The fashion world is fertile ground for digital innovation. The medium already exists in the intersections between aspiration, fantasy, identity, and utility. This is why fashion NFTs are definitely worth paying attention to: It’s not an argument for what crypto assets could do in the fashion world, but what is already happening between producers and collectors—using NFTs as the language of communication.
The pandemic dethroned the supremacy of IRL fashion shows in industry hubs like Paris and New York. Those legacy showcases are slow to return, doing so with smaller numbers than before. The pandemic isn’t to blame alone for the decrease in in-person attendance. Fashion shows were already morphing into multidisciplinary, multimedia performances, thanks to moguls like Rihanna of Savage X Fenty. Now, no one is surprised when an established designer like Rebecca Minkoff participates in the niche digital festival Crypto Fashion Week, nearly a year after generating positive press coverage for her brand by donating NFT sale proceeds to charity. It feels like the most natural evolution of her marketing strategy—not a one-off stunt inspired by blockchain buzz.
At its core, fashion has historically been a material expression of both personal and societal values. Consider the way that lingerie styles of the 1910s and 1920s were dramatically simplified to be more flexible than years past, changing from structured corsets to cloth brasiers and shapewear, as women claimed more political freedoms and mobility in public spaces. Likewise, digital fashion, previously expressed primarily through stylish items in siloed video games, is evolving through NFTs to encompass values such as self-sovereign ownership and fluid utility across digital spaces. Since NFTs are (usually) immaterial works that convey cultural messages and values in digital contexts, these tokens and fashion go hand in hand
Over the past three decades, digital media has reshaped consumer desires and expectations related to fashion. For example, Pinterest has helped niche bridal designers reach global audiences, with Pinterest data from 2017 claiming that 93% of active Pinners use the platform to plan for purchases and is now Brides magazine using Pinterest trends, such as star designs and pearl veil embellishments, as a leading indicator of bridal industry trends.
Overall, fashion is a way people express their identities and values. It grants people the power to shape how they are perceived by others. This is as true online as it is in tangible spaces. As people shift to utilizing virtual public spaces more often than physical ones, NFTs offer a logical continuation of fashion as a medium of expression. Fashion trends are inherently cyclical, with digital fashion and spaces like social media networks accelerating cyclical trends at a rate that would have been impossible in the physical world constrained by manufacturing and shipping. It’s too early to say whether the longevity of fashion NFTs will impact how collections and styles play into trend cycles. What is clear, however, is that fashion NFTs have an impact that reaches far beyond the private homes and screens where they are most often viewed.
Now legacy brands are scrambling to adapt by associating themselves with positive values and digital communication. This is why the sportswear brand Adidas hosted a women-centric art exhibit in the flagship London store in March, including artists like Leah Sams of the “Power of Women” NFT collection. At the same time, Neiman Marcus partnered with the Boss Beauties NFT community for in-store gallery displays nationwide.
From the NFT fans’ perspective, collaborating with traditional businesses offer a sense of legacy credibility for lesser-known artists, including access to physical spaces that brick-and-mortar retailers are desperate to utilize. In return, the digital asset gives the legacy brand instant reach beyond the physical store and shipping lanes (especially when online orders are stalled by supply chain issues). The concept of NFT marketing and product creation impacts real money flow and shopping habits in a deeper way than mere Twitter likes or NFT auction floor prices.
One of the many milestones that indicate fashion NFTs have already gone “mainstream” happened when Gucci sold its first NFT for $25,000 in an auction hosted by Christie’s in June 2021. The legendary auction house now accepts bids using Ethereum. There’s already plenty of precedent for raw fashion materials being used as currency, namely silk, plus luxury fashion products like Birkin bags being traded as financial assets. When Dolce & Gabbana followed suit with a $6 million NFT sale using the smaller platform, UNXD, fashion fans around the world took note. This new product variety, crypto assets, represents more than a passing fad.
In fact, a fashion-focused DAO called Red DAO participated in that Dolce & Gabbana sale, emerging as one of the first crypto collectives for people that view fashion through the lens of art curation and investments. There are so many reasons why people love fashion NFTs. From a legacy brand’s perspective, partnering with diverse artists offers a prime opportunity for improving the brand’s image among young, tech-savvy and socially conscious shoppers.
Traditional fashion companies need to innovate or perish in the aftermath of the pandemic. NFT marketing campaigns, uplifting remote-first communities that became more popular than ever during the pandemic’s increase in online shopping, offer a perfect fit. This phenomena isn’t restricted to legacy brands seeking legitimacy from NFT artists either. There are also many aspiring designers utilizing fashion NFTs to build grassroots audiences and new brand identities, such as 3D designer Stephy Fung. Fashion NFTs make it easier for independent artists to arrange gallery-like exhibitions and diverse showcases with more accessible distribution and fewer expenses than an old school fashion show or IRL exhibit. For another example, this time showcasing tangible clothing in video footage, the multidisciplinary artist Sira recently auctioned a fashion film NFT on Zora featuring ensembles from 12 Black fashion designers. We’re likely to see more multimedia fashion NFTs as one-off experiments that eventually give way to collections.
There are more than 16 acclaimed fashion museums around the world, in addition to dozens of museums and galleries that routinely host fashion exhibits. It’s not outlandish to imagine NFT fashion curation enables fashion fans to enjoy access to diverse art experiences from the comfort of their own homes as well. The NFT artist known as Adriana mixed the two in February 2022, when she hosted a pop-up gallery exhibit in Poland featuring her fashion sketch NFTs. There are also community-driven apparel brands like MetaFactory that produce IRL garments and events that correspond with the brand’s token. Right now the digital fashion house Fabricant is partnering with the World of Women NFT community by inviting fans to co-create a virtual collection. Interaction and engagement, including secondary markets and gaming options, are some of the key elements that can make owning a fashion NFT different from owning a tangible fashion item.
NFTs, like fabric, are merely the canvas on which creators engage with old styles and experiment with new ones. So far we’ve seen NFT artists focusing on new designs and avant garde styles. Yet if historic photography NFTs find an audience (we’ve yet to see that become as lucrative as original designs), then it would stand to reason that fashion NFT sellers would also turn to referencing older styles. In the meantime, fashion NFTs are often comparable to couture fashion pieces, which can be so bespoke and detailed that they’re meant for display rather than wear.
There are a few cases where fashion NFTs offer IRL functionality, by acting as a coupon for a physical item or a ticket to a show. But in most cases, functionality is secondary. Fashion NFTs don’t need another justification beyond the toe-wiggling excitement they inspire.
How can you not feel smiley about the artist Aluna’s pink “Cocoa Cream Cake Puffer” NFT, with cherries dancing in the background as the 3D frosting-textured jacket rotates with a cheeky fork stuck in the collar? This piece echoes K-pop influences, which itself highlights the ways that modern art cross-pollinates across genres, from music to fashion, and across borders as well. This fashion NFT sold for 0.5 ETH (more than $1,275 at the time of this writing) and also entitled the owner to VIP concert tickets plus early access to the artist’s music. The listing described this virtual fashion piece as “a surrealist take on clothing, wearing the impossible is the future of fashion” from the “High Tea collection” made in collaboration with Feltzine artist collective and Banquet Labs. It’s pure vibes.
There is a clear future in digital fashion. Fashion NFTs, like fashion itself, are still evolving. But their influence on culture and the fashion industry at large are already evident and only going to further permeate a variety of subcultures.