What ‘MetaBirkins’ Say About Virtual Fashion
There’s a hot new Birkin bag on the market. Just 100 exist, each one uniquely rendered in colourful faux fur. Some come in solid shades such as acid yellow or punchy cobalt, while others feature patterns like animal prints or fuzzy depictions of artworks like the Mona Lisa and Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
These Birkins, however, are not real, both in the sense that they are neither the products of French luxury house Hermès nor actual handbags.
They’re virtual versions being sold as NFTs — as in the non-fungible tokens that represent digital assets on a blockchain — through the NFT marketplace OpenSea. Called MetaBirkins, they are the creation of Mason Rothschild, an aspiring digital artist and the co-founder and marketing director of Terminal 27, a buzzy new LA concept store that blends fashion retail and art. On Dec. 2, he released them for sale to select followers of the project on platforms like Twitter and Discord, the chat forum popular with gamers and the crypto community. Each was sold for 0.1 ETH, the cryptocurrency native to the Ethereum blockchain, equivalent at the time to about $450.
As of this writing, the digital bags have since generated the equivalent of around $800,000 in trading on OpenSea. The highest sale thus far was around $46,000, while the current floor price — the lowest cost for which one can be bought — is roughly $19,000. The NFT market can be volatile and there’s no guarantee these will hold their value long-term. A genuine Hermès Birkin, for comparison, begins selling for around $9,000 at retail and has been called “a better investment than gold.” Still, trading of MetaBirkins continues, and they’ve been touted online by rapper Future, one of seven celebrities Rothschild gave a free digital bag to help promote them.
But not all the attention has been positive.
“These NFTs infringe upon the intellectual property and trademark rights of Hermès and are an example of fake Hermès products in the metaverse,” the company told the Financial Times.
Rothschild declined to remark on Hermès’ statement but a representative said Hermès had not made contact or taken any action. (Hermès did not return BoF’s request for comment.) Rothschild did address the situation in the Discord channel for the project, saying the MetaBirkin never claimed any formal connection to Hermès.
“This is my artistic take on an icon, my remix,” he added.
“I knew it was going to do really well,” Rothschild told BoF in the days before Hermès issued its response. “I didn’t know it was going to get to this level … This is a proof of concept for a lot of luxury brands that, hey, you can do this in the digital space.”
Brands need less coaxing to that point of view these days. As the market for NFTs has heated up, so has fashion’s interest in them. Gucci, Givenchy, Burberry and more have released NFTs in forms ranging from a short film to accessories in a video game. Dolce & Gabbana’s nine-piece NFT collection paired with real-world benefits and experiences collected more than $6.1 million in sales at auction. In November, Morgan Stanley analysts noted that while luxury NFT sales are “likely to remain negligible for some time,” they expect by 2030 the market could surpass €20 billion ($22.6 billion).
MetaBirkins are the latest addition to a burgeoning space whose rules and borders are still being defined — one around which Hermès itself has so far steered clear. They highlight the profit-making potential of luxury NFTs as well as some of the intellectual-property issues brands and creators are likely to face as NFTs of all sorts proliferate and vie for a share of the money pouring into the fast-growing market.
“When we open up an entirely new product category — not a tiny one like face masks but a potentially lucrative one like digital fashion — there is, of course, an ensuing gold rush,” said Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University. “Different parties are rushing to stake claims on this heretofore undiscovered territory.”
What’s Legal and What’s Real?
Rothschild said the MetaBirkins are his tribute to and interpretation of an item he finds iconic — a way to digitally translate a physical commodity widely seen as representing wealth and success. The choice to do them in faux fur was a reference to fashion’s movement away from real fur. The concept grew out of another Birkin-themed project Rothschild released with artist Eric Ramirez in May: the Baby Birkin, an NFT showing a fetus gestating in a transparent Birkin, which sold at online retailer Basic.Space for $23,500.
Any asset based explicitly on another brand’s product enters tricky legal territory. Hermès has registered trademarks protecting the Birkin’s name and the shape of the bag from imitators, Scafidi said.
Rothschild did tweak the MetaBirkin’s shape slightly and could potentially make a case that no shopper would confuse his furry bags for genuine Hermès products. Trademarks covering physical characteristics may not even apply.
“It’s fundamentally different in the sense that it’s simply not a bag,” Scafidi said.
It’s an area the law is still working to clarify — one that could shape fashion’s future as virtual spaces become more important, she noted.
It’s fundamentally different in the sense that it’s simply not a bag.
But there are other issues at play. Notably, Hermès could argue the MetaBirkin dilutes its trademark. It only matters, however, if it cares to pursue the issue. Even luxury giants have limited legal resources. Hermès also has “the court of public opinion” to consider, Scafidi noted. It may not want to be seen attacking an artist.
“On the other hand, NFTs are big business,” she added. “We’re not talking about one-off art pieces in galleries anymore.”
Before the MetaBirkins went up for sale, Rothschild tried to build interest by teasing them frequently online. In doing so, however, he inadvertently attracted counterfeiters who began selling copies of the MetaBirkins — knockoffs of his interpretation.
In that, MetaBirkins fell victim to one of the criticisms against NFTs. Though they allow their holder to prove unique ownership of a virtual asset, someone else can still just save the digital file and possess the same asset. The niche communities buying NFTs essentially value the ownership more than the asset for that reason, since ownership is what’s scarce and valuable, not the JPEGs of cartoon apes or pixelated punks that have become status-conferring symbols online. Brands, however, can also grant other benefits to NFT holders, such as exclusive access to products or events, a territory still being explored.
The knockoff MetaBirkins have not done nearly as well on OpenSea as Rothschild’s original faux Birkins, though a few have sold. Rothschild, who warned followers online about the proliferating fakes, said he felt terrible for those who were misled.
“For a lot of the people in the Discord [channel], this is their first NFT,” he said. “They don’t know what’s a scam, what’s real.”
Recontextualising in the Metaverse
The cynical view of the MetaBirkins is they’re a cash grab trading on the Birkin’s name and image. But the past several decades of art history and fashion’s trajectory in recent years are also full of examples of creators recontextualising cultural symbols, whether a Campbell’s soup can or Gucci’s logo, which artist Trevor Andrew, aka Gucci Ghost, liberally appropriated in his graffiti and documented online. Gucci ended up collaborating with him. Rothschild pointed to the late Virgil Abloh putting artwork by Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio on t-shirts and hoodies.
“I’m on the side of recontextualising the Birkin,” said Jeff Carvalho, the co-founder of Highsnobiety and Burrata Corp., a consultancy that advises brands on emerging technologies such as blockchain. “While it may be a cash grab, there is something about pushing the issue forward on how brands can version items almost endlessly in Web3,” he added, referring to a decentralised internet based on blockchain technology that many technologists and crypto-boosters envision replacing the current paradigm of corporate-controlled networks.
Rothschild is betting this sort of decentralisation is the future. For now, he has another drop of MetaBirkins scheduled for Dec. 23 and is planning more Birkin and non-Birkin projects.
“In the past week, a bunch of different companies have reached out in terms of collaborations and doing some partnerships and releasing more product not in the space of MetaBirkins,” he said. “I definitely have a bunch of ideas in my head.”