Gucci doesn’t traffic in the single digits, so when news broke that the brand was releasing two dozen pairs of sneakers for as low as $9, it looked like a giant typo. But it wasn’t. It was real – well, in a sense. Gucci’s sneakers were virtual, but available to anyone who could snap them up fast enough. No, you couldn’t wear them on the street, but in a world increasingly dominated by social media influencers and video game avatars, does wearing actual clothes even matter anymore?

Now that onscreen personas are vastly more visible than real-life bodies – and not just because of the pandemic – the styles making the biggest splash are ones that are worn, or “worn,” digitally. For everyone from Instagram influencers to lockdown-bound celebrities, making a statement onscreen is the most valuable commodity – and for that, you don’t need fabric. You need pixels. Enter the non-fungible token (NFT), a radically new way of consuming creative work, from art to fashion, that’s blowing up the old ways of thinking about authenticity and value.

This spring, the artist known as Beeple made headlines when he sold a JPG file of his work for $69 billion in a Christie’s auction. As with nearly all NFTs, the buyer purchased it using the Ethereum cryptocurrency, and received proof of authenticity and ownership through a secure computer network called a blockchain. Only the buyer can access the NFT file once it’s purchased – it can’t be shared, forwarded or duplicated. In the fashion industry, NFTs work the same way: if you buy a one-off or limited-edition digital handbag or dress or sneaker, you’re guaranteed exclusivity. It’s like a designer who makes only one version of an Oscar dress for the red carpet, except it’s digital-only.

“Any performance that can be video’d can be NFT’d.”

Kenny Schacter, New York-based artist and curator

An artist or designer in any medium can turn an entire creation or performance, digital or live, into an exclusive file available for sale at any price the market will bear. “Any performance that can be video’d can be NFT’d,” said New York-based artist and curator Kenny Schacter in a recent virtual panel discussion about NFTs, hosted by Abu Dhabi Art Collectors and Patrons.

But are NFTs just a passing fad? Likely not. “I think this is real, and this is here to stay,” said Edward Bonsor, director of Cerno Capital, in the Abu Dhabi panel.

Luxury fashion brands have been slower to jump into NFTs, as they wait to see if the trend has staying power. Burberry recently released a digital version of its signature trench coats for the multiplayer game Honor of Kings, but only in China. Diving headlong into the high-ticket, ultra-exclusive world of NFTs is seen as a riskier bet, especially since the NFT market is still mostly male-dominated and limited to those willing to set up a cryptocurrency wallet on Ethereum and figure out how it all works. 

Meanwhile, in a fashion world increasingly focused on sustainability, NFTs don’t exactly fit the bill. Ethereum and its ilk generate high carbon emissions, although efforts to reduce that footprint are now in the works.

But NFTs are starting to gain more of a foothold in fashion. Platforms like the Decentraland virtual market allow casual onlookers to explore digital-only styles, and consumers ready to set up a cryptowallet can shop for fashion NFTs on marketplaces like NiftyGateway, OpenSea or Known Origin. Recently, Australia-based Neuno launched a Net-a-Porter-style marketplace for NFTs, and they partnered with a handful of luxury brands willing to give the idea a go. What does that look like for shoppers?

“The buyer only needs to buy the NFT once, and they’ll be able to use it in multiple different ways.”

Natalie Johnson, CEO of Neuno

Natalie Johnson, Neuno’s CEO, explained it to Vogue Business: “Imagine if somebody bought the iconic J.Lo Versace dress on our site… the owner will be able to post a photo of themselves ‘wearing’ the dress, and we’re also working with one of Asia’s biggest games, so they’ll also be able to dress their gaming avatar in the dress. The buyer only needs to buy the NFT once, and they’ll be able to use it in multiple different ways.”

As this more versatile way of thinking about fashion takes over, the question is, who will drive the trend forward: fashion brands, or their ever more virtual consumers?