When Congolese designer Anifa Mvuemba put on a virtual 3D runway show during the height of global pandemic, it was a viral moment. Rendering garments in 3D wasn’t new to the global fashion industry. However it was new for consumers, especially the display of silhouettes for bigger bodies. Such use of technology marked a turn towards digital, signifying the amalgamation of physical and virtual worlds. African fashion designers began adjusting to a new way of creating, playing safe with small digital formats such as live streaming, digital lookbooks, and short films.
With mounting interest in the metaverse and what it means for fashion at large, different players in the African fashion industry are spotting opportunities in this virtual world. As a result, an ecosystem has begun to take shape, from freelance 3D fashion artists and training incubators to agencies helping brands expand their digital footprint.
Hanifa SS'20. Photo: via Fast Company.
What is The Metaverse?
While Facebook (now Meta) didn’t coin the metaverse, only adopting the concept to popularize its rebranding, the social media platform has become a huge proponent for this next frontier of human interactions. The metaverse is a network of virtual spaces that strikes a parallel to the physical world, meaning activities such as shopping, gaming, learning, dating, and more can be supplanted there.
Its makeup employs Web 3.0 technology, an upgrade from Web 2.0 that gives stability to social media, blogging, search engines, and other web services. The immersive nature of the metaverse can be attributed to its 3D architecture, with technologies like augmented, virtual and extended reality. Many African designers have begun to experiment with 3D innovations.
The rise of African 3D artists
For their FW’22 collection, South African brand Rich Mnisi released a fashion film with some aspects in 3D visualization. Oliver Hunter Pohorille, the 3D artist behind the film, revealed that up until then, Rich Mnisi hadn’t dabbled in 3D. “Imagine creating a world where anything is possible, and any material can be used and brought to life,” he said. “Rich wanted four of the same clones walking on water in a forest, which would be impossible in real life.” This year, Pohorille has been focusing on continuing to integrate fashion into his work. South Africa is home to young, talented 3D artists at the intersection of fashion, sustainability, and the metaverse. Electric South, based in Cape Town, is a non-profit outfit that empowers talents through immersive technologies to tell underrepresented narratives about heritage, identity, colonization, climate justice, and imperialism. It achieves this through various initiatives. One of them, Design Future Labs, understands the role technologies will play in African creative futures and equips participants with the required knowledge.
Rich Mnisi FW'22 fashion film, James. Photo: Rich Mnisi.
South African designer and artist King Debs is a recent alumnus. “African designers have an opportunity to reimagine their brands from the ground up without traditional limitations like having a physical storefront, which requires rent and levies,” he says. “Some opportunities include having a transparent supply chain process, which is made possible by the blockchain ledger. The transaction can be tracked and automated through smart contracts. In addition, because everything is virtual, the brand’s customers can access exclusive digital merchandise or collectibles from brands that wouldn’t necessarily be accessible in the physical world.”
According to Debs, entering the metaverse depends on access to internet bandwidth, a basic understanding of the Web3 space, and required hardware and software. “One of the biggest opportunities is cutting out the middleman and having full control and access to one’s audience,” he adds. This means owning Web3 domains, similar to the dotcom domains, for hosting events and showcasing work in the metaverse.
Lesiba Mabitsela is also a South African artist and fashion designer who subverts convention around the garments he makes. Mabitsela sees opportunities such as greater engagement and access to new markets in the metaverse. “This is due to the lack of an efficient transport and communication infrastructure across the continent. International brands are already experimenting with giving their customer base the ability to try garments on without physically being in-store and before any purchase has been made,” he says. “The economic possibilities may be even greater with the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement which is still in its infancy.”
Mabitsela believes that African brands and their manufacturers will have more ability to shape how products are consumed by liberating educational possibilities. Further, creating new knowledge platforms to challenge Western fashion knowledge and education hegemony.
BALMLABS 3D Models. Photo: via BALMLABS.
BALMLABS 3D Models. Photo: via BALMLABS.
Hanifa SS'20 3D Models. Photo: via Vogue.
A ride to Astra
Elsewhere, the metaverse is translated as Astra, a network of virtual cities on the blockchain where one can go NFT shopping, play crypto games, and attend virtual events through one’s avatar. Created by Nigerian startup Thrill Digital, its appeal was the reward of winning luxury products from crypto-gaming. In addition, the emergence of NFTs (non fungible tokens), allowing for digital ownership of products, has made the metaverse a lot more popular. “We are working on an experience enabling people to shop fashion brands as NFTs and receive them in real life,” UX designer and co-founder of Astra, Delz Erinle reveals. “While there has been a boom in NFT purchases and the metaverse, many projects don’t have real-world utility, which we are trying to fix with Astra.”
While Erinle and his team are working on improving the user experience of Astra, their core theory is that the metaverse won’t come to fruition until an NFT-first supply chain exists. “This means real-world items can exist as NFTs first, then have utility before they physically exist. This will make the fashion industry more sustainable because there’s no need to physically produce what people haven’t purchased," he reveals. "We also believe that the metaverse shopping experience has to be better than the current Web2 experience for people to be willing to patronize it. So this means looking at the problems with shopping on a website and designing solutions for it. For instance, there’s no way to visit an e-commerce store with your friends like you would visit a store in real life. But game engines, which are used to build metaverse projects, have a multiplayer mode, and so this can be implemented. You can also see what the clothes look like on your avatar.”
Artwork by King Debs. Photo: via @_king_debs
The power of African digital agencies
In other ways, the metaverse, with its current currency, will push virtual solutions providers to the forefront. For example, in 2020, Baboa Tachie-Menson created BalmLabs, a fashion-tech startup aiming to help brands and retailers adopt 3D technology to expand their digital horizons. Based in Ghana, but with a presence in Lagos, New York, San Francisco, Modena, and Dublin, BalmLabs has clients like DressX, Espion Atelier, Glemaud, and African Fashion Foundation. When Senegalese brand Tongoro released a 3D collection this year, BalmLabs pioneered the technology behind that reality.
“You can reduce production costs with a 3D-first roll out,” Tachie-Menson said, on why African brands should be interested in the metaverse. “Your designs can go further than just being worn on a person. They can be used in gaming (especially streetwear brands). In addition, most social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook now support 3D content, so it would be a great idea to start digitizing your designs to be able to capitalize on these new channels.”
Tachie-Menson projects growth of the African metaversal economy, with certain brands catching on quickly. She strongly believes that designers and retailers in Africa need more technological awareness. “I know it can be daunting at first, especially when a designer is used to running their business in a specific way. But 3D fashion technology can help make things easier in the long run because it’s adaptable, faster, more sustainable, and accurate.”
This exciting new future is not to say that traditional practices are becoming obsolete, nor is the metaverse here to replace them. Experts believe that they can comfortably co-exist. However, more platforms like BalmLabs are spearheading technological culture in the African fashion industry. Like Mvuemba learning 3D methods before her groundbreaking runway show, Tachie-Menson welcomes the idea of embracing technology. “I am always advocating for people to learn at least one software. It creates jobs and opportunities for collaborations,” she explains. More so, for brands on the continent, it offers a unique chance to engage Gen Z and other tech-savvy, young consumers, broadening the reach of the regional industry and putting emerging African designers firmly in the spotlight. In addition, it opens the more established labels up to the possibility of reinvention.
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