How Vivienne Tam Is Mixing Fashion, Culture and Web3

Vivienne Tam knows ancient Chinese oracle bone script and web3 make for strange bedfellows.

But the veteran designer and pioneer of “China chic,” who first played in the emerging digital world in September when she sewed and embroidered dozens of avatars from blue-chip NFT collections like Bored Ape Yacht Club and CryptoPunks into pieces for her Spring/Summer 2023 showing, is resolute about bringing web3 assets like NFTs into the physical world.

On Sunday, Tam unveiled her Fall/Winter 2023 collection, “Weaving into the Metaverse,” in which she meshed ancient pictograms of 12 zodiac symbols in China’s earliest language alongside NFTs (again from BAYC and CryptoPunks) into the garments. Inspired by a “futuristic utopian vision” of a new Hong Kong, Tam’s runway show took place at New York Fashion Week’s main event space, Spring Studios, and in a 3D virtual environment accessible on web3 platform Vatom. Those viewing the virtual show were able to experience the real-life details down to seating arrangements and the step-and-repeat. Virtual VIPs even received gift bags like those of their IRL counterparts.

“I want to bring more humanity, more substance and more depth to the metaverse,” Tam said of her recent proclivity for web3. “I want to bring the culture … in this collection, I bring the ancient Chinese culture.”

Vivienne Tam Fall/Winter 2023 collection.

Tam, who was born in Guangzhou, China, held her first US fashion show in Bryant Park in 1994 and is known for incorporating prints and patchwork into her designs — often making political and religious statements along the way. One of her earliest and most memorable collections featured a repetitive image of Mao Zedong, former leader of the People’s Republic of China.

Unlike the scores of fashion brands that piled into the metaverse trend early last year, Tam has long seen technology and fashion as an attractive pairing.

The designer incorporated digital artwork inspired by Chinese temples and Buddha images as a backdrop for an iconic spring 1997 runway show; in 2008 she partnered with tech giant Hewlett-Packard to design the Mini 1000 Vivienne Tam edition laptop (a 2.5 pound netbook with a floral outer case and matching silk carrying sleeve); and when she hunkered down in Hong Kong during the Covid-19 pandemic, she chose to spend time with “interesting and creative” people in Cyberport, a digital community of technology and digital content tenants in Hong Kong.

“They incubate a lot of startups and invite people from all over the world, as well as the local talent,” she said. “I went to one of the technology events and I fell in love.”

The result was new relationships with tech startups like Animoca, the Hong Kong-based gaming software and venture capital company founded in 2014 by Austrian entrepreneur and angel investor Yat Siu — and an obsession on the part of Tam with figuring out how bring the metaverse to fashion (and not the other way around). For instance, rather than attempting to digitise fashion garments and create virtual stores, “which no one has really figured out,” Tam took popular NFT images from BAYC and Cryptopunks and laced and embroidered them onto her garments, she said.

“Most brands immediately leap to building fantastical virtual experiences or selling NFTs but no one wants pixelated fashion or wildly speculative assets,” said Swan Sit, a web3 advisor and creator who helped design the virtual elements of the show alongside Wond3R, a creative marketing agency Tam has worked with for several years. “While there is a place for magical worlds that defy physics…the power is in the extension and democratisation of reality and what we already love.”

Vivienne Tam’s runway show took place at New York Fashion Week’s main event space, Spring Studios, and in a 3D virtual environment accessible on web3 platform Vatom.

It’s a tricky time for Tam — who has about 45 employees worldwide and is the final stages of a planned acquisition by Hong Kong-based conglomerate AMTD Group — to take a bet on resonating with web3 and NFT aficionados. She’s said publicly that she’s hoping web3′s early adopters will clamour to snap up the wares but fashion’s relationship with the emerging digital world has been spotty at best — meanwhile, the crypto market has plummeted from its highs in late 2021.

While she doesn’t disclose revenues, Tam — whose garments have been worn by Madonna, Julia Roberts and Beyoncé over the years — has had to find new avenues for relevance in a tumultuous fashion industry.

“For most people, an obstacle happens, and then they let the obstacle steer their life and their direction,” said Kerry Chrapliwy, founder of Wond3R and Vivienne’s collaborator for her NYFW show. “Vivienne is probably one of the only people that I’ve met that manages the obstacle and makes it a new way to break through creativity.”

The designer’s business is mostly direct-to-consumer in the US, but she has about 27 stores globally, including in Singapore, Japan, Thailand, China and Hong Kong. Her goal, in the next six months to a year, is to “bring the metaverse experience to physical stores,” she said.

“My dream is to have a store that will bring all the technology together — the experience of the metaverse and then the NFT’s,” she said. “I think we should weave the technology and metaverse into fashion — there’s so much similarity … In the metaverse, you create your own world. How can we bring this all together?”

Vivienne Tam Fall/Winter 2023 collection.

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