By the time Warren Lotas’ first store opened its doors in Los Angeles on a recent Saturday morning, hundreds of people had already queued up outside. Some had started camping out the night before, eager to get early access to a streetwear brand known for its namesake designer’s distinctive heavy metal-inspired, hand-painted illustrations and high-quality cotton and denim construction.
But one particular group of fans was able to skip the line all day, not because they were celebrities or influencers, but because they owned one of 4,000 non-fungible tokens (aka NFTs) Lotas and his team released at the end of 2021 under the name The Wild Bunch. The hand-drawn skeletons, loosely modeled after the types of characters found in Spaghetti Westerns, depict “federally wanted individuals” outfitted with cowboy hats, camo jackets, and neon sunglasses.
Owners of the NFTs received another perk: exclusive access to the second floor of the store. There, the brand created a hangout space dubbed Greeley’s Saloon, with sofas and a pool table. “It was great to put some faces to names on discord,” tweeted one Wild Bunch member after visiting the opening and picking up five shirts from the brand, referring to the messaging platform where crypto communities congregate online.
The store space is one of a number of rewards the Warren Lotas team is working to offer its passionate NFT community. Last week, it launched a debut collection of apparel and accessories, including T-shirts and varsity jackets, only available for the Wild Bunch community to buy.
“NFTs, in this case, are like a membership card—it’s super sick to be part of that club,” said Warren Lotas’ chief operating officer, who goes by the name Sto. He estimated about 200 of The Wild Bunch NFT holders attended the store’s opening, with some traveling from as far as Boston, London, and Tokyo.
“The hype that surrounds [streetwear] drops is the same hype that surrounds NFT drops,” he added.
Sto revealed that The Wild Bunch community has grown “like wildfire” since last year’s “mint,” a term used to describe the moment when NFTs are created on a blockchain and become available to buy. “We just want to keep delivering and giving them stuff that they will know they love,” he said.
Warren Lotas’ approach is an example of a new way forward for the intersection of fashion and NFTs, prioritizing community building over splashy headlines about sky-high sale prices. Despite being a latecomer to the first digital revolution, fashion—and, in particular, luxury—embraced the metaverse as it gained more attention in recent years. Luxury houses have partnered with digital artists, gaming platforms, and crypto firms. For many, the goal is to be seen as part of a culture that is not yet mainstream, but is at the center of widespread fascination and speculation.
The more eager brands like Gucci have set up branded towns on the popular gaming platform Roblox and collaborated with digital artists to release NFT collections. Nike has set up its own virtual studio and acquired RTFKT, the innovative virtual sneaker studio with grand ambitions to remake the idea of a virtual wardrobe. Even smaller labels have gotten involved with web3. Recently, Paco Rabanne announced a NFT collection selling images of its archive through Selfridges.
Fashion and the metaverse are natural partners in many ways: crypto has become a pop culture trend in recent years, and fashion loves aligning itself with the next hot thing. NFTs are also inherently exclusive and limited in nature, appealing to the same aspirational qualities as a rare handbag or limited-edition sneakers.
“Fashion is an expression of identity or belonging or cultures or even status…same thing with NFTs,” said Krzysztof Gagacki, a crypto entrepreneur and co-founder of reBASE, who is working on a forthcoming NFT collection called CY-B3LLA with supermodel Bella Hadid.
But after an explosive growth run boosted by the pandemic that saw more than $17 billion in NFT sales in 2021, the crypto market started cooling, and then plummeting in recent months. Bitcoin’s value has plunged as several high-profile crypto firms have fallen to the brink of collapse, triggering panic among some investors. While skeptics see this as confirmation the market is little more than a scam, crypto believers see this downturn as a natural part of the evolution of a market still in its early stages of development.
Gagacki said there are advantages to launching an NFT project during a market dip: it may deter people who only care about them as a financial investment, looking to make a quick buck, and, he hopes, attract a more passionate, devoted community, like the one The Wild Bunch has been carefully cultivating this year.
Other brands are trying to follow suit and attract a different type of NFT buyer. Prada’s newest collection of NFTs are being offered, for free, to buyers of its corresponding “Time Capsule” men’s shirt. (It should be noted that the shirts are still a barrier to many, selling at the brand’s typical men’s shirt price of around $1,300.)
But it is unclear what else Prada has in mind for NFT holders, and it will likely need to offer them something special if it wants to grow a community of token enthusiasts.
Sto said most of The Wild Bunch coterie has chosen to hold onto their NFTs and experience the perks of ownership rather than flip them for returns. That behavior was clear even before the recent downturn, he said.
“The big shift that I definitely see with some of the brands is that they are…taking a step back and thinking of NFTs not just as a marketing activation or a PR play, but actually as long-term projects, long-term relationships with the people that love the brand and support the brand,” said Cathy Hackl, co-founder and chief metaverse officer at Journey, a consulting firm that helps brands with emerging technologies. “Brands that might have wanted to drop an NFT to make a lot of money, I think they might be taking a step back.”
Gagacki hopes his new project with Hadid will attract fashion devotees and fans of the model alike. Those lucky enough to procure one of the project’s 11,111 unique NFTs will then get access to real-life events and experiences with her, as well as access to subsequent NFT releases. Eventually, they will also be able to use their NFTs as playable characters in different existing metaverses.
“We’re just taking this a step further and creating a real functional community, not only a digital community,” Gagacki said. “People who buy NFTs only for the profits, for trading—I don’t think we want them.”