The Clumsy Theatrics of Metaverse Fashion Week

Fashion brands flocked to the ambitious, if flawed, crypto convention.

By Will GottsegenLayer 2
AccessTimeIconMar 28, 2022 at 7:26 p.m. UTCUpdated Mar 31, 2022 at 3:58 p.m. UTC
By Will GottsegenLayer 2
AccessTimeIconMar 28, 2022 at 7:26 p.m. UTCUpdated Mar 31, 2022 at 3:58 p.m. UTC

Will Gottsegen was CoinDesk's media and culture reporter.

The metaverse comes for every industry eventually, but fashion is more ready for it than most.

That’s because the logic of the non-fungible token (NFT) market is already informed by the logic of the fashion market. You can see it most clearly in streetwear: Before NFT drops, there were sneaker drops – limited edition releases positioned more as collector’s items than everyday apparel. Even more so than with a rare run of vinyl LPs, or a set of original prints from a visual artist, you’re supposed to flip those grails, those Jordans, those Red Octobers. The secondary markets are the point.

So it should hardly come as a surprise that dozens of high-profile fashion brands piled into something called “Metaverse Fashion Week” – essentially an online-only convention for clothing companies and crypto devotees – as an excuse to peddle digital collectibles.

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Over a period of four days (don’t let the word “week” fool you), Metaverse Fashion Week played host to a series of virtual catwalks, cocktail parties, gallery openings and DJ sets; Perry Ellis, Dolce & Gabbana, Phillipp Plein and Tommy Hilfiger were among the featured designers, all of which were promoting their own digital fashion lines.

It all happened on a metaverse platform called Decentraland, which is like a buggier version of the online social space Second Life; on a tech level, it’s reminiscent of early 2000s Runescape, the fantasy role-playing game – a clunky take on an embodied chatroom.

Decentraland also comes with its own token, MANA, which players can use to purchase in-game outfits for their avatars in the form of NFTs or plots of digital land. If you want to interact at all with the platform’s native economy, you’ll need to shell out real dollars for these tokens (or earn them on the platform).

The market capitalization of MANA is now over $4 billion, despite the fact that Decentraland can only host 2,500 users at a time, per the tech blog New World Notes.

There were just around 1,000 people online when I logged in this weekend, split across servers (Decentraland calls them “realms”). As with massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft, different servers host identical copies of the game, with different sets of players. It’s a way of reducing stress on the network; if you want to meet up with your friends in the virtual world, you’ll all need to be on the same server.

At a “Metaverse Cocktail Hour for Fashionistxs,” hosted by Cash Labs, it was abundantly clear who had MANA and who didn’t. My avatar was dressed plainly, with a default hairstyle and a default black turtleneck. Users with fancier gear – massive sets of wings, bear costumes, swarms of digital butterflies – stole the spotlight.

Virtual trinkets have always been a staple of online video games, but Decentraland isn’t exactly a game. It may take cues from games, but there’s not a lot you can actually do in this world beyond meeting up with people and typing short messages in a chat window.

One thing you can do is look at videos (usually advertisements) on virtual screens, though the experience of watching ads in the metaverse still feels clunky. The other major activities of Metaverse Fashion Week could be loosely described as “taking in the surroundings” in different contexts.

In this world, communication is limited. Only a few people seemed to be making use of the voice chat mechanism; most were content to jump up and down, wordlessly, in place.

A company called Auroborous capped off the weekend with a prepared DJ set from the musician Grimes. As music issued from a giant dancing creature meant to represent the producer herself, a host of smaller avatars – the onlookers – kept their eyes pinned to the stage.

The performance, though it wasn’t exactly “live,” built on an established trend. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when all the real-world concerts had been canceled, Travis Scott hosted an online-only concert within the video game Fortnite; Charli XCX and 100 Gecs were among the performers at a similar event in Minecraft; and Porter Robinson’s Secret Sky Festival attempted a more ambitious version of the same, with contributions from Doss and A.G. Cook.

Much of the novelty of these virtual events has to do with the inherent limitations of the online experience. In the first moments of the pandemic, we replicated physical experiences online as a kind of Band-Aid. Metaverse concerts weren’t a replacement for the real thing so much as a collective acknowledgement of a restricted situation. Part of the fun was in experiencing those glitchy, tactile environments together.

Metaverse Fashion Week, crucially, was lacking that sort of pull. The lineup promised multiple days’ worth of events – but what is it about this world that might compel someone to spend their entire weekend on it?

There’s something to be said for the accessibility aspect of Metaverse Fashion Week – you don’t have to be in Milan or New York to attend one of these events. In their current state, though, it’s hard to imagine fashion enthusiasts would want to.

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Will Gottsegen was CoinDesk's media and culture reporter.

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