Fashion has jumped into the digital world with aplomb: an entire fashion week took place in the metaverse earlier this year; meanwhile, brands like Gucci have created wearables that can only be worn in a virtual state. The list goes on. The industry is becoming increasingly interconnected with technology, with the relationship between the physical and digital becoming more symbiotic by the day.
So it’s no surprise that the latest digital fashion event, which took place in London last week, was hosted by Meta, arguably one of the dominant forces guiding the metaverse and all the attention it receives. And while the event was founded on the marriage of fashion and tech, it was far more focused on celebrating the LGBTQ creative community.
Held in exhibition and performance space 180 The Strand, Queens of the Metaverse brought digital fashion to a drag show, resulting in an immersive display of both physical and artificial design. The concept is not just innovative, but big: the amalgamation of drag, fashion, art, performance, and the metaverse in one space, with no one component eclipsing the other. Three unique pieces were created by three aspiring designers using virtual reality, augmented reality, and Meta’s Horizon Workrooms, and then translated to physical garments, worn by three renowned drag artists.
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Meta commissioned looks for Blu Hydrangea, the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race: UK vs. The World, Tia Kofi, a pop music artist and star of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Season 2, and Adam All, a world-renowned drag king. The three were individually teamed up with Nwora Emenike, a queer, non-binary stylist, Sal Mohammed, a queer, gender fluid NHS worker and drag queen, and Christie Lau, a non-binary Central Saint Martins graduate whose portfolio frequently dabbles in digital fashion.
The three designers spoke exclusively to Mashable about the design journey, their affinity for drag, and how technology can become more inclusive in design if the companies who are making it engage with members of the LGTBQ community for innovative projects like this. The most distinctive part of the design process is that the options for creativity in the project were limitless — much like drag itself. This is largely what drew Mohammed, Lau, and Emenike to take on the collaboration.
“In the virtual realm, you can be anything,” Lau says. “You’re not confined to the physical body. It’s a really interesting time to be creating.”
Lau was given the challenge of configuring a “Superverse Supersuit” for Adam All. The designer studied the artist’s performances and wanted to channel their “incredibly animated” onstage expression to complement the commissioned outfit; Lau drew other threads of inspiration from classic cartoons like Looney Tunes, plucking art-deco patterns, prints, and colours to bring the look together.
Adam All in Lau’s creation, “Superverse Supersuit”.
Credit: Meta / PA Media
Lau, who is passionate about using artificial intelligence across their work, said the process was “incredibly freeing” due to the unbridled nature of digital fashion, and that the tools within VR and AR are “creating a new pipeline” for designers.
“We can design things without real world physics,” Lau explains. “You’re making your own world in which your design exists. That’s incredibly powerful.”
“We can design things without real world physics.”
Emenike, who collaborated with Blu Hydrangea, was given the brief of “Fantasy Dreamscape” — and therefore had a world of possibilities to consider. The stylist considered visuals of water deities, lakes, and liquid mercury. Kehlani’s 2020 song “Water” from her album Blue Water Road also fuelled these opaque visions, which were made reality with the AR filters Meta asked the designers to play with.
More than anything, Emenike wanted to ensure that whatever the final product looked like would speak to Hydrangea’s artistry: “I went about it knowing she is a queen who fully transforms herself to whatever the brief is.”
Blu Hydrangea in Emenike’s design, “Fantasy Dreamscape”.
Credit: Meta / PA Media
The prospect of transforming identity played into the final creation, and Emenike says that this idea is what sits at the crux of both drag and technology.
“The connection [between the two] is innovation. Drag pushes the boundaries and changes perceptions to what you think is possible with human identity,” they say. “With both, you can transform identity and create a fantasy.”
Mohammed, who isn’t a designer by profession, felt similarly about the show’s ambition and the crossover between disciplines.
“Drag is really fun and technology can facilitate fun situations,” they say.
This sort of thinking supported his creation for Tia Kofi, who provided the theme of “Intergalactic Goddess”. Mohammed then turned to a moodboard that comprised photos from NASA’s Webb Telescope, star formations, and vignettes of space. They thought to themselves, “If there was no limit, what would I want to wear and what would I want my dress to do? The sky’s the limit.”
To mimic a “star-like explosion”, Mohammed drew his concept on paper then brought it to life through VR filters, just as Lau and Emenike did.
Tia Kofi in Mohammed’s interpretation of “Intergalactic Goddess”.
Credit: Meta / PA Media.
Each of the final looks, which were presented digitally on screens and physically by the drag performers themselves at the official Meta-hosted show, were pieced together by a troupe of creatives. Mohammed says there were “formidable” people behind the scenes, from wig designers to digital designers to makeup artists. This isn’t unlike the effort that goes into producing a traditional fashion show, but with the presence of the digital, new positions are being created and new skills are required.
The show, in its entirety, presented the metaverse in a different light, especially for those behind-the-scenes. For Mohammed, such digital spaces always sat, historically and firmly, within a “tech bro circle”.
“This felt like twisting traditional tech and queering technology,” they tell Mashable. “Once you’re in, the possibilities are endless. It really reduces the barriers of entry to becoming an artist.”
“This felt like twisting traditional tech and queering technology. Once you’re in the possibilities are endless.”
Emenike agrees, saying that digital fashion is making the industry at large more accessible, but these online spaces now have to navigate how this accessibility will look. “We need to be ethical, consider the climate, consider sustainability, and really be representative of the people,” they say. Lau reaffirms the necessity of inclusivity in the metaverse, pointing out, “These identities need to be designed for.”
As Meta continuously dips its toes into the aesthetics and wardrobes they can offer users in the metaverse, the company appears to be aware of the need to design for a wide range of identities.
Ineke Paulsen, Meta’s director of EMEA marketing, said in a statement concerning the event, “Creative communities are central to the development of the metaverse, ensuring that we are building a space for each and every one of us.”
The company is indicating their desire to be inclusive, particularly as the metaverse develops, takes shape, and takes up space. This hasn’t always been the case with Meta, who have a pretty damning track record of protecting LGBTQ people who use platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
Media monitoring organisation GLAAD recently reported that platforms such as the aforementioned could be doing a lot more to protect LGBTQ users, by enforcing policy, increasing transparency, and committing to protect these groups online. Instagram has also been flagged, over the years, for shadow-banning posts from marginalised groups (in other words, strategically hiding specific content).
Queens of the Metaverse was, indeed, a wondrous celebration of LGBTQ talent and what could be the future of fashion. And for Meta, this display of pride and creativity should be used as a launchpad for far more commitment to real inclusivity and diversity. The mixed reality show was a step forward, with a myriad of steps to go.