On the other hand, those who see themselves as already working in the metaverse space feel that there is still a lot of misunderstanding around the work that is being done, and the progress that is being made. The Interline spoke to Olska Green, Founder and CEO of the Portugal-based sustainable fashion brand Ecoolska, who shared that: “the metaverse is still at an early stage, and not everybody understands it. But whether we like it or not, virtual reality is informing our physical life.”
And she is right. Despite the failures, there are a handful of advances that have come about from the buzz around the metaverse. When acknowledging that the metaverse is still in its infancy, and with its future shape extremely uncertain, the narrative changes from expecting something that functions seamlessly, to understanding that what presently exists is merely the foundation. Or, to put it another way, the metaverse is a work in progress – and some people are more willing to live in a house under construction than others.
For instance, we have seen that it is possible to host thousands of people in a single instance of a server (optimistic metaverse predictions suppose this will grow to millions of people at once.) This was the case at the most recent Metaverse Fashion Week, which had 26,000 active users (down from 108,000 the previous year, and with considerable uncertainty over whether more than 1,000 were concurrent, but nonetheless).
There was also progress made here on the interoperability front, as the event took place across separate metaverses beyond Decentraland (including Roblox, Emperia, Artificial Rome, Spatial, and Over). This marks the first time that several prolific companies have attempted a live event in different online locations and thus marks a step forward in the direction of a more open and interoperable metaverse, although critics would point out that inconsistency of experience is just as much of a barrier to user adoption as anything else I’ve mentioned so far.
Looking at the bigger picture, the metaverse has also, unambiguously, provided a new channel to consumers, one that has the potential to not only foster meaningful relationships and loyalty but to also be exceptionally lucrative providing a narrow set of circumstances and targets are hit.
In fashion specifically, brands have found new and creative ways to reach their consumers, providing exciting experiences. Winne Burke, Head of Fashion and Beauty Partnerships at Roblox spoke to The Interline on the topic: “We’ve seen huge brands including Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger, and Nike launch explorable worlds on the Roblox platform to engage consumers; experiment with new ideas and test products; reach and build new communities and even create entire fashion lines.”
Where the value of these communities sits, organisationally speaking, is a harder question. Currently, most metaverse budgets come from brands’ and retailers’ innovation arms, but if their deliverable is market testing, engagement, and community building, then the right way to measure their revenue potential will be to slot them into existing advertising business units. This is not a failing of the metaverse vision, per se, but rather a more pragmatic approach: for brands to continue funnelling money into real-time engagement, they will, sooner or later, want to measure that return and add it to a column on their balance sheets.
An Opportunity Worth Pursuing?
In light of all this, is it still worth investing in the metaverse? For some brands, the answer is “yes” with a lot of qualifiers. For others, who see value from pure experimentation, those qualifiers can be dropped. And for others still, the qualifiers will represent a barrier to entry that they lack either the appetite or the funding to overcome.
“Digital fashion for the metaverse is absolutely worth pursuing. Looking at the trends from any other design industry, it is easy to predict the steps fashion is making in its digital transformation. Digital is not a nice to have but a must for any company looking to secure their future,” says Murphy. And anyone who’s read The Interline’s DPC Report from late 2022 will know that’s a common sentiment in fashion today – creating digital representations of physical products has so much untapped potential in streamlining digital-for-physical workflows that the extra benefits of digital-for-digital are just icing on the cake.
Brands that are digital-first, like The Fabricant, already know about the benefits of being involved in creating digital fashion, and for them and the community of designers they help to foster, backing the idea of the metaverse is equivalent to backing the idea that fashion is ready to shed its exclusionary past and embrace new creatives, real diversity, and much more.
But more traditional, smaller brands might not see entering the space with digital clothing as making a lot of sense, even if it comes as a corollary benefit of investing into digitising the creation of physical clothing.
Whatever the metaverse evolves into, though, it is highly likely we will continue to increase the amount of time we spend online, considering historical data. And in doing so, it’s logical that we might want to express ourselves through our avatars (more on these later) and through how we dress in digital spaces.
This raises the question of whether creating digital fashion (whether it’s done expressly for the metaverse, or just as part of an overall digital transformation strategy) should even be seen as innovative or experimental, or whether it’s a pool into which brands of all shapes and sizes are going to need to dip their toes sooner rather than later. While we’re all going to continue to need to wear physical clothing, of course, the pragmatic approach could be to build up your digital product creation ecosystem and talent, and to simply start making a splash with the hope of discovering unpredictable returns and new opportunities.
“Digital fashion is really important for traditional fashion brands. Getting in early will be important, too. All brands need to realise that being active in the [metaverse] space is a great marketing and networking tool,” says Green from Ecoolska. “Our community for Web3 fashion is small and it’s welcoming too, full of clever people with innovative businesses. We find that it’s been great for collaborations, partnerships, and financial growth.”
And while the mechanics of reaching them are being built as we speak, the audience on fledgling-metaverse platforms is undeniably vast. “In January 2023, an average of over 65 million people a day came together on Roblox, with millions of people updating their avatar with the latest virtual clothing and accessories each day,” Burke tells The Interline.
Roblox might be the pinnacle of popularity (with Fortnite also in the running), but notably even lesser known metaverses like Emperia have another measure of success: a high average user time, that may compensate for a lower than expected user count. The company claims that users spend an average of 14 minutes in their virtual experiences, in contrast with the two minutes users spend when visiting static e-commerce websites, although critics might suggest that much of that time is spent on the user re-orienting themselves and figuring out basic interactivity in a way that simply isn’t necessary to browse a flat eCommerce frontend.
At this point, though, it’s worth returning to the substantial challenge regarding entry to virtual worlds. Big brands are dominating some popular metaverse spaces: Balenciaga x Fortnite, H&M x Animal Crossing, and Roblox and their various collaborators as mentioned above. But what can smaller brands do, when they lack the impact to build similar partnerships and attract audiences through brand cachet alone? And what about solo designers? Are they as reliant on curated shows as they are IRL?
“We’ve also seen opportunities emerge for our community creators who are now partnering directly with brands to create these fashion items and immersive branded experiences. Some are even debuting their own collections of avatar fashion and building their own brands and careers in the process,” says Burke. This is certainly one option, but other than brands turning their products into NFTs, a trend in decline, it seems that finding a profitable way into metaverse spaces is not clear cut – and for smaller brands and emerging designers, measuring value through advertising reach will not put food on the table.
Is there a blended approach? On way it’s possible to take a concrete step into the future of fashion is by using AR. Phygital (physical + digital), a new word that has made its way into the everyday lexicon of the fashion world, refers to the incorporation of AR elements into wearable fashion (or, confusingly, it can also refer to instances where buying a physical garment confers an NFT-backed digital one, or vice versa.).
“Even though brands are starting to show interest in digital-only fashion, most of them are more ready to leverage the technology to provide phygital experiences,” says George Yashin, co-Founder CEO of Zero10. “The technology still appears very new and therefore it is much easier for brands to introduce it to customers in a familiar environment.”
The company is one of the few AR companies assisting brands with their phygital blueprint, and launched their solution for physical retail, AR Mirror, in global Tommy Hilfiger retail stores. Crucially, as Yashin hints at, AR has the potent combination of being both novel and practical; AR applications are already here, and body-project mapping is delivering progressively more believable results in record time.
But this exciting technology is not without its challenges, from the point of view of the industry and the software itself – ready to deploy as it might. “AR try-on technology still has room for improvement in terms of body tracking and body segmentation,” Yashin continues. “Consequently, another reason why adoption of AR in fashion has not been as mainstream is due to the lack of realistic looking designs out there. Getting to a place where digital garments look the same as physical garments will take time and additional data for development.”
Preparing for the Journey Ahead
Whether it’s flatscreen, VR, AR, single-universe or multi, no one knows precisely what the metaverse will look like. In fact, I would go one step further and say that nobody really knows what it should be today – let alone how to realise it for the future.
But when looking back at the past three years of metaverse experimentation, it seems that there are a few core components that are more likely to lead to success: brands engaging their customers with a gamified, interactive experience, complete with a solid story that is visually stunning. Or digital advertising in real-time, for want of a better word.
And AR is likely the nearest instantiation we have of this idea. “AR try-on technology is a great solution for making the online shopping process easier, more convenient and more fun, but also something exciting for customers returning to brick-and-mortar stores,” says Yashin, indicating just how closely aligned the idea of the metaverse and traditional retail have become.
Linked to all this, of course, is the idea of personalisation. The desire to hyper-personalise one’s avatar is something that has been noted in reflections more than once following metaverse/digital fashion weeks and events, and seems to be one of the factors that could seriously improve user experience. Personalising, accessorising, and customising virtually is a much broader canvas than any of us – even celebrities with the deepest pockets of all – can access in real life, making digital dressing something of a great leveller, even if its current flag-bearers are weighted towards luxury brands with high price points that transcend channels.
“Digital fashion in Roblox has exploded over the past few years to become an important way people, especially Gen Z, express themselves and share their unique personalities,” says Burke. “They play around with styles they maybe wouldn’t wear in the physical world, reflect their mood in digital clothing and use it to connect with peers.”
It would be remiss not to mention NFTs, or digital collectibles as they are now becoming known as partly responsible for redefining the nomenclature of the metaverse. I’ve already written about how tokens could offer a route to interoperability, but their role in behavioural change could be anchored in their scarcity: “Another step in the right direction will be for metaverses to be underpinned by blockchain to make the digital assets within them collectible and tradable,” says Murphy.
And just how will ‘steps forward’ be quantified? What does metaverse success, right here, right now, look like?
At this year’s SXSW, various options were discussed, from metrics like the amount of unique users, return users, and time spent on the platform. But once again the issue of standardisation came up, as some standard metaverse-specific metrics need to be ironed out in order to compare with the likes of Instagram and TikTok etc. A suggestion by Les Binet was put forward that what those working in the metaverse should be striving for is “long-term loyalty that leaves positive memories” and this is what will lead to growth – financial and other – in the future.
Developing a place where people can interact virtually, similar to how they would interact physically, despite being far away, seems like a natural evolution for humanity given globalisation, high migration levels, remote and hybrid working, and a host of other indicators that appear to be pointing in one direction.
At the moment, artificial intelligence (AI) is in the spotlight, with many publications (ours included) calling it a tech event on or beyond the scale of the smartphone. But AI’s day in the sun follows decades in obscurity; there have been times where it seemed that AI was not going anywhere – for example the AI winter of the 1970’s where funding and interest cooled down temporarily after a period of overhype. So while the metaverse is recovering from its own spate of hype, in the long term it still stands the chance of becoming increasingly prevalent. And if there’s one key takeaway from this article, it would be that proclaiming the metaverse “dead’ would be premature.
For example, it seems more likely than not that immersive, real-time digital environments will remain important to fashion brands considering our increasing online screen time and the desire to express ourselves, the substantial investment and interest in digital fashion to date, and the possibilities of creativity without limits that it holds. The shift from only being able to make and sell physical goods to being able to do the same for digital goods is a major one, and one that fashion should not underestimate.
Today, digital fashion in the metaverse can be seen as an opportunity to reach customers in imaginative ways, pushing the boundaries of reality, and building communities in the process. Tomorrow it could be something completely different, with the only common threads being digital assets and real-time interactivity.
Whether we’re talking about hitting the moving metaverse target today or tomorrow, though, neither will come without challenges, as the pathway to entry for many brands into virtual worlds is still challenging and uncertain. But that’s not to say that this won’t change over time, certainly starting with something like AR that can act as a bridge between the virtual and physical worlds.
And as for the seeming decline in interest in the metaverse? Yashin sums it up well: “As with any other new technology, adoption is always slowest at the beginning because people won’t see the value of its implementation unless they can experience it first-hand. From this standpoint, brands can really help accelerate this process of mass adoption by integrating technology into their e-commerce and physical retail strategies and embed it within the consumer experience.”
Or to sum it up another way, the more you look at the metaverse, the more it changes. Whether that unpredictability will translate into stability or success in the longer-term is anyone’s guess. But that constant evolution doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. And fashion is firmly along for the ride.