Lil Miquela & the Blockchain Dress
An ontological examination of digital fashion and @bermudaisbae beefs
Ranjan here, and today we’re getting a little weird. We’ll be talking about digital fashion and virtual influencers.
The past few months my team has been working on a project covering the field of Synthetic Media. For the uninitiated, this is a new-ish, still-to-be-defined term that covers everything from virtual influencers like L'il Miquela, natural language generative text like talktotransformer, deepfakes, the AI-generated painting that sold at Christies for $432,500, and any other media created purely by technology that lives in the digital realm.
John Borthwick of Betaworks wrote the most comprehensive overview on the topic I’ve seen.
THIS JACKET DOES NOT EXIST
This is something I'm still trying to wrap my head around. Let's first talk about "digital fashion.”
It starts with a Scandinavian retailer named Carlings that began life in the 1980s. If you go to their website, it all looks normal. Except for that little yellow menu item:
When you click "Digital Collection," you are presented with items like the one below, a €30 digital jacket.
This jacket does not exist, at least in the physical realm.
The idea is you purchase the item, upload a photo of yourself, someone on the Carlings graphic design team meshes the digital item on your body, and then sends the photo back. You post to Instagram and then "brag to your friends."
This effort was done in coordination with Virtue, the (incredibly named) agency arm of Vice Media. Initially, Virtue approached Carling's CEO, Ronny Mikalsen, who nixed the idea outright, calling it the "strangest meeting of his life.”
But then, as these stories often go, he spoke with his 12-year old daughter, who explained to him the mushrooming market of Fortnite skins. The sale of these skins compromise a healthy portion of Fortnite's $2.4 billion 2018 revenue. He called Virtue back, said yes, and the rest is digital fashion history. The effort won a Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions, with the jury president, Rei Inamoto, saying, "the collection confused the jury in the most interesting way."
I’m going to starting using this line in everyday conversation.
THE BLOCKCHAIN DRESS
Of course, someone put this concept ‘on the blockchain’ and made some decent money off of it.
The Fabricant is a digital-only fashion house that, in collaboration with Dapper Labs (of CryptoKitties fame), created a dress called Iridescence. It was sold in an auction at the Ethereal Summit in May 2019 for $9,500.
Okay, my eyes rolled when I saw blockchain, but maybe there's something to it. In digital fashion, how do you put a price on something that is infinitely scalable?
You can certainly put it on some kind of blockchain and establish it's provenance. The Fabricant say it takes weeks of multiple 3D designers to create these digital fashion items. This short video from a digital collection they did for a Hong Kong retailer does look pretty amazing:
So there is a real cost involved. The same with Carlings. They have graphic designers putting in hours to fit the clothing to your body. This stuff takes real, human labor to get the fit right. We can imagine a near-future where, maybe, technology gets better at auto-fitting digital clothing to your body, the same way AR filters can latch onto your face perfectly.
At that point, maybe digital fashion producers can take a Fortnite style approach and artificially constrain supply. Epic Games (the Fortnite creator) simply doesn't include some much older skins in the current shop, but from what I understand the skins are transferable, sold on eBay, and the rarity can be measured in days since it was last in the shop:
Full disclaimer: I really am not sure what I'm talking about with Fortnite. This is perhaps a justification for me to start playing it, for media and Margins research, of course.
My first reaction to this concept of digital-only fashion was a bit of old man yelling at cloud. Are people so vain that they'll spend money just to post something to Instagram?
Well, yes. But also, as our lives are increasingly lived in the digital realm, is this the most natural extension of what constitutes fashion in our current physical realm? Has high fashion always been more about exclusivity and signaling over the genuine qualitative differences? Is this any different? If you have higher quality graphic designers overlaying your digital jacket is that the same a handmade leather bag? The more I think about this stuff, it starts to make a lot more sense than the WeWork S-1.
MIQUELA AND THE BEEF
One other quick synthetic media story that further pushed me down a Timothy Leary-esque ontological hole was L'il Miquela and @bermudaisbae feuding on Instagram.
This is probably the closest The Margins will ever come to being TMZ. Let me recap the virtual gossip:
Virtual Influencers are a thing you better start trying to process, and L'il Miquela is the leader of the pack with 1.6mm Instagram followers. She is a character created by an L.A.-based agency namd Brud (who have a google doc for a website), who lives out a virtual existence told through Instagram captions and posts.
She also made out with Bella Hadid for a Calvin Klein commercial.
and has songs on Spotify:
As L'il Miquela began her ascent to very real stardom, another virtual influencer named Bermuda (@bermudaisbae) was also making waves. Unlike the socially progressive Miquela, Bermuda was a climate-change denying, straight MAGA Trump supporter.
In April 2018, Bermuda suddenly hacked into Miquela's account! She called Miquela "a fake a*s person" and asked people to follow her account.
Yet, a few days later, it turned out Bermuda and Miquela made amends. Ever since, they’ve been BFFs and are now in the same crew alongside Bermuda’s ex-boyfriend, who always is wearing a face mask, @blawko22.
Bermuda was also created by Brud, and the whole drama was perfectly orchestrated. It's worked beautifully, as Brud reportedly raised somewhere between 20-30mm back in January, from a brand name investor roster featuring Sequoia Capital, Founders Fund, Spark Capital and others.
This all felt even more "real" than getting a yellow jacket photoshopped onto your picture. This is pro wrestling. This is reality television. This is Trump and our current political climate. Manufactured online drama as a means to a monetary end. All the drama of The Bachelor without any of the liability.
Having us pay attention to two virtual people and their made-up conflict seems like the most perfect representation of both the present and the future of our collective . media consumption.
“You can create the Kardashians without any of the inherent issues that come with being human” - Cyan Banister, Founders Fund
If we’re talking about fashion, I wanted to link to the one scene, which in 3 minutes, converted me from a skeptic of high-fashion to a true believer:
…and this is just, well, it’s @blawko22 (Bermuda’s ex, but also in the Brud crew) in his vlog talking about how to write a hit song. Yup, he’s got a vlog:
I’ve already started preparing myself for when my daughter in 20 years tells me she’s in love with a virtual Blawko-style character.