Since the age of 15, Chris Ierino has been infatuated with the Ralph Lauren brand. He's got an entire collection of vintage items, Polo mugs and Purple Label items (Ralph Lauren's finest menswear) that make him feel like part of a club. He even has the Polo Bear tattooed on his left arm.

So when he got an email last year about a Ralph Lauren digital collection – yes, virtual fashion is a thing – Ierino decided it was worth a shot, with some hesitation. Last year, Ralph Lauren collaborated with the global gaming platform Roblox in a bet that people will buy virtual outfits to dress up their avatars just like they buy for themselves in real life.

At first, Ierino felt like the designer brand was pandering, but his younger siblings convinced him to try it out. He bought a blue-white-and-red beanie and a backpack, minuscule and pixelated versions of similar real-life items that would now live in his Roblox game. His items cost less than $5 at the time, but doubled in value the following day.

"I wanted to contribute to my hobby, it's another collector's item. It's an ownership thing. The same reason someone owns memorabilia, that's what this is to me," Ierino said.

Fashion industry looks for a new pot of gold

Millions of gamers like Ierino worldwide buy accessories, clothing, and skins (graphics that change the look of an item in a video game) for their digital avatars. In fact, Ralph Lauren attributed some of its strong third quarter earnings to these virtual investments and the younger generation of shoppers it has attracted. The overall gaming market was valued at $173 billion in 2021.

Other companies like Nike, Adidas, and Vans World are now betting there's room for even more growth, and that gaming becomes just one component of a more far-reaching metaverse.

And as the virtual world expands, more people are diving into computer-simulated online communities that replicate the real world.

The fashion industry thinks it may have found its next pot of gold there. Already, customers can dress up their avatars for virtual worlds like Horizon Worlds and Decentraland. But virtual fashion isn't limited to avatars. You can wear virtual garments on Snapchat or Zoom meetings, or pose with them for photos for social media feeds. You can show up to a work meeting with a black-tie dress when in real life it's just a t-shirt; or post a picture on Instagram of a luxury jacket that was never touched in real life. Virtual fashion is being sold in a variety of ways: from gaming platforms and digital photos, to videos that use augmented reality and even NFTs.

Virtual fashion shows are on the way

In this new world, fashion brands and designers don't need fibers or even factories. They can bring their designs to life through computer programs and 3D animations.

They hope the potential will be vast in this still murky thing called the metaverse. The word has been in science fiction for two decades, but the real world application is nascent. When Mark Zuckerberg announced last year that his company would be called Meta, not Facebook, metaverse immediately became attached to the behemoth. But it doesn't belong to Mark Zuckerberg, or to anyone in particular. Metaverse promoters believe it's the next iteration of the internet.

"There's only one metaverse, but there are many metaworlds just like within the internet you have many websites," said Cathy Hackl, an author and tech futurist "And it's not only virtual, it also encompasses the physical world. It's the convergence of the physical and the digital."

Morgan Stanley estimates the virtual fashion market could be worth more than $55 billion by 2030. And although some fashion houses are already planning virtual fashion shows and a sort of Rodeo Drive-style street in the metaverse, others have dismissed these investments as nothing more than hype.

Fashion brands are simply using virtual fashion as a marketing inducement to get customers spending money on their real life clothing, says Max Powell, senior advisor for The NPD Group, a US-based market research company. "I don't see a direct commercial opportunity here. There are business reasons why you want to be [in that space]. And I have a feeling we will see several brands jump into the space simply because everyone is talking about it, maybe not even understanding the consequences of it," said Powell.

Not interested in selling virtual sneakers

Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, the world's largest luxury goods company, says the brands he oversees – Dior, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, and Givenchy, among others – aren't in a rush to dive into the metaverse. "It's not our objective to sell virtual sneakers for 10 euros," Arnault said during his annual presentation to investors.

But part of what makes this new era of fashion so appealing for creatives and designers is the erasure of real-life and physical constraints. Scrolling through DressX – an online marketplace of virtual fashion – one can see transparent garments, jackets that change color, shoes that make it look like you're flying, dresses that are on fire.

This new space is more accessible to up-and-coming designers than the physical fashion world. They don't need formal training, costly materials or significant access to capital.

"This is an opportunity to democratize the industry for the designers and creators" says Daria Shapovalova, founder of the digital marketplace DressX. "It's quite hard to be a young designer, but with digital fashion, anyone can try. It's just you and your laptop."

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