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For some Mass. designers, the future of fashion is happening in the digital world

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Endstate Cofounder Stephanie Howard uses her phone to connect to a pair of green Drop 0 sneakers, to checEndstate Cofounder Stephanie Howard uses her phone to check a pair of green Drop 0 sneakers and verify that they are authentic. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Endstate Cofounder Stephanie Howard uses her phone to check a pair of green Drop 0 sneakers and verify that they are authentic. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In a mostly bare office in West Roxbury, a half-dozen athletic shoes sit on a large conference table. They come in a variety of colors. One pair is modeled after the bright blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. Another mimics the pattern of a red and white bandana.

The sneakers are Stephanie Howard's latest designs. After more than 25 years working for apparel giants such as Nike and New Balance, she co-founded her own company, Endstate, last year.

In the tongue of each Endstate sneaker, there's a chip that Howard scans using a smart phone. The screen reveals the digital version of the sneaker, in what's known as an NFT, or non-fungible token. NFTs represent assets in the digital world.

The code shows that "its status is authentic and that I own that NFT that’s entangled with the sneaker," Howard explained.

Endstate Cofounder Stephanie Howard at the company's office is in West Roxbury. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Endstate co-founder Stephanie Howard at the company's office is in West Roxbury. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The virtual shoes are an important part of Endstate’s business model. The company's founders believe that all high-end products of the future will come with virtual companions.

"That digital counterpart has many, many things that it can provide to you as a customer," Howard said. For one thing, the digital sneakers act as tickets to real-life events the company puts on, such as parties or conferences.

"Those same pieces are going to then open up experiences for me as an individual that no other piece of fashion that I've ever bought has been able to do," said Gregory Molinar, who recently purchased a pair of Endstate sneakers and several other items of digital apparel.

For Molinar, who lives in Fall River, digital fashion is a way to build community and meet other people who share his interest in emerging technologies. Some digital clothes also allow him to participate in the design process.

"We're actually able to vote on what colors we want this shirt to look like, or what color laces should we put on these shoes?" he said.

But there’s another reason companies like Endstate, as well legacy brands like Nike, Gucci and Prada, are making virtual apparel.

A QR code on a pair of Endstate sneakers will allow you to use augmented reality to place the sneakers anywhere in the environment around you. Point your phone's camera at this one, and try it! (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A QR code on a pair of Endstate sneakers will allow you to place the sneakers anywhere in the environment around you in augmented reality. Point your phone's camera at this one, and try it. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Our digital lives are becoming more sophisticated. And as more social gatherings take place online, the experience is evolving into something more immersive. Musicians like Travis Scott and Ariana Grande have already held concerts in the so-called "metaverse" — a term for the 3D virtual world that some enthusiasts believe will be the future of the internet.

Molinar sees what could be coming in the way his kids live their digital lives. When his daughter turned 8 this year, she asked for money to buy digital accessories for her favorite virtual game.

"They already do it," Molinar said. "If you tell them, 'Hey, you can play this game, and you can buy these different digital accessories, and you can buy these shoes,' they’ve already been doing it, so it’ll be normal for them."

In June, the company Meta (formerly Facebook) announced its launch of an online store where you can pay real-life money for digital outfits. Nike has also created a virtual world where you can play games and style your avatar with virtual Nike gear.

For designers like Afsha Iragorri, this extension of fashion into the digital realm presents an opportunity. Not long after Iragorri graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, she started her own 3D fashion company.

"This makes things limitless for me," she said. "I can absolutely do anything I want in 3D."

One of her creations is a bright red gown with bell sleeves and a long, flowing scarf. On the front, black beads form the shape of a skull, conjuring up images of a punk rock Virgin Mary.

Iragorri’s dress is unlikely to be made in the real world any time soon. But it could have a life, and find a market, in the digital one.

A few companies, such as the Croatian brand Tribute, already sell digital clothes that customers can superimpose on their social media pictures.

Iragorri thinks fashion conscious consumers could begin to see this as an environmentally friendly alternative to “fast fashion" — the brands that crank out tons of cheap, trendy clothes.

"Instead of going to like Zara and buying 20 outfits, maybe they'll be like, 'You know what? I can cut back on that kind of a lifestyle,' " Iragorri said. "I'll just maybe represent myself with my avatar more and buy these digital garments ... and that's how I can express myself."

Howard, of Endstate, acknowledges that the idea of dressing up for the virtual world may still sound far-fetched to many people. But with advances in virtual reality, she believes it will become more ubiquitous.

"Right now, we're communicating online on a flat screen, and the technology is being built so that can feel more like you're in the presence of others," Howard said. "So, why wouldn't your fashion and your products that you love come with you in that space?"

This segment aired on October 7, 2022.

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Yasmin Amer Twitter Reporter
Yasmin Amer is a business reporter for WBUR.

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