When Oculus announced its new Oculus Avatars project last Thursday, I got a message from The Verge team asking if I wanted to write about it. I cover the vast world of clothing, not gadgets or gaming, but where there’s self-styling — and the Oculus team made it pretty clear that there’s plenty of room for that with its new avatars — there’s fashion.
Adi had it right when she said that these avatars are classy. A sketch of the human form is much more evocative than failed photorealism, and Oculus wisely limited its avatars to floating busts and hands rendered in luminous colors like red, gold, and a shifting purple-ish blue. They’re detailed enough to seem lifelike, but not so finely modeled that they’re creepy.
Because you can select your avatar’s face, color, hairstyle, eyewear, and outfit, the question at hand is where Oculus could take things, fashion-wise. Putting on clothes or styling your hair is always a matter of self-expression, but what would you do if you weren’t limited by budget, concerns about fit, or social anxiety? You would go for the $1,365 plaid Vetements shirt with football shoulders and detached sleeves that engulf your hands, is what you would do.
I would, at least. My face would also look a lot more like Tilda Swinton’s. The thing is, if my avatar was a Vetements-wearing Tilda and I was in a virtual space with a bunch of my friends and their avatars — “rooms” and “parties” being two of Oculus’ new social features — I’m pretty sure they’d know me on sight. I’d recognize them, too, even if we looked nothing like our IRL selves, simply because we understand each other’s aesthetic inclinations so well after years of gathering cues like favorite musicians, movies, and brands. Our tastes might manifest quietly in our everyday styling, but in VR, they could really bloom.
When I think of clothing I’d like to see translated to Oculus Avatars, the fashion nerd in me gets thirsty for the fantastic, totally unwearable garments that seem to exist only on the runway and in museums. (And sometimes, if someone like Björk is involved, on a stage or red carpet.) I’m talking about designers like Iris Van Herpen, a 32-year-old Dutch woman who works with techniques like laser cutting and 3D printing to create otherworldly shapes. You’ll never see Van Herpen’s delicate dress covered in thousands of silicone-coated, hand-blown glass bubbles out on the street, but in VR, the barrier to wearing it would be practically nil.
A garment doesn’t have to be made of fragile materials for it to have a limited life in the real world. Designers tend to amp up the drama for their runway shows, meaning not everything that gets shown will actually get produced and sold at retail. What winds up on the sales floor is not the experimental, but the easily digestible. As The New Yorker wrote in its profile of the radical brand Hood By Air, “The runway pieces may have blown fashion critics’ minds, but it was the T-shirts that had changed the way people dressed.”
Hood By Air should take those runway pieces to VR, then. It’s safe to say that more than a few brands would be interested in exploring the possibilities of putting their designs on Oculus, if only for the sake of monetization or a media moment. Try Louis Vuitton: it cast Lightning from Final Fantasy in its spring / summer 2016 ad campaign, after all.
For what it’s worth, I’d gladly put my avatar in almost anything by Alexander McQueen, or in the haunting lace-and-pearl masks that the designer Riccardo Tisci has sent down Givenchy’s runway. For the style of Oculus Avatars, it seems sculptural pieces would work better than flowing or patterned garments; as digital creations, 3D-printed designs are practically made for the VR treatment.
The tragic irony here is that for all the thrills of finally getting to (virtually) wear the clothing I’ve loved from afar, some of its detailing would probably get lost in translation. Would my Oculus companions even notice what my avatar is wearing? Let’s be honest, other people’s consideration plays a significant role in guiding our dressing decisions.
Maybe all those designers I mentioned should instead design new looks specifically for Oculus Avatars. Still a media moment, still monetizable, and possibly more exciting for fans. The whole point of high fashion — the clothes, the theatrical runway shows, the photo shoots that appear in magazines — is to make us dream, to create a landscape that’s brighter, stranger, and more fantastic than the one we actually live in. I can’t imagine anything more appropriate for the virtual world.