The metaverse, while not an entirely new concept, is still under continuous development. It's not one tangible facet but a multiverse of different virtual environments that allow users to explore online spaces and their place in them. It was this particular aspect that was investigated during a panel discussion at Met Ams, a newly established conference in Amsterdam entirely focused on making the metaverse more accessible.
The panel, held on Thursday, the second day of the two day event spanning June 15 to 16, consisted of a number of influential individuals in the digital fashion sphere, each of which contribute to varying elements of virtual design development. Founder of digital creative agency Mad XR, Ashumi S, senior lecturer at Amsterdam Fashion Academy, Giancarlo Pazzanese, and Kerry Murphy, the founder and CEO of digital fashion platform The Fabricant, each spoke of their own take on the merging of digital and physical identities in the metaverse space.
When discussing the actual meaning of ‘identity’, the panellists mostly referenced links to their upbringing and personal experiences that helped shape who they are. They noted that these can often collide with how we unconsciously want to be perceived in the metaverse too, despite it essentially being a clean slate – something they all said we should work to move away from.
“In the world we live in, we have these limitations around us, especially when it comes to the laws of physics,” said the panel’s moderator, metaverse and non-fungible token (NFT) strategist, Diego Borgo. “The exciting part of the metaverse and virtual reality is how you are breaking those boxes, so you can be whoever or whatever you want. I think that is exciting, especially when it comes to fashion and digital fashion.”
“You can have multiple different personas…”
Pazzanese agreed with Borgo’s sentiment, adding that this idea also works for clothing too. Designers are able to completely reimagine the silhouettes of standard clothing, reshaping what we know about an item and taking it beyond the boundaries that exist in the physical realm. The panellists each agreed that fashion brands should be taking advantage of this freedom that working in the digital space actually provides, exploring the new ways it allows users to express themselves and the fluidity of identity in virtual reality.
“We are not set to be this one person, you can have multiple different personas,” The Fabricant’s Murphy said. “That’s really the power of the metaverse and the Web3 space. It brings us the tools to be able to express ourselves in much more unique ways. Hopefully, experiences in the metaverse will also come into our physical lives, where we may be brave enough to express ourselves in new ways that we wouldn’t normally have done.”
Mad XR’s Ashumi said that she had observed children forming their identities through role playing in the real world, directly translating their experiences in metaverse gaming environments and ultimately contributing to the formation of their own expression and way of dressing. However, Murphy added that even children are facing the brunt of offline social constructs, often showing resistance towards using digital clothing in ways that could be negatively perceived offline, like a boy wearing dresses.
“We need to make it a safe space..”
“It’s funny how those social constructs come into that space as well – that we take it with us into the metaverse,” he commented. “I still think there is some type of learning to be done for kids to break down those barriers. It's a space where kids can learn to express themselves in a much richer way than their physical lives, but we need to make it into a safe space, not just where we bring in the same social constructs, because otherwise we aren't going anywhere.”
Pazzanese said that it was this safe space that was an important yet often overlooked part of the metaverse, noting that bringing our unconscious biases into these spaces could hinder its development. “In order to be free, express ourselves and try these clothes, we need to feel safe,” he said. “There is a lot of invisible diversity, and that is what creates a community, when you are recognised and accepted for the aspects that you don’t see but want to express somehow.”
However, to get to this point, the panellists emphasised the need for diversifying the space itself, with each of them noting that there is an obvious lack of women and cultural inclusivity within the Web3 and metaverse-based industries. This is evident in the often overtly sexualised female avatars present in online games, and created by male designers, or the sparse diversity in characters and digital creators. All agreed that it was imperative to change these elements in order to move forward.
“There is a responsibility for the images we put out there as designers,” Pazzanese added. “The metaverse needs to be built by people with a long term vision, not just in the technical space. It is important to bring other builders into it – people that can define the values of the metaverse because it's a male driven environment. Otherwise, we are just replicating the same space we already have. The metaverse is an extension of our existence and it's supposed to be a place that is better to be in, rather than worse.”
Ultimately, while the metaverse allows for much freedom and flexibility, companies should still take accountability over the images that they put out there, the lecturer continued. In doing so, Pazzanese hopes that the metaverse can become this ‘safe space’ for those looking to explore their identity, dismantle social constructs and promote a more inclusive environment.