Image courtesy of RTFKT Studios

Holograms and flames: RTFKT reinvents sneakers for the virtual world

Sallyann Houghton |
September 2, 2021
A queue of teens one hundred long eagerly awaits the release of a unique, must-have sneaker.  With holograms, wings, mirrors, and belching flames, this is a sneaker drop like no other.

That’s because instead of waiting outside a physical store, these kids are waiting in a queue online to get into the virtual world of Decentraland.

Their new purchases will never be slipped onto physical feet to walk real pavements and sidewalks—instead, they’ll be worn by their owners' digital avatars in video games or collected as part of a digital investment portfolio. 

If it sounds futuristic—like a snippet of detail from Spielberg’s Ready Player One—that’s because it is. These are some of the tentative first steps towards the Metaverse, in which our digital identities will become as important as our real world identities.

Digital fashion is about to become big business.
 

A new era of digital fashion

Benoit Pagotto, co-founder of RTFKT, believes we’re seeing fashion fundamentally change before our eyes. “You’re not constrained by your physical self and the physics of the real world,” he explains. “You can be and look like anything you want—you can have different lives, personalities, and communities.”

RTFKT is a key player in the exciting new digital fashion space. The company is the zeitgeist of the digital fashion revolution, epitomizing the fashion industry's ability to empower citizens to carve out an identity rich Metaverse.  

It has built a reputation for itself as the ‘digital Supreme’—an elusive, next-gen hype-maker that creates CG sneakers and collectibles, merging the worlds of digital with NFTs and physicals (real-world sneakers that can be redeemed for an associated NFT).
Image courtesy of RTFKT Studios
RTFKT is a trailblazer on the crypto scene, breaking records with its digital fashion items. Its products are bought by collectors as NFTs and traded on different platforms, as well as worn in different proto-Metaverse worlds such as Decentraland, Sandbox, and Cryptovoxels

“The goal with RTFKT is to create a vision of the brand of tomorrow,” says Benoit. “We believe that in the future, most people will own more digital assets than physical ones and will put more value on the digital collections they have than their physical belongings.”
Image courtesy of RTFKT Studios
One of three co-founders alongside Chris Le and Steven Zaptio, Benoit has a background that spans fine arts, fashion, esports, and gaming. He’s part of a new generation of entrepreneurs for whom the boundaries between industries like fashion and gaming are increasingly blurred.

For this new crop of creators, everything in the fashion industry is up for grabs and ripe for change—even the currency system that governs these new markets.

NFTs have hit the headlines recently, with everyone from Elon Musk to Snoop Dogg dabbling in what appears to be a ballooning market. Whether or not they’re here to stay is a matter of speculation, but what is beyond doubt is that vast sums of money are currently being traded off the back of them. 

RTFKT made history in February with its Fewocious sneakers collaboration, generating 3.1 million dollars in five minutes by selling sneaker NFTs that collectors could redeem for physical versions. 

Benoit himself believes you can bank on NFTs being around for a while. “They’re exciting because they are a new medium for creators to create and generate income, with baked in royalties for life. Fashion has been controlled by big conglomerates so far—it’s a very hard industry for people to get into without having the right connections or network.

“The shift towards digital fashion is allowing anyone with passion and talent to enter the next-gen fashion era, where creators will be in control and leading new business models via new experiences, communities, and innovation enabled by NFT and blockchain technology.”
Image courtesy of RTFKT Studios

Real-time technology powers new fashion experiences 

One thing the new generation of digital sneaker wearers don’t want is realism. Why limit yourself to leather and laces when the constraints of the physical world no longer apply? ”They want lights,” says Benoit. “They want animated parts. We call it ‘over-the-top design’.”

RTFKTs approach to getting the word out about these sneakers is similarly outside-the-box. You won’t see them advertised on TV or splashed across a magazine. Instead, they’re revealed to the world on Instagram Lives or holographic screens at pop-up streetwear events, showcased in Neuromancer-esque landscapes.
Image courtesy of RTFKT Studios
With their forward-looking approach and background in gaming, it makes sense that RTFKT would opt to create this content in a game engine rather than traditional CG tools. “We’ve been fans of Unreal Engine since day one, a lot of us grew up playing games using Unreal, and we always knew and bet on a future workflow and production pipeline geared towards real-time 3D,” says Benoit.
 
For a recent project called Space Drip, RTFKT worked with 18 different artists who each created a collectible character and customized it with an Among Us-style skin. These characters were then placed into capsules and launched into an Unreal Engine-generated space environment ahead of the drop on the website.

The whole event was live streamed to hype people before the launch of the project. It’s just one example of how Unreal Engine is being leveraged to create an innovative new style of marketing, unlike any other traditional marketing campaign that has come before.

“We’ve used Unreal to create live event scenes for our drops and content because of its ease of use and its ability to handle live content—and because it’s the best real time 3D engine,” says Benoit. “Now with the upcoming release of UE5 and its Nanite feature, we can really focus on our aesthetic and design without having to worry about polygons. It’s a game changer for us and for everyone in the industry.”

Nanite, Unreal Engine’s new virtualized micropolygon geometry system, will enable models with millions of polygons to be rendered effortlessly in real time. It's set to flip the script for those creating huge, hyper-realistic landscapes like RTFKT, and is currently available for testing in Unreal Engine 5 Early Access.

Used alongside features like real-time ray tracing, creators now have a powerful set of tools for creating virtual worlds. “Ray tracing really is transformational, as it’s allowing us to reach the same quality of graphics as when we work on a non-real-time workflow,” says Benoit.
Image courtesy of RTFKT Studios
Another tool from Epic Games has caught the attention of the RTFKT team, for obvious reasons. MetaHuman Creator is a free cloud-based app that enables you to create photorealistic digital humans, complete with hair and clothing, in minutes.
Image courtesy of RTFKT Studios
“We are very excited by it,” says Benoit. “We always wanted to create a virtual influencer for the RTFKT brand who will be able to create content, covering news of the industry and new NFT releases. Using MetaHuman Creator makes this a lot more easy to handle, and is clearly a great brand fit for RTFKT. So expect some cool stuff later this year!”
 
Even when customer interactions do take place in the real world, RTFKT makes sure there’s a touch of the unreal about them. The company recently partnered with Looking Glass for the Highsnobiety Not in Paris Event.

“They used amazing holographic screen technology to display our artworks in the physical pop-up store created by Highsnobiety. Using the LookingGlass Unreal Engine plugin, it was pretty straightforward for us to bring our creations to life in this mind-blowing display, and it was the centerpiece of the pop-up store in Paris.”

Identity unshackled in the Metaverse

Benoit believes there’s much in store for the future of digital fashion. His vision for where this space could go over the next ten or twenty years is bold. “Your identity and fashion style in the Metaverse will be your true identity—an opportunity for self expression as well as self monetization,” he says.
Image courtesy of RTFKT Studios
“As AR technology continues to develop, we’ll reach a moment where we’ll all be wearing augmented reality glasses, seeing the world and ourselves augmented, all backed by a decentralized economy and NFTs. We might all end up wearing silver full body suits like aliens in old sci-fi movies, and purely wear digital and augmented fashion.”

This sci-fi-esque vision of the future may be optimistic, but what is undeniable is that some of the key technologies and markets that could form its foundation are already in existence.

“Digital humans will need a wardrobe,” says Benoit. “It’s what people call the ‘direct to avatar’ market, and we truly believe it’s going to become a thing. It already kind of is. If one billion people use an avatar to spend time in the Metaverse, then someone will need to continue to update and dress those avatars.”
Image courtesy of RTFKT Studios
Real-time technology like Unreal Engine and MetaHuman Creator will be the toolsets creators use to create this bold new world, Benoit says. “It’s been super helpful to use Unreal,” he explains. “We tried it once, now we are using it for all of our projects.”

Benoit’s gut feeling is that the digital fashion renaissance will also spawn a new generation of fashion brands catering for a new market that they understand natively. For him, the pioneering, have-a-go spirit of this new community of creators is the most intoxicating thing about the whole space.

“Right now there are no rules on how to create and what to create,” he says. “We are all just creating, experimenting, and building, and making history daily. The idea is that a whole new world is coming, and that anyone can take part in building it, be part of different communities and economies.

“That’s the most exciting—it’s the fact that anything is possible, and that we don’t have to repeat the old fashion world rules and old ways of doing business. RTFKT is here to spearhead the movement, innovate, and lead all creators towards a much brighter and cooler future.”

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