In 1962, Eleanor Lambert founded The Council of Fashion Designers of America to put American fashion on the map. Sixty years later, the mission to champion U.S.-based designers remains the same. What’s different is the map: The association is working on its very first foray into the virtual world, the CFDA exclusively told WWD.
To celebrate its milestone anniversary, the association will hold its inaugural metaverse fashion exhibition in The Sandbox, as well as auction its premiere collection of NFTs.
The virtual event, titled “Fashioning the Shades of American Design,” was curated by Cleveland Museum of Art’s Darnell Lisby. As assistant curator of fashion at the museum, Lisby trained his discerning eye on the entirety of CFDA’s six decades to handpick 60 looks that exemplify the essence of American fashion.
That was no easy task, according to Lisby. “As a fashion curator, it’s very difficult when you sometimes have certain parameters, but you’re trying to fit so much in such a very tight space,” he explained to WWD. “At the same time, you’re trying to get as many voices [in, or] as much of a voice to as many as you can.
“I think the one thing that all of us — everyone at the CFDA, as well as our digital partners and myself — we all agreed that diversity should ring true throughout the exhibition and this metaverse experience,” he added. “I wanted to figure out how I can group different designers in ways that complement one another, but at the same time, create a succinct story.”
For Lisby, the diversity traverses both racial and creative lines, bringing different styles and sensibilities to the retrospective. The slate ranges from lesser-known looks to “a few of the greatest hits” in fashion. All of them come from CFDA’s member roster, from years past to the current crop, which alone numbers more than 450 designers. The final selection includes names such as Ralph Lauren, Patrick Kelly, Donna Karan, Naeem Khan, Tracy Reese, Oscar de la Renta, Anna Sui, Stephen Burrows, Thom Browne and The Row.
To tie all of it together with a cohesive narrative, he chose the concept of “illumination” and interpreted it across five themes: “Illuminating a Fantasy,” “Illuminating Romance,” “Illuminating the Avant-Garde,” “Illuminating Understanding” and “Illuminating the Soul.” Think of it as an opportunity to tell the story of American fashion through different lenses. CFDA will also showcase other looks that fit these themes on its social media channels, in order to spotlight even more talent.
The immersiveness of the metaverse could make that storytelling resonate even more, although a lot depends on whether a given visitor can appreciate “voxelated,” or visually blocky, environments like The Sandbox. (Think of voxels as 3D’s version of 2D pixels, but cube-like.) Anyone expecting photorealism will be disappointed, but others may not mind and may even find it endearing — as the popularity of games like Roblox and Minecraft can attest. Using tools like VoxEdit, artists in The Sandbox have even created some impressive works of art and sold them as NFTs.
When the virtual exhibition opens in December, visitors will be able to see for themselves how well CFDA’s exhibit translates. No matter the case, they will experience these historic fashions in a new way, up close and in 3D.
For Sebastien Borget, The Sandbox’s chief operating officer and cofounder, the metaverse is a “new frontier of expression, where avatars will be an extension of our digital identity.” For him, the CFDA project is “an unprecedented metaverse exhibition in The Sandbox,” and it turns out that his platform and its fashion partner share a similarity — the desire to encourage and elevate creativity. Borget pointed to no-code tools that people use to express themselves.
“We truly hope to inspire the next generation of fashion designers to imagine, design and bring to life NFT collections that combine expression and utility and will be playable in the metaverse,” he said.
CFDA is interested in gamification, at least someday. But fortunately, while it’s still learning the ropes, it doesn’t have to go it alone. This fashion exhibition is an extension of its previously revealed partnership with creative consultancy 5Crypto, blockchain app developer and NFT platform Polygon Studios and The Sandbox. In April, it explained that the goal was to establish “a Web 3.0 blueprint for American fashion in the metaverse,” and the efforts revolved around education and professional development, in the hopes of preparing members for these virtual and blockchain environments.
Now the association is diving in itself — and with a bit of a twist in the approach.
“For 60 years, we’ve always been on the cusp of industry trends, business trends, societal needs, designers’ needs,” noted Steven Kolb, chief executive officer of the CFDA. “This felt like a good milestone or benchmark moment, as we were kind of reflecting, to also project forward.” In other words, the association chose this moment, when it’s honoring its past, to also push forward into the future.
The exhibit is only half the equation. The CFDA is also working with Polygon, as well as two more innovation partners, on its upcoming NFT collection. Brand New Vision, a 3D digital product creation and tokenization company, is developing the collectibles, while Paris-based NFT platform Arianee zeroes in on the interface and user experience, including perks that offer exclusive access to some sort of experiences. They will be built into the NFTs, which drop during the third week of November, though teasers could arrive as soon as the CFDA Awards on Nov. 7.
“It’s inspiring to see a global industry titan like the CFDA embracing digitization and Web 3.0 technology to drive the fashion industry forward,” said Brian Trunzo, metaverse lead at Polygon Studios, in an exclusive statement. “Polygon is delighted to provide the infrastructure to make the CFDA’s foray into Web3 as seamless, cost-effective and sustainable as possible.”
While the partners handle the technical aspects, the CFDA is doing what it does best: inspiring and driving the fashion at the heart of it all.
It has enlisted eight member designers to create the looks that will form the NFT collection, dubbed “Lighting the Path of American Fashion.” Their direction was to create an exclusive 60th anniversary design, with the goal of portraying their brand’s journey, particularly at the intersection, even collision, of art, culture and design. How they interpret that context is entirely up to them, though.
Elaborated Kolb, ”We gave no parameters to the designers participating, so you’ll see different executions from each of our partners.” Some may take the form of artwork to be hung on a virtual wall, while others may offer a wearable for avatars or something else.
Given who the participants are — namely Diane von Furstenberg, Michael Kors, Carolina Herrera, Tommy Hilfiger, Coach, Willy Chavarria, Aurora James and Vivienne Tam — this creative flexibility should yield impressive results. Like the exhibition, this slate was intentionally assembled as a mix of different styles, perspectives and even career stages. The commonality, however, is that their works will boast high rarity: Each designer is creating one look for a single minting.
The auction will be available directly on CFDA’s website and, thanks to a partnership with Moonpay, a platform that aims to make crypto transactions simpler, buyers can even use a standard credit card or other fiat (read: traditional) payment method, though for a fee.
With this combination of high rarity and simpler purchasing experience, the auction seems poised to fetch a high price. That would be great news for the CFDA Foundation Inc., since proceeds go to this philanthropic arm.
But whatever happens this November and December, Kolb seems satisfied, at least creatively. Though certainly busy in the real world, with New York Fashion Week followed by the CFDA Awards, the association to put the final touches on its anniversary exhibition in the metaverse and its NFT collection. He views the former as a celebration of CFDA’s past “through the lens of talent,” and the latter as a way for participating brands to channel their ethos “through the lens of futurism.
“I like the yin and yang of that,” he said, “and I think when we when we go live, people will really have a special experience.”