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Why CryptoPunks and Bored Apes Are Fashion

NFT profile pictures signal tastes and affiliations, have aesthetic value and set and follow trends. In other words, they’re fashion.
CryptoPunks profile pictures.
Digital fashion is already widespread. It can just be hard to spot because it doesn’t always look like clothes, including CryptoPunks profile pictures. (Getty Images)

Digital fashion is already widespread. It can just be hard to spot because it doesn’t always look like clothes.

I’m not talking about the obvious examples in gaming environments like Fortnite and Roblox, where millions of users spend real money on virtual shirts, hats and other digitised imitations of stuff you can buy in the real world. I’m talking about the NFT profile-picture collections, or PFPs, like CryptoPunks, Bored Apes and others that have been spreading among the crypto faithful on sites like Twitter and Discord for the past couple years.

Many in fashion dismiss them as crude and silly. Maybe they can be called collectables — even art — but not fashion. Yet they arguably share enough characteristics to classify them that way. Bobby Hundreds, whose streetwear brand, The Hundreds, is also behind the Adam Bomb Squad NFT collection, has previously made this case. So did Gala Marija Vrbanic, who worked with physical fashion before founding her digital line, Tribute Brand, when I spoke with her recently.

PFPs serve as a stylised visual representation of their owner. We put them on like digital clothes so we’re not naked, virtually speaking. They signal tastes and affiliations. They aren’t purely practical and have some sort of aesthetic value, dubious as it may be (though the same is true for plenty of physical clothing). They even follow trends; some projects come into style while others go out. In other words, fashion.

Thinking of digital fashion this way expands the variety of forms it can take. Even fashion’s boundary-pushing designers haven’t typically made that leap yet. Many brands have adopted a conservative approach, like Balenciaga, Prada and Thom Browne when they created replicas of their garments for Meta’s avatars, though that seems to have been Meta’s preference in this instance. But why just create little virtual sneakers for an anthropomorphic avatar when the avatar could be a sneaker itself — or something else entirely?

“With digital fashion, its natural habitat is on screen,” Vrbanic told me, not the body, raising the question of whether legacy brands might be out of their depth in this world.

Vrbanic didn’t necessarily mean virtual fashion needs to, or even should, ignore our physical selves. Among the products her brand creates are augmented-reality filters that overlay digital garments on the user’s body, at least the image of it on the screen of their smartphone. Customers use them to post on social media, where they serve the purpose of traditional cloth-and-thread fashion: getting likes.

But digital fashion is a different medium. That restricts it in some ways. A very large share of digital fashion just doesn’t look very good, in part because of technological barriers or the limits of the virtual environments it exists in, and unless you have a gigantic phone or computer monitor, you’ll generally see it in a fairly small format that isn’t suited to conveying detail. But it creates freedoms too, like being able to work outside the usual material reality.

Gucci leaned into this freedom when it created its fantasy garden for Roblox last year. Etro, by contrast, did not when it showed a collection at Metaverse Fashion Week in March that offered lacklustre digital dupes of its physical clothes. Brands that just try to replicate the physical world virtually in their experiments in digital fashion seem set to struggle because they’re not adapting it for the screen.

Fashion companies are still learning how to show up in these digital spaces. It seems likely they will eventually come to understand what works and what doesn’t. The bigger players can also hire or acquire talent to help them, like Nike did when it bought RTFKT.

One limitation on the growth of this more expansive idea of digital fashion — one not limited to digital clothes — might be users themselves. Last year, when I spoke with Michigan State University’s Rabindra Ratan, who has studied the use of avatars in virtual worlds, he pointed out that most people tend to choose avatars that resemble them. One of the most-customised features is hair, he said, which is also one of the most customisable parts of our identities in the real world.

Many people seem likely to want more faithful digital versions of themselves and will want to dress them in digital clothes that look like physical clothes. Even on Twitter, plenty of users opt for profile pictures that are just pictures of themselves.

People’s choices probably also depend on the environment. Someone might want to present one way on mostly static, two-dimensional Twitter and another way completely in an immersive 3D space.

But fashion today is less about prescribing how someone should or shouldn’t look and more about the choice to represent yourself how you want. The same is true online.

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