Why the metaverse needs fashion to feel human

Straith Schreder
May 17, 2023
“When fashion is digital, more people can participate” — Straith Schreder

Social media laid the foundations for exploring who we are online. Today, those limits are being shattered. From avatars to AR lenses, we’re witnessing the birth of a new paradigm for self-expression. With the value of the digital fashion industry expected to soar in the 2020s, what this means for the clothes we wear is the billion dollar question.

From what we post to what we play, digital spaces are all about our identities. Social media, accelerated by augmented reality and artificial intelligence, has empowered a new, fluid way to construct them. And the screens we use allow us to share them. Online, you can be anyone you want. You can be yourself. Or, you can leave your identity behind, and become a cozy boy, a cyborg, or a superhero.

On screen, as in real life, fashion plays a key role in self-expression. Digital fashion provides a prop, and a narrative provocation. Your clothes can come with caption generation, with timers. They can be permeable, as well as flex to contemporary trends. AR fashion allows us to explore how clothing can interact with our environment: with surreality and a sense of humour. 

Digital fashion is creating limitless possibilities for self-expression. (Credit: Mugler)

As our lives become increasingly interwoven with technology, we’ll be able to explore and embody new expressions of ourselves. It makes sense, then, that digital fashion is on the rise, forecast to accumulate billions of dollars worth of sales and thousands of digital creators by 2026

Digital fashion comprises apparel, accessories, and cosmetics that exist as digital files. These assets are designed to be experienced, worn, and most often viewed through digital platforms like games, social media, and other forms of interaction, via your laptop, your phone, or a virtual reality headset. Beyond that, digital fashion is essential to how we identify ourselves online. A 2022 study of Gen Z internet users, led by VICE, finds that “52% feel more like ‘themselves’ in the metaverse than IRL”. So what does that mean for what we wear, when ‘in real life’ doesn’t take first priority? 

When fashion is digital, more people can participate.

The future of digital fashion is about function. In the coming year, we’ll begin to see more practical applications of digital clothing. Beyond cosmetic alterations, digital looks or lenses will be used as badges that unlock access to events and communities. They’ll be linked to their physical counterparts via NFC chips, extending the experience of ownership, and include extra rewards, incentives, and opportunities within purchase and use flows, including records of purchase and proof of attendance at events.

From Coperni’s spray-on dress to Anrealage’s UV-reactive runway show, some of the most viral moments from recent fashion weeks have come from context-aware clothing. Dynamic NFTs, which evolve to reflect user input, allow us to imagine clothing that changes as we do. Designers can explore temporal collections: a look that is deliberately ephemeral, a garment that can disappear or morph depending on the environment it is in.

Coperni’s spray-on dress. (Credit: Coperni)

This is particularly the case in digital spaces, where designers are empowered to push the boundaries of fabric and realise seemingly impossible creations, from Kay Kwok’s surrealist armour, to ai_clothingdaily’s lacework Nikes. Without physical production, the opportunity for expression becomes exponential. Makeup that moves like particle systems. A dress that takes flight. Biomechanical and bodymorphing garments. Digital fashion is consolidating its position as the medium where innovation begins, both for designers and those who wear it: 42% of Gen Z say they use their digital avatar to try out the looks they might implement in the real world.

And when fashion is digital, more people can participate. That’s why virtual Gucci bags on Roblox sell for more than the real product. But with web3 tooling, that participation can become more significant, such as by enabling meaningful governance, which can make participating in a collection, such as in the design process, part of what it means to own a piece of clothing.

At the same time, bringing fashion to the blockchain will allow us to create a permanent record of design contributors: credit for designers, stylists, and makeup artists can be encoded into digital collections. In the future, instead of screenshotting or saving looks for clout on social media, minting your style inspiration may open up a new revenue stream for creators, or at least a way for them to prove that they knew what was coming.

The thing is, when digital fashion mainstreams, we won’t actually see it. The widespread use of filters and AR beauty lenses represents this first phase of adoption; many just look like memes. The most widely used are subtle. They work for real people, not just avatars.

ikon-1 #198 from Kay Kwok’s digital fashion NFT collection.

And real people move; in front of the camera, between screens, through worlds. Multi-platform integration, the ability to bring what we wear — our identity — between virtual worlds, will be challenging. But integrating digital fashion into existing purchase flows, such as through physical-digital goods and giveaways, is a powerful lever for adoption. 

Onboarding new users into digital fashion is about extending what style has always been about: self-expression. The projects that will define the future of fashion will be those which create space for us to start to explore and affirm who we are.

“52% [of Gen Z-ers] feel more like ‘themselves’ in the metaverse than IRL.”

— VICE Media

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Straith Schreder is the Executive Creative Director for Palm NFT Studio, where she’s responsible for developing and producing NFT experiences in collaboration with artists, institutions, and IP. A specialist in digital storytelling and artist-first development, Straith has previously served as the Executive Creative Director for VICE Media Group and the VP of Creative Initiatives at BitTorrent, in addition to work with brands including Mozilla, Amazon Studios, and Nike.