“When I first put a virtual reality (VR) headset on, it was to experience what being inside a solitary confinement cell would feel like. I was completely claustrophobic. When I took the headset off, I said, ‘This is the future of storytelling’,” shares Cathy Hackl.
As a technology futurist and metaverse expert, Hackl is one of the most influential women in tech right now. Back when she first started, however, she was working in the field of live video, having made the transition from communications. Now the chief metaverse officer at innovation and design studio Journey, Hackl works with brands like Ralph Lauren, Clinique and Nike to develop metaverse and NFT strategies.
Led by her love for luxury, Hackl has also started VerseLuxe, a tech luxury brand that she describes as “part-label, part-lab”. “By that, I mean that we produce capsule collections like any other brand and bring those to the physical world. But as a lab, we also do a lot of experimentation with technology at the centre.”
The brand’s first capsule collection, for example, is a line of bracelets and necklaces in silver and gold with an NFT embedded inside each one. Titled Frillz, it is representative of the endless possibilities through which technology could intersect with fashion. “I feel like fashion and tech have never been closer than they are now,” Hackl notes.
Below, she opens up on the journey she’s taken to get where she is now, and her hopes for the fashion industry in the years to come.
Working at the intersection of technology and fashion is quite specific. How did you come to be involved in the work you presently do?
I’m a big lover of fashion and luxury, so I’ve always been part of that space. But I only started to get more involved in the industry by chance. I was working in a company creating AR and VR experiences back then, and one of the fashion brands reached out wanting to understand the technology. Since most of my coworkers were men, they were not familiar with the designer bags from the brand, so they pulled me into the project. That was the beginning—because I knew the brand and no one else did.
In 2020, I wrote an article for Forbes with Ryan Gill where we coined the term ‘direct-to-avatar’. I asked the question whether ‘direct-to-avatar’ was the next ‘direct-to-consumer’, and tech-forward people within the fashion industry started reaching out to me, saying things like, “You put into words what I’ve been trying to make sense of, with everything that’s happening with gamification, NFTs and the metaverse”. That was the moment when everything drastically changed—when I went from being known as purely a tech person to becoming really involved in the fashion industry.
What has your experience been like working within the metaverse community?
What I’ve experienced is a very welcoming and diverse community. The beauty of the moment right now is that we’re all friends, and everyone’s collaborating. There’s a real focus on community. It’s not a competitive environment, and that’s what makes it a bit different from other industries.
“I feel like fashion and tech have never been closer than they are now”
What is it that excites you about the metaverse?
I’m not so excited about the term ‘metaverse’—I think the term is facing a little bit of a cool-down, to be honest. But I’m excited about the convergence of the physical and virtual worlds. I’m looking forward to seeing what major technology comes after the smartphone, and how that will impact fashion and culture. How will that merge technology into our physical world further? I’m also interested in seeing how Generation Alpha will approach culture and fashion and beauty in relation to the technology they’re growing up in. I’ve got three kids that are Generation Alpha, so I have a front row seat to their world.
What’s something you would like to see from the industry?
I would love to see more diversity, whether that’s in terms of gender, age, race or culture. Different perspectives are always welcome. We tend to have a preconceived notion of what business leaders should look like, but especially when it comes to emerging technologies and the metaverse, sometimes the youngest people are the smartest people in the room. When you think of tech, you don’t think of someone like me—but that’s exactly why it’s so important for there to be new voices in the field. And the more other people see diversity within leaders in the industry, the more they will realise that they can achieve the same. Having diverse leadership can inspire many.
Given the pace of emerging technologies within the last few years, it feels as though we’re just constantly progressing, not necessarily with a goal in mind. Personally, do you have goal that you would like to work towards?
I’m excited to work towards a post-smartphone future—whatever that might end up looking like, whether it’s AR glasses or a different type of wearable technology. When we’re no longer constantly heads down on our phones, I’m curious to see how that would change the way we engage with the world. I’m interested in seeing how artificial intelligence (AI), for example, is going to change my kids’ lives and the jobs that they’re going to take up. I was just having a conversation with my son about that, because they’re starting to learn about ChatGPT at school. I let him try it out and he was just blown away. But he also mentioned that it would be really interesting if AI could help us do our work better rather than take over our jobs, and how it had the potential to help the elderly or other people that might require assistance. So I want to put the focus once again on Gen Alpha and how all these technologies would converge to impact their future—and what I would need to do today to leave a better world for them.