Is fashion ready for the metaverse?

A new medium poses its own set of challenges to the entire industry. But designers are wasting no time preparing to fill people’s virtual wardrobes.

Digital shirt and skirt made for the metaverse
Idiat Shiole

As pixels become the new standard rule of measurement, designers are wondering whether their fashion degree will hold up in the metaverse.

Part of the beauty of traditional fashion is the ability to wear a story, using physical materials as a tool of self-expression. But now that the digital space is transforming the world around us, it’s time for fashion to be reimagined, too.

Virtual reality

The metaverse, at its plainest, is the universe in which society converges inside a digital world. In traditional Web 2.0, the internet is mostly a place for social oversharing and online shopping, while its Web 3.0 upgrade is designed to mimic human interactions and create digital, “real” life-like experiences based on that. It is, quite literally, virtual reality.

Throughout history, there have been shifts in design that weren’t just fueled by making money, but rather sparked by culture-changing events like the Industrial Revolution, both World Wars, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, we’re seeing that shift with companies like Nike, Adidas, and Balenciaga who are already making digital versions of their products for the metaverse — from sneakers to clothes to accessories — an effort that was, of course, initiated by big tech firms like Meta, formerly known as Facebook.

The industry’s traditional values will eventually stop its own progress unless it adapts to the modern world.

According to Enara Nazarova, founder of ARMOAR and The Digital Fashion & Art Club, the industry’s traditional values will eventually stop its own progress unless it adapts to the modern world. “Most students attending fashion schools today don’t get an introduction to technical programs,” said Nazarova. “It’s time for software to be recognized as an important complementary skillset of physical craftsmanship that will equip students to be more creative in their work and competitive in an increasingly digital world.”

Sean Chiles, co-founder of The Digital Fashion Group, adds that “the Zeitgeist is always the starting point for a designer — the place where they ‘feel’ and from which they create and develop. Finding ways to now truly embrace this in the digital world as the foundation for creative development is key.”

The Classroom

Mystical Shell CollectionIdiat Shiole

Digital fashion itself survives in three chapters: phygital, physical and digital, and fully digital — the latter two existing in the metaverse. Phygital applies to the digital fashion that eventually produces physical pieces, while the physical and digital refers to the pieces that can be worn using augmented or virtual reality. The fully digital component is the virtual garments that are sold directly to an avatar, stored in a “metacloset.”

Elizabeth Bowring, catwalk director, fashion forecaster, and a professor at the Digital Fashion Group Academy, maintains that creativity is the common denominator for fashion innovation. “Creativity comes in all forms. It exists in the digital form, in the metaverse, and in handcrafted, traditional aspects,” she said.

The devil works hard but the fashion industry works harder, historically adapting quickly to trends like digitalization, sustainability, and transparency that change the rules from one day to the next. Brands taking steps — and sometimes failing — to use sustainable practices and a streetwear designer being the first to sell a digital sneaker wasn’t feasible until the digital boom. Since so many of these changes are made on a global level, it often leaves fresh design students at a disadvantage because some universities struggle to keep up with teaching the technology.

In fashion school, students are taught core fundamentals like sketching, how to cut cloth, sizing a model, the history of the industry, and more. These skills and learnings are crucial for any designer’s portfolio, but digital fashion requires an even deeper understanding of these and other essential concepts.

“Learning technical 3D skills, whether on their own or on the job, is critical to becoming a metaverse-native fashion designer.”

Nazarova explains that digital skill sets like designing digital-physical hybrid creations, virtualizing samples, and creating digital-only merchandise absolutely need to be integrated into the fashion education curriculum because it directly applies to the world they live in.

“Virtual clothes primarily appeal to younger consumers who understand the value of showcasing unique digital assets to their online community versus owning physical assets that only their immediate circle can appreciate,” she said. “The reach online is multiplied tenfold. They also have a natural interest in connecting with people in virtual environments.”

Our digital identities, whether it’s through virtual Tamagotchi pets, Sims characters, or gaming avatars, naturally evolve with the human need to belong, customize, and create. Millennials and Gen Zers know how to do this better than anyone since those are the types of digital experiences that’s they grew up on.

“The New You”Idiat Shiole

Professors have much of the upper hand in determining the direction of fashion, since they’re responsible for teaching designers the basics of the space — from how to cut a garment to how to run a business. At the same, they aren’t the only ones responsible for providing the knowledge of 3D prototyping, technology trends, consumer reports, and software needs that the metaverse demands — that’s also up to the universities and fashion leaders.

“You can’t teach anybody without knowing the product yourself,” said Bowring. “As a professor, I read everything and show the students what designs will look like digitally. It’s gratifying because students want the knowledge of what’s going to happen in the future.”

But the environment is shifting fast, making the gap between current student education and industry-related experience bigger by the second.

“The future generations are facing an urgent need to improve production cycles, profit structures, and how shoppers are incentivized,” Nazarova said “For next-gen designers, learning technical 3D skills, whether learning on their own or on the job, is critical to becoming a metaverse-native fashion designer.”

Fashion 101

The future of digital fashion is being built in real-time by creatives and engineers who are collaborating on better 3D tools, interoperability, and a resistance of for-profit corporate robots to push for a more seamless platform.

In the same way that a fashion house appoints its directors to change the direction of the brand, professors should do the same. Without the right preparation and resources, new designers won’t have the investment to fully create. “If previously students needed validation from industry gatekeepers to grow,” said Nazarova, “now they can build community around their products directly and grow in parallel with their fanbase.”

“If it is a digital-only product, then materials, form, function, and physics can all be questioned.”

At the end of the day, there really aren’t any physical or creative limitations in digital design, making the next generation of fashion designers a relatively limitless source of creativity, as long as technology and education keep evolving. “It’s not possible to design and develop successfully and exquisitely without physical knowledge,” said Chiles. “But of course, that is if the end result is to become physical. If it is a digital-only product, then materials, form, function, and physics can all be questioned.”

Though luxury exclusivity and capitalism are upholding digitally, like The Fabricant’s “Iridescence” NFT dress selling for $9,500, Nazarova, Chiles, and Bowring all agree that the future of metafashion is still undefined. Fashion has always been about community and storytelling, two main pillars of the metaverse we’re being promised. That doesn’t mean every designer will figure it out, but at least the building blocks are there for everyone to access.

Idiat Shiole