In a nearly empty office in West Roxbury, half a dozen sneakers sit on a large conference table. They come in a variety of colors. One pair is inspired by the bright blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. Another mimics the pattern of a red and white bandana.
The sneakers are Stephanie Howard’s latest creations. After more than 25 years working for apparel giants such as Nike and New Balance, she co-founded her own company, Endstate, last year.
In the tongue of each Endstate sneaker is a chip that Howard scans using a smartphone. The screen reveals the digital version of the sneaker, in what’s called an NFT, or non-fungible token. NFTs represent assets in the digital world.
The code shows that “her status is genuine and I own this NFT that is entangled with the sneaker,” Howard explained.
Virtual shoes are an important part of Endstate’s business model. The company’s founders believe that all high-end products of the future will come with virtual companions.
“This digital counterpart has many, many things it can provide to you as a customer,” Howard said. On the one hand, the digital sneakers act as tickets to real events that the company organizes, such as parties or conferences.
“These same pieces are then going to open up experiences for me as an individual that no other fashion piece I’ve ever bought has been able to,” said Gregory Molinar, who recently purchased a pair of Endstate sneakers. and several other digital garments.
For Molinar, who lives in Fall River, digital fashion is a way to build community and meet others who share her interest in emerging technologies. Some digital clothing also allows her to participate in the design process.
“We are able to vote on what colors we want this shirt to look like, or what color laces should we put on these shoes?” he said.
But there’s another reason why companies like Endstate, as well as legacy brands like Nike, Gucci and Prada, are making virtual clothing.
Our digital lives are becoming increasingly sophisticated. And as more and more social gatherings take place online, the experience is evolving into something more immersive. Musicians like Travis Scott and Ariana Grande have already performed in the so-called “metaverse” – a term for the 3D virtual world that some enthusiasts believe will be the future of the internet.
Molinar sees what could happen in the way his children live their digital lives. When her daughter turned 8 this year, she asked for money to buy digital props for her favorite virtual game.
“They’re already doing it,” Molinar said. “If you tell them, ‘Hey, you can play this game, and you can buy these different digital accessories, and you can buy these shoes,’ they’ve already done that, so it’ll be normal for them.”
In June, the company Meta (formerly Facebook) announced the launch of an online store where you can pay real money for digital outfits. Nike has also created a virtual world where you can play games and customize your avatar with virtual Nike gear.
For designers like Afsha Iragorri, this extension of fashion into the digital realm represents an opportunity. Shortly after graduating from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Iragorri launched his own 3D fashion business.
“It makes things limitless for me,” she said. “I can absolutely do anything I want in 3D.”
One of her designs is a bright red dress with bell sleeves and a long, flowing scarf. On the front, black beads form the shape of a skull, evoking images of a punk rock Virgin Mary.
Iragorri’s robe is unlikely to be made in the real world anytime soon. But it could have a life, and find a market, in digital.
A few companies, like Croatian brand Tribute, are already selling digital clothing that customers can layer over their photos on social media.
Iragorri thinks fashion-conscious consumers might start to see it as an eco-friendly alternative to “fast fashion” – the brands that offer tons of trendy clothes on the cheap.
“Instead of liking Zara and buying 20 outfits, maybe they’ll be like, ‘You know what? I can scale back that kind of lifestyle,'” Iragorri said. “Maybe I’m going to represent myself more with my avatar and buy these digital clothes … and that’s how I can express myself.”
Endstate’s Howard acknowledges that the idea of dressing up for the virtual world may still seem far-fetched to many people. But with advances in virtual reality, she thinks it will become more ubiquitous.
“Right now we’re communicating online on a flat screen, and the technology is designed to make you feel more like you’re in the presence of others,” Howard said. “So why wouldn’t your fashion and products that you love accompany you in this space?”