A Digital Fashion House Partners With Meta. Should We Celebrate or Mourn?
Meta, formerly Facebook, announced last week it would begin selling virtual clothing made by DRESSX in its Avatar Store.
The news signified a watershed moment for digital fashion houses. Until last week, only three labels—Prada, Balenciaga, and Thom Browne, all storied brands of the physical realm—had been invited by the social media giant to create digital wearables for metaverse avatars. For the first time, a digital-native fashion company had a seat at the table—a table built by the most colossal corporation operating in the metaverse, no less.
It’s no question that DRESSX’s partnership with Meta is a notable one. Why that is, though, starts to get contentious.
To some, the move is a huge step forward for digital fashion as a whole: Soon, billions of Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger users will have access to digital outfits for the first time.
To others in the digital fashion world, however, the move represents nothing short of a Game of Thrones-caliber betrayal: the jump of an alleged ally of decentralization into the camp of the cause’s greatest enemy, just as the final lines are being drawn in what some industry leaders have called the “battle for the future of the internet.”
With us, or against us
When Facebook rebranded as Meta last fall, the move signaled the full reorientation of the $450 billion company toward a single goal: dominating the metaverse. Almost immediately, early metaverse builders decried the development, arguing it imperiled the online utopia they were attempting to build.
That “open metaverse” was envisioned as a constellation of independently run digital neighborhoods, between which a user’s private data and digital goods could flow freely. Meta’s critics worried that because the behemoth’s business model hinges on controlling users’ data and analytics, the company would establish a massive, gated fiefdom smack dab in the center of their borderless world, inside which Meta could retain ownership of users’ data.
In such a digital world, digital assets could not flow freely between platforms—a digital dress bought on Meta’s platform, for example, would remain trapped behind the company’s impenetrable, proprietary walls.
Thus the implications of this great “battle” were unavoidable for the burgeoning digital fashion industry: You’re either building digital outfits for a borderless metaverse, or a bordered one.
These issues were long the fodder for theoretical arguments. Now, as the metaverse begins to take shape and deals are being papered, they’re beginning to have real implications.
To some in the intimate ecosystem of digital fashion, DRESSX’s partnership with Meta is a very real betrayal of the potential for an “open metaverse.”
“Zuckerberg, Facebook, they’ve been really clear that they don’t want an open, decentralized, free metaverse,” Emma-Jane MacKinnon-Lee, founder of digital fashion startup Digatalax, told Decrypt. “They want one that is tightly controlled … where they are the main choke point. And DRESSX partnered with them.”
To MacKinnon-Lee, the fact that DRESSX allied with Meta in this instance is not incidental, but instead demonstrative of the startup’s true allegiances.
“What this partnership has just shown is that they are not for an open, decentralized metaverse,” said MacKinnon-Lee. “They’re very much for building a digital cage.”
The digital outfits on offer in Meta’s Avatar Store, including those made by DRESSX, are only compatible with the company’s platforms and can’t be moved off them.
“If you mint on a blockchain, that doesn’t automatically mean you’re upholding the principles of decentralization, self-sovereignty, liberty, and freedom for everyone who interacts with that network,” MacKinnon-Lee added. “Facebook controls what comes in and out of the network, who can do what. It is the antithesis of Web3.”
Outfits for sale in Meta’s Avatar Store aren’t even built on the blockchain. Unlike NFTs, tokens that live on the blockchain and prove ownership of an item, and which can exist independent of any centralized platform, Meta’s outfits are “off-chain,” meaning they live and die on the company’s platforms, similar to an asset bought within a video game.
To others in the digital fashion space, though, that fact isn’t an issue, and instead highlights the seemingly semantic but crucial difference between “Web3 fashion,” which MacKinnon-Lee champions, and “digital fashion,” which DRESSX creates.
“[DRESSX’s] mission is around increasing the adoption of digital fashion as a medium, and, I’d assume, bringing down the barriers for creators and consumers around price point or freedom of expression,” said Dani Loftus, founder of digital fashion platform Draup. “Rather than their remit being around the Web3 ethos of decentralization.”
DRESSX was founded in August 2020, making it one of the oldest brands in digital fashion. At first, the company sold digital wearables that were not built on-chain. They then transitioned to selling NFTs, and now sell both off-chain and on-chain digital wearables. Its Meta wearables are priced from $2.99 to $8.99.
To Megan Kaspar, a member of prominent digital fashion collective Red DAO, that breadth speaks to DRESSX’s versatility, as does its pact with Meta.
“The partnership is a powerful move for DRESSX,” Kaspar said to Decrypt. “The company is now the only digital fashion platform offering both on-chain and off-chain products and services for ‘blue chip’ centralized and decentralized platforms.”
To MacKinnon-Lee, DRESSX embracing both Web2 and Web3 products, cultures, and companies over the last two years is disingenuous.
“They began as Web2 and then they jumped on the NFT, decentralization hype train,” said MacKinnon-Lee. “They pretended to be Web3 in the hype. And now as the markets quiet down, they’re wondering, OK, where do they move next?”
‘Question for the Meta team’
To DRESSX’s founders, the startup’s deal with Meta—the culmination of over six months of talks—is a proud accomplishment, one with the potential to bring digital wearables into the digital closets of the billions who interact daily with Meta’s platforms.
“DRESSX wants a future where every person in the world has a digital closet,” the startup’s co-founder, Daria Shapovalova, told Decrypt. “And an opportunity to work with companies like Meta, especially if they believe in the concept of the metaverse, can definitely help us scale faster.”
To co-founder Natalia Modenova, the deal gelled perfectly with DRESSX’s ethos. “Our vision is that every tech company in the world should embrace digital fashion,” she told Decrypt.
As for issues around interoperability, or whether digital outfits can travel freely among platforms, Modenova dismissed any concerns that the Meta partnership restricted customers’ ownership rights. “I would say it’s interoperable across Meta platforms,” said Modenova. “Across, for example, Facebook and Instagram. They already built quite an ecosystem.”
When asked whether DRESSX took any issue with Meta’s vision for the metaverse, both Shapovalova and Modenova declined to answer, saying only that was “more of a question for the Meta team.”
Last month, Meta made a public promise to build toward an “open and inclusive metaverse,” but many decried the move as a vague and hollow PR stunt intended to obfuscate the fact that the mega-corporation has made no commitment to refraining from gatekeeping users’ digital assets and data.
When asked whether the company has any plans to ever allow digital assets, such as digital outfits, to flow freely in and out of Meta-owned platforms, a Meta representative told Decrypt: “Our goal is to make it easier for people to take their Meta avatar to more places.” The representative cited the current ability for Meta avatars to travel between Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and the apps that compose the Meta Quest VR ecosystem.
The spokesperson did not, however, detail any future intention to allow external digital assets onto Meta’s platforms, nor to allow assets purchased within Meta’s platforms be moved off of them. The Meta representative also declined to respond to a question regarding the company’s control over user data in its ecosystem.
The metaverse has been promised for years. Only now is that virtual world envisioned by so many actually taking shape. And as tens of billions of dollars pour into a space expected to soon be worth trillions, once-arcane distinctions—between borderless virtual worlds and bordered ones, between public and proprietary control of user data, between, perhaps, Web3 fashion and digital fashion—may soon have very real financial and cultural implications.