We explore the rise of fashion NFTs, and the possibilities of digital wardrobes and blockchain style.
The final auction price for Dolce & Gabbana’s inaugural NFT collection edged towards US$6 million last September. The nine-piece digital-garment tech drop on the USXD marketplace was bought using the cryptocurrency Ethereum, and included pieces such as the Glass Suit and “Doge” Crown. The Italian fashion label, known for its love of heritage, broke records for digital fashion – and, once again, the non-fungible token (NFT) was catapulted into the limelight.
The NFT has been a hottest topic recently and its biggest champions argue that fashion NFTs represent the next evolutionary step, whether it’s digital fashion skins for avatars or wardrobe collectables that can be used in gaming and multiple metaverses. The likes of Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga have already dipped their toes in, often partnering with popular games like Fortnite. Gucci marked its 100th anniversary by selling its landmark Aria NFT collection for US$25,000 at Christie’s in June. In a move that signals the social-media giant’s future direction, the Facebook group has changed its name to Meta (as in Metaverse).
Limited NFT digital assets have their ownership recorded on blockchain (digital leger) and the possibilities have recently boomed in the creative and artistic industries. There was artist Beeple’s record-breaking US$69 million NFT piece auctioned off at Sotheby’s, and the ground-breaking development of the NBA Topshots sports platform, where official licensed digital Moments (such as key scores) in NBA games can be traded, with some sales reaching as high as US$100,000. These are marketed as much like old-school sports playing cards, but for the digital world. Yahoo launched an NFT collection with American fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff, while the Karl Lagerfeld label announced a NFT capsule of digital figurines.
Hong Kong has emerged as an Asian hotspot for NFT innovation, with the likes of the Hong Kong Sovereign Art Foundation and Project Ark holding art auctions featuring local artists. The locally based KLTKN mints and sells NFTs by J-pop and K-pop stars to their adoring fanbase and also takes payment in fiat currency.
In the NFT fashion space, Hong Kong-based Brand New Vision (BNV), founded by Richard Hobbs, stepped boldly into the space, minting and dropping costume designer Jack Irving’s famous Prismatic dress in December 2021, on top of Trek Sneaker by Passport Adv and a Super Being outfit by Chill Create NFTs earlier this year. A collaboration with menswear tailoring retailer The Armoury is even under development.
“We’re positioning ourselves as the Dover Street market of the Metaverse,” say Hobbs. “And the curation will take a similar attitude, in the sense that in Dover Street you can get everything from Comme des Garcons, to jewellery and skate-brand T-shirts to an Iris Van Herpen dress. It’s eclectic and well curated, which is what brands want. They want to know that if they go into the Metaverse, they want to go somewhere that feels a bit safe.”
Hobbs is a veteran fashion professional with more than 30 years’ experience in the industry, predominantly in menswear and street-fashion retail and distribution. He started BNV in 2016, first focusing on 3D-image capture and technology for fashion. But by 2020 he was looking deeper into digital fashion and the NFT world. In March that year he’d secured the first round of investment, including a major injection from Animoca Brands in Hong Kong, “which has gone on to become probably the single biggest investor in anything to do with NFTs on blockchain and gaming … We launched at the end of March 2020, but very low key at first.”
As well as designing and minting NFTs, BNV can also provide a dedicated platform on which to trade them and has evolved into a fund that will invest in the space and its collaterals. There was the release of the Blunt Dress NFT, based on the custom-made item by designer Jawara Alleyne for Rihanna in her Dazed magazine shoot – on the day we spoke over Zoom, Hobbs told me one of the 15 minted had just sold for about US$1,000 on the secondary market. BNV’s work with American street-fashion label Mishka NYC has seen NFTs coming with lucky draws and VIP discount codes for the physical fashions, as well as winning pieces of hand-signed art by the designer.
“So the other part of it is community, actually getting people engaged and endorsing the feeling they’re part of something more than just a buyer-seller relationship,” says Hobbs. That multi-faceted approach is also what Wear, the Hong Kong-based NFT fashion company founded by Parson’ graduate Nick Lau, is looking to achieve.
Of its first drop this month, Lau explains “it will be a collaboration between local eyewear brand called A Society and local street artist Lousy … We’ll have different iterations of different elements of the limited-edition designs, and perhaps the top 5 percent of NFTs sold would be the rarest editions – and customers will also get a physical copy of that pair of glasses … So we’re playing around with digital products and real-life compensation.”
The lucky-draw aspect of fashion NFT introduces an element of gamified spending, which in turn harnesses community and novelty. Wear has also developed fast – Lau graduated only seven months ago, and presented this graduation-thesis project to several venture capitalists in New York. He eventually partnered with XRC Labs to launch his company, which hopes to set up an NFT marketplace and metaverse for luxury in the future.
“Our focus is collaborating with brands and artists to create unique NFTs,” says Lau. “We’re going to collaborate with four to six brands every year to mint and drop specific projects … and later we’ll launch a marketplace, but we want it to be curated.”
Fashion NFTs certainly seem like a highly successful marketing tool for brands, but it’s also been a way for up-and-coming digital artists to capitalise and show off their skills, often collaborating with bigger brands. Whisky label Glenfiddich’s partnership with digital designer Stephanie Fung, for example, resulted in The Filigree Aesthetic, a three-item limited-edition NFT fashion collection inspired by the work of The Grande Composition artist group.
“Digital wearables will be the next big thing within NFTs, and people will be able to utilise them within AR, VR, or metaverses,” Fung told the Jing Daily. “There’s a lot you can do with digital that you can’t achieve via real-life garments, such as animated graphics, making materials glow, or defying gravity.”The fashion and tech industries are perhaps not the most natural of bedfellows. “If you look at fashion people, they’re all about truth, beauty and detail – all the passion and love and history it takes to create something,” says Hobbs. “Tech, meanwhile, is all optimisation and scalability. So the two are completely separate. We act like a double-ended funnel, bringing in the brands and designers, because we know them and can understand their concerns, having been in the industry so long ourselves. And then, we’re connecting them through to the metaverse, gaming companies and anything digital web 3.0.”
The analogy that Hobbs uses is that BNV acts like a “babel fish in the middle of this funnel”, translating and communicating, making sure both sides are happy and the product is optimised.
Both BNV and Wear operate using the Ethereum cryptocurrency and blockchain, the current transparent gold standard in the NFT world. This means their products are compatible for use and resale on the huge OpenSea platform – the world’s first and largest NFT marketplace. The size of OpensSea means it’s more a jumble store (like Facebook Marketplace), whereas BNV and Wear both aim to be curated designer boutiques.
Many are still struggling to get their head around the functionality of NFTs. But the digital world moves fast, and savvy investors don’t want to be left behind. Although the average fashionista isn’t yet buying designer NFTs, a hungry crypto crowd is already investing in and trading them. Mass adoption isn’t as farfetched as you might think, says Lau. “Even though this NFT concept is new to everyone, the idea of digital ownership and purchasing something that doesn’t physically exist has been going on for many years. If you look at gaming … people have been spending a lot on gaming or game Metaverse purchases, whether it’s a jacket or outfit for your avatar, a sword, a weapon, etc. “So, if you look at it that way, this has been going on for many years. And it just so happens that with NFTs there’s this sort of verification, limited numbers and transparency.”
Gaming is an obvious area where NFT fashion could boom, and Hobbs says “it makes perfect sense”. Esports are still growing and young people are more than happy to spend on digital skins and wearables to “flex” and interact with other players in the gaming space. And now with mainstream eyes on the metaverse, Hobbs says the long-term vision at BNV is optimising wearability in its NFTs. Thus, BNV’s investment and partnership with blockchain gaming giant Animoca Brands has given it a big advantage.
“The collectible is what exists now, but our vision is long term wearability,” he explains, “meaning that in three to five years there’s going to be much wider access – many more people understanding it, lower cost products and lots of people literally having a digital wardrobe with hundreds of garments and accessories that they’ll be able to mix and match. We’re testing programmes to make our NFTs super-wearable across different decentralised platforms, so it lives in your digital crypto wallet, and when you log into the metaverse, only you can then wear that product in both a gaming metaverse and a social-media one.”
What does the future hold? Could we be wearing digital NFT fashions on Zoom and on social-media metaverses like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok? Just think about the Instagram filter boom – could digital fashions be just behind? For those who think so, the fashion NFT space could be highly successful, with Gen Z adopters likely being the holy grail. This is what start-ups like Wear, BNV and Australian company Neuno are banking on, and getting into the water early will be key.
In Asia, where digital adoption has always been fast, online gaming is very popular, and the appetite for fashion and luxury strong, there’s huge potential. The key component is Gen Zers like Lau, who says that “bringing and leveraging interesting IPs to the Asian market – with the development of Etherium 2.0 and the web 3.0 – it’s going to be a new way for Asian consumers to showcase and purchase art and fashion.”
Although you can’t wear digital outfits IRL (in real life), the creative possibilities of digital fashion are endless: with materiality and physics taken out of the equation, any fashion fantasy can become digital reality. Outfits could change colour, or float above the avatar body – a dress that morphs into a cluster of butterflies then transforms back again, for example. The buying, trading and even renting of NFT outfits can also happen in parts – if one NFT appreciates to be worth US$100,000, for example, Hobbs postulates there could be an option to sell shares in it.
The collaborations are getting interesting – and lucrative. A recent partnership between crypto-artist FEWOCiOUS and digital sneaker brand RTFKT Studios offered up three designs that bidders could “try on” in a Snapchat pre-sale. Eventually more than 600 virtual sneakers were sold, totalling US$3.1million. Like the Dolce & Gabbana NFT collection, these numbers are headline-making.Are these values inflated? Only time will tell. Since Nike just acquired RTFKT, the whole space is heading mainstream.
“The fashion world is going to work very differently in the future,” says Hobbs. “This digital fashion universe is going to be completely different from anything that existed before.”