From flying cars to AI robots, sci-fi novels have grappled with what the future might look like for decades. And as outrageous as those predictions seemed, they are all coming true to some degree (yes, even personal airborne vehicles are visible on the horizon).
Covid-19’s ability to upend trends over the last year has helped accelerate more supposed impossibilities. But few could have predicted the recent, dramatic rise of NFTs—otherwise known as non-fungible tokens. Existing solely on a blockchain, NFTs are symbols of digital asset ownership. For instance, instead of buying a physical painting, one can purchase an NFT as a virtual representation of the artwork.
Before 2020, these digital collectibles were more or less unknown. Yet global companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google have been mining the fields of augmented reality and virtual reality for years, so virtual transactions were surely the next step.
Mentions of NFTs have also been growing on Weibo, which is hardly surprising, given that China’s big-tech conglomerates (Alibaba Group, Baidu, Tencent, Xiaomi, and Huawei) have likewise been exploring the possibilities of AR and VR. But is China ready to embrace NFTs?
RTFKT, the first luxury brand operating in the space, founded by a trio of creatives, certainly thinks so. For Chinese New Year, the brand designed a unique, pure gold virtual sneaker, which was auctioned off on the Chinese digital marketplace Treasureland. It eventually sold for $28,000—not too shabby for a brand with zero market recognition and an object that doesn’t physically exist.
However, it failed to generate the staggering US$3 million that the brand previously earned via its collaboration with the artist Fewocious. Considering these prices though, the brand has rightly earned itself the nickname “a Supreme for a digital audience.”
For now, it’s impossible to avoid NFTs and the tantalizing possibilities they unlock (already, you can store your NFTs in a virtual museum in the Metaverse). Jing Daily spoke with a founding member of RTFKT Benoît Pagotto to discuss the brand’s pure gold sneaker, whether NFTs will fly in China, and more.
Jing Daily: Firstly, how did this all start? What was your mission statement?
Benoît Pagotto: "Well, when we started the brand and company, the vision was to create the brand of the future, and we wanted most of our items to be virtual. So our principle was digital-first, with physical as a nice add-on for the tangible touch at home. We also use open-source and work with the community. It is like remixing, and we take cues from the gaming community. We did not think we would reach this state this quickly, but Covid has accelerated that and put less of an emphasis on physical. Now, everyone has realised the power of culture in gaming."
Given that you made such a digital splash with your Fewocious collab—which netted $3 million and now has a massive reach—what do you want to achieve as a brand?
"With all the content we make, it’s about making it in the best possible way and purposefully. Also, we want to empower the crypto community, exchange ideas, and work with them. Part of our profits will be reinvested into supporting the community, buying some art, and giving back to it. The community is a mix of very young members, which we often mentor. Fewocious is only 18—he draws on the iPad and paints. It also includes these OG comic book artists that never had a big moment."
How are you approaching the China market as a virtual luxury brand?
"As a brand, we have luxury positioning even though the aesthetic is gaming. But it is very crafted; the techniques we use are very high-end. We wanted to do something specific this Chinese New Year because that is what luxury brands do for that time. But how do you make something special for China?
"We released a [unique] luxury sneaker for the Chinese New Year. We did it in red and gold, and I love the aesthetic and the way they think about style. They go all out. We launched it through a WeChat group and on Treasureland, where it was available to bid on for a certain number of days. "
Do you think there is a particular appetite from the Chinese consumer? And have you seen any interesting developments in China in terms of NFTs, companies, or products?
"Chinese people have a deep connection with art. We didn’t know what to expect from our China auction in terms of prices, but people over there are getting into the crypto art market, and there’s a lot of interest. They are already used to this type of digital trading. They understand the value and how it is resold as an asset. But the movement is just starting there, and we wanted to do something very early on. I am also very interested in finding artists in that sector and communities."
Any advice for people or brands trying to move into the sphere?
"It depends. It is still risky. There is a boom now, and prices will go lower at some point. But at the same time, more people will join, and it will be healthier. But it is an investment. We are the first brand in the space, and we can be creative. But if you want to invest, you need to follow the space and take an interest in the movement. For example, if you just do a virtual experience or an exhibition with no takeaway, it will be lackluster. These days, the new generations are used to demanding interactivity, and we think that one of the utilities is status and rarity, so you will want to display it."
I hear you have new collaborations to announce. Can you share any details yet?
"We have been contacted by everyone, but we are being cautious. [Our collaborations] need to be genuine and not for the money. One thing I can say is that we are doing a virtual shop for Atari in Cryptospace. We have created one in the shape of a giant shoe for a big activation on March 11. Also, we are announcing a partnership with Snapchat where we have access to their tech and will give a unique and exclusive experience to the owner."
RTFKT Z X @atari— RTFKT studios (@RTFKTstudios) March 11, 2021
Shiny Edition 1/1
exclusively on @SuperRare
1pm EST - 11th of march
includes wearable NFT in @TheSandboxGame and @decentraland
part of our METAVERSE DROP pic.twitter.com/Zanft5kEw0
Finally, what is the future here, and do you see any end game?
"Honestly, this cannot be answered yet. It is impossible to predict—that is what we think. If you look at the big tech companies with augmented reality glasses, Apple is the most advanced, building the infrastructure for five years. And that idea of an overlay on the physical world will soon become more mainstream.
"The main purpose of blockchain is about safety, security, and provenance, and that is why it will last. Blockchain is the authenticator. What you do with it, whether it’s trading or, for us, making fashion items, is up to you."