When Mark Zuckerberg flipped through a series of virtual outfits for the newly-christened Meta’s first tech demo, he settled on dark jeans and a navy sweater. “Perfect,” he said, moments before launching his avatar into a glittering spaceship. It was a predictable outfit for the social media billionaire, who has staked his company’s name and future fortunes on the metaverse – the buzzy designation for an immersive digital experience allowing users to meet, create, work, and spend money online.
But if it were up to Brad Morris, Zuck might have worn something a little more daring. Perhaps he would have ditched his uniform for the Stingray puffer jacket — the first fully digital garment from online fashion house MYAMI, and the item Morris hopes will open Australia to the multibillion dollar metaverse.
MYAMI is just one of a handful of local projects building products and experiences for the metaverse. Meta itself claims Australia could be at the forefront of the burgeoning industry.
Yet the big money won’t just come from virtual threads — if it comes at all. Beyond the Stingray jacket, Morris and MYAMI want to create their own “tech luxe” experience, platforming other brands, designers, and retailers in the metaverse. “We see a world where you’ve got a digital wardrobe that is connected within that ecosystem,” Morris told Business Insider Australia.
With so much hinging on new entrants to MYAMI’s imagined world, Morris and Australia’s other metaverse upstarts are taking on significant risk. Decentralisation doesn’t mean all platforms are equal. And with Meta throwing its billions around, there’s no guarantee local projects will compete. Just like Zuckerberg chose his real-world outfit for the tech demo, there’s nothing to stop metaverse investors throwing their money at something more familiar.
MYAMI was founded in early 2021, when Morris, a former creative heavyweight at marketing giant Clemenger BBDO, brought an international team of blockchain engineers and 3D designers under one roof. The brand showcased its first product, the Stingray puffer jacket, in September.
The jacket is padded and bulbous, swaddling its model like a cut-up sleeping bag. An animation shows light bouncing off the jacket’s surface like Damascus steel. MYAMI claims this glistening digital material was “inspired by nature and Australia’s magnificent oceans.” Yet the Stingray jacket is most obviously inspired by the conspicuously oversized puffer jackets of Balenciaga — a connection Morris is more than happy to make himself.
“We admire amazing brands like Balenciaga, Rick Owens, and Alexander Wang, these types of international [brands],” Morris said, name-dropping three of the biggest names in modern menswear. But Balenciaga makes for the most apt comparison, given the luxury brand’s approach to digital fashion. The century-old fashion house this year launched a collection in the video game “Fortnite”, allowing players to visit in-game stores and spend actual money on virtual couture.
Some industry observers have criticised the collaboration, but the matter of taste is almost besides the point. The Balenciaga/Fortnite teamup has obvious appeal for designers. It costs less to produce a digital jacket than a real-world garment, and if buyers are willing to pay for this form of virtual self-expression, the upside for fashion houses is effectively limitless.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, MYAMI also plans to launch the Stingray jacket, and its future designs, in non-fungible token (NFT) form. In doing so, MYAMI will follow Balenciaga contemporaries Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, and Jimmy Choo, all of which have tapped into the market hype for blockchain assets. Morris claims MYAMI issued around 250 free ‘founders tokens’ when the studio launched early this year, simply to gauge interest in the project. All of them were snapped up in an hour. “We’ve actually had a lot of people asking if they can still get a token,” he said.
That NFT exercise gave Morris even more confidence for the pending Stingray release, and the confidence that buyers will someday ‘wear’ it in the metaverse.
“I think the thing for digital fashion, and the NFT space from our perspective, is that your digital identity is as important as your real world identity,” Morris said. “You always want to be able to be as expressive as you possibly can be online, as well as in the real world.”
The real world does play into MYAMI’s plans — to a point. The brand will officially launch at the 2022 Melbourne Fashion Festival (MFF), marking a significant breakthrough for digital couture on the local circuit. To mark the occasion, CEO Graeme Lewsey said the event will partner live runway shows with “new ways to enjoy and experience fashion driven by digital innovation and creative disruption.” MFF and MYAMI are working together on “ground-breaking outcomes, both virtually and physically,” he added.
MFF is hardly the only Australian organisation testing the boundaries of digital fashion. In October, Melbourne Games Week played host to the ‘Digital Fashion Incubator’, which saw seven Victorian fashion designers dabble with augmented and virtual reality. And the Australian Fashion Council (AFC) has partnered with the City of Sydney on a new fashion industry roadmap, with the goal of streamlining 3D design workflows.
Kellie Hush, acting AFC CEO, said local designers have little to lose by exploring this heady mix of virtual expression, tech futurism, and blockchain speculation. “There is no doubt that NFTs are exponentially rising in popularity and consumer demand, and once brands have digitised workflows the metaverse is their oyster,” she said.
Even as the local industry chases the opportunities of digital design, MYAMI has its aspirations set higher. Beyond a line of digital wearables, Morris hopes to one day create the virtual realm in which they are worn. Early depictions of this space are spartan and cold, an expansion of the brand’s modern luxe attitude. While it’s a long way from fruition, it’s hard to imagine anyone spending much time there, virtually or not: If the metaverse is a new digital world, MYAMI’s corner may as well be a rocky outcrop on Mars.
Morris understands the project may not be for everyone. “We would hope to partner, or kind of onboard many other fashion brands to join MYAMI’s world,” he said. “And so it’s more of that holistic experience, where if you don’t like the aesthetic of MYAMI, no problem.”
In doing so, MYAMI would become not just a fashion house, or the custodians of a virtual realm, but a key participant in the nascent metaverse, where visitors can dress, explore, and shop as they please. “There’s amazing fashion designers and fashion houses and fashion brands that exist,” Morris said. “So let’s help. Let’s help you discover those guys.”
It’s an incredibly optimistic vision. The metaverse, on the other hand, is yet to materialise. The promise of a decentralised, anything-goes virtual world is yet to be borne out, let alone MYAMI’s vision of luxury shopping planet, or realms designed for third-party clients. Nothing about it is inevitable.
Even Zuckerberg’s insistence on the metaverse comes with its own drawbacks. By shifting its focus to the next expression of the internet, the company has staked its name on the metaverse happening, in one way or another. Will Easton, Meta’s managing director for Australia, said the country could become a hotspot for metaverse innovation. But in this world, Meta has sought total dominance over the internet. What is to say a Silicon Valley-led metaverse would ever provide space for upstarts like MYAMI?
That is to say nothing of the other industry titans jostling to dominate the metaverse. Epic Games, the company behind “Fortnite”, has signalled it will direct more than $1 billion in investment towards metaverse development. And in a Wednesday earnings call, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said the company is prepared to leverage its vast resources for “its own” metaverse.
Some industry participants have acknowledged this power dynamic. Despite her optimism, Hush, the AFC’s acting CEO, said independent designers need heavy backing before they can seriously contend in the metaverse.
“As gaming and digital fashion come to the forefront, the AR, VR and NFT space is still an expensive playground previously only accessible to the big players,” she said.
“Australian fashion brands will need to embrace this technology, but to truly take advantage of its possibilities, our industry needs to support small to medium businesses to play in this space.”
Nevertheless, MYAMI has expressed its enthusiasm for a metaverse led by big tech. “We can’t wait to connect our world to theirs as well as the many other worlds being built in this virtual economy,” the brand wrote on Instagram after Meta’s big announcement.
In the days after Zuckerberg’s metaverse demo, MYAMI unveiled its second product: a translucent digital sneaker, unmistakably inspired by the Balenciaga Triple S trainer. Fashioned from digital ice, MYAMI says proceeds from the one-of-one ‘Ice Runner’ sale will go towards the environmental charity of the buyer’s choice. The NFT has a reserve price of 1.26 Ethereum, or AU$8,100.
After listening to advocates like Morris, it is easy to imagine the virtual kicks eventually finding Zuckerberg, gracing his avatar as it hurtles through digital space. But with the metaverse yet to eventuate, MYAMI’s digital fashion could just as easily stay unworn, its imagined world sitting empty.