It seems that fashion is leading the transition from the physical to the virtual world, the metaverse, an all-encompassing space where all digital experiences are possible. This is how Eric Redmond, Nike Global Director of Technology Innovation, defines it.
The most famous international brands, some of which are Italian, are leading the way. At first glance this may seem counterintuitive, given that fashion is defined by a physical experience, both in terms of the materiality of the product and the shopping experience which, at least until the advent of e-commerce, was an off-line experience. The pandemic has accelerated, even in fashion and luxury, the tendency to exploit digital opportunities, but perhaps in fashion the acceleration is even more driven by the idea, which has been strongly emerging in recent months, that our lives can be digitalized and virtualized.
In Italy, OTB – parent company of the Diesel and Margela brands – announced the new business unit “Brave Virtual Xperience” (so called “BVX”) some weeks ago. Gucci recently created the immersive “Gucci Garden event” on Roblox in conjunction with the event of the same name in Florence and created a pop-up metaverse activation on The Sims gaming platform. Balenciaga, Gucci’s stablemate in Kering Group, is creating a business unit dedicated to exploring marketing and commercial opportunities in the “metaverse”.
Let’s not forget that Nike, on the other side of the ocean, has deployed a strategy that is perhaps the most articulated at the moment in order to take advantage of the new opportunities represented by virtual reality in the metaverse. Nike, in fact, has filed a number of trademark applications, for its most famous brands – the word marks “Nike,” “Just Do It,” “Jordan,” and “Air Jordan,” the “swoosh logo” and the “Jordan silhouette” logo – for use on various virtual goods/services in the relevant classes. In 2019, downstream of its collaboration with Roblox, during which virtual models of the Jordans were created, Nike filed a patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a “method of providing cryptographically protected digital goods.” Finally, on 13 December, Nike announced the acquisition of the US company RTFKT, which specialises in the creation of virtual trainers and collectibles.
The metaverse or metaverses?
Thus, it seems that “virtual fashion” is becoming less and less futuristic and very likely, if not real, given that it is virtual reality. But puns aside, the fashion&luxury industry sees great opportunities for collaboration with consumers in the metaverse, a collective and ‘persistent’ virtual reality that some experts believe will radically transform the way we live and shop. How many meta-verses there will be remained to be seen? Certainly, Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse is the best known and perceived as the closest: we have for the first time seen Mark Zuckerberg’s avatar moving in a world in which everything imaginable can be reproduced, and some of us did not even realize that the Cicero who accompanied us to discover the virtual world was himself a digital projection of the Facebook creator. But Zuckerberg’s Meta is not the only company engaged in the construction of a metaverse. Among others is Roblox, which is currently the closest online entertainment platform to the metaverse concept. Roblox is essentially a video game with 43.2 million active users, its own digital currency, and a wide range of unique virtual experiences, such as digital concerts or fashion events like the one organized by Gucci. Finally, Amazon represents the largest shopping platform and seems to be trying to build some version of an ‘Amazon mall’ in the metaverse where shoppers can interact and buy digital products.
While this is happening, it expects today’s consumers to become more “participatory” than the brands they follow. Right now, their typical interaction with the brand is the expression of their preferences by clicking “like”, or a comment. The metaverse should take this relationship to a higher level. In order to bring users closer to the world of NFTs and the metaverse, video tutorials teaching how to mint and issue, as well as sell and buy NFTs have multiplied on YouTube. These are the necessary steps to be able to enter the metaverse, and to take advantage of its opportunities on the user/buyer side and on the brand/issuer side. But the rules of the game are not yet completely clear.
Rules of the game
On the issuer side, the digitization, tokenization of digital objects containing intellectual property rights – which are most of the objects on which attention is being focused – and the issuance of the related NFTs on blockchain represents one of the possible forms of economic exploitation of intangible assets and this requires that the relationships between the owner of the intellectual property rights, the issuer and the marketplace selling the NFT be properly regulated. The recent case of the “MetaBirkins NFT” marketed in a limited series of 100 models, sold on different NFT marketplaces without the permission of Hermes is a very interesting example of the possible conflict between the owners of intellectual property rights and the creators of NFT incorporating the exclusive rights of others. Hermes, the famous luxury brand and owner of all the intellectual property rights on the equally famous Birkin bag model, has publicly defined the “MetaBirkins NFT” as a fake in the metaverse of its own bag and brand and immediately took action by addressing a warning letter to the creator of the NFT in question as well as to the well-known marketplace OpenSea in order to obtain that any further marketing of the NFT in question be stopped. Mason Rothschild, creator of the “MetaBirkins NFT” series, made his potion public, among other things, in an open letter addressed to Hermes and published on his Instagram profile. The artist invokes the First Amendment as the basis of his right to create digital works, including NFTs, by reinterpreting the reality around him. In particular, the series of 100 MetaBirkns NFTs should be interpreted as an ironic digital representation of an iconic fashion product, as well as a critique of the use of fur to make luxury garments. Hermes, for its part, could claim, as it seems to have done, infringement of its trademark rights, the risk of dilution of the distinctive reach and luxury allure of its brand, as well as the risk that users of the platforms involved in the sale of the NFTs would be led to believe that there is some association or collaborative relationship between the brand and the creator of the NFTs in question.
The case has been brought before the District Court of NY where Hermes defined Mason Rothschild, the creator on the 100 MetaBirkins NFTs, a digital speculator who is trying to get rich quickly. Meanwhile, it seems that the 100 “MetaBirkins NFTs” are no longer sold on OpenSea, but are apparently still sold on other marketplaces such as Rarible.com. On the other hand, while wandering around these mammoth marketplaces that sell the most diverse types of NFTs for a total value of billions of dollars, you may come across a series of 222 “MetaKally NFTs”, looking very similar to the “MetaBirkin NFTs” and already the subject of some transactions for a few thousand dollars. So, various models of the iconic Hermes bags seem to have attracted the attention of more than one artist or purported artist. The argument of freedom of expression and criticism is necessarily weakened by the seriousness of profit-making initiatives that take advantage of the fame of an internationally famous brand to quickly gain visibility in the NFT market, which, although young, seems to be already very crowded.