Year in Review: What Exactly Is the Metaverse? The Simplest Explanation of What It Means for Fashion

Updated: Feb 16

By Women's Wear Daily


This article was published in Women's Wear Daily December 22, 2021, as part of the publication's year-end review of topics important to the fashion, apparel, and sewn products industries.


Welcome to the metaverse 101, your lesson in understanding that thing that keeps coming up in the news, as the new icon when you open Facebook and Instagram…and that most are feigning their comprehension of.

Sure, Ralph Lauren released a Roblox-only collection, Tommy Hilfiger’s mulling his metaverse play and Fortnite avatars are donning digital Balenciaga — but is the metaverse a place? A thing? An idea? It’s actually a nascent concept, but one that could be as far-reaching for the world as the advent of the internet.


Before the conversation goes far enough that it’ll be entirely uncool to admit to still not knowing what the metaverse is, WWD is endeavoring a “For Dummies” explainer of sorts on the still cryptic concept that will command much more of fashion’s attention whether the industry is ready or not. The brands and designers coming in hot with the metaverse news of late are paying attention and recognize that even with the concept still under construction, there’s too much opportunity at stake to risk getting left behind.


In the simplest of nutshells, the metaverse is “a whole new 3D interactive internet,” according to Faisal Galaria, chief executive officer of Blippar, which creates augmented reality experiences for brands and retailers, including projects with Net-a-porter and Boohoo. It’s like an internet that’s everywhere, not just accessible via phones and computers.

Really, it’s kind of the internet of life instead of the internet of things.


Here’s a “Star Wars” explanation if that’s more palatable: “There’s a line in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ where Yoda says to Luke Skywalker, ‘It surrounds us, it’s in everything.’ It’s the fabric of the internet, the metaverse, and anything that you can imagine will be interactive and 3D,” Galaria said. We will get to a point where “everything that we do is the metaverse, inside the metaverse, so it’s like the force.”


And, he added, “If you’re not part of it today, then you’re not going to have a stake in its future.”


First off, to be fair to those for whom this is only beginning to make some sense, it’s because we’re at the stage now with the metaverse that we were with the idea of e-commerce while we were still booting up chubby internet-free desktops with a string of weird codes just to play Tetris in black and white. At that point, conceiving of a phone that would function as a pocket-size personal computer with a screen that would respond to touch and clothing we could order with a couple of clicks would have been equally difficult to wrap our heads around.


“If you think about that, we had desktop computing in the ‘90s and e-commerce is coming of age 30 years later. There’s a common concept in technology that we overestimate the impact of technology in the short term but underestimate it in the long-term,” Galaria said. “So, again, if you think back only 15 years ago, who would have thought that we’d have these magical devices that do so much for us today? You have to think like that again.”


But, how?

Just like desktops and the power they could pack shrunk to petite phones, petite phones are going to shrink down to things like AR glasses (think Google Glass, which may have just been ahead of its time) or even contact lenses that do the same thing (yes, sounds a little scary). In the metaverse, accessing this 3D interactive internet could be as simple as having glasses on or your eyes open, or even asking your AirPods a question. Those projector display dashboards some cars currently have could start to pop up in more places if we opt in to find out more about the things we see around us, for example.


“We’re about to go on another change where, rather than just buying online and everything being 2D and flat — and that hasn’t changed for 25 years, looking at a pair of sneakers or a dress or a coat online on a computer like this flat, 2D hasn’t changed in 25 years — but is and will change fundamentally when, actually, people aren’t staring at screens like this [phone] or this big screen that we’re using for Zoom all the time and actually the internet is all around us,” said Galaria, who was an early employee at Skype and part of the team that sold the business to eBay for $3.1 billion in 2005, and who led teams at Kayak and Spotify, among other things, before his latest venture. “We don’t have a screen to look at, we don’t have a keyboard to touch, the internet is everywhere, so everything changes again.”


Wait…what?

Imaginations are necessary when it comes to things that don’t entirely exist yet. And there’s no hard and fast definition of the metaverse because there’s no hard and fast metaverse yet. Its possibilities and parameters are still being figured out and discovered. But here’s one way Shaan Puri’s thinking of it.


The tech expert and entrepreneur — who was formerly chief executive officer of esports tournaments platform Bebo, which was acquired in 2019 by Twitch, the leading livestreaming service for video games in the U.S., and who was then senior director of product, mobile gaming and emerging markets at Twitch — thinks of the metaverse as “a moment in time where AI becomes smarter than humans.”


In a string of trendy tweets in October, Puri said: “The metaverse is the moment in time where our digital life is worth more to us than our phsyical [sic] life. This is not an overnight change. Or an invention by some Steve Jobs type. It’s a gradual change that’s been happening for 20 yrs.


“Every important part of life is going digital. Work –> from factories to laptops. boardrooms to Zooms. Friends –> from neighbors to followers. Where do you find like minded people? Twitter. Reddit. etc. Games –> more kids play Fortnite than basketball & football combined.

“Identity –> filters are the new makeup. Stories are your personal billboard to broadcast who you are. What matters more. What you look like in real life? Or what you look like on Instagram?…


“Everything goes digital. Your friends, your job, your identity. And now with crypto, your assets are online, too. Bored Apes are the new Rolex. Fortnite skins are the new skinny jeans. If everyone hangs out online all the time, then your flexes need to be digital.”


Now, whether or not you subscribe to the metaverse as a moment in time, what Puri points to is a lot of the “why” behind the whole fashion in the metaverse play.


As Dr. Ahmed Zaidi, cofounder and chief technology officer of U.K.-based machine learning company Catalyst AI (which was just acquired by made-to-order fashion services firm PlatformE to bring machine learning into its efforts to reduce fashion supply chain waste), says, “If the metaverse is a point in time, it is the point in time when information lead time truly goes to zero.”


Right now, the time it takes for us to get information is limited by how quickly we can check our phones or laptops, he explained.


“Whilst it is close to zero, it’s not yet zero unless we eliminate the need for an end-point such as a smartphone. This need for an end-point creates friction in our lives. We have to either spend time on our phones in ‘the digital world’ or experience ‘the physical,’” Zaidi said. “When information lead times go to zero, it will be difficult to distinguish between our digital reality and our physical reality as they will become one and the same. Interweaved to form a single reality.”


Which brings us back to the AR glasses or contacts or whatever the big tech companies will develop to make access to information even easier and more instantaneous than it is now.

“It’s putting that digital layer on the world around us,” as Galaria puts it.


Now, what is an NFT and where does that fit in?

It would seem, in the midst of an already confusing sort of post-pandemic-but-not-really 2021, that new tech terms were just flying around left and right. Metaverse, NFT…


But, in understanding the metaverse, it’s best to think of an NFT as something entirely separate.


“NFTs might have just come into vogue at the same sort of time, but they should not be conflated, they are not the same thing. An NFT is an exclusive digital asset, it’s really simple. It’s, I’ve got the only James Bond Omega digital watch. It gives me bragging rights in the same way as if I bought it from a jeweler shop,” Galaria said. “And you can buy an NFT right now, pay your money and you’ll have the rights of ownership.”

Again, this goes back to “flexes,” or social capital, being virtual versus physical for people who spend a lot of time online, because that means more opportunities to “be seen” or to show off in the same way people are keen to in the world of physical fashion.


“But the difference with an NFT is, it’s real, it’s there, it’s now. The metaverse is lots of people trying to figure out what it is,” Galaria said. “People are trying to figure out what the metaverse really is and how are you going to be able to buy a pair of Balenciaga shoes and go from Roblox into Fortnite and into TikTok, how will that work because nobody knows today because they’re completely different systems. But buying your NFT and saying I own the Balenciaga 001 of this new pair of shoes digitally [is a completely separate thing].”


The origins of the metaverse

Let’s go back a second before going any further forward.


The term metaverse may have only entered the popular culture lexicon in the last few months, but its origins date back just about as far as the internet. The word itself is a combo of the Greek word “meta,” which means after or beyond, and the word universe which is, well, everything.


And it made its debut in a 1992 novel by Neal Stephenson called “Snow Crash.” In the story, there’s a sort of dystopian world that humans had messed up (sound familiar?), so they would don goggles and escape into an alternative 3D reality that they’d experience first-person with avatars, and that was a much less messed up version of the world.


“It strikes me as if some people have read that book and, rather than seeing it as science fiction, are taking it as a book of instructions. So as we screw up the real world, don’t worry about it because we’re going to put on these AR things to escape to a completely alternative reality. And that’s some people’s vision of the metaverse,” Galaria explained. “There’s no one definition of the metaverse. My vision of…what we’re building is to enhance, using augmented reality, the information, the engagement, the fun that we have, the way that we interact with technology all around us.”


So what makes the metaverse different from virtual reality?

“Why it’s the metaverse and not virtual reality is what you buy in Roblox would work in any other environment, then it’s the metaverse and not a universe,” Galara said. “So it works in Facebook and it works in TikTok and it works in Fortnite and any other ‘verse’ as well.”


So who will own the metaverse and is it Mark Zuckerberg?

How exactly will we interact with technology all around us? Mark Zuckerberg with his new Meta has one idea, but it’s not one everyone subscribes to.


Right now, the only fully functioning space that could really be considered a metaverse is gaming. It’s a 3D interactive, internet-based space where players are already more excited about their digital flexes, which include — but are not limited to — dressing their Fortnite avatars in Balenciaga or outfitting their Roblox avatars in the Ralph Lauren winter collection.


But gaming won’t be the only metaverse. And neither will Meta.


“At the moment, you have different constituents trying to claim what the metaverse is. You have, for example, Meta, Facebook, saying we can be the whole of the metaverse and everyone can build content on Meta and therefore we are the metaverse. We’re the payments gateway, we’re the content creation platform, we’re the e-commerce system, you can do everything and build everything in Meta. And they’re saying, ‘so we’ve built the metaverse,’” Galaria said. “And there are other people who say that’s not the way the internet was built and that’s not the way the metaverse should be built. What should happen is, if I spend most of my time in Fortnite or Roblox but I also spend time in Snap and Tiktok, then the content that I own and buy in Snap or Roblox should work across any platform and anybody should be able to build anything they want and people should be able to create payment gateways and content creation platforms and it’s a whole new 3D interactive internet. But just like the internet was created by everybody who created websites, the metaverse should be a completely decentralized space where there’s no one overall controller.”


Broadly, think of it like this: The metaverse could be considered like the university system — there are universities all over the world, each with their own leadership (no one university controls the other and no one controls them all), their own caliber, their own essence (Ivy League, party schools, commuter schools, for example), and their own clubs and groups (young business clubs, sororities — read: target markets) within them. With all of their differences, they are still all places for higher learning that follow a similar format or structure.

Supporting the example, Galaria said that means, “Harvard can exist and Stanford can exist and Yale and Duke and Berkeley can exist and you can be a member of all of those. You can actually attend and be a member of two or three of those if you want to and all of those are valid and nobody’s trying to control the others.


“And in the best example, if you’ve done your undergrad at, say, Stanford and you want to do your post-grad at Harvard, Harvard recognizes the Stanford undergrad and says ‘That’s great and you can come and be part of my club as well,’” he said. “The alternative is what Meta, what Facebook is trying to do and say that I am the only education. And if you want to study economics, you can only study at my university and my college, nothing else will work.”


Each metaverse, just like each university, can decide its own rules and parameters, will be able to decide what’s possible in their “worlds.” The OG Facebook allowed for “pokes,” for example, but Meta Facebook could have many more possibilities (as well as many more potential risks to try to prevent, but that discussion’s for an advanced level metaverse course).


“In the same way as Roblox and Fortnite and Snap and Facebook, they have their own parameters and there are some things that are possible on the internet and some things that physically aren’t possible, it’ll still be the same in the metaverse in a decentralized world,” Galaria said. “Some things will be possible and some things won’t be possible, but what’s not possible won’t be decided by one dark overlord.”


Just like there’s no one owner of the internet and even Zuckerberg doesn’t own all of social media, there will be different, decentralized metaverses, or different virtual, interactive hang out spaces where different types of people want to spend their time.


“Microsoft announced that they’re doing a metaverse — they’re probably targeting enterprise and business, I can’t imagine them wanting to go anywhere else. Facebook’s probably going to capitalize on Millennials and older and then you might have TikTok or anyone else like Snapchat who’ll want to capitalize on Gen Z…and you might have Apple capitalizing on people who have more disposable income or want to seem like they have more disposable income and buy Apple products,” Zaidi explained. “I think there’s a whole discussion to be had about the sociology of the different metaverses and what is the makeup of people at different metaverses. And brands will probably want to consider different strategies for different platforms just like they do at the moment.”


OK, enough back story — what does this really mean for fashion?

If you’ve reached this far in the article, well done. And if you’re still not clear on the “why” for fashion, here we go.


“We’ve seen what’s happened with physical to online retail, how important now online is to sales. Now imagine you can go from that to you log onto whichever game or social media company you want and all of a sudden, all around you when you [look at your phone, or whichever devices emerge down the line] you are now in the Louis Vuitton store. You haven’t left your home, you’re in the Louis Vuitton store and it’s the best Louis Vuitton store you’ve ever been in. It has infinite capacity, it’s not constrained by the size of the store in Manhattan or Paris, it can be as big as you want and it can be personalized, so it knows what you like and it can have collaborations with your favorite designers and brands. Anything is possible in the metaverse,” Galaria said.


It would give an entirely new meaning to shopping or even window shopping, and it could certainly bring back the experiential excitement so many brands and retailers have been lacking and desperately looking to reignite.


Instead of the still flat Louis Vuitton website, Galaria said, “If that bag was in a virtual store and you could walk around it and you could pick up those shoes and look at them in 3D and try them on, that’s the metaverse.”


That may be where a social media metaverse complete with shopping opportunities (like Instagram has now) wins with consumers who don’t care about gaming. And if social media becomes a 3D interactive space you can “enter,” where maybe followers are hanging out inside the closets of their favorite influencers watching unboxing in a whole new way, perhaps they’ll want the digital avatars of themselves dressed in digital versions of the clothing they’d wear in real life. Here is where selling an NFT version in tandem with a physical product can prove a value add for fashion.


Something like this is already taking shape with Digital Village, a gaming/social media/e-commerce metaverse slated for launch in the second quarter of 2022. The in-development metaverse — which has already secured $2 million in pre-seed funding — will allow users’ digital avatars to explore digital stores and museums, trade digital fashion and artwork and interact in virtual spaces. All the while, they’ll be experiencing and contributing to a more ethical and sustainable alternate online world.

The upside for sustainability in the metaverse is outsize.


“Think about it this way, how sustainable is a digital handbag, pair of shoes, jacket or coat versus a real life one? And what’s the margin on that?” Galaria said. “The margin is infinite on a digital product.”


People will still need clothes because there will always be real-life needs that require going out — if even it’s just to get some fresh air and endeavor to escape the metaverse — but building a brand will again take on new meaning. Just like it did when e-commerce and greater consumer access birthed a new cohort of direct-to-consumer brands that spoke digital as their first language and left their slow-to-change brick and mortar store counterparts behind.


However, brands that are cool in the physical world won’t be able to assume their desirability extends to the digital world, or that just because they’ve proven a trend out in real life that it will translate to metaverse life.


“It probably won’t translate at the moment, primarily because the people who are in the virtual world are not the same as the people who are in the physical world,” Zaidi said, noting that Off-White, for example, tracks more with Twitch users than Nike does.


Soon enough, there’ll be direct-to-metaverse brands (whose founders could easily be 14-year-old kids in their bedrooms) that are keenly savvy about reaching their target consumer who’s always online, their margins will be through the roof with overhead almost entirely non-existent and they’ll be able to test anything with nearly no risk. And if it all works out, maybe then they’d consider creating physical product. Kind of like how d-to-cs mastered brand building and consumer acquisition and then considered opening a brick-and-mortar store or two.


So, what’s one way fashion brands can start to think of entering the metaverse and exploring the opportunities for potential value creation in the next year or two?


“I think one of those spaces is…being able to have your physical items in your digital world in a seamless way,” Zaidi said. “So every time a product is made, have a digital version of that and then people can redeem it on their game. And then you make a deal with Fortnite saying, ‘Hey, anyone who buys a [physical] bag has a code and they can use that to redeem it on their avatar.’ That’s one small branding thing.”


As Galaria added, “In the same way as you could go viral on social media today, you could go viral in the metaverse with these new sneakers or T-shirt or clothing. And that might be a trigger to going, ‘OK, we’re only going to produce 10 of these so they’re going to cost 10,000 pounds each — but you want one, right? So it creates economics that, whether it’s everybody can buy one and we’re going to charge $50 for the sneakers, or in the same way as you have special editions today you go, ‘No, you can buy the virtual sneakers for $100, but if you want the real ones it’s going to cost you $2,000.’”


Some brands, like the today versions of those who led when e-commerce was in its infancy, are just going to get it and, according to Galaria, “they’ll explode online.”


“This is why I think it’s interesting for big brands, why companies like Nike have a chief metaverse officer is because they know that if it’s this big opportunity for selling in the metaverse that has infinite profitability, then they want a part of it today and they want to understand it.”


If nothing else has been attention grabbing enough, “infinite profitability” should do it.


“You can bet your bottom dollar if you’re not experimenting, you’re not understanding this now, that you’ll be eclipsed by brands that are native to the metaverse and to augmented reality,” Galaria said. “In the same way as brands like Gymshark came out of nowhere and became great big fashion brands in the sports world, in the metaverse, it’s kind of the rules of building a brand in the real world won’t apply anymore. And they’ll have different ways of building followers and the rules for how you become a big brand in the metaverse are different. So, if you’re not playing and understanding that now, then you’ll get eclipsed.”

The most important thing for brands to remember, which should perhaps assuage some of the anxiety around the whole metaverse conversation, according to Galaria, is that this is a continuum.


“We’re at the start of a 20- or 30-year journey into the metaverse, which we don’t actually know what the contours or parameters are,” he said. “But what we do have right now are NFTs, we have limited editions, we have augmented reality product launches and try-ons and magic mirrors. And so, for the next 10 or 15 years, there’s going to be a lot happening in augmented reality, which is where we make e-commerce and marketing and advertising even more immersive and exciting and engaging. And that, over time, will help us understand what the possibilities of the metaverse are.”


So, for now, may the force metaverse be with you. And if it still isn’t, at least start getting comfortable with the idea.

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