Imagine a throng of fashionistas as they file into a great glass dome: one dressed in an alien-green corset, another in a tight, furry dress likely derived from the pelt of a Wild Thing. As each person enters the dome, the structure changes for them in real time.
The woman in the furry dress looks up at a massive display and sees her own dress, along with an invitation to an exclusive talk with the item’s designer later that afternoon. The man in the corset sees his own item on the same billboard, along with a flashing arrow pointing toward an immersive cocktail experience open only to owners of his same collection. The dress and the corset were, until recently, purely digital outfits, worn by these people’s avatars in the metaverse; then, physical versions of the outfits arrived in the mail, along with an exclusive invitation to Balmain’s Festival at Paris Fashion Week.
Such a premise might sound like science fiction to some.
To James Sun, co-founder of MINTNFT, the firm just tasked with architecting luxury fashion line Balmain’s NFT campaign, it’s a goalpost for September.
Sun is attempting to establish the storied French fashion house as a leader in what he claims is the next age of NFTs and Web3 business: one that's less focused on NFT drops and massive swings in speculative trading, and more concerned with immersive experiences and long-term relationships with customers.
“[Balmain] knew they couldn’t go with OpenSea, Rarible, [and] do a bunch of drops. It wouldn’t be unified,” Sun told Decrypt in an interview. “They need […] a unified strategy.”
The answer to such a dilemma, according to Sun, is what he and Balmain are calling the Non-Fungible Thread (NFT): an ecosystem of digital, physical, and hybrid experiences, built on Ripple’s XRP ledger, and which cater to Balmain’s exclusive clientele.
Any Balmain customer will be able to join the Non-Fungible Thread. Its perks, still being fleshed out, may include early access to product drops, exclusive access to unique physical and digital items, and sought-after invitations to events like the Balmain Festival at Paris Fashion Week every September. Such events may feature immersive experiences unique to every Balmain customer: blends of NFT technology, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and physical space. Events also may be exclusively digital. Balmain is currently in conversations with four metaverse platforms (the sort that allow users to buy and customize virtual land with games and experiences) to create a purely-digital Balmain footprint. (Sun declined to disclose exactly which platforms.)
In this hybrid environment, customers could gain access to unique digital items via ownership of physical ones; inversely, digital fashion items could eventually grant access to exclusive physical counterparts.
“It’s omnichannel,” Sun said of Balmain’s Web3 strategy. “Because in fashion, when you actually collect clothing lines, you’re building an identity […] a personality that the brand is giving you access to. That’s how we see this as well. You’re building your own experience with Balmain, where now, you own it.”
Numerous other luxury fashion brands have previously released one-off NFT drops of digital fashion items. An NFT is a digitally authenticated receipt for a unique digital item, verified by a blockchain platform.
Last summer, Dolce & Gabbana made headlines for auctioning off a single digital headpiece, The Doge Crown, for a staggering $1.25 million. In February, Gucci purchased an undisclosed amount of virtual land in decentralized blockchain metaverse The Sandbox to create themed experiences for customers. Within the rarified ecosystem of luxury fashion, there appears to be consensus that Web3 is the future, or at least, an important part of it.
Sun considers it no accident that high fashion has emerged as one of the most notable non-Web3 native industries to take blockchain networks so seriously. “Scarcity and exclusivity […] defined the original NFT space,” said Sun. “High fashion runs by a beat of creating long-term premium scarcity, and collective experience.”
But for Sun’s vision of an immersive, exclusive, customized, semi-physical, and semi-metaversal paradise for consumers to take shape, it will require navigating a few hurdles. Chief among them are the limitations of current technology. For example: How will an event hall scan your coat and know to therefore project your customized billboard? Louis Vuitton already has integrated blockchain-based microchips into handbags, to authenticate uniqueness; but integrating that technology with instantaneous AR projections is another matter. How will you watch these experiences—through AR glasses, or your phone’s camera?
Another issue is that of interoperability. As the metaverse begins to take shape, numerous platforms have rushed to populate it, each with their own visual style and underlying code. Theoretically, a digital Balmain dress should be able to freely traverse the myriad “neighborhoods” of the metaverse; currently, no digital item can, as it would need to be remade in the style and code of each individual “neighborhood,” or platform. Sun says Balmain and MINTNFT are consulting with the gaming start-up Forte to create a solution to this problem; late last year, Forte raised $725 million to tackle issues related to integrating NFTs into gaming experiences.
But Web3-native digital fashion firms are racing to get there first. To these digital fashion start-ups, like Digitalax, The Fabricant, and DressX, the promise of Web3 is that of a truly decentralized, egalitarian space in which small designers win, one liberated from the hegemony of legacy brands.
Sun’s talk of exclusive Fashion Week galas for collectors of ultra-luxury goods clashes somewhat with this vision. Sun argues, however, that in the light of the crypto market’s recent, devastating downturn, the legitimacy of storied brands like Balmain is needed to rehabilitate crypto for the masses.
“The average user sees the headlines and they’re like, ‘Oh hell no, I’m not going to touch crypto anymore,’” said Sun. “So in order for us to push that, I think they have to get comfortable. When a Balmain says, ‘You can trust this […] there is legitimacy to this.’”
Sun believes such legacy brands could lead the Web3 community through a potentially looming Crypto Winter, and into an age in which NFTs become much more to culture and commerce than ultra-expensive status symbols: “NFT companies that are speculation-first, they’re not going to make it through this winter. And so you’re going to see the rise of quality projects, which are all about driving loyalty, utility, and new value experiences.”