In conversation with Cathy Hackl
Interview by Marie-Pauline Cesari, with one of the world’s leading tech futurists, the « Godmother of the Metaverse ».
What has inspired you to pursue a career in fashion technology, and how did you get started in the industry?
Fashion has always been part of my identity and in the last several years with the increased interest the industry has had in tech, particularly in gaming and web3, catapulted my work with fashion and luxury to the next level.
I’ve been fascinated by the potential of emerging technologies for a long time and early on started to see that the fashion industry was leading the way in experimenting and having success integrating tech. In 2020, I wrote in Forbes an article with Ryan Gil from Crucible where we used the term direct to avatar for the first time in business media and that article was a catalyst for a lot of the work I’ve done over the last few years. I’ve worked with brands like Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton, Nike and many more.
Can you give us a quick overview of what Web3, NFT, the metaverse, and AI are?
Here are the basics that you need to know about these terms, but always keep in mind their potential to intertwine with one another and how it’s rapidly evolving.
- Web3: Many know it as the decentralized web. The term is used to describe the potential infrastructure and database structures of a new generation of the internet that is based on blockchain technology which aims to provide a more user-centric internet experience by enabling peer-to-peer interactions, and empowering users to control their own data.
- NFT: Short for non-fungible tokens, are unique digital assets that are verified on a blockchain network.
- Metaverse: If we asked 100 Metaverse experts what the Metaverse is, you’d get 100 different answers. I believe that the Metaverse is the successor of today’s mobile internet and that it will be the seamless flow from what we see and interact with physically to a virtual environment. It’s a more immersive, persistent, connected and social version of today’s web. It is enabled by many technologies like AR, AI, Cloud computing, edge computing and many more.
- AI: AI or artificial intelligence, refers to the ability of machines to learn and perform tasks that normally require human intelligence. AI as a term is actually quite broad and while the attention right now is on generative AI, AI also includes machine learning and computer vision, which I’m very interested in.
Why are all these virtual concepts important for the future of fashion and how do you see the fashion industry evolving in the next decades regarding these new Technologies?
The fashion industry is poised for significant transformation in the coming decades as new technologies continue to emerge and mature. If fashion brands take the time to understand these virtual concepts and be intentional in using them they set themselves up for more success in the virtual space and maximize their efforts. As the fashion industry evolves and technologies advance, we’ll see brands integrating their designs further with AR and AI to enable greater personalization and customization for consumers. The emergence of Web3 is also creating new business models, revenue streams, CRM systems and loyalty and community engagement possibilities for the fashion industry. Brands that embrace change and adapt to the evolving landscape will be best positioned for success in the coming decades. I advise any fashion brand to innovate not for the sake of innovation but to innovate for cultural relevancy and with community in mind. I’m studying the impact that Gen Alpha is having and will have on the fashion industry and also focused on how fashion will change in a future where the mobile phone will be replaced by a new device, potentially a wearable.
What do you think are the most important advantages of virtual fashion shows, and how do they differ from traditional fashion shows? Could this be a way to make fashion more accessible?
It has definitely made fashion more accessible to everyone, because many more can have a front row seat in a virtual experience. We can attend fashion shows without having to travel physically to another location allowing fashion brands to reach a wider audience than they would be able to with a traditional fashion show. It also offers designers more creative freedom, as they can use technology to create immersive and interactive experiences that wouldn’t be possible in a physical environment. Another advantage is that virtual fashion shows will slowly start to provide fashion brands with valuable data insights into new consumer behaviors and preferences, which can inform their future design decisions. The fashion industry is blending the physical and virtual worlds in innovative ways and it’s just going to continue to enhance fashion shows.
Which brands and designers currently inspire you, and why?
Vivienne Tam has been at the forefront of integrating fashion and technology in her designs. Her innovative use of technology in her designs has not only expanded the creative possibilities of fashion but also demonstrated the potential of fashion to integrate with emerging technologies. I’m inspired by her work and also excited because I own her first NFT and this has led to us striking up a friendship and some possible future collaborations.
I’m also inspired Latinx designer Willy Chavarria because his work represents a powerful combination of creativity, activism, and inclusivity, making him a true inspiration in the fashion industry. I own Willy’s CFA 60th Anniversary NFT as well and I’m looking forward to meeting with him in person soon.
I’ve always been a fan of Channel, Louis Vuitton and Alexander McQueen. I will always remember the Kate Moss hologram from McQueen’s in 2006. He had such a profound impact on the fashion industry through his use of technology, particularly in his iconic runway shows with a hint of tech.
I’m inspired by friends in the fashion industry like Karolina Kurkova, who is an amazing entrepreneur with her brand of bath and body products Gryph and Ivy Rose and her recently launched collection with About You. She’s an icon and someone that I admire.
Nick Knight also inspires me. All his work and the impact he’s had in fashion, culture and entertainment is so massive and I’m a proud holder of one of his ikon-1 NFTs. I could go on and on, there are so many people that inspire me in this space!
Many brands, especially in the luxury sector, are desperate to get into the metaverse without even understanding the ins and outs, just to “ride the wave.” What advice would you give to these brands?
It’s important to approach this space strategically and thoughtfully. Fashion brands need to understand the technologies involved in the Metaverse by hiring the right people and considering what they hope to achieve, whether it’s brand awareness, customer engagement, building community, driving sales, etc. They must clearly define their goals for entering this evolving space and understand how it aligns with their brand’s values, target audiences today and in the future, and their business strategy. My advice would be to start small and experiment, you don’t have to do it all. Take time to understand your current community and how you can engage with them authentically. Leverage the unique features and capabilities of the gaming space or through the use of AR or AI to bring your brand to life in new and exciting ways.
How can Web3 technology be used in fashion, and how do you work with designers to explore this new frontier?
Web3 technology is already transforming the fashion industry in several ways. Web3 allows customers and collectors to have ownership of their fashion items in the virtual world, enabling them to transfer, resell, or lend them to others. I encourage designers to take this opportunity to collaborate and co-create with other fashion brands to offer unique experiences to their communities. I love seeing traditional fashion brands collaborate or even acquire Web3 brands like RTFKT like Nike did. There are so many up and coming players in virtual fashion and seeing them grow today is like seeing the early days of Coco Chanel. Some of them are SYKY, Cult & Rain,The Dematerialised, Auroboros, Institute of Digital Fashion, DressX, Phygicode, Fashion Innovation Agency, PhygitalTwin, and more.
I’m personally exploring how to use web3 to connect physical and virtual touchpoints through Verseluxe’s 1st capsule collection Frillz. We are using NFC chips that are scannable to allow buyers to scan the physical item and mint it, putting it on chain. I’m excited to see how connected fashion will evolve in the years to come.
For her Fall/Winter 2023 collection entitled “Weaving into the Metaverse,” Vivienne Tam crafted a collection inspired by the futuristic utopian vision of the new Hong Kong is a place where Web3, blockchain, gaming worlds, and immersive experiences cohabitate and collaborate. Her show was both physical and in the Metaverse. You were there right?
I wasn’t involved in the creation of that experience on the Vatom platform, that was done by the amazing Swan Sit but yes, I attended the show virtually and had a fun time.
At the end of last year I won the bid for Vivienne’s 1st NFT, which was auctioned off as part of the CFDA’s 60th Anniversary. I now have the pleasure of owning this NFT and actually I wore it in virtual form. The NFT, created with BNV, is a BAYC Mandala Embroidered Qipao gown, which is the piece of virtual couture that I wore during Metaverse Fashion Week (MVFW) in Decentraland. I love seeing how Vivienne is leading the way with her futuristic vision and collections that explore the intersection of fashion and technology.
We saw on your Instagram that you were recently involved in the board of the Ad Council. Congratulations, you must be very proud! Can you tell us more about this Project?
Thank you! It’s truly an honor to be invited to be a part of this incredible organization. I was invited to become a new member of the Ad Council’s Board of Directors late last year. The Ad Council’s mission is to convene the best storytellers to educate, unite and uplift and was founded in WWII. By opening hearts and inspiring action, together we accelerate change. You might know the Ad Council’s work from historic PSAs like Smokey Bear and more. I’m the first Chief Metaverse Officer to join the board and I’m happy to be helping the organization navigate how to leverage emerging technologies for the greater good. I’m one of a few members that work in gaming, web3, emerging tech on a daily basis, so it’s been a true joy to learn and exchange ideas with other members of the Ad Council, which include many of the world’s leading Chief Marketing Officers.
How does this organization work to improve the American media landscape?
The Ad Council is a leading advocate for social issues, using its platform to raise awareness and drive action on critical issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion. The Ad Council also works with policymakers and thought leaders to advance policies and programs that address social issues. They partner with leading brands and media companies to create public service campaigns and research to measure the impact of these campaigns. While I’m new to the board, I’m excited to be a new director who is helping them leverage gaming, web3, and other emerging technologies to reach more people.
What was your take on the Biden administration’s AI rights bill, and how might it affect the future of technology and regulation? (ChatGPT inspired)
The blueprint for the AI rights bill proposed by the Biden administration aims to establish a framework for the ethical use of AI in the United States. The bill includes provisions to protect individual privacy and civil rights, prevent bias and discrimination, and promote transparency and accountability in AI systems. This bill is a significant development in the ongoing conversation around the ethical use of AI. If passed, it could help to shape the future of AI regulation and ensure that the technology is used in a way that benefits society as a whole.
How have you helped brands such as Ralph Lauren, Walmart and Nike enter the Metaverse? Can you tell us about a particular project that particularly caught your mind?
I’ve worked on so many amazing projects. One of my favorite projects was working with Nasdaq to create the 1st opening of the financial markets both in the physical world and the virtual world. I actually got to be the person that rang the bell and opened the markets on June 17, 2022. It was such an exciting experience and also a bit of a historic moment. I was honored to not only ring the bell, but also to work with my team at Journey to build this virtual experience and work with Nasdaq to pull off this bell ringing live on TV.
You are soon releasing your own NFT-connected jewelry brand called Frillz, which can you tell us about it and how does it work?
The Frillz capsule collection is just the beginning of what I want to do with VerseLuxe. We used ARX physical NFC chips are the starting point for the collection and created a beautiful connected jewelry design starting from the tech. The way it works is that the NFC chip is embedded in the jewelry and it becomes tangible, wearable product in the physical world with a touch point in the virtual world meaning it’s on the blockchain forever. Simone Faurschou did an amazing job of encasing the chip into the jewelry pieces itself representing a physical connection to the blockchain. Learning to work with the chips and precious metals took a lot of tests and work, but with Simone being the jewelry expert and me being the tech expert, I knew we could figure it out and make it work. This project was definitely an international endeavor with me in Washington DC and Simone in Denmark. Our Frillz collection gives people the chance to join others on an experience that has never been encountered before. Frillz is just the beginning. We have so much more to come from Verseluxe, some of our future collections won’t necessarily focus on web3. We are a luxury tech label, part label, part lab, and we’re hoping to explore all kinds of emerging tech and frontier materials with the hopes of accelerating change and disrupting luxury.
As an international lecturer, what is the main idea you hope people will retain from your talks on the Metaverse?
I want everyone to know that there are opportunities everywhere, we just have to be willing to take the leap and prepare. The Metaverse is going to be shaped by those who help build it and it’s important to get involved now to take advantage of the opportunities that will present themselves in the future. I want to encourage everyone to be curious and open-minded about the possibilities of the Metaverse, and to start exploring and experimenting with it to discover its full potential. I want more women and BIPOC folks to be a part of building this future. I also want people to walk away knowing that while it’s nascent there will be many opportunities.
Can you tell us more about the content of your Metaverse course and who it is for?
Yes of course! As I traveled the world helping people make sense of the nascent Metaverse and its potential with emerging technologies, I was starting to get more questions from brands, industry leaders, and other professionals who wanted to know more about this unexplored world. The question I get asked the most is, “Where do I even start?” So if you want to take your career or your company to the next level this course will help you start your journey into the Metaverse and Web3. I don’t just give the basics, I provide resources,real-world examples, and my first-hand experience in building and experimenting in this space and helping other brands do the same thing. It’s a way to scale what I already do and help more professionals enter and succeed in this space.
A lot of people criticize these new technologies, especially by saying that they will replace humans and prevent us from thinking for ourselves, like ChatGPT. How do you respond to these people?
I always go back to a quote by Max Penk, “The good news is that AI won’t replace you. The bad news is that a person using AI probably will.” I’m using AI on a daily basis for my work, especially when it comes to research and prototyping. I do have some concerns about how fast this is all moving, so I do think having some rails in place would be a good idea. What I feel is a mix of excitement with a mix of caution. We can’t really put the genie back in the bottle, but how can make sure that this tech is used ethically and for the greater good.