Non-fungible tokens are revolutionising the fashion industry, one pair of $14,000 virtual sneakers at a time. So, has the world gone mad? Luxury houses like Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga don’t think so.

By GRACE O’NEILL

IN 2019, AN Amsterdam-based design collective called The Fabricant created a dress that would make headlines across the globe. The piece in question — an iridescent, asymmetric day dress covered in abstract splashes of colour — was purchased by Richard Ma, a San Francisco-based executive, for $US9,500. When his wife, Mary, wore it, the material appeared so delicate it almost floated. “Appeared” being the operative word: the dress exists only as a two-dimensional object. If Mary wants to wear it, the team at The Fabricant would need to render it onto an image of her.

With that purchase, Ma became an investor in “digital couture”, which exists only in the virtual world. Since then, digital fashion has exploded, spurred on by the sudden ubiquity of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) — unique digital assets that can be bought, sold and traded. In 2021, Rtfkt Studios emerged as a leading player in the world of NFT sneakers. Rtfkt’s founders — Benoi Pagotto, Chris Le and Steven Vasilev — cut their teeth creating custom footwear for characters in the popular video game League of Legends, and soon realised virtual accessories were destined to become a lucrative market beyondthe world of gaming. Their hunch proved correct: a March 2021 capsule collection made in collaboration with the artist FEWOCiOUS included sneakers with a retail price of about $14,000. The trio pocketed about $4.4 million in seven minutes.

A a virtual Hermès Birkin bag created by the Los Angeles creatives Mason Rothschild and Eric Ramirez (who projected an animation of a growing foetus onto the bag) sold for more than $32,000 — more than double the asking price of a coveted real-life Birkin.

A couple of months later, an NFT of a virtual Hermès Birkin bag created by the Los Angeles creatives Mason Rothschild and Eric Ramirez (who projected an animation of a growing foetus onto the bag) sold for more than $32,000 — more than double the asking price of a coveted real-life Birkin.

But is digital fashion just an overhyped fad? Luxury brands don’t seem to think so. Louis Vuitton was an early adopter of virtual fashion, selling “skins” for League of Legends characters as early as 2019. In December 2020, Balenciaga presented an entire collection in the format of a virtual-reality video game. In May 2021, Gucci created a virtual version of its signature Gucci Garden on the gaming platform Roblox. We’re seeing rumblings among Australian labels, too. In November 2021, the NFT fashion brand MYAMI launched, selling streetwear-inspired outfits for digital avatars, and the Australian Fashion Council has announced plans to create an industry road map that includes helping local brands tap into the multibillion-dollar NFT market.

Many hail digital fashion as an antidote to the industry’s waste problem, which is to blame for 10% of the greenhouse-gas emissions resulting from human activity. For generations Z and alpha, however, digital fashion is simply a natural extension of growing up on the internet. Social media has created a world in which our two-dimensional avatars are increasingly treated as stand-ins for their real-life counterparts. Why spend money on clothes a handful of people might see in person, when the virtual world gives you immediate access to an endless stream of acquaintances and strangers? Mark Zuckerberg has revealed plans for a slow social migration into the metaverse. If he has his way, early adopters of digital will be that brave new world’s best-dressed occupants.