When I met Jenni Svoboda, she was in the midst of designing a beanie with a melted cupcake top, sprinkles, and doughnuts for ears.
“It’s something you’d probably never wear in real life,” she said with a laugh. But Svoboda isn’t designing for the physical world. She’s designing for the metaverse. Svoboda is working in a burgeoning, if bizarre, new niche: fashion stylists who create or curate outfits for people in virtual spaces.
Most digital stylists balance their metaverse clients with real-world gigs. Michaela Leitz-Aslaksen, for example, runs a plus-size styling business in the real world but decided to start selling her services as a metaverse fashion stylist after hanging out in the 3D virtual world Decentraland, where her outfits got her compliments from strangers.
Another stylist, British reality television fashion expert Gemma Sheppard, made the jump to styling people in digital spaces after her goddaughter asked her to buy a pair of $60 sparkly shoes for her Roblox avatar three Christmases ago.
But not all metaverse stylists started out doing a real-world version of the job. Svoboda spends her days designing digital clothing and accessories on Roblox, where her unique fashion sense has made her an it-girl. People are lining up to pay to learn from her.
Being a metaverse fashion stylist isn’t currently a gig that can pay all the bills on its own. Leitz-Aslaksen says that metaverse styling accounts for about 20% of her income in a good month, and both she and Sheppard juggle multiple jobs in real life.
They say it’s still worth it, though, because the job offers the unique opportunity to work in a new medium and learn new skills. Leitz-Aslaksen launched her metaverse styling business a couple of years ago, meeting with clients on Discord, a chat platform popular with gamers. She designed lookbooks to help them dress their avatars on platforms like Decentraland, DressX, and Auroboros.
Her clients get an expertly curated outfit; she gets $49 in cryptocurrency. To Leitz-Aslaksen's clients, it’s well worth the money. “People are like, ‘I want to try crazy things,’” she says. “And I love that.”
Svoboda is primarily a creator designing clothing and accessories for Roblox avatars, but she has begun to style clients’ avatars as well, and she’s meticulous about working out how to do it.
“We have to trial-and-error it,” she says. Svoboda will often look through users’ history of outfits, ask who their favorite artists and influencers are, and then create looks that fit their aesthetic.
“People give me notes and I go into the [Roblox] catalogue and pick out stuff that represents them,” she says. Svoboda also helps people snag their favorite influencers’ outfits, creating detailed “what they wore” pages linking to products.
None of them say it out loud, but it’s likely that some stylists are at least partly attracted by the potential to jump into what’s potentially a very lucrative market early in the game.
The metaverse fashion industry is growing rapidly, and companies like Roblox are already raking in hundreds of millions of dollars on digital clothes. In 2022, over 11.5 million creators made 62 million clothing and accessory items on Roblox alone. DressX, an online digital fashion marketplace, has raised $4.2 million in seed funding since its launch in 2020 and is one of a few brands Meta is working with to launch its own avatar fashion marketplace for its virtual platform, Horizon Worlds. And the world of haute couture is experimenting with independent metaverse projects after successful runs on other platforms, such as Gucci’s “vault" where people can browse exclusive digital fashions and play games.
Not all these outfits are pricey; indeed, many can be obtained for free. But there’s a growing market of super-exclusive outfits released in collaboration with designers that cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on Roblox, whose demographic veers young but is increasingly diverse in terms of age and socioeconomic status, according to the three stylists I spoke to.
If people can’t snag the stuff they want, a vibrant secondhand market exists: “In the metaverse, you can sell things for often greater prices than what you initially purchased them for,” says Sheppard, who in addition to fashion styling, is now Global Creative Fashion Director at Dubit Studio that's developing metaverse experiences on Roblox and partnering with numerous brands and artists like Charli XCX and the Grammys.
A perfect example is a Carolina Herrera Spring/Summer 2023 dress. The sunny, floral gown was modeled by Karlie Kloss in the designer’s New York Fashion Week showcase. Svoboda created a digital version of the dress with Herrera’s backing and Kloss promoted it, releasing the design for 500 Robux, or $5. The 432 units sold out in four hours; today, the dress is worth upwards of $5,000.
To the casual observer it can seem outlandish and even obscene to spend so much money on virtual clothes, but there are deeper reasons why people are hiring professionals to curate their outfits in the metaverse, says Sheppard. It’s all to do with experimenting in a safe, social space online.
Leitz-Aslaksen agrees that the metaverse offers a chance for people to go totally wild with their avatars’ outfits. “Society tells you to look a certain way, but in the metaverse, you can be anything,” she says. Her clients are willing to try avant-garde, eccentric fashions that they might consider too risky or implausible to pull off in real life, she says. As a stylist, Leitz-Aslaksen loves that freedom, and she can’t help but contrast it with the experiences she has in the real world, where fashion is much more restricted and restrained.
People are even using virtual clothing to play with and blur gender boundaries or explore a side of themselves they might have previously felt was inaccessible. A few weeks ago, Leitz-Aslaksen met with a male client on Discord who gave her free rein to dress him in whatever she wanted, gender and conventions be damned. The result was an iridescent blue-winged fairy dress, with netted sleeves, a crown of roses twisted with blue vines, and lavender kitten heels. Her client didn’t expect it—and loved it.
Svoboda, who is trans, says exploring digital fashion can also help people escape body dysmorphia and feelings of discomfort around their appearance. It allows people to focus purely on the clothes and how they look on a virtual platform.
“When I’m working on a dress, it’s going to fit on the [avatar’s] body, no matter if they are a man or a woman, and that’s beautiful,” she says. “They can be a man, a woman, pre-op, post-op, whatever—it’s still going to be a dress, and it’s still going to fit them.” It’s a point that’s echoed by Leitz-Aslaksen, who often works with curvier or larger people who may have societally-driven insecurities about body image.
In theory, anyone can wear anything in the metaverse. Someone’s digital self doesn’t have to take human form or even have a body, allowing for expression that simply can’t exist in the physical world. Both Svodoba and Leitz-Aslaksen have styled non-human avatars, and it’s an area of experimentation that excites them both. People are realizing that in the metaverse, clothes don’t have to follow the rules. Want to be a centaur? Sure. How about a vampire with spidery legs? Why not!
That lack of restrictions is something Svoboda particularly enjoys. She describes her signature style as Barbie-core, Y2K, “fantasy pink.“ But when I called her, she was working on a completely different look for a client: “Sort of Zoe Saldana in Avatar, with blue skin—sci-fi.“
Humans and technology
10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023
People are already using ChatGPT to create workout plans
Fitness advice from OpenAI’s large language model is impressively presented—but don’t take it too seriously.
I just watched Biggie Smalls perform ‘live’ in the metaverse
An avatar of the singer, who died in 1997, performed with live rappers on Meta’s Horizon Worlds.
Why my bittersweet relationship with Shein had to end
Reflecting on my desire for Chinese-style e-commerce platforms.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.