Discover more from This Outfit Does Not Exist
#5 Maslow and The Metaverse
And why Digital Fashion will become a universal need as our virtual worlds expand
Hello and welcome to the fifth edition of This Outfit Does Not Exist!
In this edition: what the Metaverse is and isn’t (spoiler it’s not a potato), the primal principles of Digital Fashion desire, and more monumental meta moments
Late last year Mark Zuckerberg made the announcement that Facebook would be rebranded as ‘Meta’ in a one hour 17 minute video featuring some peculiar facial expressions and an odious-to-open sliding door.
The term Meta is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as “denoting a change of position or condition” and by these parameters it’s an entirely appropriate representation of what the company, formerly known as Facebook, is trying to do.
FKA Facebook, in shortening its name to a four letter word, and stealing the logo of a German migraine app, staked its claim to pivoting towards ‘The Metaverse’: a term originally referring to a virtual reality–based Internet in Neil Stephenson’s 1992 novel ‘Snowcrash’.
In order to truly understand where Digital Fashion came from, where it’s going, and why it’s fast becoming more than just a way to boost your Instagram followers, an understanding of the Metaverse and its trajectory is integral.
So… WTF is the Metaverse?
In October 2021, an estimated 2.62 million Googlers asked just the same question.
Touted ‘Godmother of the Metaverse’ Cathy Hackl answers:
“The Metaverse is a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe”
Matthew Ball (crowd favourite for Godfather of the Metaverse) supplements this explanation with a set of characteristics. According to Ball the Metaverse is defined by:
Persistence - The Metaverse will never ‘reset’, ‘pause’, or ‘end’, it continues indefinitely irrespective of user interaction.
Synchronicity - The Metaverse will be a living experience that exists consistently for everyone in real-time.
Intersectionality - The Metaverse will span both the digital and physical worlds, private and public networks and experiences, and open and closed platforms.
Concurrency - In the Metaverse, unlimited users will be able to participate in a specific event/place/activity together, at the same time, all with individual agency.
Economy – In the Metaverse individuals and businesses will be able to create, own, invest, sell, and be rewarded for, a wide range of work that produces value that is recognized by others.
Interoperability - In the Metaverse digital items, assets and content, will be able to be used across experiences.
Taking these explanations as foundational, two other characteristics of the Metaverse are integral to note:
There can only be one Metaverse (lexicographically):
As the Metaverse refers to an overarching network of virtual worlds and experiences, having ‘Metaverses’ (plural) is linguistically impossible.
For anyone who enjoyed the SAT, a nice way to think about this is “the Metaverse is to virtual worlds what the Internet is to websites.” To elaborate – the internet is enabled by a range of technological advances (interconnected computer networks, the Internet protocol suite TCP/IP, etc.), and composed of 1.6 billion websites. Yet not one of those websites or technologies alone would be defined as ‘an Internet’.
Similarly, the Metaverse comprises enabling technologies (Unreal Engine, Unity, WebXR, WebGPU etc.) and a plethora of unique virtual environments. Yet no one of these technologies or digital spaces alone is ‘The Metaverse.’
Thus, if anyone ever uses the phrase “Metaverses” or says they are “building a Metaverse” please take everything that follows with multiple pinches of virtual salt.
The Metaverse is still under construction (and will be for some time):
As previously alluded to, the combination of technological and sociological factors which will bring about the Metaverse will likely take years, if not decades, to come to fruition.
While, in 2021 alone, VCs poured $10 billion into 612 Metaverse makers, the technological and sociological underpinnings for a persistent, shared, virtual overlay are still under construction (no matter how strong a16z’s hiring pushes or twitter threads)
Thus, anyone who says they have “built The Metaverse”, or asserts that we are currently “in the Metaverse”, again should be virtually salted.
Why (TF) is the Metaverse?
While the full-expression of the Metaverse is decades away, the sociological and technological foundations set to bring it to life have been simmering under the proverbial surface for the last 20-30 years.
Gaming, the entertainment genre now boasting 3.4 billion enthusiasts (much to my mother’s dismay) has grown over the past decade from a nerd-nurtured networking tool into a global phenomenon.
The 2021 League of Legends Final, where teams of five battled as toads and nine-tailed foxes, drew 73.86 million concurrent viewers in 2019 - more than the Superbowl. However, in order to refute claims that “the Metaverse isn’t relevant to me. I’m not a gamer”, I’ll frame the Metaverse’s sociological sway through a lens we can all understand. That of social media.
Metaverse adoption relies on two elements:
Comfort with prioritising a digital-first identity
Comfort interacting online
These two factors have been brewing since the turn of the millennia (HotorNot/ Friendster whaddup) and fermented during the pandemic.
Comfort with prioritising a digital-first identity:
A shocking survey by SquareSpace found that 60% of Gen Z and 62% of Millennials believe that how they present themselves online is more important than how they present themselves in person.
However, given that we now spend a global average of 2 hours and 22 minutes per day engaging with social media sites; serving as sauce for our social lives, this stat becomes less surprising.
Encouraged since adolescence to create hyper-curated repositories of our lives and preferences online, the key difference in the Metaverse is that our identities will be created from the ground up, as opposed to curated from a selection of real-world events.
Comfort interacting online:
The creator economy aka. the class of businesses built by over 50 million independent content producers, curators, and community builders, has long used platforms like Instagram and Etsy as its medium. With 2 million of those posting Tik Toks or selling Bernie Sanders mittens making 6 figures a year.
Yet during our 24 months at home, the digital-platforms that showcased our existences became the sole spaces where those existences could take place (House Party anyone??). Pandemic pushed, daily life dived further into digital worlds – take Animal Crossing – the game, where users develop ‘islands’ and interact alongside minute fuzzy bears, foxes, and badgers as a prime example.
Selling 11 million copies in its first month with everyone from T-Pain (flexing his virtual crib) to a slew of dominatrixes (getting cyber subs to do their bidding), Animal Crossing united users by becoming a social and cultural hub in ways the game’s designers could never have foreseen.
The ease with which users transformed a virtual space, programmed for play, into one which held virgils, conferences, and provided physical income, concretely demonstrates our abilities to adapt to the future. One which is digital-first.
I won’t bore you with the details, but much like the Metaverse’s sociological structures, gaming has largely served as the base by which the technology needed to bring Metaverse movers up to speed has been developed and trialled.
The three key tech components of gaming-grown Metaverse acceleration are:
Hardware - The physical technologies and devices used to access, interact with, or develop the Metaverse.
e.g. VR headsets, mobile phones, haptic gloves, tracking systems, and scanning sensors
Why? These serve as the routes to give us a seamless gateways into virtual worlds.
Networking - The provision of persistent, real-time connections.
e.g. high bandwidth, decentralised data transmission, networks, exchange centres and ‘last mile’ data
Why? This infrastructure facilitates immersion (if your virtual girlfriend freezes every 20 seconds it isn’t going to compel you indulge in a virtual relationship)
Compute - The enablement and supply of computing power to support the Metaverse.
e.g. rendering, data reconciliation and synchronisation, artificial intelligence, projection, motion capture and translation
Why? A solid tech stack is needed to create rich digital experiences that engage us.
I recommend you read Matthew Ball for more info.
Let’s get Digital Fashion
Finally, the thing we all care about. Imaginary clothing.
If the premises above ring true, then you’ll be sold on the vision that we’re tottering on 6 inch stilettos (with heels that regularly break and have to be taped back together by a flurry of overpaid engineers) towards a reality where our digital existences are of equal, or superior, value to our physical ones.
If this is true then fashion - which deals in the business of identity - will naturally undergo a digital-first shift.
But what will this shift look like? I don’t just mean aesthetically (I envision it looking something like this ZERO10 Barragan dress ^) but emotionally. What will we need to endear us towards digital-only clothing? And what modes and mediums will satisfy those desires?
One of the world’s most well-known sociologists, Abraham Maslow, outlined a framework termed the “Hierarchy of Needs” in his 1943 essay ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’. This hierarchy can be used as a basis to understand the conditions that underlie a human’s satisfaction with their own existence.
With Digital Fashion inextricably intertwined with our identity imperatives, I’d argue that Maslow holds the answer to the questions above. So I’ve broken down Maslow’s Hierarchy for a meta-native context, to provide a framework for what’s needed from digital dressing and why.
1. Physiological Needs - the redundant category
Since its industrialisation in the late 18th century, the provision of fashion items at low prices in nauseating abundance (100bn items per year *wretch*), has meant that unless you’re off to climb El Capitain (and props if you are) your clothing choices are less likely to be driven by physiological necessity than by taste (an identity driven decision making process where marketing missiles and personal preference converge)
The Metaverse is a natural extension of this trend towards valuing items for their sociological rather than physiological value; one extrapolated to its very ends.
Whilst virtual spaces can be programmed to have physiologically-inspired elements such as blistering cold, sweltering heat, and everything in between this is unlikely to serve as a core consumer consideration. Thus in the Metaverse the lowest level of Maslow’s Heirarchy is rendered redundant.
2. Safety Needs - skins as security
In the game worlds that have proliferated for decades the relationship between skins (digital clothing items), and safety, has long been driven by the challenges players needed to complete, providing impeccable vision (Heavy Metal and Heat Sink skin - Apex Legends), the gift of velocity (Vandal Gragas skin - League of Legends) and camo cloaks (Victory Royal skin - Fortnite) as and when needed.
However, crucial to our move to the Metaverse is the shifting nature of virtual space. With a greater variety of activities taking place digitally, the challenge-driven worlds of games will be increasingly replaced by social simulations, where virtual interactions will more closely mimic those of our physical existence (see Fortnite’s Creative Mode for early adoption)
Whilst a journey to the supermarket will always run a risk of a stray attendant rushing out on a whim and snatching your watermelons, the main drivers of our everyday lives are economic activity and social interaction (rather than protection from villainous onslaughts)
Thus ‘Safety Needs’ in a meta-native context, pertain less to elements like personal security and health, and more so to security in employment, resources and property (as well as data protection, identity harassment and hacking). Which brings us on to one of the core (and differentiated) foundations of moda-in-the Metaverse, that of ownership.
MINE MINE MINE!
It’s simple. If who you are is important to you then it’s natural you’ll want to own:
Your identity and the information around it
The fruits of your labour both goods and currency
What you acquire both through buying/ bartering and gifts
In ‘The Wealth of Nations’, economist Adam Smith expands on the above, asserting that nations prosper when private property rights are clearly defined and enforced simply because if you don’t have control over what’s yours, you have little incentive to acquire it.
American Psychologist William James made a similar assertion, claiming: “A man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his.” As a Tsuzuki-esque ‘Happy Victim’ this rings deeply true. In a society powered by conspicuous consumption the objects that we own are widely understood to make up who we are, becoming extensions of ourselves and tools for self-definition. Thus, again, the desire to acquire is eroded when something is not fully owned.
Looking to the virtual spaces where Digital Fashion is most popular, this possession-pulled ‘Safety’ is visibly lacking.
Instagram X Identity - identified as the most invasive social media app with over 1 billion users, Instagram collects 79% of its user’s data, selling it back to companies who toss-out targeted ads (that further accrue marketable data through consumer spend on-platform)
Product of work X Pinterest - social sharing app Pinterest allows users to curate boards of visual ‘pinspiration’. With users freely able to screenshot and share content without referencing creators, work regularly goes unrecognized and uncompensated.
Gaming X Goods - in Fortnite, where an average player spends $102 on in-game goods, purchases are owned by the platform. This means that buyers completely lack an ability to monetize their goods through resale (aside from on the black market), and equally if the game goes bust all their purchases are lost forever with it.
Making the Metaverse SFW
If we agree that the Metaverse is not just an entertainment opportunity, but a source of social and financial interaction, the perpetual insecurity that currently characterises virtual spaces becomes deeply problematic. Particularly in the case of Digital Fashion.
Many see a route to remedy in blockchain technology which, to cut a very long explanation short, is where a group of computers work together to validate transactions using cryptography.
The every-growing community of blockchain enthusiasts are excited about this technology’s future for a few reasons. Most relevant in fashion’s case is the fact that blockchain is:
Trustless: As interactions are automated by computers rather than a corruptible human, you should be able to trust that blockchain-backed systems are operating as intended.
Tamperless: Though the different mechanisms by which transactions are validated vary, blockchain is thought of as being secure due to the cryptography that underlies it, where in order to revise any past transaction (or block) you have to re-configure all those transactions that came after it (a near impossible feat)
Transparent: Blockchain facilitates full transparency. Each user has a unique code by which you can search their transactions to validate whether they own what they say they own, or are who they say they are.
This new genre of blockchain-backed ‘security’ provides the foundation for those participating in virtual worlds to lean into 1) buying Digital Fashion 2) selling Digital Fashion and 3) participating in meta-native interactions on a wider scale.
3. Love and (brand-based) Belonging
Kanye said in his legendary critique of consumerism “I got a problem with spending before I get it” before referentially continuing “we’re all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.”
This predicament should come as no surprise in our conditioned climate of conspicuous consumption. For over a century producers of everything - from TVs to toasters - have played on the human desire for tribalism through the use of brand; particularly in fashion.
Some of the most successful labels of our time, including Louis Vuitton, Supreme and Chanel, have come to more closely resemble dictator-driven nation states than retailers of clothing. With fans camping outside stores, branding themselves with logo-tats, and even stampeding each other in sales. In the wise words of Meltem Demirors “you can’t have culture without cult”…
In the short time that mass-ccessible Digital Fashion has existed, we’ve seen affiliation signalling spring up across mediums in much the same way that it has in its physical form:
Clan/ guild based - tribe-trenched Digital-Fashion has long prevailed in the form of game guilds - groupings of players, banding together to complete challenges.
Much like real world gangs such as the Bloods, Crips or Alessandro’s #GucciGang members, in games like Call Of Duty players have 'clan tags' which denote allegiances. These allow those battling or questing together to determine friend or foe, as well as for individual players to piggyback off the powers of association.
Outside-in - during the Hong Kong protests of 2019 fashion was used to participate politically; those who were advocates of Hong Kong separatism cladding themselves in black and yellow with a medley of masks (pragmatic rather than aesthetic) protecting them from street strewn facial recognition tech.
The game Grand Theft Auto became an unlikely virtual battleground for the political overflow when an update allowed players to signal support through clothing packs. By buying ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ outfits (player-names for black and yellow gear) they could join a "crew" called ‘Stand With Hong Kong’ and participate in protests to further their cause in the virtual streets.
Community for community’s sake - blockchain’s value from the standpoint of ‘Safety Needs’ is recontextualised in its ability to validate who’s in or out of a specific group; helping to entrench bonds with other owners of the same good, and allowing producers to directly reward consumers.
Bored Ape Yacht Club - the archetype of chain-chosen community - began as a collection of 10,000 apathetic monkeys, priced at 0.08 ETH, (at the time around $136) that has developed into a $4 billion brand over the past 12 months.
With Twitter fads such as ‘Ape-follow-Ape’ (does what it says on the tin) and a Discord boasting 189,000+ members, the community rallied around out-performing OG NFT blue chip Crypto Punks (at the time of Ape-ception trading at around $30,000).
In the case of BAYC, blockchain verifiable identities have facilitated peer-to-peer bonding, and peer-driven provisions. Community members have created spin offs where Ape’s can be clad in communally created couture (#SuitsOnForChristies) or access events and venues where a verified Ape is a condition for entry.
With identity traits determined by decision, rather than DNA, tribalism in virtual spaces becomes even more elective. And with meta-native mechanisms like blockchain binding you even more closely to who you are and those around you, not only the fashion you wear but fashion you own will come to be an increasingly valuable determinant of definition.
4. Esteem - status through (manufactured) scarcity
Esteem relates to ‘Love and Belonging’ in a way that distorts elements of equity; transforming a community from a circle of people holding hands into a multi-man pyramid; those at the top teetering precariously whilst those below bare their weight (occasionally letting an arm loose to claw at those above)
In this way esteem is a signaller of:
a) A wish to adhere to the collective values of a community in order to be respected within it
b) A desire to rise to the top of that community and be valued as one of its superiors
This urge is as old as time, and has long manifested in fashion through a set of expensive and/or exclusive ‘it’ garments, determined by an elite illuminati.
In the digital space, these same dynamics exist but with a core difference; value is virtual. Meaning that it’s entirely manufactured.
One of my favourite articles published in 2019 by the writer Jamie Madigan, is titled ‘Why Do People Collect Virtual Items’. Within the piece, Madigan outlines 14 ways that those building virtual worlds give digital items worth.
Madigan’s value dynamics range from ‘time aristocracy’ aka. only giving an item availability for a limited time-span, to ‘skills based availability’ where objects are only available to those who can achieve them.
All 14 of Madigan’s dynamics (often used in tandem) contribute to the establishment of a virtual-goods hierarchy within virtual worlds. Leading certain items to become signallers of status and others mere signs of self-expression.
The $4,200 (virtual) Gucci Bag - Roblox launched a partnership with Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele back in May 2020 providing the game with a swell of ‘Gucci Garden’ branded items and experiences.
Gucci used the ‘time aristocracy’ mentioned above to give these in-game items worth. The entire experience was only available for 2 weeks, and, within that span, specific items were sold only in certain slots (a virtual copy of the Gucci Dionysus bag standing as the most time restricted item)
Looking closer at the digi-Dionysus, what began as an item retailing for $5.50 (450 ROBUX) was resold for a staggering $4,115 (over 2X the price of its physical counterpart and 763X the original bag’s value) on the in-game marketplace. Serving as a significantly successful symbol of scarcity-driven status signalling (now try saying that 30 times)
The Rarity Traits - One of the unique conditions of computer generated items is their ability to automate a phenomenon known as ‘rarity traits’.
Rare or limited edition items aren’t new in fashion, however the difference in the digital-goods space is that rarity can be both automatically verified (using the blockchain backing explored above) and digitally-determined.
In picture-for-profile projects (those jotted jpegs that have become synonymous with why not to buy into the NFT boom), computers encode a variety of unique identifiers at time of creation; often across as many as 10,000 or 20,000 items. With some traits prescribed to be rarer than others, the result is a lottery where those verifiably ‘rarer’ items hold the most value.
Digital sneaker producer RTFKT studios (now acquired by Nike) launched their notorious ‘CloneX’ project late last year. ‘Clones’ stand as a collection of 20,000 unique digital avatars, identified through 514 traits ranging from ‘DNA’ and ‘Accessories’ to ‘Helmets’ and ‘Jewellery’ (and some super special traits from artist Murakami)
With traits verifiable on sites such as Rarity Sniper, buyers and sellers can assess value on more than aesthetics, leading to a resale spread on the secondary market. Go to NFT secondary market maker OpenSea and the cheapest Clone is trading for 18.5 ETH (roughly $52,500 at time of writing) whilst the rarer ones in market are going for 450 ETH ($1.2 mil at time of writing)
5. Actualization (algorithmically)
Finally, we come to the top of the pyramid and to the idea of self-actualization – defined by Maslow as “the complete realization of one's potential, and the full development of one's abilities and appreciation for life.”
It’s inevitable that Digital Fashion transforms the way we interact with identity from the pure fact that it removes all barriers that the physical world presents to showing who we really are. This results in:
Boundless body - in the physical world the way we look determines how we dress. Our comfort level, tastes, and quite frankly the clothes created for us (think plus size vs size 0) are dictated by biological boundaries.
As we move to the Metaverse we can create ourselves from scratch - identifying as opalescent avatars, or Groot-esque stumps. This provides an entirely new excitement for, and engagement with, the clothes that clad our creations
Payment and participation - who can and cannot afford to self-express has long dictated who’s hot and who’s not in the physical realm.
With Digital Fashion the barriers to creation are substantially diminished - and almost anyone, from anywhere can create (with little more that digital design software and some Youtube tutorials)
This democratisation of access I hope will lead to a proliferation of new, and empowered digital creators, and similarly, new and empowered digital-consumers.
As explored in the value dynamics above, rather than relying on income, the acquisition of digital goods can be linked to meta-native achievements (such as quests) and increasingly, with tools like blockchain, participation in a collective can become currency.
Some whole new worlds - where you can wear your clothing has long been a determining factor of what clothing you buy (unless you’re me and bought 5 evening gowns on ebay, peak pandemic)
Where in the physical world you may inhibit yourself due to fear (living in countries where self-expression can be dangerous) or just a lack of occasion, the Metaverse done right will consist of niche virtual spaces which you can dip in and out of depending on your interests and whims.
(Digi) Fashion 2 Fruition
Aristotle originally coined the term ‘first-principles thinking’ to mean:“the first basis from which a thing is known” and Elon Musk (well known for his work building social-media mammoth Twitter) touts this concept as a framework from which you can draw creative and impenetrable conclusions.
I began with the statement that fashion is in the business of identity, and the desire to present and enhance identity has been a human need since the dawn of time. By understanding this premise, whether a curator, collector, or consumer, you can begin to grasp why you, and those around you, will inevitably engage with digital-only fashion.
Nowhere is this better proven out than in OG MMORPG (massive-multiplayer online role-playing game to you) Fortnite, which boasts 350 million players, the bulk of whom (72%) are males between 18 and 24 years old.
‘Default culture’ refers to the in-game trend for chastising those who wear basic outfits; in this case the skin you’re provided with when you start playing the game. If you type ‘default’ into YouTube you can find videos boasting 42 million views with titles such as ‘Bullying default skins...(Playgrounds Edition)’- where those in simple skins are gleefully harassed by the wider community.
Let’s take a step back and look at these outfit trolls for a second. Given the demographic its likely that they’re not the front row fashion b*tches we see in the Devil Wears Prada. More likely they’re teenage-to-middle age men, at home with headsets, who would pride themselves on not giving a f*ck about fashion in its physical form (sweeping generalisation acknowledged).
‘Default culture’ demonstrates concretely that the higher ranks of Maslow’s Hierarchy (Esteem, Love & Belonging and Self-actualisation) will develop wherever communities form. And in digital spaces, where what fashion means, and who can engage with it, is open to evolution, caring about what you wear expands to reach a new audience entirely.
While meta-native fashion is more commonly revered for its design derivatives (you can fly, have a suit made of bees, or use fashion to teleport) in reality it’s the sociological underpinnings of why Digital Fashion is needed, and who it’s needed by, that will dictate our industry’s future. So don’t be tricked into default assumptions, or distracted by dynamic design, when assessing our future.
Speak the Truth In My Calvins: May 2019 - A leading virtual influencer, a Hadid, a kiss, #theircalvins
Animal Crossing X The Met Gala: May 2020 - Crowdsourced creativity putting celebs to shame
Meta’s mask -April 2022 - FKA Facebook announced they’ll be taking a cut of up to 47.5% on digital asset sales in Horizon Worlds. Compared to creator compensation on blockchain-based platforms (Opensea gives 97.5%; NiftyGateway 95%; SuperRare 85%) this isn’t very pretty
The Fabricant X World of Women - coming soon! - a set of 10,000 female torsos, managed by Guy Oseary (Madonna’s manager), soon to be clothed by a leading Digital Fashion House
Guess the Stat
How many unique users attended Decentraland Fashion Week in March?
This Outfit Does Not Exist, is a platform bringing Digital Fashion to life through explanation and exhibition. This newsletter will dive into the industry’s developments, the start-ups that shape them, and their capacity to disrupt the wider world of physical goods.
Each newsletter will explore a theme: from digital design & distribution, to marketing in the Metaverse. I’ll also showcase the most brilliant feats of digital design via Instagram.
Love it? Hate it? Don’t understand it!
And share with your friends!!!
— Dani, This Outfit Does Not Exist