I’m doing the thing I always hated when I went to clubs as a kid—instead of dancing, I’m just standing, staring at everyone here. Even worse, I’m checking out what they’re wearing, watching bodies move and swirl around me, trying to see if I can pick out cohesive styles, emerging trends. There are a lot of anime girls here. E-boys and e-girls in rave-friendly tech wear. There’s somebody in the corner dressed like a banana, another like Master Chief from Halo. Stylistically, it’s chaos, no obvious cohesion at all. It’s almost ugly, anxiety inducing. But it also feels warmly familiar to me, nostalgic, like I’ve slipped back in time twenty-five years to the parties of my youth.
Then the music changes, the DJ dropping a subwoofer-rattling slice of tech-step drum and bass, and the whole room flips. Walls visibly pulse to the bass line, and everyone in the club’s outfit changes, colors strobing with the music. For a nanosecond, the room is bright, and everyone looks like they’re encased in transparent plastic. I laugh to myself, nodding with approval but feeling like I’ve outstayed my welcome, self-conscious that I look like that one old guy you see at every rave. Time to leave. But there’s no fighting through the dance floor to find the exit; just two button presses and I’m out, sitting back in my office at home, gazing at the colorful interface of VRChat—a platform that hosts a veritable smorgasbord of interconnected virtual worlds—before gently taking the hot plastic weight of a VR headset off my head. A headset I could afford only because it’s been subsidized by Facebook advertising money, because Mark Zuckerberg wants every single one of us assimilated into his virtual world: a singular, rosy-cheeked, Pixar-movie vision of the metaverse that’s a far cry from VRChat. I find myself wondering how that’s really working out for him, and if he knows what the kids are actually doing with the toys he’s given them.
If you’ve heard the term metaverse but are still not quite sure what it means, don’t worry: You’re not alone. It’s hard to pin anyone down into giving a firm and succinct explanation of what, by its nature, is a nebulous idea. The basic concept is of a vast, persistent, shared virtual space, one where all the Internet services and platforms we’re already familiar with—social media, shopping, video games, virtual/augmented-reality applications, chatrooms, you name it—come together and are accessible through a unified über-platform or interface. So instead of logging in to those apps individually, you’d log in to just one—the metaverse—and access them all from there. For some of its most fervent believers, this is enough to claim it will replace the Internet entirely.
One of these believers is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who announced to the world last year that he was rebranding his company as Meta, so strong is his conviction that the metaverse is the inevitable future of his business. Facebook—the actual social-media site—will retain its current name, as will Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp. Meta is the umbrella brand encompassing all those platforms, aligning nicely with the “everything all in one place” promise of the metaverse model. Whether you believe Zuckerberg is sincere in his vision or simply rebranding to distract from Facebook’s many controversies over the past few years, it’s difficult to think of somebody in a better position to make the metaverse actually happen. Not only does Zuckerberg have more than three billion users logging in to his platforms and services monthly, but with the Meta Quest 2 VR headset, he’s managed to do something no tech company has done before: make virtual reality an affordable product that consumers want to buy. Though the company said it would be hiking the price to $399 starting in August (up from $299 before), it was estimated to have sold an impressive 15 million headsets as of June. That kind of near-overnight market creation doesn’t come cheap, of course. Getting the cost of a VR headset down that low when some of your competitors charge in excess of $1,000 likely means losing money on each unit sold, something that must make even Meta—one of the world’s richest companies—hurt. But like Google, Meta’s real business isn’t goods or services; it’s monetizing its users’ personal and behavioral data by selling it to advertisers. It’s the ultimate embodiment of the adage that if a product is free, you are the product. With this in mind, Meta is already pushing a new suite of social and productivity apps, starting with Horizon Worlds and Workrooms, designed to let you hang with friends, attend concerts and sporting events, and hold remote business meetings. Though Workrooms is still in beta, the apps are free, run on the Quest 2, and are built from the ground up for virtual reality. They also, perhaps most importantly, use a single unified avatar—a customizable digital representation of yourself that you embody in these new, virtual spaces.
It’s this concept of virtual spaces that’s central. Whether you’re logging in from your phone, your desktop, your games console, a VR headset, or some futuristic smart glasses, you’ll be there—or at least your avatar will. As will your friends. And your favorite celebrities. And all your favorite brands. You might still not fully understand what the metaverse is, but you’re going to want to be part of it, you’re going to want to be there, because if you’re not, you’ll be missing out on so many opportunities to be seen, fully rendered in 3D, having fun and buying things.
This article appeared in the SEPTEMBER 2022 issue of Esquire
If all this makes you think of American teenagers hanging out in shopping malls, that’s because it’s what the Zuckerberg model of the metaverse is: a vast, endless, sanitized, overlit consumer playground. It’s perhaps fitting that as malls shutter across the U. S., the bloated dinosaur that is late capitalism is unable to imagine a sustainable reality after its own extinction and instead wants to birth little more than a new, fancier, shinier kind of mall.
But what will you buy in this brave new mall? Well, if you and your avatar are going to be seamlessly flitting between work meetings and VR concerts, shopping trips and hanging out with friends, then you can’t be expected to do it all in the same outfit. If the metaverse is about being seen—and it is about being seen—then fashion should be one of its killer apps. Currently, Meta gives users a limited selection of free clothes, all with a plasticky, toylike aesthetic that has presumably been chosen to be as inoffensive as it is easy to render. In June, Meta announced its plan to change that, at least in terms of choice, with the arrival of the Meta Avatars Store and digital outfits from powerhouse fashion brands like Balenciaga, Prada, and Thom Browne.
A Meta spokesperson said that the outfits from these brands will initially cost between $2.99 and $8.99, adhering to a microtransaction business model that will be familiar to anyone who’s played a popular online video game in the past decade. Microtransactions for “cosmetics”—in-game items that allow you to customize the look of your character without impacting gameplay—have become a major source of revenue for video-game companies, driven by the astronomical success of the online shooter Fortnite. In 2018 and 2019, Fortnite reportedly made its developer, Epic Games, a company now also focusing its sights on the metaverse, more than $9 billion total, a figure made even more remarkable by the fact that the game is free to play. That revenue is coming from at least some of Fortnite’s hundreds of millions of registered users regularly dropping money on giving their characters a new look.
It’s a model that’s attracted not only other games but also fashion brands. Balenciaga, clearly enamored with digital worlds, has produced cosmetic skins for Fortnite. So has Moncler. The Moncler Classic bundle, which included two avatar skins, cost around twelve dollars—a tiny fraction of what the $1,000-plus down jackets the skins are modeled on cost.
It’s hard not to see it as an irresistible proposition for an industry that is built in large part on the power of strong brands and the symbolic status value of clothes—their aspirational desirability and exclusiveness. Why worry about cultivating new customers with entry-level items when you can just sell the branding itself, unhindered by being attached to a physical product, for a few bucks? The question has designers and labels rushing to stake a claim in the emerging digital fashion world. One of the places they gathered this year was at Metaverse Fashion Week, a showcase event held in Decentraland, the metaverse platform that sells nonexistent virtual real estate, often for what seems like ludicrous amounts of money. Last year a Decentraland plot was sold for more than $900,000 to New York City “digital real estate” firm Republic Realm (now called Everyrealm), which built—guess what?—a virtual shopping mall on it.
Brands like DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, Paco Rabanne, Dolce & Gabbana, Etro, and Privé Porter all made appearances at Metaverse Fashion Week in various forms, alongside smaller startups such as DressX, which describes itself as “the Ultimate Fashion NFT Marketplace.”
“Our goal is to give a metacloset to every person in the world,” DressX cofounder Daria Shapovalova tells me over email. DressX’s unique selling point is its “instant AR try-on” technology, an app that uses Snapchat-style augmented-reality filters to let customers model the digital fashions they’ve bought in photos and videos that can, of course, be shared across social media. It’s also developing a plug-in that allows you to wear virtual jewelry and garments during video calls and Zoom meetings.
Meanwhile, DressX seems to be straying from the standard microtransaction model. An auction on the site for a Jason Wu–designed NFT dress has the minimum bid set at 8.5 Ethereum, the cryptocurrency that DressX accepts for payment, which at press time is more than $1,000. “I think a lot of the investment by brands into this space [is about attracting] the luxury consumers that got rich quick in crypto,” Arabelle Sicardi, an L. A.-based fashion consultant and writer, tells me. There were certainly a handful of people who raked it in thanks to the crypto boom, and maybe some of those newly minted millionaires will want to buy a pair of virtual Balenciagas. But it feels like a risky bet for fashion houses after watching the crypto market crash over the past few months, wiping out $2 trillion in value and taking the NFT market with it. Two weeks after the Jason Wu NFT dress went up for auction, it had received exactly zero bids.
As someone who’s spent a large chunk of their life and career speculating about virtual worlds, I am starting to find this underwhelming. Depressing, even. I was promised a virtual reality that gave me new worlds to explore, experiences I’d never be able to have out here in meatspace, and myriad different identities to embody. I dreamed of the clothes I might wear there, fashioned from pixels and polygons instead of cloth and fabric, unbeholden to the laws of physics, the whims of taste, or my bank balance. Instead, I’m threatened with a future in which I drift through endless, pristine, copy-and-pasted Meta-branded shopping malls, flicking through re-creations of clothes I’ve already seen IRL with the same defeated boredom that I feel scrolling through Netflix looking for something to watch. It all feels so mundane, so predictable. There must be another way.
With all of the possibilities and potentials of virtual worlds, how can someone look at the metaverse and end up re-creating the kind of cookie-cutter, character-creator approach to outfitting an avatar that you’d find in a ten-year-old video game? That’s what Chris Hornyak is wondering as we talk over Zoom, his frustration palpable. I first encountered him—and his YouTube channel Straszfilms—while searching for footage of underground VR raves, but when he’s not making videos, he works in user support and community management for VRChat, on online virtual-world platform launched in 2014.
VRChat offers a very different alternative to the metaverse-as-shopping-mall model, or the virtual land grab of Decentraland. In fact, it offers a potentially limitless number of alternatives, depending on where you go once you’ve logged on: It could be an amusement park, an anime convention, a chatroom, a strip club, a picnic, a music festival, a poetry recital, a video game, an underground rave. It can often feel like the unexplored frontier of what the metaverse could be, lawless and chaotic, and as such simultaneously intimidating and exhilarating. It’s also popular, with four million users as of 2019. That’s a lot more than the three hundred thousand users Horizon Worlds reportedly had as of this February, and it is deliciously ironic when you realize that many of those VRChat users are probably using Meta’s subsidized headset to jack in. VRChat is also organized in a radically different way, Hornyak explains to me. It’s made up of thousands of interconnected “worlds,” the vast majority of which are built by the platform’s users. The only limits are your technical prowess, your time, and your machine’s computing power. The same goes for avatars and the clothes and accessories you can dress them in. “[In VRChat] the limit is literally ‘Do you have the technical know-how to do it? Or do you have a friend that can do it?’ If the answer is yes, then go ahead,” Hornyak says.
At first glance, the VRChat aesthetic can be slightly off-putting to outsiders, especially if anime girls and furries aren’t your thing. But Hornyak insists there’s more going on when you know where to look. “[Every] two or three weeks, all of a sudden, everyone’s avatar is some variation of this one thing, and you’ll see trends like that just go through the whole community,” he explains. He tells me about the fashion designers who are slowly and organically—and often anonymously—building reputations for creating styles for the community to wear, selling them on sites like booth.pm or even giving them away, letting them spread like memes throughout the interconnected, post-geographic worlds. Some are morphing into fashion houses themselves—like the Japanese collective Yoyogi Mori, which has been releasing avatar outfits for more than two years and has numerous sub-brands. Its members hold exhibitions and fashion shows in the collective’s own VRChat world.
As I talk with Hornyak, I start to feel nostalgic. I find myself thinking back to my teenage years in the 1990s, to punk bands in dingy bars and illegal raves in abandoned warehouses. I also remember hearing talk of virtual worlds for the first time back then, from wide-eyed tech utopians and drug- addled thought leaders. It was going to be a new frontier of opportunity, they said, unbridled by financial scarcity and geographic limitations, where anything was possible. That already seems a long way from the metaverse vision we’re being given by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg. Maybe VRChat and its emerging rivals will all end up crushed and packaged into sellable lifestyle products by consumer brands the same way the subcultures of my youth did. Or maybe the fashion brands clamoring to participate will realize that Zuckerberg’s metaverse isn’t the only party in town and that there’s a huge pool of both talent and potential customers waiting for them in spaces like VRChat who could help them reimagine the fashion industry and its potential both in and out of the metaverse. But until any of that happens, I’m holding out hope that the kids using it now will build themselves something better, and will carry on finding and creating their own style.