- Low attendee numbers, a web of stakeholders sharing a limited pool of revenue, a confused user experience, and an unwelcome (but foundational) anchor to crypto – Metaverse Fashion Week 2023 experienced a rough landing.
- Adjacent sectors like digital fashion are now keen to position themselves as being on a different, divergent path from “the metaverse” – not just because of MVFW2023, but as part of a broader pullback from the current practical reality and the general idea of metaverse fashion.
- Because the nascent possibilities of digital-for-digital fashion have helped to drive deeper investment in the same 3D tools used in digital-for-physical applications, there is some concern that the deflation of the metaverse vision might cause DPC budgets to be re-evaluated.
- For marketing teams, opportunities to showcase products and immerse a new audience in the brand / retail lifestyle mean that dollars spent on metaverse initiatives could potentially deliver an acceptable return – but the current execution of those initiatives needs real improvement.
- With better execution, separation from crypto speculation, and even greater inclusivity and unbridled creativity, the potential for a successful (and profitable) real-time fashion event exists, but delivering it will likely meaning moving towards mainstream rendering engines and videogame partnerships, rather than re-inventing the wheel.
At the end of March, I floated past six photographers who were going through a series of pre-canned animations, pointing their lenses at a completely empty red carpet.
Behind them stood multi-storey buildings carrying the marks of household name brands and major publications, which popped in and out of existence at an alarmingly close draw distance. Across the street was a smorgasbord of copyright-infringing signs shilling virtual plots denominated in a dying currency.
I was the only person around.
And if there’s a better encapsulation of Metaverse Fashion Week 2023 – and perhaps the idea of metaverse fashion as a whole – I haven’t seen it.
A multinational, multi-brand, multi-platform initiative spread over multiple days, Metaverse Fashion Week (shortened to MVFW from here) has hit the trade headlines over the last month for a few reasons.
The first was marketing. Ahead of the event, the organisers had done an impressive job of bringing big-name brands on board: Adidas, Diesel, Coach, DKNY, Dolce & Gabbana. And in the build-up to the show it was hard to escape the feeling that this – the second year of MVFW – was going to be “a thing”. With a capital T. Panel discussions chaired by Vogue, Threedium, and The Fabricant. Virtual fashion shows and activations from those aforementioned labels and many more. Real fashion content; unreal location.
The second was expectation. For better or worse (and there was a lot of the latter, which I’ll be getting to) MVFW 2023 became a lightning rod for not just metaverse fashion, but digital fashion as a whole. Name almost anyone in the business of making digital clothes or dressing digital avatars, and they’d hitched their wagon – officially or off the books – to MVFW. Whether you loved or hated digital fashion, this was the locus to express the way you felt, or to set out your stall.
(Conspicuous by their quietness were major players in real-time 3D design, rendering and simulation, but their absence was probably a very well-calculated move, as we’ll soon see.)
The event was also pitched in a fractious way when it comes to digital fashion’s deep-rooted association with crypto. Depending on the angle you looked at it from, MVFW was either a proving ground for the NFT and crypto speculation shell game, or it was a swerve away from that whole conversation. And that conflict was visible at the core of the event, which promoted tokens as an essential engine for interoperability, but also allowed people to buy digital garments with credit cards.
But for everything it was, MVFW 2023 now seems to be going down in history for what it wasn’t: a success by the metrics it originally aimed for.
We all fall down
Compared to the same event in 2022, total attendee figures for MVFW 2023 slumped 70% year-on-year, to just 26,000 total. And the peak concurrent user count of the primary host platform, Decentraland, during the height of the event, was around 1,000.
Needless to say, the hosts have been keen to talk about other metrics in the official recap and other post-show communication – leaning heavily, instead, on the event’s ability to welcome and empower people who’d previously been excluded from the closed fashion ecosystem. Although that same recap pointing out that 50% of this year’s attendees were new to Decentraland inadvertently reveals the fact that, of the 100,000 who flocked to MVFW 2022, 87,000 didn’t think it was worth coming back… Probably not the message the organisers intended to convey, but a telling figure nonetheless, since it suggests that one exposure was enough for a lot of people.
For context, a marquee live event in Fortnite can draw more than 10,000,000 concurrent players (split across many instances), meaning MVFW 2023’s best single turnout represented 0.01% of the simultaneous audience we’d expect to see from one of Epic’s major cross-media collaborations.
Now, is it fair to judge a fledgling idea, on its second outing, against the yardstick of one of the world’s biggest entertainment properties? Not really.
Which is why this is a slightly different retrospective on MVFW 2023 than you might have seen elsewhere. I care a lot less about the event in isolation (or even in context) than I do about what this all heralds for the future of digital assets and real-time rendering in fashion.
The decline in this particular show’s user figures, and how those stack up in the wider landscape of real-time events, speak for themselves – but judged alone they’re also a blinkered case study of just one room in a house of cards that seems to be actively collapsing in its entirety, and potentially pulling down its nearest neighbours.
And with the dust actively settling around us today, it feels like the time to ask whether MVFW was a failure for reasons of its own making, or whether the whole idea of metaverse fashion is inherently bad.
Because the answer to that question will have implications for the way brands think about not just their metaverse strategies – many of which are already being shuttered after becoming bottomless pits on company balance sheets – but the impetus behind their broader digital product creation strategies.
Think about it this way. The idea of the metaverse as an inevitable, onrushing wave, and a place where brands could quickly monetise digital representations of their products, was the wedge that some companies needed to funnel more of their profits back into creating those digital garments at scale.
Everyone got excited, very quickly, about the idea that the metaverse was coming – and coming fast. And in the process of that digital-for-digital fervour, digital-for-physical strategies (i.e. initiatives where digital tools, digital fabrics etc. are deployed in service of streamlining and transforming the creation of physical end products) received a much-needed boost.
Which means that the fallout from MVFW 2023 might not be self-contained; it has the possibility to spread not just to other metaverse fashion ventures, but also to other areas where digital assets and real-time rendering have already proven their value, as showcased in our first DPC Report from late 2022.
And as a result, those extra dollars that the bull-run towards the metaverse funnelled into DPC as a whole could dry up. Which would be, to be clear, a very bad outcome for a fashion industry that’s only recently reached a true inflection point for real, enterprise-wide digital product creation.
The same concern is also valid at the consumer end. A negative impression gleaned from MVFW could easily colour anyone’s opinion of real-time and digital fashion for a long time. “Digital clothing? I tried that, and I didn’t like it” is not just a statement on the (un)stickiness of MVFW itself, but on the entire landscape of tools, opportunities, and ideas that are starting to coalesce around digital assets whose lifespans no longer need to end at the point of manufacturing.
Recently, we published a feature examining how the goalposts for the metaverse are moving, and asking, frankly, whether brands should bother trying to keep up. In that piece, we sourced a quote from a company that had a major presence at MVFW 2023, who went on record as saying that they see digital fashion and metaverse fashion as now being on different, divergent paths, and that one could outlive the other. And it’s hard to read that quote now as anything but an attempt to separate an idea that’s still in flight – and still securing investment – from one that appears to be in a downward spiral.
And while it would be naive to suggest that a company on Nike’s scale is doing anything in response to comparatively small fry like MVFW 2023, Business of Fashion published a solid analysis of why that brand’s “digital collectibles” platform is eschewing explicit mentions of cryptocurrency or NFTs. The baggage those terms drag in with them is palpable.
But despite all that, I don’t believe the idea of a digital fashion event that exists solely in one or more real-time engines is an inherently faulty one. I think the problem with MVFW was not one of vision, but one of execution and poor platform choice.
So in the back half of this article I’d like to do a few things:
- Explain what did and didn’t work about MVFW 2023, technically and culturally.
- Examine whether there’s a viable commercial justification for executing on a similar concept, much better, to help the idea of real-time and digital fashion shed the baggage.
- Consider where the investment might come from for a fresh attempt at a digital fashion event, and where the profit and loss should sit.
The good, the bad, and the moral low-ground
Let’s get the good out of the way first. Not just because the list is shorter, but because I believe there’s a central idea here that’s not just salvageable but valuable.
One of the core promises of 3D design and digital creation has always been that it opens up pathways for people who – for a variety of reasons – have been shut out of the established ecosystem of fashion. And while that’s definitely been true for making it a little bit easier for people to climb the near-vertical onramp to making physical fashion, when it comes to digital-only fashion the doors are wide open – and anyone’s welcome.
When you’re designing for an all-digital output, anything goes. That’s translated into a bit of a reputation for digital fashion being ‘too wild’, or too untethered from reality, but really that’s sort of the point. The goal here is not to design for a physical output, and that should, frankly, blow away a lot of cobwebs. It would seem, to me, like a waste of a new medium if all fashion did with digital-only products was replicate what it’s done physically in the past, and if the only crowd invited was the one that we’ve already permitted to take part.
In practice, at MVFW 2023, that open door did genuinely seem to translate into greater inclusivity and a different spark of community creativity than we’d have seen at a different kind of fashion week. Did I think everything on show was good? Definitely not. There was much I didn’t like. And not all of it was even what I’d class as imaginative.
But that’s ok. I’m not on any judging panels for digital fashion – probably for several reasons – and most of what those new, emerging, and experimental creators showcased was at the very least different at either the individual product level or in the presentation and experience built around it. And heterogeneity is worth both celebrating and cultivating any time – especially when it forms the spark of a new initiative.
And it wasn’t just new creators pushing the envelope of presentation. Established brands – particularly Adidas and Coach – did quite a lot to create compelling experiences with the very narrow set of tools at their disposal. The American leather-good giant’s Tabby Bag installation was probably the highlight of what was on display in Decentraland, because it was not just an ersatz recreation of a physical installation. It was something different, that could only really be done digitally.
But make no mistake, Decentraland gave both cohorts of creators a very crude canvas to work with. From egregious pop-in to menus and interaction prompts that seemed to ignore the last decade of human interface design, the basic act of interacting with Decentraland – which was itself the primary layer that users had to access MVFW itself – put up usability and aesthetic barriers at every turn.
And even though both big names and new designers managed to create interesting looks and novel experiences within the engine, these all wound up adhering to a visual style that somehow managed to be both inconsistent and universally unappealing – all at once. At least to my eyes.
That limited creative palette and that rocky UX onramp were just part of the problem, though. Because Decentraland’s issues run much deeper, and its suffusion with crypto speculation cast a very obvious pall over the entire event.
Before you write this part off as being the complaints of someone who’s older than the target demographic for a lot of this stuff, let’s pause and consider why Decentraland exists in the first place: as a platform for acquiring, leasing, and selling scarce virtual land, goods, and services, in exchange for crypto tokens. The user-facing rendering engine has a lot of rough edges that people stumbled over, but given time, investment, and effort, those could theoretically be smoothed away. What you can’t excise from Decentraland is its fundamental anchor to token speculation and the crypto “economy”.
To facilitate the exchange of virtual land and virtual goods, Decentraland has a native token – MANA – which at the time of writing is down 90% from its peak price in late 2021. It was, in fairness, certainly possible to join in MVFW as a guest, without tying a crypto wallet to an account, although the sign-in process for Decentraland makes it clear that this is not the intended experience. Certain events, too, were token-gated and accessible only to people who held NFTs minted and sold well before the show itself. And the event hosts also paid – presumably in MANA directly, or with a more popular cryptocurrency – to lease the plots of land that MVFW installations sat on from their virtual landlords.
All of which should demonstrate that any separation between MVFW 2023 and cryptocurrency / NFTs is an artificial one. You might not have bought or redeemed an NFT after attending, but the fact remains that the platform at the heart of the event was literally built to drive those kinds of transactions.
Is that a problem? It depends on where you stand. And although it’s questionable journalistic practice to have a stance, I’m going to tell you mine.
Decentraland is billed as the first virtual world owned by its users. That sounds noble at a glance, but even a slightly deeper look reveals that the idea quickly devolves into land-baronism, moneyed speculation, and obvious scamming. I don’t just mean that in a detached, theoretical sense; walking just a “street” away from the curated MVFW plot lead you to a Wild West of people hawking land and crypto projects. It was jarring, to say the least, to take a tiny wrong turn and find an off-model sculpture of Mario telling me to buy a plot from the owner – who is, presumably, deep in the hole if they bought that land when MANA was “mooning”.
But even if we ignore the darker side of crypto and the IP-infringement taking place just off-camera (after all, an in-person fashion event isn’t responsible for the tenants on the other side of the road) I personally find the central idea of virtual land speculation built on crypto morally bankrupt. If the best we, as a species, can think to do with digital space is morsel it out, lease it, sell it, or squat on it, then that speaks to both a paucity of imagination and a lack of both scruples and sympathy.
We live in a world of peaking scarcity out here, in real life, so replicating that in the virtual world strikes me as a fundamentally rotten concept. And the idea of trying to build a more inclusive future for digital fashion on the top of that is broken on an ideological level as well as a practical one.
People will – and have – argue with me that I’m not seeing the big picture here, and that people fear the infusion of Web3 ideas and ideals into digital fashion simply because they’re risky and unknown. That might be true to an extent – everyone’s risk appetite is different – but if it is then the question I’ll ask is why digital fashion has to be anchored into decentralised finance if the latter is so off-putting? If achieving interoperability of assets absolutely has to hinge on the use of inherently-risky crypto tokens, then low adoption is almost an inevitability because of the variability of risk profiles, which will lead to a lack of interoperability for commercial and behavioural reasons instead.
Now, no other engine with ambitions on the metaverse is linked to crypto speculation to the same degree. Platforms like Spatial, Emperia, and Artificial Rome’s Soil, have much more virtuous reasons to creating 3D spaces that don’t carry any of the same baggage. And while some of those don’t exactly acquit themselves too much better in the usability stakes (running questionably on good hardware, or needlessly reinventing basic avatar and camera movement paradigms) they do represent a considerably better future prospect than Decentraland, even if they were only a small portion of the MVFW landscape.
To draw a final line under all this, it’s important to remember that having a real-time world that runs well, looks good, and is easy to navigate should be table stakes for any serious attempt to realise the vision for metaverse fashion. And even if we set the whole crypto quandary aside, MVFW 2023 was primarily hosted on a platform that fell short in all these areas.
The bottom(less) line
We’ve so far considered things from the user’s perspective, but do things look any better if we switch to a commercial outlook? Or are brands going to be looking at their investments in the metaverse and wondering what they spent the money for?
That might sound like a glib question, but it’s actually a pretty fundamental one. What is a presence in the metaverse (or at MVFW 2023) supposed to do? Who is it for? Who foots the bill? And whose balance sheet inherits any measurable return?
To start to answer that, we need concrete figures that are hard to come by. But we can take a stab at a basic calculus.
According to a pre-show analysis, brands and exhibitors paid $5,000 and upwards to reserve space during MVFW 2023. Based on MVFW’s own show map, somewhere in the region of 30 exhibitors took part in the main spaces, creating an incoming revenue stream somewhere north of $150,000, which is obviously split between different virtual landowners and other stakeholders.
Dollar figures for the sale of digital products themselves haven’t been released for the 2023 event, but the 2022 show played host to around $77,000 in transactional value passing from exhibitors to attendees. (It’s not clear whether this factors in gas fees for crypto transactions or not). Given the significant shortfall in attendance this year, a charitable estimate would be to cut those transaction figures in half. Since attendance was free, no party generated money from “ticket” sales outside of the token-gated sessions I’ve already mentioned, which represent indirect monetisation.
For emerging designers, then, the selling opportunity was there – albeit to a much smaller captive audience than last year. But for the big brands who took part, MVFW 2023 – and by extension the idea of metaverse fashion as a whole – is clearly more of a promotional play than a transactional one. Which means the return will be measured in eyeballs rather than dollars.
On that basis, if we assume that a brand paid the baseline exhibition land-lease cost, and that even half of the total attendees walked by their installation, that represents a cost of less than a dollar to reach a single customer. Which, in traditional cost-per-click terms, is not bad.
And this is why, in spite of the many roadblocks I’ve already outlined, the marketing departments of the brands who showed at MVFW (and outside of it, in other real-time scenarios) might have a more charitable view on the whole affair than other participants and observers.
Indeed, there’s already evidence to suggest that the general metaverse pull-back has not reached marketing departments. And this idea holds water: showing someone products, or brand lifestyle elements, in an immersive, real-time way still has its closest analogue in traditional marketing. How is advertising graded? On its success in reaching and engaging existing and potential consumers – and only later, through proven channels, on conversions. If you’re not using the metaverse to sell digital goods, but rather to establish a new beachhead for advertising, then your return will be measured most meaningfully in exposure.
But when we start to think about metaverse fashion at this level – as another arrow in the quiver of advertising – then it’s also fair and reasonable to start to think about how to optimise that marketing spend. Because if MVFW 2023 can deliver an acceptable advertising return, in spite of all its rough edges, its plunging audience, and its crypto associations, what could a better realisation of the same idea look like?
Finding the value in metaverse fashion’s future
Here’s how I see the way forward for metaverse fashion, whether the whole idea of digital fashion comes with it, or whether that continues on a separate trajectory.
Small brands and emerging designers should continue to exhibit at both real-life and digital wholesale and consumer selling events. And if those digital events can shed the crypto gateway and vastly improve the user experience, they’ll stand a much better chance of reversing the downward trend.
Larger brands, though, might consider moving their spend to partnerships, activations, and experiences that use existing real-time videogame engines and properties. When ad dollars are the currency, the philosophy should be to spend them in furtherance of reaching the biggest audience within your target demographic. And that means meeting consumers where they already are (in videogames) rather than speculating about where they might – or evidently might not – be.
Unlike the various platforms that are vying to be “the” metaverse – and dragging their baggage with them in the process – the videogame industry is commercial mature, technically refined, and massively popular. Its audiences are orders of magnitude larger, its onramps have been smoothed to a mirror shine, and its business models are (mostly) untainted by NFTs.
Real videogames, right now, do almost everything metaverse platforms promise to do, better. And they don’t inherit any of the problems that are already plaguing platforms like Decentraland and that are actively driving users away. And not coincidentally, videogames are now almost definitely the largest form of consumer entertainment – without the need for any of the qualifiers I’d have needed to attach to that declaration in the past.
Real-time fashion could – practically, today, not just in theory – realise all the possibilities and inclusivity potential that MVFW 2023 promised, but with better creative tools, better user experiences, and bigger audiences.
And this, in a nutshell, is how I feel now, after the dust has truly settled. I believe there’s a genuinely good, immersive, real-time digital fashion event to be staged in the near future. The idea has legs. But in order to really fulfil that vision – and to maximise the return for brands, designers, and users – that event will very likely need to run on an established, off-the-shelf, mature real-time rendering engine, rather than one built on some very shaky and dubious foundations.
Have I been too harsh on what seems like an earnest attempt to do something new? Maybe. But sometimes a failed experiment – especially one that’s flawed at the core platform level – is all it takes to sour corporates, creators, and consumers on a good idea, even if marketing teams continue to hold the line.
And most importantly, I actually do believe in the vision for fashion’s future being real-time and immersive. And I think that future deserves better execution – especially if the outward face of it is going to help justify the level of continued investment made in deeper, enterprise-wide digital product creation, rather than potentially raining fallout down on it.