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Museum Curator and Historian Says Fashion Has Nothing to Fear from the Metaverse

History will look back at 2022 as the year fashion jumped headlong into the metaverse pool. It also happened to be the 60th year of existence for the Council for Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), which as part of its yearlong celebration, made its first foray into Web3, aka the metaverse, with an exhibit titled “Fashioning the Shades of American Design.”

Tapped to lead the curation effort was Darnell-Jamal Lisby, a graduate of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology with a masters’ degree in fashion and textile history, theory and museum practice. He’s the new assistant curator of fashion at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and like the CFDA itself, a newcomer to fashion for avatars.

But once paired up with designers from The Sandbox, the virtual space where Lisby’s tribute to 60 years of American fashion can be viewed through Jan. 19, he was quickly able to find his footing in this new frontier.

“Once I understood what they did, how it materialized, I was like, ‘Oh, I know what I’m doing, and I did what a curator would—create a story, choose which objects tell that story and the rest is really history,” Lisby said. “It’s really the same thing [as a museum exhibit]; the only difference is you don’t have to go through the hell of paperwork and all the politics of fashion.”

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Beyond adapting to the new technology, the challenge Lisby faced was trying to condense 60 years of American fashion design into 60 designers segmented by five themes— Illuminating a Fantasy, Illuminating Romance, Illuminating the Avant-Garde, Illuminating Understanding and Illuminating Soul.

Fashion historian and assistant curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Darnell-Jamal Lisby recently curated the Council for Fashion Designers of America's 60th anniversary Metaverse  series called "Fashioning the Shades of American Design" available through Jan. 19 on The Sandbox.
Fashion historian and assistant curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Darnell-Jamal Lisby recently curated the Council for Fashion Designers of America’s 60th anniversary Metaverse series called “Fashioning the Shades of American Design” available through Jan. 19 on The Sandbox. Photo from Twitter

“Most were members of CFDA, legacy designers and bastions of American fashion,” Lisby said. “I really wanted to use their work essentially as a platform to speak about different issues that are integral to their experiences and integral to the communities they’d like to represent.”

And when it was all said and done, Lisby found some undeniable advantages to working in the meta sphere.

“I think it allowed me to really kind of think about how to give information,” Lisby said. “With physical exhibitions you have wall text, but you realize most people won’t read it. Most people spend 10 seconds on every piece of wall text and [move[ on… But the metaverse exhibit is a great exercise in how to make information more concise.”

As an academic, Lisby sees the metaverse as the next logical step in the story of fashion.

“The metaverse platform is just a vehicle that is very much extenuating the history of fashion; it’s less about the actual renderings than another way to educate about fashion history,” he said. “It’s set up like a video game, in a way, talking to Gen Z and millennials who grew up with video games in their lives; it’s reaching audiences where they are.”

The CFDA’s Metaverse fashion series “Fashioning the Shades of American Design” is viewable on The Sandbox through Jan. 19, celebrating 60 years of the council’s representation of the fashion design industry. At left is a rendering of the show’s curator Darnell-Jamal Lisby, and at right is that of CFDA CEO Steven Kolb. Other selections in the photo are designs by Anna Sui, Zac Posen, Norma Kamali, Off-White, and Willi Smith. (CFDA Courtesy Photo)

Lisby said he’s excited to take on his next metaverse project.

“I see it more or less as an extension of a physical exhibit,” he said. “As long as you have WiFi, on any continent in the world you can see this exhibit, whereas at a physical exhibit rooted in a museum, if you don’t have the funds to travel to see the exhibition, you just miss out.”

Lisby is set to present his first exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art of the physical world in April with a show called “Egyptomania: Fashion’s Conflicted Obsession”, which, he says, will “hopefully challenge the imagination of anyone who goes to see it.”

“It’s going to explore how contemporary fashion really informs the public on their understanding of Egyptian art—all the nuances of that interaction,” Lisby said. “A lot of times fashion designers find inspiration blindly and take what they find as fact. I don’t blame fashion designers or the industry for this; it’s really more of a social inclination from the public that really puts power in the hands of larger systems.”

No longer a novice in the world of designing fashions for Web3, Lisby doesn’t see the rise of virtual worlds as a threat to the fashion industry, which the CFDA represents.

“The fashion industry is not just about high style… it’s about the top-level Fendi outfit all the way down to a Hanes T-shirt and everything in between,” he said. “Fashion industry, fashion business won’t be affected in any way.”

How long it might take the academic world behind fashion to catch on and catch up with a world based on graphic design as much as fabricating fabrics could be a different story.

“The programs I went through like to keep it academic and I don’t really see it matriculating into academic programs,” he said. “They’ll just keep doing with the old guard, but the new guard is people much younger trying to shift the system. Academia can be a very complicated minefield.”

Lisby sees ambiguity regarding trademark and intellectual property as the most immediate speedbump impeding curatorial fashion in the metaverse.

“From a curatorial perspective, this is very much uncharted territory. With a physical exhibition, companies know how to navigate legal precedence, paperwork—there’s a way of collaborating between museum and fashion companies on an exhibition; it’s a lot more concrete,” he said. “With the metaverse, I don’t think anyone has that figured out. That’s the fun part, but it’s a touchy part as well. It’s very difficult to know who has control over what… More metaverse educational experiences will probably be in the future so that fine line will need to be emboldened.”

The metaverse’s association with things like NFTs and cryptocurrency—at least in the public mind—is a challenge not far behind.

“It’s really about getting people acclimated and not scared of the technology themselves,” Lisby said. “If an NFT is tied to [cryptocurrency], that creates a distraction in the news, when in reality, the two things are mutually exclusive.”

Down the road, Lisby sees the metaverse as a place that makes education more inclusive, accessible, and life itself a place of greater liberation.

“You can do so much more in the metaverse. Looking as eccentric as you might in a video game rendering—that requires a lot of money in real life,” he said. “So, essentially, I think it becomes this idea of the metaverse as a place where people can let go of inhibitions, have a good time and use fashion as a vehicle to feel another sense of freedom.”