If you’ve been following @diet_prada on Instagram, or you’re at least vaguely familiar with the history of colonization, you know plagiarism and appropriation especially hurt BIPOC creatives. We’re no longer surprised to hear tales of both luxury brands and fast-fashion corporations like SHEIN and Zara shamelessly stealing designs from emerging and independent designers and, worst of all, getting away with it. So, as my college ethnic studies professor used to say many moons ago, where’s the agency here? What do we do about it?
Enter NFTs: a concept that I initially dismissed as ridiculous, then deemed too complicated for my smol brain, and now am finally accepting as the future — complexities, controversies, and all. They may be the answer to our increasingly globalized world, where the lines between authenticity and appropriation, real and fake, physical and digital, are blurring. An acronym for “non-fungible tokens,” NFTs are digital assets that ensure the design will always be traced back to the original artist, giving credit where credit is due. Blockchain technology may change the fashion world forever, and Legitimate Tech, the fine art and fashion-focused blockchain company spearheading the movement, is super excited about it.
Marrying Technology with Fashion for a More Transparent World
A few weeks ago, on a sticky September evening, I stumbled over SoHo cobblestones into the Legitimate Tech x ap0cene Emergent Fashion Showcase, where mannequins were decked out in breathtaking garments beyond my imagination. Stamford Hwang, the Chief of Staff at Legitimate, showed me how to scan each mannequin with my phone, no app necessary. To my delight, even my geriatric Android managed to pull up each piece’s backstory and the designer’s bio — as well as how to bid on the piece and the NFT.
According to Hwang, Legitimate is actually “the first to have developed a system for creating metaphysical NFTs — physical objects that are bound to NFTs (non-fungible tokens) on the blockchain.” By embedding encrypted NFC (near-field communication) chips in the garments themselves, Legitimate “binds physical objects to unique digital identities” and “offer[s] bank-level security to ensure a 1-to-1 connection between a physical object and its corresponding NFT.” When the piece is bought, the ownership is transparent, and if the piece gets sold again, the designer will receive a royalty, “solving a long withstanding problem in the fashion and art world.”
Redefining Who Gets to Tell the Story
Yet another issue in the fashion and art world is the lack of diversity, where the few of us who make it end up being tokenized and fighting for the one seat at the table. Something that struck me at the show was how many (gorgeous!) BIPOC creatives were at the event, dressed to the nines.
Hwang says, “Our focus on diversity and inclusion at LGT Emergent Fashion Showcase was intentional, and we’re proud and honored to support fellow Asian American designers. NFTs present a new paradigm enabling creators to exercise control over their own cultural creations, from establishing provenance to securing royalties payouts from secondary sales.”
Costa Rican designer @marcovgarro served cyberpunk badittude while Chinese designer @esthiliyt played with volume and plaid, and @sparklebabygem’s whimsical and bedazzled pastel pieces actually transported me back to my early 2000s Korean American Christian church days. It can often feel like white people want our aesthetic (or what they think is our aesthetic, anyway) but not us. But it was incredibly refreshing to see the product of these creatives’ genuine hard work and brilliance, defiant in the face of watered-down derivatives for the masses.
When I caught up with Alice Seju Kim, the luminous mind behind @sparklebabygem, she noted the irony of the show being situated in the SoHo/Chinatown area, home to the city’s counterfeit designer goods: “The popularity of these goods from Asian consumers becomes even more-so easily accessible once a factory is able to get a hold of making an exact, mint copy of these pieces, oversaturating these designs in the market — which in turn leads to new trends and cycles of production being repeated over and over again with new designs (and even onto a global scale).”
Kim says it’s especially important for NFTs to protect the work of Asian designers and to decolonize the fashion scene. She explains, “[For] a while, the competition/rivalry between other Asian creators create a toxic culture of ‘who can release this first, the fastest, and better than this company with our Asian-inspired/based concept,’ to the point where we ourselves sometimes make the unconscious mistake of appropriating our own cultures for profit, and to generalize and stereotype our cultures so it becomes digestible for the general public. I believe it is extremely important to be able to have that security to show and safely present our creations and to ensure that our experiences don’t get boiled down to simplified, marketable, copy-and-paste concepts [that are] only acceptable to the oppressors of our communities.”
The Future of NFTs, the Fashion Industry, and Sustainability
Something worth mentioning is the controversy surrounding NFTs and sustainability. With some experts saying blockchain activity can use up a massive amount of energy, we need to acknowledge and be mindful of new technology and its carbon footprint — and the effect of climate change on BIPOC communities in particular.
On the flip side, we must also look at the bigger picture to remember the devastating effects of fast fashion on the environment and know that there are increasingly more sustainable options for NFTs. These are all things that Legitimate is working towards.
When I asked Elissa Rummy of Legitimate if there’s truly hope for the future, she told me all about blockchain miners specifically seeking out sustainable solar power and grid-positive countries producing excess energy. She also mentioned fashion influencers buying digital fashion as NFTs rather than doing incredibly wasteful $900 SHEIN hauls. She explains, “It’s really in its infancy […], but the possibilities are about to explode.”
“With secondhand and sustainable shopping becoming increasingly prevalent, we want to encourage sustainable practices by adding personal narratives to secondhand and recyclable items through NFTs,” adds Stamford Hwang. “With our technology, environmentally conscious creators can enhance storytelling at the product level to build wholesome experiences for owning and sharing them.”