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I went to fashion week in the metaverse

Written by Lea Dolan, CNN

The night before covering a virtual reality fashion week was a lot like the night before any industry event, only instead of renting outfits and planning travel itineraries, I was downloading Google Chrome extensions and thinking too much about the creation of my digital avatar. (I played it safe in the end, pairing my natural hair and eye color with a cute nautical-inspired top and a raised eyebrow for a permanent skeptical expression.)

I was preparing to attend a week-long virtual fashion event in the Metaverse: a network of unique digital worlds that caught the attention of the fashion world. Industry headline The Business of Fashion predicted it will be the “next gold mine” as young consumers continue to dig deeper into virtual reality (81% of Gen-Z have played games video over the past six months, according to the “State of Fashion” headline which also recorded that the younger generation already spends an average of 7.3 hours per week in virtual worlds).

The D&G digital store in Decentraland’s luxury fashion district. Credit: Decentralized

While fashion shows have been held in the metaverse before (designers such as Mimi Wade, Mowalola, and Collina Strada have shown individual collections on the IMVU virtual platform), the event, which kicked off March 24, hosted by online platform Decentraland, included a host of show schedules from Dolce & Gabbana and Philipp Plein, fireside chats with Tommy Hilfiger himself and even a virtual performance by Grimes, making for an all-encompassing event experience. It will likely become an annual tradition, Sam Hamiliton, creative director of the Decentraland Foundation, said on a Zoom call. “There are still a lot of moving parts, which I think is a bit traditional, but I’m confident,” he told CNN before the event opened. “Behind the scenes is a virtual version of a real fashion week. There are still people sewing behind the scenes, if you will, in 3D software.”

But the final experience was far from flawless – technical difficulties, overheating hard drives and lackluster graphics clouded the fantasy of this supposedly limitless landscape.

To enter the Metaverse, you must first verify yourself. One option (the only option that worked for me and my decade-old MacBook Air) is to link your mobile crypto wallet. My decidedly empty crypto wallet appeared in the corner of my screen for the entire session – something of a damper on the ambitious nature of fashion.

My Decentraland avatar.

My Decentraland avatar. Credit: Decentralized

Underdressed and disappointed

But who would spend their cold hard cash in this weird digital clubhouse, anyway? Each avatar is given at least 30 pieces of clothing that they can wear for free, and even a handful of quirky accessories like sunglasses or tiaras. A few digital t-shirts seemed like more than enough creative expression for something as intangible as the Metaverse. Or so I thought.

The first event I tuned into was the Dolce & Gabbana x UNXD show, where the Italian label debuted 20 metaverse wearable looks in a venue that looked like both a football stadium and a nightclub. It was one of the first shows of the week, and as the purple and black dance floor silently flashed (music popping in and out at random intervals), attendance seemed light with what seemed like around 25 attendees. Some beamed late – literally, in a flash of electric blue light – and missed the show entirely, while other avatars, often merged together due to glitched graphics, stared straight ahead. In the bottom left corner of my screen was a running chat box feature that suggested some guests were still learning about the technology. Prior to the event, a steady stream of sarcastic comments testified to a cynical atmosphere. “Wow this place sucks,” one user remarked. “How can I have fun here?” asked another.

Watch the D&G <a class=fashion show.”/>

Watch the D&G fashion show. Credit: Decentralized

Instead of using human avatars as models, Dolce & Gabbana literally interpreted the concept of a podium – sending giant, bipedal feline creatures down the circular track. But the clothes – if you could call the indistinguishable collection of pixel clothes – pale in comparison to the inventive outfits of my fellow avatars. Flared glowing falcon wings, neon changshans, gold chrome cyclops sunglasses and black Tron-like leggings with electric blue panels; the metaverse dress code was futuristic chaos, and suddenly my gift tiara wasn’t cutting it anymore. But getting equipped, even virtually, is an expensive undertaking. Printed bucket hats and puffer jackets, plus a brightly winged tuxedo by the notoriously ostentatious brand Philipp Plein ranged between $1,670 and $2,740 apiece.
The Philipp Plein afterparty held at Plein Plaza.

The Philipp Plein afterparty held at Plein Plaza. Credit: Decentralized

In addition to a parade schedule, Decentraland has also built a luxury shopping district – like a digital fifth avenue. Lavish shop windows of Elie Saab, Peter Dundas, D&G, Etro and South American brand Chufy were set up in an elegant shrub-lined street. Here, the attention to detail was impressive, from the monogrammed awning extending from every window to the opulent architecture. For example, hanging storks hung above the exterior of Chufy’s digital flagship, which was later covered in rainbows and Japanese Ukiyo-e art, including “The Great Wave.” by Katsushika Hokusai.

Chufy's store in the luxury fashion district was exceptional.

Chufy’s store in the luxury fashion district was exceptional. Credit: Decentralized

Inside the Peter Dundas store, a screen built into the back wall showed the brand’s Pre-Fall 2022 campaign video. The cyber models stood ready in pixelated versions of the looks shown on screen. Users were supposed to be able to buy the clothes to strut around Decentraland, but since there were no clicks to try on those chic outfits, it was more of a cold show than a revolutionized shopping experience.

Inside the Peter Dundas store in Decentraland.

Inside the Peter Dundas store in Decentraland. Credit: Decentralized

Elsewhere in the metaverse, Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, and Selfridges have created similar pop-up stores. Some, like Selfridges, built huge multi-storey postmodern structures, while other stores looked more like storefronts or open showrooms, covered in campaign logos and imagery. Each participating fashion house — a hot ticket, according to Hamilton, which said it was still turning down brands hours before the event began — was partnered with a team of Decentraland 3D software designers who built the clothes on display.

The elegant cyber street which is home to many <a class=high fashion stores.”/>

The elegant cyber street which is home to many high fashion stores. Credit: Decentralized

After some window shopping, I headed to the Philipp Plein after-party, where about 70 to 90 players “got some emotions” — that is, they performed pre-programmed moves like blowing a kiss, making angry hand gestures, raising a hand like a curious student, and several dance moves – in front of a DJ set broadcast live from someone’s living room.

This curious party took place at “Plein Plaza” – a sparse digital space that includes the designer’s $1.4 million cyber-skyscraper. Opposite the monogrammed tower is MONA – Plein’s underground NFT art museum which features an exhibition of previously unseen NFTs created by the designer and his collaborator and digital artist, Antoni Tudisco.
The monogrammed Plein Plaza skyscraper that cost the designer $1.4 million.

The monogrammed Plein Plaza skyscraper that cost the designer $1.4 million. Credit: Decentralized

A future to explore

While other designers rented their retail space for the event, Plein purchased its digital lot in February. Her decision speaks to the high hopes many have for metaverse fashion. But the experience still has a long way to go if it is to become a shopping destination rather than a gimmick.

Decentraland’s event has been described as the first inclusive fashion week, offering a front-row seat to anyone with a crypto wallet (actually, not that much). But it took me two Macs and a Dell laptop to finally get into Decentraland — and even then my sessions lasted 15 minutes at a time before crashing.

And while virtual fashion weeks can curb the likes of air travel and unnecessary set construction for shows, there’s also an environmental cost to virtual realms that rely heavily on sophisticated computer systems.
Estée Lauder has built a massive rotating bottle of Advanced Night Repair in the Metaverse.

Estée Lauder has built a massive rotating bottle of Advanced Night Repair in the Metaverse. Credit: Decentralized

Glitches aside, the experience offered a window into a fascinating future worthy of exploration. The ambition behind Decentraland’s first fashion week was cause for celebration. And if fashion is all about new and new, then the Metaverse was the hottest place in town. More than the announced designers, it was the other guests who brought a burst of creativity. It also showed potential for other industries. Beauty brand Estée Lauder’s giant rotating bottle of Advanced Repair night serum was a marketing spectacle to behold, and the “Unplanned Paths” digital photography exhibit at “The Chockablock” cyber-gallery was immersive enough to feel as a real alternative to in-person viewing. .

But unless you’re joining a gaming PC (and even then, expect an intense delay), virtual fashion week can be as unreachable as the real thing. For now.

Top image: A screenshot from the Philipp Plein after-party on Decentraland.org

Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds