Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president of global business group at Meta, knows fashion has always had a story to tell. She also knows the metaverse is the incoming, omni-sensory platform for putting those stories out. And contrary to the industry’s entry into e-commerce, she said, “The fashion industry has actually been really early adopters of trying and experimenting with what the opportunities of the metaverse can be. And there are so many.”
Perhaps as the New York City subway has been seen as a great equalizer, the metaverse also levels the playing field — only, a virtual one. It’s a place where a 13-year-old could be the next Chanel, Anna Wintour isn’t the only habitual front row fixture at runway shows and flitting from one major fashion week to the next isn’t limited to the editorial and influencer elite. What’s more, in a choose-your-own-adventure virtual world where anything is possible, including recreating spaces of any dimension, the virtual doorways of Balenciaga’s historic salon could be widened to better accommodate the maison’s ballooning fall 2022 couture gowns.
But even more than that, there are opportunities for fashion companies in the metaverse beyond outfitting avatars, like moving from endless Zooms to chatting plans — avatar to avatar — for the upcoming season on the shores of Santorini thanks to a virtual workspace like Meta’s Horizon Workrooms VR space that can be configured for any kind of collaboration.
Here, 10 questions with one woman among few leading conversations about the metaverse on what’s possible, what’s next and what fashion can glean from other industries’ experiments.
And the interview? Conducted entirely inside the metaverse — Horizon Workrooms to be exact.
1. WWD: A lot of fashion has been focused on creating avatar outfits in the metaverse, but they could be using it for internal business, too, like what we’re doing now in Horizons — can you talk a little about that?
Nicola Mendelsohn: That’s where the magic comes alive. I now do my leadership team meetings every week in the Horizon Workrooms space. So it’s my virtual office — well, yours and mine could look completely different. There’s a cityscape, a lake, the Alps, whatever you want in your background. But the beauty of it is that when we’re talking, which is different to this [Zoom], when you’ve got multiple people from around the world or city, when the person on the left talks, everyone moves to the left like you do in real life, the person who’s at the end of the table, you all look there and it actually helps you to create memories in a different way. It’s hard to create memories on Zoom, it really is. But the way you work together, the way you ideate and create is really extraordinary, there’s whiteboards that you can get up and write on, that’s when you start to go “aha, I get this.”
2. WWD: That’s pretty much how I feel with my avatar virtually sitting next to yours right now. But, once you get beyond the “aha,” what are some of the ways brands can target customers in the metaverse? And are consumers up for that?
N.M.: If I was looking at it from a fashion company perspective, I’d be looking at what consumers are doing today and where I should be thinking about connecting with them because, ultimately, I want to sell more of my products and we’re seeing more and more brands do that.
I love that Gap had a filter [on Instagram] where you could try on the puffer jacket. They made funny cartoon legs, you and I were joking earlier that we haven’t got any legs at the moment. So they were having fun, playing around with the avatar version of that. That’s something that you can see shifting very much into how you can sell product straight off the feed at the moment. Because businesses, brands, whatever sector they’re in, want to be selling to where their customers are today but also want to be having a nod as to where they’re going to be tomorrow.
So it’s starting to think about how you might build your own world in something like Horizon Worlds, which as we’re in the Workrooms version of that right now, is something that I think brands are starting to think about, to look at, as much as the moment for building a sense of community or a place where followers or fans [can connect]. And certainly some of the fashion houses, they do have that sense of community amongst the customers that come to them.
We’re already starting to see some of the fashion brands thinking about how they can host a show in [the metaverse] and what’s so exciting about that is they can start to use materials that they couldn’t use in real life because perhaps they’ll be too heavy or just not physically possible to use. All those things will be possible in the metaverse.
3. WWD: What is the weirdest thing you’ve seen in the metaverse so far?
N.M.: People are doing some unique things, including building a virtual courtroom in Horizon Worlds where someone is a judge, someone is a reporter, someone is a defender and so on. People come not only to watch and hang out, but also to see how courts operate. Another interesting one I’ve seen is creators working on karaoke and singing competitions, and you have people creating community gardens for those who just want a place to relax and meditate together. All of this activity shows why more and more companies are hiring chief metaverse officers, understanding that experimenting in this space will be incredibly important going forward.
4. WWD: You have ideas for how luxury brands can play up their metaverse storytelling…can you share one?
N.M.: I think about some of the luxury houses and their beautiful logos — and you should never pick any out should you? — but I will take one because I think it demonstrates it well.
If I take the Hermès logo with the carriage, you could start to imagine that carriage coming to life and you could start to go on almost a historical tour of what it was like when the founder — I think it was Theirry Hermès — over 100 years ago [185, to be exact] was creating the origins of the brand. But now you can actually be immersed in that story, all of your senses being stimulated by it, and it gives you a very different way to bring that story to life. That’s the history of the brand.
You can come at a brand from so many different ways that weren’t possible before.
5. WWD: You’ve said you’ve seen a huge take up among luxury brands when it comes to augmented reality filters, like Ray-Ban and its sunglass try-on. What else is out there and what are the opportunities?
N.M.: We have something called Spark AR, which is a place creators can come and publish different effects. We’re continuing to evolve that in order to make it easier and easier for brands and creators to come together and to be able to make their own individual filters that they can use.
One of the things that I think is really exciting about this and something we’ve not talked about yet, is the whole aspect of the importance of diversity in the metaverse as well. One of the things that I’m really encouraged about is that more than half of the creators of the Spark AR effects are actually women, which is great to see because often what we’ve seen with all these shifts we’ve had in computing platforms is they have been dominated by men. And I just think it’s fantastic that we can really bring creativity and diversity in from these early days in order to have that vision and that version of the metaverse that will work for all customers and consumers as well.
I would say to the brands out there that if you haven’t created a filter yet, if you haven’t tried an AR effect for your own companies, for your own brands, for your own houses, I would try it because it’s something that consumers really like to engage with and it’s demonstrating strong return as well when it’s combined with selling of individual products.
6. WWD: Will companies need a chief AR filter officer to make that happen?
N.M.: Actually, it’s much simpler than that, we’re really making it so that anyone can use it. There’s a company, a beauty brand called withSimplicity in Germany and it’s a smaller business, but during the pandemic when they couldn’t sell their products, the founder of that company created one of these effects that we’re talking about so people could try on the products and she was able to sell a lot of those products out because of it. So yes, it’s continuing to be made easier and easier in order that as many different individuals but also businesses can get out there and can use it to good effect to sell stuff.
7. WWD: You mentioned that this new digital technology is democratizing things for marginalized groups — how?
N.M.: It’s something that we’re really thinking about in terms of being very intentional to put diversity, equity and inclusion right at the heart of everything that we’re doing when it comes to the metaverse. And one of the key areas there is actually our avatars and making sure that our avatars are reflective of people…we think…up to a billion people, maybe more, will be interacting and enjoying the metaverse in different ways. So it was very important to us when we were creating the avatars to make sure there would be enough versions to reflect people. And we have over a quintillion [as in, a billion billion] versions now of avatars. So that’s every kind of eye shape, hairstyle, clothing. But we’ve also been very intentional as well to make sure that we’re representing all people, and there’s also people [with disabilities], so we’ve go wheelchairs, hearing aids as well in order that people can see themselves when they’re designing them.
It’s very much about the intentionality that we’re putting and we’re building even before day one to realize that.
8. WWD: What can we expect to see as far as developments in the metaverse between now and the end of the year, particularly as they may be relevant for fashion?
N.M.: The first thing that I would say to anybody listening to us right now if they’re kind of wondering what they should be doing, is have you actually tried it? Because some people maybe tried something a couple of years ago, and you and I are having a very different experience. It’s very different going in by yourself and maybe playing a game or going off and climbing Machu Picchu with your fitness instructor or something like that versus actually being together and having that real sense of presence when you’re here and starting to imagine what you might do. That’s what I would say first and foremost, go actually out and try things.
Then, it’s about listening and learning [from] what some others have done in the space and the spaces that are out there and then start to think about well, what are the things I can do today that are going to get me to that fully realized version going forward, and start to experiment.
And also really starting to think now about how we can invoke all the senses when we tell stories because ultimately this is about storytelling in a different way.
9. WWD: What can fashion learn from what other industries are doing in the metaverse right now?
N.M.: We are starting to see other industries, other brands not in fashion actually starting to think about and actually building worlds in Horizon. I’m thinking of Wendy’s who actually built a whole Wendyverse to allow people to experience their first virtual Wendy’s restaurant. And they built a whole new world specially designed for people to come together because there’s a community around Wendy’s and it’s very much a place where you can come and hang out, where you can play games.
And what was interesting was that they utilized the whole suite of products of the Meta platform so it was very much a big brand campaign so there was in-stream video, they used stories, they used reels and then they used VR as well during March Madness. And this campaign reached over 52 million people.
And when you came into their world, the Wendyverse, there were different games that you could play together, you know when you can [shoot] hoops and things like that that you could actually have fun with and people really loved it and really enjoyed it. That was one area.
The other one more recently even was the NBA. The NBA launched something called the NBA Lane and this was a new world in Horizon where fans could come together, where they could connect, where they could participate in shoot outs, in competitions and also watch the highlights and come together….It was also home to the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy and they recreated this in VR. They did this so people could take virtual selfies with it and they could share those with their friends as well. So you can see community, different fans coming together from all over the place and having that moment, again, that people, so many of them would never be able to hold a trophy and, albeit it’s virtual, it feels very close to being able to do that in real life.
10. WWD: If you had one dream for what happens with the metaverse in the future, what would it be?
N.M.: The mobile internet has already allowed people to work, learn and socialize in ways that are less limited by their physical location. The metaverse is going to take that even further. Our hope is that within the next decade, the metaverse will host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, change the way we work and support jobs for millions of creators and developers. And the potential societal benefits — particularly in education and health care — are vast, from helping medical students to practice surgical techniques to bringing school lessons to life in exciting new ways.
Imagine how it can help aspiring surgeons — letting them learn specialized surgical techniques through VR before they ever operate on a real patient. Or imagine how it can help students — learning about a place or time by standing on the streets, hearing the sounds, visiting the markets of places far away from where they live or could ever travel to. Or learning how historical cities and buildings were built by actually seeing them get built, right in front of them.
And similar to our hopes that the metaverse will democratize access to jobs, education and health care, we also hope that the metaverse will deliver on the promise of diverse and inclusive societies.
And, finally, our commitment to being a distributed-first company where employees work together but often from different locations, means we’re hiring individuals who are fully remote and working from locations where we don’t have offices, deepening the diversity of our candidate pool.