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Metaverse fashion week 2023
Illustration Jethro Nepomuceno

Can the metaverse reshape the future of fashion in 2023?

In 2022 Decentraland hosted the first Metaverse Fashion Week and Mark Zuckerberg brought Balenciaga to the masses, yet fashion is still blinkered to the potential of a technological revolution in 2023

As we enter 2023 and reminisce on the year gone by, there’s one recurring theme. 2022 was the year that we finally emerged from the dark depths of the pandemic, people say, to reunite with old friends, party until daybreak, and prance through green, green pastures. Sweatpants and doomscrolling became a thing of the past. Back to the real world! For some of us, though, experiencing every second of the day through our computer screens isn’t just a passing inconvenience: it’s a way of life. Some of us have never laid eyes on a Balenciaga bodysuit IRL – only in a video game, or (God forbid) on Mark Zuckerberg’s eminently irritating, googly-eyed avatar. Some of us are so terminally online that we barely registered the rise and fall of coronavirus.

For those of us who do not, in fact, have a life outside the internet, 2022 should have been a big year for fashion – and in many ways it was. Big-name brands such as Burberry and Gucci dove headfirst into the metaverse, Zuck brought Prada vests and Thom Browne skirts to the digital masses, and Decentraland played host to the first ever Metaverse Fashion Week, showcasing the likes of AUROBOROS, Tommy Hilfiger, and Guo Pei. So why does it still feel like fashion hates the metaverse, as we look forward to the new year? Are brands rightly wary of staking it all on a passing fad, or are they blinkered to the potential of a new technological revolution?

It’s an interesting question, with no clear answer. But maybe there are some clues to be found in looking back, surveying fashion’s most notable forays into the metaverse in 2022, and the disgruntled reactions of editors whose seemingly-glamorous day job was reduced to sitting in front of their laptop and squinting at pixels. The first and most obvious stop: Metaverse Fashion Week itself.

To quote Dazed’s fashion writer Daniel Rodgers, the inaugural MVFW was “a bit like Club Penguin, but with worse graphics... moving my little avatar around with the arrow keys on my keyboard felt like heaving an elderly relative through a shopping centre in AVAVAV boots”. Not exactly a glowing review, and it exposes what’s perhaps one of the most discouraging aspects of the metaverse to date: that the technology is still very much in its infancy, and swanning around with the grace of a Parisian it-girl is still a long way off. Even if you’re willing to go the whole hog and splash out on a VR headset, the more likely outcome is collapsing on your bedroom floor in a vertigo-riddled heap.

Nevertheless, Metaverse Fashion Week 2022 was hailed as an overall success. In total, 108,000 people logged on over the course of the four-day event, reflecting Decentraland’s lofty goals of democratising the experience. Whether people actually bought virtual outfits from participating labels is slightly unclear, but metaverse presentations have had an objective impact on real-world sales. When Roksanda debuted NFTs during London Fashion Week in collaboration with digital pioneers the Institute of Digital Fashion, Lyst searches reportedly went up by 76 per cent. Balenciaga’s ongoing Fortnite collab has apparently seen searches more than double. 

Maybe the biggest vote of confidence in MVFW, though, is that it’s happening again this March, with an expanded programme. “I cannot wait to show the world what has developed since the last time we showcased the fashion revolution in the metaverse on a grand stage,” says head of Metaverse Fashion Week Dr Giovanna Graziosi Casimiro in a statement. “Within one year, we have shown the world one of the strongest and most obvious use cases for the metaverse yet – digital fashion.”

You don’t just have to take a metaverse insider’s word for it, though. The embrace of the metaverse by established fashion faves in 2022 also suggests that we shouldn’t write this brave new world off as a flop just yet. Take Burberry, for example, which scored a trophy for its metaverse innovation at last year’s Fashion Awards. Or Gucci, which has gone as far as accepting Dogecoin in its endorsement of Web 3.0. Or Saul Nash, who outfitted an entire Esports team. Fashion is fickle, as we know all too well, but it also flocks together, and it wouldn’t be a big surprise if we saw more big brands following suit in the near future.

Another notable name that threw its weight behind the metaverse in 2022 was SHOWstudio and its founder, Nick Knight, who has so far produced a series of hand-made avatars under the title Ikon-1. “Fashion is about the future, it’s a future predictive medium,” Knight told Dazed in November, when we asked him why it’s so important that the industry keeps up with digital innovation. “The whole process of creating fashion imagery to do six month campaigns feels very out of date. The other reason is quite simply that fashion is the third-worst polluter in the world. We can’t just ignore that.”

More excitingly, Knight’s project was part of a broader push to introduce an element of beauty – or at least something interesting – into the metaverse, something that was sorely lacking in Mark Zuckerberg’s nerdy, simplistic renderings, or the cartoonish visuals of Fortnite, which feel like they’ve been dreamed up by a thirteen-year-old at the height of a Monster Energy binge.

Of course, none of this is worth anything if the metaverse’s population continues to dwindle in 2023, with Meta seriously underperforming in its first year of dedicated investment, and other platforms such as Decentraland recording fairly underwhelming visitor numbers last year. After all, who cares what you’re wearing, or how much you paid for it, if there’s no one around to see it? A glimmer of hope on the horizon, in this case, is the growing desire for decentralisation – in other words, not locking users into a single platform, and providing more tools for individual input. Imagine: you cop a look modelled by Sophia the Robot at MVFW, and instantly you can wear it anywhere, from VRChat, to a Meta drag show, to your Twitter profile picture, infinitely increasing your audience and cultural ROI. Ambitious? Maybe, but it’s not totally out of the question when Web 3.0 rolls around in its final form.

Will people ever truly buy into clothes made of ones and zeroes, though? Well, people are out there paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for ugly 2D pictures of cartoon apes, so... yeah, that’s pretty much a given. And maybe we shouldn’t look down on them for dripping out their avatars, either. As Snow Crash author Neal Stephenson (AKA the very guy who coined the word “metaverse”) told Dazed this month: “Even in extremely simple systems, where your ‘avatar’ might just be a thumbnail, a square static image, a few pixels, even then people pay a lot of attention to what those avatars look like.” 

All this is to say: maybe the dream isn’t dead – maybe the metaverse is just getting started, and a few years down the line fashion’s elite will be flaunting their wealth with Bitcoin-bought Burberry while the peasants look on in their default Meta wardrobe. The rest of us can either make peace with that, or simply log off (but we know that’s never going to happen).