You have a cocktail party to attend. There are enough options in your wardrobe but you feel like wearing something new. You visit an upmarket street in the city that has all the big fashion labels and pick up a Manish Malhotra. You are thrilled. Without stepping out of your house, you have gained a stylish garment.
This is the charm of the metaverse, a concept that’s being touted as the future of the internet, or Web 3.0. Inside this virtual landscape, much like the material world, your virtual avatars can loiter around, wearing awesome virtual clothes, doing virtual jobs, indulging in virtual shopping and attending virtual events. Think a Ready Player One-like world, only more cartoonish and colourful, where you can be more gorgeous, look younger, more athletic. Small wonder then that the global fashion industry is racing to dip its toes in this universe.
The Indian fashion industry, somewhat slow to take the cue, is playing catch-up. Since the middle of 2021, a number of home-grown designers, including Manish Malhotra, Anamika Khanna and Raghavendra Rathore, have dropped NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, digital items in the form of an image, video or in-game item that can be traded or turned into a virtual outfit. As Malhotra, the first Indian designer to drop an NFT last year (with five sketches and GIFs of some of his famous creations), says: “NFTs have become quite the part of the global fashion world. It has opened avenues for us to reach a broader audience base. They could change the rules of the luxury game forever.”
They certainly can, considering the market for NFTs recorded worldwide sales of $2.5 billion ( ₹18,750 crore) till July in 2021, up from $13.7 million in the first half of 2020. But at a time when brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, even Adidas, are partnering with online games like Fortnite and Roblox (you can buy NFTs and luxury clothes for your game avatar) to reach younger consumers, opening stores in metaverses like Decentraland and buying firms that make fashion NFTs, home-grown brands seem ill-equipped to tap into the market.
“Metaverse is certainly the next big thing to happen over the internet. But the Indian fashion industry has been reluctant to jump on the technological bandwagon,” says Vishakha Singh, vice-president and co-founder of WazirX NFT Marketplace, the platform that offers all the Indian fashion NFTs. “Though there have been a lot of changes in terms of digital transformation, like the launch of NFTs, digital fashion shows, we have to cover an entire growth trajectory. In the West, if the knowledge on NFTs, blockchain and crypto is 10/10, in India, it’s two.”
The fashion industry, reluctant perhaps to let go of the “real” world, is known to be rigid when it comes to things digital. Foreign brands are streets ahead. Louis Vuitton, for instance, marked its 200th anniversary with the launch of Louis The Game, where the user had to find 30 embedded NFTs, designed by the artist Beeple. Gucci decided to celebrate its centenary by selling its Aria NFT collection (in the form of a fashion film) at Christie’s for $25,000. The Karl Lagerfeld label had a capsule NFT capsule of digital figurines. Dolce & Gabbana set a record in October when it auctioned a nine-piece collection of NFTs.
Just dropping sketches or designs is not enough. The strategy needs to include ways to engage with younger consumers ready to spend on virtual clothes for their avatars. But even designers who have released NFTs don’t seem to have thought about building a brand in the virtual world. The response, generally, is “it’s too early to say anything”. Or what Pankaj and Nidhi, the latest designer duo to release three NFTs on WazirX, in collaboration with the FDCI (Fashion Design Council of India) x Lakme Fashion Week, said: “We would like to integrate the idea of NFTs with future new collection launches. Each season we tell a new story and the accompanying visuals—the colours, graphics, artworks and inspiration boards—all could be used to communicate the mood of the collection. A customer may buy a new dress from Fall 22 and also have the option of buying an original artwork from the line as an NFT.”
Jaspreet Chandok, head of fashion and lifestyle at RISE Worldwide, which co-organises the FDCI x Lakme Fashion Week, agrees this is “just the beginning for the Indian fashion industry. The metaverse promises to make it easier for all kinds of designers and artists to break into the market. For fashion designers and brands, learning to blend the physical with the digital is going to become a necessary skill to transition into the future.”
Sunil Sethi, head of FDCI, the governing body of all things fashion in India, says, “We need to be very active to ensure we don’t miss this chance. India obviously has a lot of potential in the metaverse, and the consumer seems to be ready.”
The consumer definitely is. Bengaluru’s Ramesh Gopal, for instance, owns over 200 NFTs, including one by Manish Malhotra that has Kareena Kapoor Khan in a black and grey lehnga. “I have the first Indian fashion NFT in my hand. Well, virtual hand. It’s a piece of history,” the fashion-loving engineer, 37, tells me. He bought it for $3,000. “That’s a small price to pay for something so unique. Imagine its worth in 10-20 years.”
Gopal is waiting for the day when he will be able to shop at Manish Malhotra and Satya Paul stores and roam around wearing a silk kurta and white dhoti with Nike sneakers in Decentraland, where he spends at least an hour every day.
To ensure Indian brands don’t miss out on the metaverse opportunity, Singh suggests “a lot of unlearning”. “Brands have to first unlearn all the previous strategies of connecting with their audiences. It can’t be the same old strategy of doing a press release, some Insta posts and be done with it. You can’t just do it to seem cool. You’re engaging with a very, very different, young audience. You need to up the game. You have to engage with them at every level, through online video games, through virtual fashion shows, virtual events. Basically, things that happen IRL are happening in the virtual world,” she notes.