The Metaverse is a Dead-end for the Fashion Industry | Opinion

The fashion industry is the latest culprit to drink the proverbial metaverse Kool-Aid. While fashion houses are dubbing this new digital universe as the next frontier for fashion, I sense a dangerous bubble brewing.

Non-fungible token (NFT) technology and the metaverse could present some interesting opportunities for the fashion industry, but digital clothes should not be one of them. As an industry, we should leverage new technologies with practicality. The fashion industry has a long list of absurd, short-lived trends in its history. Digital clothes for digital avatars certainly feel like the latest entry.

The metaverse is coming, but its timescale is hazy. Just because tech giants like Meta and Google say that something is here doesn't mean that it is. The coders of Silicon Valley cannot, and should not, be able to dictate where culture should go. I believe that the self-assigned rock star status of the tech bro class is unjustified; these are the same people who believed that Google Glasses would change the world, just before they didn't.

Right now, we're in a proto-metaverse, where a legitimate fascination with the possibilities waits for the technology to catch up. However, this hasn't stopped some from spending eye-watering amounts of cash clothing their digital persona. Model Imani McEwan claimed to have spent $16,000 on digital clothing, including a Bitcoin-themed sweater.

It is the advance of NFTs that has made this new breed of digital fashion possible. They allow anything in digital form to become exclusive and rare. However, many seem to be missing a critical point; just because something is rare and exclusive doesn't mean it's valuable. There's a reason you haven't heard of the extremely rare metal protactinium; you can't actually use it for anything.

I fear that the hype-substance gap emerging in the digital fashion space will lead to a bubble that's ready to pop. When prices surge beyond what something is actually worth, we're left with the perfect setting for a huge market tumble; just think of the dotcom crash of the 1990s.

This one, however, feels more like the tulip bubble of the 17th century. The excitement surrounding the newly discovered, fashionable flower drove bulb prices to mind-bending levels—equivalent to hundreds of thousands of dollars each today. When the hype died and the bubble popped, many were left with nothing but a dead flower and a huge dent in their wallet.

This sounds ridiculous now. Yet today, we're talking about paying thousands of dollars for something that has no physical form. Some in the fashion industry are even touting digital fashion as a sustainable alternative to the real thing. To me, this feels like encouraging car racing video games to cut back on emissions.

We have to ask whether acquiring digital clothing is a sincere move into the future, or simply the behavior of a few opportunistic players wanting to cash in on the latest digital hobbyhorse. Paying a designer and a coder a day's fee is certainly a simpler business model than navigating a global supply chain to create the real thing.

A physical blockchain art exhibition
A visitor looking at artist Yasumasa Yonehara's "Sup" with a mobile phone app, during CrypTOKYO, a physical blockchain art exhibition in Tokyo. PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images

Fundamentally, digital clothing misses the point of fashion entirely. Fashion is not solely about external flexing; it's also about how it makes us feel internally.

You may be able to feel pride and live vicariously through the way your avatar looks, but it's still not you wearing the digital clothing, you're just a viewer like everyone else. Michaela Larosse of The Fabricant tried to counter this when she told Vogue that, "Fashion is an emotional experience, and you don't need physicality for that."

She's wrong, as a designer my primary goal is to create both an emotional and a physical experience. Removing the sense of feel from fashion is like removing the sense of smell from food; it's an essential component of the beautiful whole.

The word metaverse itself should offer warning bells. The word comes from the book Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, set in a dystopian future where citizens communicate in the author's prescient description of a digital universe. Those who spend more time in the digital world than they do the real one become known as gargoyles, as their physical bodies wither away through neglect. As an industry, we shouldn't be responsible for breeding a new generation of real-life gargoyles.

That's not to say that the fashion industry shouldn't adopt new technologies; we obviously should. Laboratory-grown materials, 3D printing and even artificial intelligence have all made a positive impact on our trade.

Similarly, there are genuine ways that NFT technology could improve the fashion industry. NFTs could protect designers from copyright theft and enable them to make a fair wage from their designs. They could bake in accountability across the supply chain and help weed out items produced through illegal methods. These are the applications that fashion houses should get genuinely excited about.

I suggest that we leverage new technologies like adults. Rushing headfirst into digital clothing devalues the craft and sends the wrong message about what fashion is for us in the first place. After all, it doesn't matter who sold the emperor his new clothes, the whole town still knows he got ripped off.

John McDavid Lehman is the creative director of McMarden and owner of R.B. of McD.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.