The metaverse: fashion and luxury’s new Eldorado, or a mirage?
Should we enter the metaverse or not, investing time and money on it? The question has been niggling at luxury labels for some time. Some, like Gucci and Philipp Plein, have embarked on a plethora of initiatives in this new virtual landscape, while others are still skittish about it, wondering what strategy to deploy, what expectations and what concerns they ought to have about the new virtual world that is looming. These were some of the metaverse issues addressed by the participants during the round-table debates organised on October 15 by the French Fashion and Haute Couture Federation, as part of the ‘Rencontres internationales de la mode’ (international fashion meetings) held each year at Villa Noailles during the Hyères Festival in France.
The luxury industry’s approach to the metaverse is radically different from the one it took at the advent of the internet. Then, the industry was largely sceptical, while there is now frank interest in the metaverse.
“Previously, for me, the metaverse was like a show without an audience. Not any more. In six months, it’s shifted from an anecdotal dimension to something that's undeniably fashion. When we first measured the impact of NFTs, it was risible. In recent months, this impact has increased more than 10,000 times over, something that had never happened before,” said Michael Jaïs, CEO and co-founder of Launchmetrics. “What works best is the hybrid launch of a real product associated with its NFT. Similarly, every time we work on skins, virtual looks for avatars, the impact is huge. On the other hand, content sharing doesn't work very well because the technologies available haven't reached the right level yet,” he added.
The metaverse is indeed in its infancy, noted Grégory Boutté, head of digital and customer relations at the Kering group, in charge of 200 people at the Kering Innovation Lab. “We are in the midst of a transformation that began barely one, two years ago. It will take 25 to 30 years, a generation. Opportunities will be become gradually apparent over time.” Kering has decided to approach the metaverse from multiple directions, favouring a ‘testing to learn’ logic rather than a ‘wait and see’ one. Some of its labels are experimenting with new ideas, like Gucci, which launched an NFT collection and embarked on a variety of projects.
At the same time, the group has forged ties with metaverse start-ups, to reduce risk. For example, it invested in Haun Ventures, the cryptocurrency investment fund set up by Katie Haun, through its Kering Ventures entity. “Innovation is key for our industry and for the way we manage our business. The metaverse is an opportunity,” said Boutté, who also noted the affinities it has with luxury, such as “the feeling of rarity that it's possible to generate with NFTs.”
Among the other opportunities arising from the Web3 world, there is also that of establishing a more direct relationship with consumers. “In the metaverse, the relationship with customers is totally different. You can interact with them and affect them in a highly emotional way. Provided you do not offer them a mere replica of what exists in the real world. On the contrary, you must give them what they wouldn’t usually be able to access, by means of different sensory experiences,” said Arnaud Guggenbuhl, head of marketing, insight & image at Swiss fragrance manufacturer Givaudan.
“Exploiting synaesthesia, by associating a fragrance with a colour, image or sound, we can now trigger an olfactory sensation. Digital technology also makes it possible to provide additional content via augmented reality, and even to dematerialise interaction by creating holograms,” he added.
“It is absolutely essential to innovate. Those who are happy with duplication will just grind to a halt,” said Jonathan Belolo, co-founder of Stage 11, a start-up specialising in immersive musical experiences. “Web3 affords infinite possibilities, like cinema in its early days. The reality behind it is exciting. We are dealing with something new, a world where audiences become co-creators of the stories we tell,” he added. In this context, creativity is more essential than ever. “Artificial intelligence cannot replace creativity,” said Belolo.
“AI is only able to remix outputs that already exist in certain tools. The role of designers, those who are able to develop new styles, will not be replaced,” said Raphaël Mayol, creative director and co-founder of Cosmic Shelter Studio, a creativity hub and Web3 agency spawned by the LVMH start-up incubator. Cosmic Shelter Studio was recently involved in one of fashion’s most original initiatives, in partnership with EgonLab. For the Fall/Winter 2022-23 collection, the French label featured, alongside a runway show, a series of NFTs and a virtual project.
“We created a full-blown narrative around [EgonLab’s] collection, looking for the kind of immersive world that best represented the label. An experimental bubble, a ‘microverse’, an immersive site designed like a metaverse but more accessible, featuring light 3D experiential graphics and NFTs, allowing users to access classic e-tail functionalities in one click,” said Mayol, underlining how “every experience we create must be a generator of emotion.”
Many have also highlighted the benefits in terms of environmental impact, among them 3D designer Jean Jaulhiac: “We could continue sketching by hand, but 3D software puts new tools at our disposal, enabling us to devise new shapes, to work on archival models and transform them, to try out different fabrics, colours and more. It’s a more efficient way of designing, with zero waste. We can gauge various different materials in detail, see how they drop. In other words, we make fewer prototypes.”
Advances that must nevertheless be assessed against the enormous impact such cutting-edge technology has on the environment. “The advent of a permanent, immersive real-time 3D internet has a double ecological footprint. An energy one, with the energy needs engendered by the exponential increase in computing capacity, that will be multiplied by a factor of 1,000; and a material one, with the planned obsolescence of the accessories needed to navigate this virtual world, alongside a greater exploitation of natural resources,” said Ines Leonarduzzi, president and founder of the Digital For the Planet NGO.
She summarised this impact using various data points. Digital technologies accounts for approximately 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to estimates for 2019 by Shift Project and the Green IT collective. These emissions will grow 6% per year, doubling the impact in 10 years. Not to mention that more than 82% of electronic devices are neither recycled nor collected as waste.
Exactly a year ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced the transition from Facebook to Meta by launching his major metaverse project via the Horizon Worlds VR tools. Meta has since invested over $10 billion in the operation. But the time when this new world will be a reality still seems far away. “We must relativise the scale of the phenomenon. For the time being, the metaverse encompasses only a handful of initiatives by a few major corporations, which are primarily looking for growth drivers,” said François Bourdoncle, an engineer and R&D technology pioneer turned art photographer.
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