Meet the Irish fashion brands whose virtual clothing is taking over the metaverse

“You have to be so futuristic if you want to change the rules,” Aileen Carville says of the fashion industry’s current metamorphosis. If there’s one thing Carville knows, it’s that technology has secured the fashion industry’s future.

A fashion industry veteran and founder of luxury fashion tech company Skmmp (pronounced ‘skimp’), a B2B virtual showroom and online order platform for luxury wholesale brands, the Monaghan native now finds herself at the forefront of the Irish and international fashion ‘metaverse’.

Condensed into its simplest model, the fashion metaverse is an augmented reality, social-meets-gaming, virtual universe accessed by phones, computers and smart devices. Think of it as an all-encompassing interactive internet (Web 3.0), one where you can create a digitised version of your life with spending power by way of new and very real currencies like cryptocurrency and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens).

Imagination is necessary when it comes to concepts that don’t entirely exist yet in reality, but in its fully realised form, the metaverse promises to offer true-to-life sights, sounds and even smells, where a tour of ancient Greece or a visit to try on your favourite designer garb in an upmarket boutique can happen in your home.

For Carville, Skmmp is already making it possible for designers to showcase entire collections to eager buyers with metaverse technology, without restricting appointments or mitigating supply chain disruption, through its virtual showroom.

Aileen Carville, founder of luxury fashion tech company Skmmp
Aileen Carville, founder of luxury fashion tech company Skmmp

Launched in 2018, Skmmp’s multi-brand showrooms, the likes of which have been used by Valentino and Prada, allow buyers to view collections and place orders seamlessly (the “nuts and bolts of Fashion Week”, as Carville calls it).

But how?

It wouldn’t be outlandish to picture a savvy, well-dressed fashionista wearing a virtual reality headset, aimlessly walking around their studio or home, with arms outstretched so as not to fall over unseen objects or walk into walls. For the most part, however, this is not the case. Not yet, at least.

Right now Skmmp’s innovative 3D showrooms can be accessed on a mobile phone using login details, but just like mobile phones shrunk down to pocket-sized devices, consumers could soon access the metaverse by wearing glasses (think Google Glass) or contact lenses.

Part of Skmmp’s success, Carville notes, comes down to timing. When the global pandemic took hold in 2020, Skmmp had already carried out case studies and acquired learnings during previous Fashion Week seasons, and refined Skmmp’s already sophisticated tech. By the time the fashion world shuddered to a halt, Carville and her team of technicians had already implemented a new pivotal digital upload system, or ‘digital dam’, which allowed digitised versions of designers’ newest wares to be uploaded quickly and seamlessly without disrupting supply chains.

“When all of Covid happened we had the right product at the right time,” she explains from her home in north Dublin. 

It was a great opportunity for us, because a lot of these brands have never used anything digital at all.”

The fashion industry has undergone an immense transition over the past 10 years. The last 18 months, in particular, has seen something of a technological renaissance with traditional fashion titans like Gucci and Balenciaga trading actual runways for Roblox (an online gaming platform with 202m monthly active users that allows users to program games and play games created by other users) and physical garments for one-off ‘phygital’ collectors items.

To digital immigrants (those raised prior to the digital age who have had to adapt to the new language of technology), ‘fashion metaverse’ and ‘phygital’ garments might sound like futuristic jargon, but realising that in the past year, 65% of Gen Z-ers have purchased n digital versions of real items of clothing within a game or the meta space is indicative of what’s to come.

In a not-too-distant future, people may spend more time buying phyigital items of clothing then they do real world ones: In 2021, a digital version of Gucci’s signature Dionysus bag sold for roughly $4,115 on Roblox, 19% more than its IRL (in real life) retail price of $3,400; Ralph Lauren’s recent metaverse Holiday Escape World on Roblox reported a third-quarter revenue increase of 27% to $1.8bn; Burberry created a string of unique playable NFT creations with characters wearing logo-mania armbands and pool shoes which sold for almost $400,000; and Dolce & Gabbana sold its nine-piece Collezione Genesi collection on the digital luxury marketplace UNXD for $5.7m dollars. Goldman Sachs estimated that the metaverse will be valued at $8 trillion.

Sandra Murphy of Afore After
Sandra Murphy of Afore After

Closer to home, independent Irish fashion brands are also eager to digitise their retail offering in the fashion metaverse. Circular fashion label AforeAfter implemented avatar technology which enables customers to virtually try on a garment before buying. Working with digital fashion platform MYAVA, the technology allows shoppers to create a virtual stand-in with their exact measurements and complexion, allowing them to see how the garment will hang on their body, and how the colours will look against their skin tone.

“The easiest way to describe what AforeAfter is doing is to give the shopper, who would normally walk into a brick and mortar store, that same customer service online,” says AforeAfter founder, Sandra Murphy.

“In reality, a person can’t physically jump into their computer and try things on, so we digitise our garments. Customers can log in and create an avatar. It’s quite customisable: you can pick your skin tones and submit size measurements. If you provide measurements, you’ll get a more accurate kind of body shape. From then, you can try on different items virtually via your personal account.”

For Co Clare native Murphy, who is a textile designer and lecturer with over 20 years of experience and an unfaltering passion for sustainability, implementing smart tech isn’t just about making online shopping more convenient, but also fuelling her brand’s circular mission. Sandra is hopeful that if more brands engage with the fashion metaverse, it could drastically reduce the enormous amount of waste generated by online shopping returns globally. When you learn retail giant Amazon generated 211m kgs of plastic packaging waste in 2019, wanting to reduce the fashion industry’s environmental footprint is not a bad ambition.

Aforeafter's Zaya Darling Dress
Aforeafter’s Zaya Darling Dress

One has to wonder if metaverse fashion — whatever final form it may take — can ever replace the real, tangible clothes on your back? Will high-fashion ateliers be a thing of the past? For Skmmp founder Aileen Carville, the two worlds “work completely in tandem,” suggesting that the very point of the metaverse is not to replace reality, but to enhance it.

“My vision of Web 3.0 is very much kind of immersive,” Carville explains.

“I don’t believe in having hangers and rails and stuff like that in the metaverse at all. For me, it has to be an absolutely out of the box different experience,” she adds, noting the difficulties of transporting real human emotion into the meta space.

For AforeAfter founder Sandra Murphy, nothing will ever replace the touch and feel of a real garment, but admits the metaverse’s capabilities of enhancing the customer experience are unrivalled, even in its infancy.

“Fashion is tactile. I admire the finish on a garment and how things are made, and the touch or feel of cotton versus cashmere,” she comments from her home along the Wild Atlantic Way.

“What I do think is hugely beneficial in what the metaverse can do for the fashion industry is the way that I’m approaching it, as a supplement to E-commerce. I cannot confidently convey to each customer with individual body types what a dress will look like on them, but the way I can do that is through this kind of digital supplementation.”

Whether virtual clothing can trump the in-real-life bricks-and-mortar experience is down to personal preference, but it’s hard to argue with the efficiency and convenience of trying on new-season Prada from the comfort of one’s home.

For young Irish brands wanting to expand their digital horizons, Carville says it’s all about taking a leap of faith: “Start slow. Consider looking at a small NFT application such as redeeming something against a physical piece in the store.”