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Nick Knight Sees Potential, and Peril, in Fast-evolving Metaverse

·11 min read

LONDON — Nick Knight, the photographer, filmmaker and founder of the pioneering fashion website ShowStudio, has always believed that creativity can exist in multiple dimensions, and for decades he’s been using every tech tool at his disposal to create still and moving images, in 2D, then 3D and now in the metaverse.

One of his earliest projects at ShowStudio, the London-based creative platform he founded in 2000, was a 3D scan of a model on a virtual catwalk. Today he’s working on a set of NFTs that explore “what a Web3 fashion editorial could look like. I’m borrowing the structure and language of a fashion shoot, but visually it feels totally new,” he said in an interview with WWD.

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He’s been working with Jazzelle Zanaughtti as an avatar and a stylist on the NFT project, which will be released later this summer.

Knight believes the metaverse offers much potential for human beings to create, communicate, and engage with each other across time and space. He also believes there are perils inherent in the fast-evolving virtual world.

Here, Knight talks with WWD about his hopes for the new metaverse world.

WWD: What are the most obvious opportunities you see right now?

Nick Knight: It’s a completely different, alternative space to communicate, collaborate and participate. You can go there and talk to people from all across the world. I go to virtual events and meet people from every country, without any barriers. I wouldn’t say it’s a utopian space, but it is a space that we are inventing at the moment and my real push is to get artists to become involved in it.

WWD: How are you leading artists into the space?

N.K.: I think the best thing to do is to set an example, to do something great, something that people can admire, or find really interesting, something with soul and depth to it that isn’t based just on making money. I am also trying to give these projects some integrity, and get people involved because they’re poetic, beautiful, or heart-stopping — the sorts of qualities that we require from every other art form, whether it’s opera, ballet or music. Works need to have depth, integrity and soul, and you have to encourage people to partake in them.

I want people to want to be part of this world, to be able to travel around Rothko’s studio, or see what Brancusi’s studio was like, to have a conversation with Man Ray or talk to Edward Steichen. These are things that we are looking to make happen, things that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, new ways of interacting with each other. It’s what I’ve done with ShowStudio for the last 22 years — try and create an artistic platform. ShowStudio’s primary function is to create art.

 

 

WWD: What sort of metaverse-related work have you been doing lately at ShowStudio?

N.K.: I see ShowStudio as a sort of testing ground. We’ve created avatars, for example, of people like Kendall Jenner. There is the idea of creating a really beautiful, photo-perfect version of somebody. If people are going to have control over their avatar, they need to have an avatar that looks beautiful — not like it’s made out of plastic. You want to turn up [in the metaverse] looking how you want — chic, or flamboyant, or understated, or whatever it is. You want a version of yourself that you’re happy with.

Another really exciting thing in the whole of the avatar metaverse is that you can change how you look: you can be half human, half animal, you can be whatever gender you want to be. It really brings with it a whole new way of thinking about your own persona.

I’m creating an avatar of myself at the moment, and it’s basically like I am in real life. I don’t particularly want to change how I am, and there’s a sense of purity and accepting reality to that. I’ll be using it for a live virtual shoot. You’ll be able to come and interact with me, and the model I’m working with, in a virtual space.

WWD: What are you seeing happening in the metaverse outside of your own projects?

N.K.: I’m starting to see new talents arrive in this space. Interesting things are happening in terms of digital fashion design. There is a whole new generation of incredibly active, and incredibly inventive, digital fashion designers. Over the last two years they’ve really started to come to the forefront, and there’s also a lot of artistic talent in the space.

Thanks to smartphone cameras, we now have a population that is learning to express itself visually. If you take the next step and put better tools into their hands to create imagery, I just think it’s beneficial for everybody. That’s also incredibly powerful and incredibly important to us as a culture.

WWD: What sort of fashion are these designers creating?

N.K.: Suppose you wanted to wear a dress: it starts off as a kind of chiffon, but later in the evening it turns into leather. All sorts of things are totally possible. And then if you want to resell that dress, you have to get an NFT for it. These designs offer you the chance to be incredibly flamboyant, or inventive or creative with how you look in the metaverse.

The clothes can be changed easily, and there’s no waste. I know there has been talk about NFTs being bad for the planet, but that is all going to change and they’re going to become much more energy efficient.

The conventional fashion world has done a really poor job of helping the planet – maintaining the status quo, continuing to make more clothes, and having the same group of 300 people traveling from city to city for the fashion shows in the conventional sense.

If we leave things as they are, we’re going to use up our resources, and we’re going to pollute the planet we live on. We do have to look for an alternative, and that might be sustainable clothing, but it also might be digital clothing.

 

 

WWD: What are the challenges in creating images for the metaverse? How do you replicate natural light? How do you build a high-quality, compelling image in the space?

N.K.: Artistic values are really important, and everything is available in the metaverse. The options for doing things, like creating dresses that glow and change color, are all there. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, because nothing’s easy if you want to do well, but it’s absolutely available. Light, transmitted light, reflected light, all different sorts of light are available.

You are, however, dealing with a slightly different medium in the metaverse because you’re no longer looking at a printed page. You need a pair of 3D glasses, an Oculus Rift, something that can drop you into this new space, because you’re not looking on a screen, or your computer or your phone.

We need to find people who appreciate the history of this medium, which is based on light, people who understand where photography has come from and where it can go. That’s why Steichen was such a great photographer: his understanding of light was amazing. And that appreciation and understanding should follow through absolutely seamlessly to what we do in the metaverse.

 

 

WWD: Can you talk more about how the metaverse might allow people to travel through time? Will it really be possible to tour Rothko’s studio, and engage directly with artists, and people from the past?

N.K.: Inherent in the name ShowStudio is the idea that we all work in studio spaces – design, photography, dance, whatever your studio is. Part of what we’re doing now is creating a virtual ShowStudio that you’ll be able to go into. We can recreate these studios — Schiaparelli’s studio or Pierre Cardin’s studio — and put any kind of interactivity or virtual reality or augmented reality in them to create an exciting experience.

There’s enough data on the internet about most of the great people in 20th-century history. And AI, in particular, is incredibly exciting. You type in a word, and it gives you an image. You can type “Chanel in gold,” and you’ll get pictures of Coco Chanel in gold. The images don’t quite make sense because they’ve been created by AI which doesn’t really know what to do right now. But in the error there is beauty. The whole idea of working with artificial intelligence is something which is really, really important.

WWD: Can you elaborate on AI, and its future possibilities?

N.K.: I think the frontier, which is the biggest frontier now, is whether we are going to see the emergence of a new evolutionary life form which is not like our own but is based on artificial intelligence or one that uses artificial intelligence to create. But that’s a much, much bigger question. That’s a sort of God question. We don’t know, at the moment, how this is going to play out. We just know it is playing out. We’ve invented AI and pushed it, and now it’s making itself. It’s there. It isn’t a fantasy. It’s not “Blade Runner,” it’s not a film.

 

 

WWD: Why is it so important for studios to go virtual and adapt to the age of the metaverse?

N.K.: Studios going virtual will lead to a lot of really exciting new ways of understanding, seeing and experiencing things. That’s all going to start to unfold in the next sort of six months to a year. In terms of my own art, I’m making a statue out of alabaster, which is three meters tall, but everyone on that statue has been created from a 3D scan. My own work is getting more varied. I do everything from filmmaking, to photography, sculptures performance — everything. This new space is opening up so many more possibilities artistically, for me, both in the real world and in the virtual one.

For example, if you want to come to ShowStudio, and see the latest film release by Lady Gaga — something that we worked on together — you might be able to come and have an interview one-on-one with Lady Gaga, or you might be able to take away something that she’s created. There are so many different ways this becomes a really interesting experience space. You can take your friends in there, you can meet people there and you can also take what ShowStudio does into other spaces. A lot of this stuff is still being worked out at the moment, and I would just much rather it was worked out for the benefit of people as humans, and not for people’s bank accounts.

WWD: Can you talk about ethics in this new and evolving space? Is it possible that the metaverse could be a space without all the cyberbullying, harassment, anger, aggression and greed people see and read about online every day?

N.K.: There are an awful lot of problems with the space, at the moment, and there is an awful lot of opportunity. I do think that sticking your head in the sand, outlawing stuff and regulating in a way that’s moralistic, and based on some sort of monotheistic religions is not the way forward. I’m interested in faith, and I’m deeply interested in people who have strong beliefs, but I’m an atheist. And I’m not willing to have my life shaped by other people’s religious beliefs. We are humans, and we respond very well to each other on a humanistic level. That’s how we need to move forward. My thing would be to keep business out of the metaverse. The source of all these evils is the continual desire to make more money, and to subdue, suppress, and generally to down people who don’t have money.

And, of course, the most worrying thing is the military involvement in it. The most powerful computer in Britain at the moment, the Quantum computer, is owned by the Ministry of Defense. I wish it was owned by ShowStudio. It’s part of a new generation of computers that can compress huge amounts of data unbelievably fast. It’s in a different league. It’s like going from an old black-and-white television to an iPhone. It’s sad to me that something so capable of creating amazing things is actually being used to kill people. It’s horrendous — our world is upside down.

New spaces have to be led by artistic minds, and not by the military. At ShowStudio we’re not trying to make the metaverse a utopian ideal, but at least we have the chance to form a society in this new space, which is a little bit better, moral, ethical, grounded and wonderful [than the ones that already exist]. I believe that if we invest our souls and our hearts into this space, it could be better than if we just invested our money into it.