The waiting list for a Birkin bag can stretch years, but for some, the only purse they want is one they’ll never get their hands on. The Dematerialised, a British start-up that co-founder Karinna Nobbs calls “the digital department store of your dreams”, sells nothing but virtual luxuries; it’s a marketplace for clothing and accessories that will only ever exist online.
The first piece it brought out, on December 12, 2020, was a silver sweater selling for €121 ($137). Like all of her products since, the whole run — 1,212 digital renderings — sold within three hours. Nobbs has also worked with the Fabricant, a Dutch virtual couture house where users create exclusive apparel for their digital avatars on social platforms including VRChat, a 3D digital world that soared in popularity during the pandemic. The Fabricant collaboration scored the priciest sale at her store so far: €9,000 for a single garment — or, more precisely, non-garment.
The Dematerialised operates on the stock model popularised by streetwear, releasing a shoe, bag, or other item in a limited edition, usually of no more than 150 units. Only a single brand or computer-designed product is available at any one time.
Successful buyers receive an NFT, or non-fungible token, a virtual certificate of ownership that runs on blockchain technology. With this proof of authenticity, an owner can showcase a handbag or dress on VRChat, where tens of thousands of users interact daily through avatars — and flaunt their outfits.
It may seem silly, spending top dollar for luxuries you can never touch or hold, but gamers have long used clothes to proudly establish their online identity, just as people do in the real world. Called “skins”, these outfits or shells are bought by players to painstakingly customise their appearance in an online game. And executives in the fashion industry are taking the trend seriously, especially after Facebook’s rebrand as Meta Platforms refocused it on creating a simulated digital world where users can interact as if in a real physical space. Suddenly this niche practice has the potential to get very big. In an October video announcement of its plans, CEO Mark Zuckerberg could be seen using his and his colleagues’ avatars to try on clothes, play cards, pay artists, and even go surfing.