Cover Ruby 9100M wears Prada outfits (Photography: Oscar Chik for Tatler Hong Kong)

What is virtual fashion, and how might its development impact everyday life? With a collaborative fashion shoot featuring Hong Kong-born virtual influencer Ruby 9100M, aka Ruby Gloom, Tatler investigates

Things we don’t have now but are likely to have very soon: genuinely wearable digital clothes; lots of people using metaverses; the ability to move seamlessly between them. Things we definitely do have right now: numerous big fashion brands experimenting with purely electronic outfits; a rapidly growing collection of digital-only fashion brands; the relentless rise of NFTs. Add all those things together, and what it suggests is this: the business of digital fashion is about to explode.

Digital fashion can mean a number of things. It can mean digital versions or extensions of physical clothes; digital clothes rendered onto the bodies of real people; or clothes that are entirely digital, with no physical equivalent, which can be worn by digital characters or avatars on social media, in games and in metaverses.

Read more: Meet LVMH’s First Metaverse Ambassador

The world’s first purely digital clothing collection was only launched in 2018, by Scandinavian retailer Carlings. Something similar has already existed for a long time in the gaming world, though, where players have long happily paid real-world money for digital skins; market research company Juniper Research predicts that the market for in-game purchases will be worth US$50 billion in 2022. But the ascent to widespread cultural consciousness of NFTs, the blockchain-based tokens that allow for proof of ownership, has given the business of digital fashion a tremendous amount more impetus.

“With validation through blockchain, you can prove who owns it,” says Richard Hobbs, founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based digital fashion agency Brand New Vision. “When Hermès makes a scarf, you don’t know whether they’ve made 100,000 or three. With blockchain, you know.”

Don't miss: What Is An NFT? Experts Share Everything You Need To Know

As a result, the list of big luxury brands that have dipped their toes in the digital fashion waters is a long one. It includes Fendi, Bulgari, Balenciaga; Moschino; Louis Vuitton, with everything from NFT-based games to skins collaborations with League of Legends to a digital trunk created with Hypebeast founder Kevin Ma; Burberry, which has embedded an NFT clothing collection within blockchain game Blankos Block Party; Dolce & Gabbana, which sold its inaugural NFT collection for nearly US$6 million in September 2021; Gucci, which has sold NFTs through Christie’s but also digital trainers aimed at gamers for US$12; Ralph Lauren, with The Ralph Lauren Winter Escape, a holiday-themed environment featuring an exclusive gender-neutral digital clothing collection on proto-metaverse gaming platform Roblox. There’s even a Crypto Fashion Week, as well as a Metaverse Fashion Week within virtual world Decentraland.

“Young people value their physical and digital lives equally,” says Michaela Larosse, head of content and strategy for The Fabricant, one of the many digital fashion houses to have sprung up of late, alongside the likes of Republiqe, Tribute, DressX, Replicant and RTFKT, the last of which was recently acquired by Nike. “For them, it’s a no-brainer that digital garments exist. Brands are realising that this is a requirement.”

In case you missed it: Metaverse Fashion Week: 8 Things to Do at Decentraland’s First Virtual Fashion Event

If you’ve got a token, you can engage that token owner in so many ways. Traditionally you’ve had a sales and marketing department; now you have content and community.
Richard Hobbs

The interesting question is what those brands do with that. “They were looking at it originally as marketing assets, but the conversation has transitioned very quickly,” says Larosse. “They’re trying to be strategic but they’re not sure how to do it yet. How do we make it work? How do we continue our brand’s narrative into this space? Obviously all this requires very big thinking; it takes a while.”

Hobbs says that it starts to get really interesting when brands look at it as both a new sales channel and a way to deepen relationships with their customers.

“If you’ve got a token, you can engage that token owner in so many ways. Traditionally you’ve had a sales and marketing department; now you have content and community.

“In the physical world, if you have an amazing reaction to something, it’s almost impossible to react to that. The orange dress is flying off the rails: can we get more? No: it’s going to take three months. If you’re digital, you can react to that in a matter of hours. You get that engagement with the community, where they’re talking to you rather than you talking at them. They become your sales and marketing. And if you’re really clever, they create your content as well.

“It’s not about doing the traditional business slightly better but doing something new. It’s really rewarding to work with brands when they get it.”

Of course, for the mainstream fashion industry to really get involved, its customers need to be there. At the moment, there’s a distinction between collectible items, mainly bought for investment reasons, mostly by people from a crypto background; and actual clothing, aimed at a more mainstream clientele, that digital avatars can wear. According to multiple digital fashion houses, customers are still mainly from the crypto crowd, but with every expectation that this is on the cusp of changing.

James Gaubert, founder and creative director of Republiqe, says his company has two types of customer: those who buy clothes to actually wear online, who tend to skew younger and female; and those interested in higher value, lower volume transactions involving NFTs, who tend to be from a crypto background, and are more likely to be older and male. “As the market matures and crypto wallets go mainstream, I see the two markets eventually blurring,” he says.

The dream is complete interoperability among platforms, so people can, say, wear the same outfit in Decentraland or Roblox as on Instagram or TikTok; as well as getting to the stage when digital clothes are indistinguishable from physical ones.

Says Hobbs: “The vision is that at some point in the future, people will want to have a digital wardrobe: for Zoom and so on, for gaming and for the things we call metaverses. The key thing is wearability. Wearability comes in when you’ve got metaverse experiences built on gaming engines.”

Don't miss: Hong Kong Gallery Launches Asia’s First Female-Driven NFT Art Exhibition in the Metaverse

While the physics of digital clothing need to be realistic, there’s no need at all for the clothes themselves to be; indeed, untethering themselves from the constraints of physical feasibility can be one of the main attractions for designers.

Gaubert says there are two schools of thought. “There are those who are embracing the creative freedom, but there’s also the old guard: this is a fad; it won’t catch on; this isn’t how you do proper design.

“The biggest challenge I face is trying to find digital designers: 3D design still isn’t taught on fashion curriculums. A lot of the designers we talk to are self-taught, so the quality is very varied.”

Larosse says that traditional skills are needed to make digital clothes work. “Our garments are kind of hyperreal. Our designers are all traditionally trained but translate that into 3D. With people who only do 3D design, the aesthetic isn’t quite right. To get it to our level of craftsmanship requires design knowledge spliced with technical awareness.

“The creative palette is limitless—there are all kinds of possibilities. But it’s important to keep a foot in fashion reality. Instilling what we do with emotion is very important.”

As well as offering opportunities for new types of creativity, digital fashion also lowers the barriers to entry for new designers, potentially altering the economics of the industry. The Fabricant, for example, has allowed everyone to mint their own NFT designs.

“It allows everyone to become a designer,” Larosse says. “In the metaverse, we’re going to need millions of garments, and users can create a lot of them.

“People who are excited about fashion should also be able to come into this space. We’re trying to make the interface super-simple. This should belong to everybody. If the iPhone made everyone a photographer, how can we make everyone a digital fashion designer?”

The use of NFTs could also mean creators receiving rewards more commensurate with their input. “The whole concept of smart contracts allows you to embed the reward structure into something that was previously immutable,” says Hobbs. That could mean, for example, designers getting rewarded for their work in the form of royalties, an upending of traditional fashion economics that might not be to the liking of the big companies who have historically taken the largest slice of the pie.

See also: NFTs: Fad or Future? The Tatler Community Weigh In

The digital fashion industry also tends to make pretty grand claims regarding sustainability, and a lot of the people who work in digital fashion houses seem to have been genuinely motivated to start their companies by a desire to avoid the waste and damage caused by the traditional fashion industry. Fabricant co-founder Amber Jae Slooten, for example, launched the company because she wanted to indulge her love of fashion while avoiding the industry’s toxic practices. Gaubert had a similar realisation after working in fashion for more than two decades.

“I spent a lot of time on the ground in places like Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, and I saw at first hand the damage done in the manufacturing plants,” he says. “I’ve seen some pretty harrowing sights with clothing being made for major western brands.”

DressX claimed in 2020 that a digital garment has only 3 per cent the carbon footprint of a physical one, and saves the use of 3,300 litres of water. That might well be true, but the bigger question is whether it means anything: because if digital items are purchased in addition to physical ones rather than instead of them, it doesn’t.

“In my opinion, digital fashion does not make you reach net zero tomorrow,” says Hong Kong sustainability consultant Pat Dwyer, founder and director of The Purpose Business. “Until NFTs can cover our private parts and protect us from biting cold or humid summers, there is no way digital fashion replaces physical fashion. NFTs are about the ownership, not about what you wear on a daily basis. But if creating clothes in 3D means that the hundreds of fashion weeks reduce carbon emissions because there is less production, pollution, waste and fashion shows, then yes, perhaps there is a win for sustainability.”

For us, the big picture is that everything we’re doing is building a new fashion industry. The current industry was created for a world that no longer exists.
Michaela Larosse

Brands need to produce solid numbers to demonstrate that any claims of greater sustainability aren’t just greenwashing, she adds. Even if digital garments are replaced with physical ones, however, the energy used by crypto transactions makes their environmental credentials questionable. Some digital fashion houses are attempting to do something about this. The Fabricant, for example, builds on Flow, a newish blockchain developed specifically for NFTs that works on the basis of proof of stake, rather than the proof of work system that powers the likes of Bitcoin and Ethereum, dramatically reducing its energy use.

“It has allowed us to build and operate the platform in a way that makes sense for our values,” says Larosse.

“For us, the big picture is that everything we’re doing is building a new fashion industry. The current industry was created for a world that no longer exists. For some reason we’re still iterating these systems into the 21st century when we’ve got the technology to change them.”

Under the Influence

Alongside the rise of virtual clothing, we’re also seeing the rise of the virtual influencer. One such is the star of our cover shoot, Ruby 9100M, aka Ruby Gloom. The digital persona of influencer Chan Ka-yu, she has collaborated with The Fabricant on a collection and also worked with brands including Fendi, Bulgari, Nike and Adidas. As a digital artist, she also creates digital avatars for other people—including Grimes, which was what got a lot of the big brands she’s worked with interested in the first place.

“I’ve been a fashion influencer since I was 19, but eventually I got tired of taking pictures and portraying a certain image online,” says Ruby. “In 2016, when I was on a trip to Seattle with my husband [rapper Dough-Boy, at that point her fiancé], I picked up my laptop and learnt how to use a 3D program. Then I decided to build my own avatar to replace my online persona.

“Ruby9100M is an extension of me, I would say, as I started to build her based on my physical appearance. I’ve actually changed her so much that I’ve forgotten how she used to look. Her appearance changes whenever I feel like it or if I change my hairstyle or make-up.”

The character, though, is beginning to acquire a life of her own, she adds—including at our shoot.

“I feel like she is like my daughter, because she leads her own way now in terms of possibilities or opportunities. She’s opened her own doors.

“The Tatler shoot was interesting as we used a model who is not me to represent my avatar in real life. So basically, anyone can be Ruby.”

NOW READ

The Sandbox’s Sébastien Borget Reveals the Inner Workings of the Virtual World on Tatler TV: Meta Versed

A Purple Metaverse: How the Pantone Colour of the Year 2022 Represents the Importance of Virtual Reality

The Reality of Virtual Reality: How the Metaverse Will Change Our Notion of Laws and the Legal System

  • PhotographyOscar Chik
  • StylingCherry Mui
  • ModelRuby Gloom (Virtual Model), Kaye
  • GroomingArya Yung (Manicurist)
  • Stylist's AssistantSummer Li, Kuku So
  • Photographer's AssistantGloria Tang
© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.