Cover photo

Becoming Unique in a Uniform World

The Primacy of NFTs in Digital Fashion

Illustration by me

[The following is a direct copy of my own report on the state of digital fashion in the metaverse].

The relationship between digital fashion and the metaverse is plain to see. The metaverse is how we virtually congregate in an immersive space, and digital fashion is how we adorn ourselves when inside those spaces. But what is less clear is the relationship between these two concepts and NFTs (non-fungible tokens).

My intention is to shed light on this, and explain why digital fashion NFTs will be the lynchpin of a successful metaverse.

The Aim of This Text

  • To explain the significance of NFTs in the digital fashion and metaverse landscape.

  • To examine how fashion houses can capitalise on the human desire to feel unique in the digital world.

  • To give insight into how the fashion industry will function in the metaverse.

Who Is This Book For?

  • Fashion houses and designers who are looking to navigate the metaverse landscape

  • People in the web3 space who want greater insights into human behaviour.

  • Artists and creators who are looking to branch out into digital fashion.

Fashioning Our Identity

Let’s begin by stating the obvious: fashion is all about identity. Who we are determines what we wear, and what we wear has an effect on who we are. We build our outfits as a means of representing who we consider ourselves to be, and who we want the world to see us as. Fashion is the marriage between our aesthetic desires and our own conception of self. It is a way for us to incorporate artistry into our very identity.

Oftentimes, when we are attracted to a piece of clothes, it is because we think it helps represent us on an inward level. This happens because, sadly, the way look in the mirror does not reflect the way we feel. Our emotions, our beliefs, and our thoughts are not physically reflected back to us, and so we feel the pressure to apply clothes and accessories to help close this gap. This disparity between how we look and how we feel is explored by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

The Need for Uniqueness

Perhaps the most fascinating need that clothes helps us to satisfy is that of uniqueness. The sociologists Birga Mareen Schumpe and Hans-Peter Erb note in their 2015 paper that:

“[H]umans do not only strive for belongingness, they also want to feel special and distinct from others. This motive is called the Need for Uniqueness [NfU]. The term describes the human desire to feel different from others”

This means that, not only do people want their clothes to reflect who they are, but they want their clothes to help them stand out from others. This does not necessarily mean everybody wants outlandish and vibrant outfits, but it does mean they need a means of separating themselves from everybody else. And not only this, but they need to know that others think of them in this way as well.

In other words, people want to look as unique as they feel.

We can pinpoint this desire on the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, locating it at the very top, where self-actualisation rests.

Depiction of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow defined self-actualisation as

“[S]elf-fulfilment, self-expression, working out of one’s own fundamental personality, the fulfilment of its potentialities, the use of its capacities, the tendency to be the most that one is capable of being”.

NfU fits within the concept of self-actualisation because it relates directly to self-expression. If somebody is worried they are blending in with the crowd, or that they are unable to differentiate themselves from their peers, then they are unable to reach their full potential and flourish as a distinct being.

But Maslow’s Model Is Wrong

This model is inaccurate. While Maslow is correct about the importance of self-actualisation, he has misunderstood its placement in the model. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs places it at the top, arguing that all other needs must be satiated before somebody can tackle self-actualisation.

This is an inherently classist view of human flourishing, as it suggests that many working-class individuals can never self-actualise as they are always locked in the “safety needs” rung of the pyramid, due to financial pressures. This is because “safety needs” includes safe housing, food, heating, and a lack of medical worries or concerns.

This is not to say safety needs are unimportant, or that self-actualisation is not (significantly) harder when there are financial/medical/safety concerns. But rather, it is unfair to say that a person cannot self-actualise unless these other aspects are satisfied. If this were true, then it would be impossible to find artists, visionaries, intellectuals, academics, experts, and trend-setters who live in poverty… And anybody who has grown up in poverty knows this is far from the truth.

Let us switch to a slightly different model…

The Indigenous Perspective

The Indigenous Alternative to the Hierarchy of Needs

It is nowadays understood that Maslow appropriated his hierarchy of needs from the indigenous communities he studied. However, their model was slightly different, placing self-actualisation at the bottom of the pyramid, explaining that our self-expression and flourishing is necessary before other goals (such as community actualisation) can even be considered. Here, safety needs, physiological needs and others segments in Maslow’s version of the hierarchy would get equal weighting with self-actualisation.

This alternative way of thinking may align more with the human experience, as it closely considers the necessity for self-expression and confidence before somebody can become an active and passionate participant in society. Most importantly, it explains that the Need for Uniqueness is a primary desire that needs to be satisfied.

Nobody is (Automatically) Unique in the Metaverse

In the physical world, we automatically assume that the people we interact with are unique individuals. We may often fear that we blend in with others or that our true identity does not shine on a visual level, but regardless, we all essentially assume one-another is distinctly different in some way. This is a given — we treat most people as distinct as we instinctively know there are no copies of people in this reality. So, everybody is taken at face-value to be a unique person. Nobody looks, sounds, or feels 100% the same.

But the same cannot be said online.

When we interact with people in a virtual realm, we do not get to see them wholly. We are all acutely aware that a person can create a duplicate account (meaning there is two of them electronically). Not only this, but with the recent developments in AI, we are all rightfully sceptical that the people we interact with online are actually elaborate bots. Who hasn’t used a live-chat for customer service only to question whether they are speaking to an algorithm or to a real person? With recent studies showing that humanizing bots gives a better customer experience, this scepticism is bound to grow once we reach the metaverse.

The problem is made worse because, when you enter an online setting (such a metaverse), you are usually given a uniform, cookie-cutter body. Your body will begin looking the same as practically every other body. You may be able to modify it in some ways, but the physical human form is infinitely unique, whereas an electronic form will always be limited in the ways somebody can change it.

The internet has a way of systematizing people. Most online communication feels the same, as you use the same apps for a multitude of things. Messaging your friend does not feel much different from messaging your boss or messaging your mother, and part of this is because we use the same apps to do them all. The tone never really changes. The same will happen on the metaverse.

Let’s Recap the Issues Explored:

  1. Online settings make us seem uniform to others, as we are limited in how unique we can make our avatars (compared to how unique we look in physicality).

  2. With the ability to create duplicate online accounts, uniqueness is not automatically assumed.

  3. With the prevalence of human-mimicking bots, people will always be sceptical of who they are interacting with.

The Need for Uniqueness is More Important than Ever in the Metaverse

This paints a damning picture. If people cannot feel unique within the metaverse, then they will simply leave it. They will disengage and merely return to the physical world, abandoning this new frontier. The NfU is non-negotiable, (same with other elements of self-actualisation). If we cannot be understood and treated as distinct, then our sense of self will be tarnished and bruised, causing us to retreat.

So, how do we solve this issue?

NFTs: The Currency of Uniqueness

Individuality is hard to exude in the metaverse. With the prevalence of bots, and the ability for people to own multiple social accounts on the same platform, we all instinctively go into online communications with a little scepticism. And if we do not have the right tools at our disposal to stand out from the crowd, then there is little reason for us to stay within metaverse spaces.

This is where NFTs step in.

NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are perfect for the metaverse because they allow people to prove their uniqueness by displaying digital objects that cannot be copied or duplicated. This might sound inaccurate, as we all know that pictorial NFTs can simply be CMD-C/CMD-V’d, but doing this is a little harder in the metaverse than it is on a web2 site. Any metaverse that supports NFTs would also support anti-copying measures. Think of Twitter’s hexagon feature, only a little stricter and more immersive. However, the metaverse is not a website, and so your actions can be limited in many ways, and simply copying and pasting is one of them.

In other words, NFTs allow people to prove their uniqueness in the metaverse.

This technology gives people the confidence to build outfits and wardrobes comprised of digital fashion NFTs, with the full knowledge that they own something unique, and that others can verify their uniqueness by checking the data attached to their attire.

It might not sound like much, but remember, the need to both feel unique and be perceived as unique is detrimental to human flourishing.

Not only this, but if we view the Need for Uniqueness as an aspect of self-actualisation, then it is needed before people can even begin to engage with communities, as community actualisation is the next rung on the indigenous pyramid.

Therefore, this also makes it essential for the formation of DAOs (decentralised autonomous organisations) and other digital community projects.

To go one step further…

Digital Fashion NFTs will be the bedrock for creating a truly virtual culture, one that is both healthy and ever-lasting.

What Does This Mean For Fashion Houses?

The metaverse is the new frontier in reality. The COVID pandemic, along with recent developments in tech, have triggered an appetite for immersive and virtual spaces. The details for how this will work are still being ironed out on a global scale, but what is certain is that people will crave uniqueness when they enter these environments.

The role of the fashion house is to satiate that craving and provide people with a means of feeling unique. Just as clothes help us to craft our identity in physicality, they too will be needed to craft our identity in the digital world. Only now, the stakes are higher as uniqueness is not a given.

As a blockchain researcher and fashion theorist, I predict that the demand for digital clothing NFTs will be rampant and ever-growing alongside the growth of this new metaverse era. Mere digital clothes will not be enough, as they cannot be verified to be unique– the demand for virtual clothing will become (primarily) exclusively NFT-based.

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#nft#digitial fashion#uniqueness
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