In 2020, London-based fashion designer Scarlett Yang created a garment that looked like glass, changed texture in response to temperature and weather, and dissolved if you left it in water. This wasn’t a sci-fi fever dream or magic trick, but a design made possible by modern technology. Yang’s clothing was made from algae extract, which formed an intricate, leathery lace when cast in custom-made 3D molds before being treated with silk cocoon protein. To bring this impossible-looking creation to life, Yang began by experimenting with virtual designs: using software to run through various silhouettes and simulations before she got to the stage of making it. To showcase the startling results, she turned back to her screen. She had made a physical dress, but she also presented it in digital format, inviting viewers to observe four different renders of the angular, shimmering gown as it slowly plunged into the ocean.
“I’m super passionate about combining these elements of science, digital tech, and visual fashion,” Yang explains. Like a growing number of designers, this interest means moving fluidly between the worlds of virtual design and physical manufacturing. Sometimes she designs clothes that could never actually exist. “There’s more creative freedom in the digital [realm], there’s no constraints, no gravity,” she says. At other points, she switches back and forth, bouncing designs from the virtual to the actual to figure out some of the trickier logistics of, say, bringing a translucent, biodegradable gown to life.
Yang was among the designers who recently participated in the first Metaverse Fashion Week. Unlike fashion week as we normally know it—a sensory overload of bustling crowds, eye-catching outfits, and sought-after invites—this took place in a virtual-world, browser-based platform called Decentraland. Anyone with a computer could join, sending their avatar to jerkily wander through shopping malls and catch shows from brands including Etro, Tommy Hilfiger, and Roberto Cavalli. Yang’s contribution was a series of virtual “skins” in collaboration with contemporary artist Krista Kim and Amsterdam-based digital fashion house the Fabricant, featuring materials delicate as dragonfly wings.
Fashion houses like The Fabricant, DressX and the Dematerialised don’t sell physical clothes. There is nothing to touch or try on. Customers can’t order a piece to wear on a night out or hang in a wardrobe. Instead, these stores specialize in something intangible. Browsing their wares, one might find lilac puffer dresses that weightlessly float around the body, or silver armor sprouting twitching stems. Depending on the design, customers can pay to have an image of themselves photoshopped to feature one of these fantastical garments, see it overlaid as an AR filter on videos, or even purchase the piece as an NFT.
The metaverse is changing the way we understand fashion. We could move freely between different 3D worlds and communities with the help of virtual and augmented reality. Currently it’s being used as a catchall term to describe everything from luxury labels teaming up with game developers to outfit players (think Balenciaga x Fortnite, Ralph Lauren x Roblox, or Lacoste x Minecraft) to the kinds of dress-up opportunities offered by those digital fashion houses who’ll deliver you a social-media-ready photo for $30. It’s also increasingly covering brand experimentations in hybrid collections, like Dolce & Gabbana’s nine-piece physical-digital capsule show last year that made nearly $6 million.
Digital designs are not yet big earners compared to physical clothing (hampered by racism scandals and the pandemic, Dolce & Gabbana still reported overall sales of more than $1 billion in 2020–21), but the fashion world certainly sees the metaverse as a potentially lucrative new market. The digital fashion industry could be worth $50 billion by 2030, according to figures from investment bank Morgan Stanley. The overall worth of the fashion sector by the end of the decade is harder to estimate, although market intelligence platform CB Insights places it at more than $3 trillion.