The metaverse can be eerily quiet.
That wasn’t what I expected to feel while wandering the many virtual booths and installations at Metaverse Fashion Week. For an event with some of the biggest names in fashion on board, I was hopeful it would have some of the energy and life that is actually possible in virtual worlds. But for a show that is based so much on what you can see, I was most struck by what I couldn’t hear.
Metaverse Fashion Week — the second annual — was an event in Decentraland where a bunch of fashion brands built virtual spaces to show off clothes, digital architecture, and fashion vibes. More than 60 brands participated in the event, and everywhere I looked, there were names that even I, a fashion scrub, could recognize, including Balenciaga, Adidas, and Coach.
Brands are starting to experiment more with what’s possible in virtual social spaces like Decentraland, and big companies like Meta, Epic Games, and Roblox are trying to make their so-called metaverses attractive for those brands, too. But Metaverse Fashion Week is just the latest example of a clunky digital space that seems to exist only for the companies that make it, not for the users that actually visit.
The actual layout of Metaverse Fashion Week felt kind of like a county fair. As my virtual avatar, I spent a lot of time running between elaborate virtual buildings of all different shapes, colors, and sizes — one reminded me of a giant witch’s hat that had been placed on Earth by aliens. Inside capsules throughout the plaza, digital non-player humans modeled all sorts of clothes, like a blue sweater covered in Adidas logos.
The first booth I visited was Coach’s. A giant floating Tabby bag hovered over a scale model city with moving cars and trains. It was kind of like a tightly constructed model train diorama, except everything was the same shade of pink. As I approached, a text box from the bag itself appeared on-screen, and it encouraged me to come closer. When I was directly under it, the bag beamed me up like a UFO.
The inside of the bag was a psychedelic wonderland, where the walls were covered in purple Coach logos and plastered with trippy art. Dance music played around me, and my character started dancing on his own. But the music frequently cut out for no reason, meaning there would be no other sound effects other than the soft shuffling of my own dancing feet.
In the middle of the room, a statue was wearing what I can only describe as a pink swirl scarf thing that looked like strawberry soft serve but rendered as clothing. The bag talked again, tasking me with collecting five mini-bags so that I could get a swirl of my own. I walked through some portals and hopped on some platforms to find the bags and was then told to light up the disco ball at the DJ booth. I couldn’t figure out how, so I left (through a portal, naturally).
Sadly, Coach’s space was by far the most interesting one that I visited. The rest were more like virtual showrooms for digital outfits, and while some were interesting to look at, they were often quite boring and difficult to interact with.
At one point, I found myself wandering around a “fashion garden,” which was filled with blocky green trees, calming beige paths, and its own terms and conditions to accept. A plant-based arch formed a “runway” where digital humans in all sorts of high-fashion outfits marched forward. (These humans were part of the scene, not other human players running around the space.) I was drawn to the Clarks Arcade in the back corner, a giant black building with neon pink and blue lights that clashed spectacularly with the serene atmosphere of the garden.
I walked into the arcade, which felt like a mix of a dance club and a carnival but without any music. A digital person in a purple top hat presided over the dead-silent space, and I was presented with another set of terms and conditions. This time, I clicked through to actually see what the T&Cs were and found myself on a largely blank Notion page that only contained the words “Clarks Terms and Conditions”.
I walked up to a basketball game and was tasked with making as many shots as I could in 60 seconds. I couldn’t shoot the ball, no matter what keys or mouse clicks I tried, and I got a score of zero. I was still given a pair of digital Clarks boots for my avatar. (Later, I figured out that when I hid Decentraland’s UI, I couldn’t interact with objects, which is probably why I couldn’t make any shots.)
Most of the spaces weren’t as elaborate. In the main Metaverse Fashion Week plaza, the world streamed in as I ran around, which meant that I’d only see a few structures nearby and buildings would distractingly pop up as I was exploring. Many of the booths felt sloppy. A multi-floor Vogue booth (which was silent except for a video panel playing on the top floor) had an elevator with buttons that were nearly impossible to click. When I walked into Balenciaga’s booth, on-screen text misspelled the brand as “Balanciaga.”
There was a lot of icky Web3 stuff, too. One booth had posters advertising avatar clothes I could buy from other people. When I clicked one poster, it took me out of Decentraland to the platform’s marketplace website where you can buy things using Decentraland’s MANA cryptocurrency. I scrolled through what that individual had to offer, including a good-looking pair of wings that were selling for 1 billion MANA. The price of MANA has recently hovered around 60 cents, meaning the wings would cost about $600,000,000. (Most other listings I saw during the event had somewhat more reasonable prices, but come on.)
The world didn’t feel very alive. While walking around, I’d usually only see one or two other people in my vicinity. I caught the tail end of a runway show, and about 10 avatars were standing stock-still, facing the stage as fireworks burst in the air. Some booths had the types of bumping music you’d expect from a fashion show, but many were totally quiet, and sound would often cut in and out as I crossed a line into one space or another.
The only time I felt Metaverse Fashion Week had the same type of energy as an in-person event was during the closing party on Friday evening. On the rooftop of a digital DKNY installation (where one floor was a brick pizza parlor), dozens of avatars grooved on a virtual dance floor as a video of a human DJ played on a big screen. It was actually fun to wander around the party — the chat was popping with positive messages, and people had awesome outfits that I was quite jealous of. One was dressed as a walking polar bear.
But that party was the exception. Sure, a lot of the clothes on display looked really cool, but not cool enough for me to pay MANA to own them. And while there were a few bemusements like the Coach collectathon and the Clarks basketball game, there wasn’t really anything to do besides shop. (In a recent video, YouTube channel Folding Ideas recently equated Decentraland to the dead mall of the future. The video also covers why last year’s Metaverse Fashion Week was also bad, if you’re curious.)
As dire as I’ve made Metaverse Fashion Week sound, I can see why fashion brands are exploring metaverse spaces like this. Many online games have entire ecosystems built on users paying real money to make their characters look cool — it’s essentially the entire business model for Fortnite, after all. That means there’s an opportunity for fashion brands to introduce players to their work through virtual clothes, like the Balenciaga outfits in Fortnite, but in the case of Metaverse Fashion Week, I don’t think the clothes did anything that couldn’t be done in the real world. You can make up the rules in the metaverse, so why not have more polar bears?
However, selling digital clothes might not actually be the point. As BPM-PR Firm CEO Monique Tatum tells me in an email, a virtual fashion show might have lower costs than a real-world fashion show and be more available to a wider audience. “Brand awareness is the name of the game, and these are not only fascinating concepts that get people talking but also something you do not need to leave the house to enjoy,” she says. And the digital nature of something like Metaverse Fashion Week means that events can more easily be repeated, which may not happen in the real world.
While it was nice that I could jump into Metaverse Fashion Week right from my computer whenever I wanted, that was pretty much the best thing about it. Metaverse Fashion Week wasn’t fun to visit. It was a weird digital version of the type of event that would be more interesting — and social — to experience through surfing social media or going in person. It also rarely took advantage of the potential of a digital space — I was hoping for more places like Coach’s strange Tabby bag UFO instead of walking into yet another virtual store.
And successful metaverse spaces usually have something for people to do with their friends; Roblox and Fortnite are popular places to play games, and even Horizon Worlds has some great community-made spaces for things like comedy. But shopping in silence, like I was during Metaverse Fashion Week? Let’s just say I probably won’t be back next year.