The rise of nonfungible tokens—or as they’re more commonly known, NFTs—may feel sudden. In a way, it is. Google Trends data show that, before January, search interest for the term “NFT” never once reached more than 1 percent of the level it saw earlier this month.
But NFTs, unique digital files residing on a blockchain, have been around for years. Long before a digital artist going by the name of Beeple made headlines for selling a $69.3 million JPG, cryptocurrency enthusiasts have been buzzing about NFTs. Even a footwear behemoth like Nike seems to have recognized their potential years ago, filing the first of several patents involving the technology back in May 2019.
Amber Jae Slooten, however, has been thinking about digital fashion before the first NFTs were even deployed. The Fabricant’s co-founder and creative director said she began experimenting with digital fashion when she was in school back in 2014.
“It gave me much more freedom to create whatever I wanted, but a lot of times I’ve been very much worked against,” Slooten said. “A lot of people called me crazy… teachers were not seeing the possibilities of what digital fashion could mean, everybody was always saying, ‘But you have to touch it, you have to feel it, you have to really experience it.’ And for me, I already saw that our digital identity would be worth more in the future.”
Despite the pushback she received, Slooten continued to focus on digital fashion, eventually graduating with a full digital collection. In 2018, she and Kerry Murphy founded The Fabricant, a digital-only fashion house.
The bulk of The Fabricant’s business does not involve NFTs. About half the firm’s business revolves around working with brands like Under Armour and Puma to create digital visualizations of collections that will eventually be made physically. Its in-house business comprises the other half. These collections can be found on the company’s website for free to download, or in games or other platforms where the items can be worn digitally.
“It’s kind of like what can we do in the now to help brands further and then what can we do in the future to paint the picture of what fashion is in a digital space,” Slooten said. “We always call ourselves [the] wardrobe for the metaverse.”
Since last fall, The Fabricant has been working with Adidas and supermodel Karlie Kloss on a project designed to give young designers a place to experiment and learn. The culmination of that campaign, a blockchain auction, arrived this month, with several pieces fetching prices in the thousands of dollars.
Supporting ‘fellow sisters in tech’
Slooten first met Kloss about a year ago at a workshop. She told her all about The Fabricant, not expecting the “Project Runway” host to remember her or her company. In September, however, Kloss reached out and asked if she could help with a campaign she and Adidas were working on around supporting young women in tech.
“Of course, we said yes because we thought it was incredible and amazing, but we thought, ‘Hey, if we are going to create the campaign, it won’t really empower young women in tech—like, of course, we can do something by sort of speaking out about it, but what if we actually involve the community in it.”
The campaign was to accompany Kloss’ first Adidas collection, a line of activewear that included everything from workout bras to trend-inspired streetwear pieces. For the purposes of its campaign, The Fabricant picked out one of the star items, the orange Wind.RDY Parka Jacket, and asked Adidas to send over the patterns so the team could create it digitally.
After developing its own visualization of the jacket, the firm sent out the pattern files to other female creators within the industry, paying them to interpret the piece in their own ways. From there, The Fabricant came up with a concept that would become the Making Strides design competition.
“The idea was like, ‘Hey, why don’t we give the file away for free and people can download it and we create a competition out of it, in support of your fellow sisters in tech,’” Slooten said.
Beyond offering young designers a chance to show off their skills, the campaign also provided opportunities for them to learn. Early on, The Fabricant released a free webinar explaining how to use 3D design software. Then, once the competition closed, it enlisted the help of David Moore, co-founder of the rare crypto art marketplace KnownOrigin. Moore hosted a second webinar, also available at no cost, explaining the process of uploading and selling designs on the blockchain marketplace.
Slooten said the Adidas jacket file was downloaded more than 1,000 times, far exceeding expectations. More than 300 designers ended up entering the competition. Of this group, 20 finalists were selected to have their works auctioned off on blockchain through KnownOrigin.
So far, the accepted offers have totaled nearly $10,000, with all proceeds going directly to the artists. Those buying the pieces could make additional, voluntary contributions to support future events and programming for Kode With Klossy, a non-profit founded by Kloss that organizes free two-week summer coding camps for young women. A first, second and third place prize of 3,000 euros ($3,583), 2,000 euros ($2,389) and 1,000 euros ($1,194), respectively, were also awarded.
The ‘wardrobe for the metaverse’
The Fabricant sold its first NFT item in 2019 for $9,500. At the time, Forbes referred to the iridescent dress as the world’s first digit-only blockchain clothing.
“This made world news because a lot of people were like, ‘Oh my God, how can you pay so much money for a digital-only dress that never exists, like it’s ‘[The] Emperor’s New Clothes,’ like I can’t believe the world’s come to this,’” Slooten said.
Not everyone responded with skepticism, however. Slooten said The Fabricant also received a lot of positive comments from people regarding the sustainability and versatility of a digital item that can be “worn” anywhere. “I think it really helped establish the value with digital-only items and ever since then we’ve been talking about it,” Slooten said.
Now that NFTs have burst into the public consciousness, she added, The Fabricant has seen “massive interest” from brands looking to collaborate on NFTs. And not only has the quantity of contacts changed, but the quality has, too.
“At first we always had to explain ourselves or explain what blockchain is or what digital value means,” Slooten said. “But I think because of this huge sort of rise in interest in NFTs, suddenly people do their own research and they understand it.”
Looking ahead, she said The Fabricant’s goal is to move further into the digital-only space. Part of that will consist of creating unique items that can be sold as exclusives on the blockchain. The plan, however, is also to continue offering files to download for free.
“We just really want to create that sort of co-creational aspect of designing,” Slooten said. “So, we really believe that the future is all about collaboration and it’s no longer going to be about one brand that says, ‘Oh yeah, you have to wear this.’ It’s just very much of the past.”
Is digital fashion sustainable?
When Slooten describes The Fabricant and its work, she regularly returns to the subject of sustainability.
“We sort of try to create a more sustainable way of seeing the future of fashion industry,” Slooten said. “The idea is that using this digital media, we’re still able to express ourselves without harming the planet because we are not creating any physical garments, but everything we do is digital.”
One of the chief critiques of NFTs, however, has been their environmental impact. Aurora Sharrard, director of sustainability at the University of Pittsburgh, compared the NFT boom to the rise of fast fashion, pointing to a 2019 study in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, which estimated that every one dollar of Bitcoin value created in 2018 was responsible for 49 cents in health and climate damages in the United States. “Crypto transactions have huge negative environmental and social impacts, period,” she said.
This impact derives from the energy-intensive calculations technologies like Bitcoin and Ethereum rely on. According to Slooten, not all blockchains work this way. A proof-of-stake system, as opposed to a proof-of-work system, would remove the need for high-carbon-footprint equation solving. There has been much talk for years that Ethereum would someday move to such a setup, but Slooten said it’s unclear when such a transition would occur.
Many newer blockchains, she noted, are based on a more environmentally friendly proof-of-stake design. Although The Fabricant currently uses Ethereum, Slooten said the plan is to move to one of these newer blockchains. Either way, though, she distinguishes the environmental impact of fashion as something different from that of NFTs and blockchain.
“If you think about physical garments, the thing is that the toxic dyes and the plastic waste and all of this, it’s not able to be compensated,” Slooten said. “So, you cannot take it out any more out of the ocean and all of the plastic that is washed in there will never be taken out again. So, the thing is, I feel like energy consumption is a problem that we will solve. However, the unsustainable garment production is something that really needs to stop.”