For some, it is a dream of a lifetime, for others, the holy grail of fashion pursuits and a status symbol in itself. But whether you consider it icon of haute couture craftsmanship, or a symbol of excessive capitalism — Malaysians would probably equate it with corruption — there is no denying the unending allure of the Birkin by Hermès.
Pop culture has crafted a legend far beyond its exquisite make and functionality inspired by the English-French singer Jane Birkin, who wanted a bag that would not spill and yet could hold all that a woman may need, stylishly.
For all of its soft, supple leather, an elegant timeless design and a base that will hold its shape even after years of use, there is a certain aura of mystery surrounding the Hermès Birkin that has elevated it to cult status, of course fuelled by excellent marketing and a deep understanding of fashion demand — that is, the more elusive the better.
So, imagine when one day in May 2021, a Birkin hits the market and sells for US$47,000. Nothing too unusual normally; what attracted attention, however, was the fact that it was a 3D animation non-fungible token (NFT) created by artists Mason Rothschild and Eric Ramirez, titled Baby Birkin. The one-off digital artwork featured a transparent Birkin design with a baby virtually growing in it, simulating its transformation over a 40-week gestation period.
In December 2021, Rothschild went on to produce and sell 100 versions of the bag as NFTs, each simulating faux fur with different colours and graphic elements. The MetaBirkin NFTs, as they came to be known, were introduced at Art Basel in Miami, Florida. Its aim? The Los Angeles-based digital artist said he wanted to spread awareness of animal-free luxury through what is known as the Metaverse, complete with a tagline, “Not Your Mother’s Birkin”.
Forbes reported that the MetaBirkins “may have democratised the elusive ‘It’ bag”, but like its real-life inspiration, prices of the NFTs quickly shot up, and they eventually sold for a collective value of more than US$1 million (RM4.5 million). Not surprisingly, Hermès came a-calling with a cease-and-desist letter.
Rothschild went on Instagram to assert his rights as an artist under the US First Amendment, and said it “gives me every right to create art based on my interpretations of the world around me … MetaBirkins is a playful abstraction of an existing fashion-culture landmark. I re-interpreted the form, materiality and name of a known cultural touchpoint”.
He added: “When it comes to art, selling my MetaBirkins as NFTs is akin to selling them as physical art prints. It should not be my job to educate you on advancements in the world and the culture of art. Art is art.”
Hermès then took Rothschild to court, officially filing a trademark infringement and dilution lawsuit in New York in January 2022. While opinions have been divided as to the nature of NFT and intellectual property rights, tellingly in May, the US District Court denied Rothschild’s motion to dismiss the case, and so it is still ongoing.
What the MetaBirkins have also heralded is that this is a world that fashion brands can no longer ignore. Many have in fact actively and enthusiastically dipped their toes in. This year’s New York Fashion Week (NYFW) introduced a new category of audience: NFT owners. Five American designers — Altu by Altuzarra, Jonathan Simkhai, Kim Shui, AnOnlyChild and The Blonds — provided access to shows, among other experiences, and perks to 50 people each who bought US$100 NFTs, which doubled as a sort of branded digital key.
It was part of a Web3 initiative by NYFW to “engage fans in a crypto-native way and help them build relationships with brands”, a spokesperson told Vogue Business. Again, the word “democratising” was used, to create access to what is often a “walled garden” for non-fashion people.
Following Facebook’s renaming as Meta, curiosity about a realm beyond even NFTs has become mainstream. In short, the “metaverse” creates an alternative, virtual world for these digital art collectors, many of them newly minted millionaires and billionaires even.
US rapper Snoop Dogg made headlines when he launched his new music video shot in his very own virtual property, Snoopverse. It was also well known that, before this, someone had paid US$450,000 to be his virtual neighbour in the metaverse real estate. Justin Bieber also held a live virtual concert entirely performed as an avatar in the metaverse, using a motion-capture suit.
In fashion, brands such as Gucci, Balenciaga, Dolce & Gabbana, Etro and Nike have made head starts, some partnering with popular gaming franchises such as Roblox and Fortnite. A digital Gucci bag selling for a better price than in real life? It is no wonder that more and more are eager to dive in.
Jason Kwong, CEO of Imperium Universe — a sales-and-marketing service firm for technology innovators — tells Options that while metaverses are emerging, things are still in the infancy stage.
“Many brands understand that these [meta] ecosystems will need time to flesh out to avoid being ghost towns with not enough participants. They need the same lifestyle propositions from the physical world to migrate into the virtual one to keep things interesting. Just like real life.”
In the meantime, Kwong notes that NFT assets remain key placeholders, at least until “the floodgates for these virtual worlds open”.
Whether you regard NFTs as frivolous or gimmicky, or even tanking in value, he believes brands will want to explore NFT projects as a way to stay relevant to an increasingly fickle audience. “It is a very potent marketing, PR and branding tool, even if it is now less so an alternative revenue stream.”
Hermès seems to have caught on. Perhaps spurred by Rothschild’s MetaBirkins exercise, the French fashion titan has since filed a Web3 trademark for its brand, covering NFTs and virtual clothing, besides indicating plans for an online marketplace for virtual merchandise.
As a new sub-culture emerges and, with it, newly wealthy investors or just interested “crypto kids”, it has also birthed new artists and levelled the playing field for digital content creators such as Rothschild. For these artists, the security of blockchain technology and a contract based on the creator’s desired terms are incredibly attractive in protecting their rights.
For the audience, Kwong says someone like him can now grow in their understanding of the art world without needing to physically go down to fancy art galleries, which can often be intimidating and cliquish. The same applies to fashion circles. “NFTs are giving these things a new lease of life to reach a wider audience,” he says.
What use is a virtual world to our reality? If done well, NFTs can become a bridge to physical success. In LA, Rothschild is also marketing director of a fashion boutique, Terminal 27, frequented by “crypto cool kids” in Beverly Hills. Described as a space for the most coveted fashion labels and emerging designers, it may be dressing up the latest iteration of an “anti-establishment” lifestyle, one that Rothschild and his clients inhabit.
In the end, digital assets will reach a keystone moment in regulation. But, till then, and pending the outcome of Hermès’ lawsuit against Rothschild — though it might seem like a win for him either way — the borderless, exciting world of NFTs and metaverses looks perfectly suited to the fashion world, being no stranger to its own anti-establishment revolutions.
This article first appeared on Sept 26, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.