Non-Fungible Fashion

In today’s Instagram-centric world, how our clothes look online is just as important as how they feel IRL

Key Takeaways

  1. Fashion-adjacent NFTs offer a new form of virtual consumption for consumers who value collectibles.
  2. NFTs have the potential to revolutionize fashion publishing, resolving issues surrounding advertiser bias and criticism, as well as functioning as ad-hoc archives for editorials and one-off publications.
  3. Virtual garments could help offset the fashion industry’s environmental impact, but current NFTs have a high carbon footprint.

In today’s Instagram-centric world, how our clothes look online is just as important as how they feel IRL, but it’s not only social media influencing our virtual consumer habits. Balenciaga recently created a dystopian video game in lieu of a runway show, while sandbox worlds like IMVU and Animal Crossing have enabled teens to recreate their favorite designer looks from pixels, or craft their very own fantasy garments. Even popular styling apps like Drest encourage consumers to create custom-made avatars so they can try on virtual garments from brands like Gucci and Burberry before buying the real thing. These, along with the increasing popularization of resale apps, have made the act of virtual consumption often feel more enticing than shopping in person—so it’s no surprise that we’re seeing the rise of a new form of digital fashion altogether.

Enter NFTs: a new, blockchain-based technology that enables artists, brands, and consumers to buy and sell digital artworks online. Put simply: NFTs or Non-fungible Tokens are digital assets that are stored on the blockchain. You can think of them as digital trading cards with a tight security program and a built-in authentication system. NFTs are most often minted in the form of videos, gifs, and memes—but they also have a potential use-case in fashion. Digital sneaker brand RTFKT has already sold out a virtual drop, generating $3.1 million dollars in a matter of minutes, while Gucci has teamed up with augmented reality app Wanna to produce a pair of $11.99 “NFT'' sneakers designed by Alessandro Michele (they aren’t unique or tokenized on the blockchain, but you get the idea).

All of this may sound absurd, but when you think of the motivations of most collectors, the hype around NFTs isn’t all that surprising. Hypebeasts and sneakerheads tend to focus on scarcity and resale value versus wearability when it comes to their purchases, so it’s easy to imagine those consumers getting into rare, virtual goods. And while most NFTs up for grabs today cost the same, if not more than luxury clothing, new apps like Neuno promise to price their virtual garments affordably, enabling consumers to buy up designer-created NFTs in the same way they would other branded diffusion items, like cellphone cases and cosmetics. Several companies like Tribute and The Fabricant have already begun experimenting with augmented reality clothing (you can think of it as an Instagram face filter, but for garments), demonstrating the promise of digital style by creating items that couldn’t exist in meatspace—like platform shoes adorned in pulsing blue flames.

The Fabricant x Buffalo London

Of course, virtual garments aren’t the only use-case for fashion NFTs. The blockchain also enables producers, buyers, and sellers to authenticate physical items, track the ownership of goods, and even ensure that original sellers get a cut of proceeds down the line (NFT marketplaces like Zora and Foundation have already experimented with the StockX-style trading of streetwear). The latter is particularly appealing for small producers and luxury retailers who feel as if they are missing out on the blossoming resale market. You may not care whether Louis Vuitton gets a cut of someone’s sale of an old Carryall on the Real Real, but imagine if Telfar got a portion of the proceeds hypebeasts make after buying up Bushwick Birkins on drop days? 

Also promising are the ways in which the blockchain enables us to document and archive digital works like online editorials, virtual fashion shows, and even fashion journalism. NFT marketplaces like Mirror already enable writers to crowdfund cryptocurrency to pay for their projects (consultant and writer Emily Segal recently sold a novel-in-progress as a cooperatively-owned NFT on the app), and could easily be translated into financial support systems for independent publications. One can imagine Mirror-style fundraising replacing the need for advertisers, effectively eliminating censorship and industry bias imposed by luxury brands, as well as ensuring the longevity of digital work (decentralized servers like IPFS, used for the Internet Archive, ensure that NFTs don’t disappear over time).

Of course, all of this is hypothetical, and critics like to point to the fact that so far, most NFTs are hosted by startups who are more interested in generating revenue than they are in ensuring the maintenance of the links they host, or whether or not their artists receive proceeds from the subsequent sales of their work. What’s more, blockchain technology is notoriously resource-intensive, and although there are new, energy-saving solutions on the horizon, it’s unclear whether NFTs will ever be accepted environmentally sound. Still, virtual garments have the potential to offset some of the fashion industry’s emissions by providing an alternative to the constant consumerism inspired by Instagram’s sped-up fashion loop. In a world with NFTs, disposable outfits snapped up for social media shoots could be replaced by virtual garments, effectively bypassing the issue of tangible waste. 

But there’s also an issue of value. For many, the promise of NFTs is the democratization of markets, giving underdogs in art, music, and fashion the ability to monetize their work without having to prove themselves to gate-kept and often exploitative institutions. But in a world dominated by commerce and social media trends, it’s often the most popular who end up getting paid, regardless of whether their work is being sold on apps or in galleries. As a result, it’s unclear whether or not the NFT space will become something truly innovative — for now, we’ll just watch the bubble grow.