Ravi Guru Singh is a Brooklyn based lawyer and digital creator who minted the first traditional Indian fashion NFT collection. In this interview, he expands on his career paths since COVID, the continuing convergence of fashion and crypto, as well as his views on the future of the NFT industry.
Hey Ravi! Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your work? What is the philosophy and inspiration behind your creations?
The pandemic changed everything about who I consider myself to be. Before COVID, I was a corporate lawyer who practiced at elite banking and technology law firms firms, in particular, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Cooley LLP. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, by a single mom, who is an immigrant from Guyana. My dad, Punjabi, is a cab driver. So to go on to Vanderbilt University and Northwestern Law on full scholarships, and then work on and lead legal deals worth millions and billions of dollars for clients like Uber and Goldman, was big for me. But I found a lot of the work in my finance practice to be a black hole to my individuality and creativity. I believed that I was reacting to the culture, rather than leading it.
Following the pandemic, I ended up being the first person in the world to create a crypto digital fashion collection inspired by India. I'm making my acting debut for an independent film, Terrible Children. I debuted in reality TV for Indian Matchmaking on Netflix. I created, wrote, and produced an animated sci-fi comedy short, Doing the Robot, which has won awards and been official selections for festivals around the world, from France to Australia. I work as an outside-counsel for a healthcare start-up. And for the crypto fashion collection, I collaborated with Lorena Bello, a Madrid-based designer, and we built an Indian digital collection from scratch. The outfits ended up making national news in India and got covered by the first and second-largest newspapers there – the Times of India and the Hindu.
I'm inspired by the philosophy of crypto: it makes suit-and-tie types uncomfortable for the way it takes away power from certain financial elites and gives it to more people.
Crypto is borderless, the metaverse is borderless. I remember watching Bollywood movies with my mom as a kid, and I wanted to see culturally relevant content in the metaverse. I wanted to tap into the Indian market, which is composed of 1.3 billion people in India, millions more around the world in the diaspora, and is culturally similar to the hundreds of millions who live in Pakistan and Bangladesh. I believe that the metaverse is being created by people who want to be inclusive, that we've learned from the mistakes of the past. If you believe in the metaverse, then you believe in the idea that there is a market potential of billions. As well as people who just love desi culture too, and that can be anyone.
Digital fashion is reaching a wider audience, and just over the last year we have both seen and heard a lot more about the subject. What possibilities do you see for digital fashion, and how do you think it can change, challenge or uplift the more traditional aspect of the fashion industry?
It's exciting but also extraordinarily challenging. There's a divergence between NFT art and NFT fashion. The general public doesn't get the utility of either, but the definition of art is more amorphous, so there's more room for Cryptopunks to have no utility per see, but have artistic value. With digital fashion, people want to wear it. It can be art too, but people want to try it on. So with the digital fashion collection, it was programmed with Clo3D, but you needed to render it in Houdini, then you needed to mint it on a blockchain platform.
Then, if you want to display it with AR, you have to convert it again. Then if you want to wear it, as an AR projection on to a body, you need Lens Studio. Then you need to get it on Snapchat. But that's not platform agnostic, so you may need a version for other applications. Then if you want to review it in VR, that's another language. You might need Oculus, and you're stuck under the Facebook umbrella, which some crypto enthusiasts hate. So a digital fashion NFT may need a lot of development. We haven't even gotten into the legal issues, the display rights, and who else can wear it. Because if someone else can just get your file and wear your clothes, where's the value? So perhaps digital fashion designers will get paid royalties off each subsequent sale. Because making a digital fashion outfit platform agnostic in perpetuity isn't free. All to say, there's an incredible world ahead, but nothing about this will be overnight.
You have minted “The First Dress of India” on Portion for this event. Can you please speak on the significance of this piece? What was the creative process like?
The Lengha Choli is a dress popular among desi women. It's worn for all sorts of gatherings, and many Indian designers make versions of it. It gets shown at fashion events in India and around the world all the time. It's in movies. It's beautiful, there's so much history in it.
So what we've done is taken something from the real world, that has been developed for hundreds of years, and you're creating a digital version of it that is forever recorded on the blockchain. It's literally going to be displayed in a blockchain museum, in Decentraland.
It's passing the baton from the real world to the metaverse, and making Indian people, desi women, perk up and say, wait, what is that dress doing there? What is an NFT? What is digital fashion? You're making all the Indian models, the Indian fashion industry, the cinema industry say, "huh?" And you're inspiring people to consider careers in this, putting capital in this. You're making kids happy that they're not erased in the next frontier of tech. You're adding to all the beautiful styles that make up fashion and contributing to art history.
It's different from buying something from Zara or H&M. You're owning the first of it's kind in this category, and that's really amazing for the buyer.
There are so many immersive spaces taking shape in the realm of NFTs—whether through metaverse environments, online gallery spaces, and wearable digital art. What does the idea of the metaverse mean to you?
We can start by what it's not. It's not just AR, we've had that. It's not just VR, we have that. It's not just NFTs. It's not one video game. It's shared, immersive spaces, across digital and physical spaces. It's the way the internet linked various computers and servers together and allows anyone to access content from typing in a web address. It's a physical representation of your identity and your real world, in virtual spaces, around the world.
How do you envision your digital fashion creations to be used? How do you want your audience to interact and interpret your designs?
So many ways and with plenty of questions. Who gets represented in the metaverse? Who are the programmers? How do the politics of cultural appropriation play out for the people who make the clothes in the real world and the people who buy the clothes or wear them in the digital world? How do you train underrepresented, historically excluded, colonized people in all the sophisticated programming languages required to make all this? Who has the capital to buy it? Why did it take a non-fashion professional to make it, and how did the entire Indian fashion industry miss this trend or at least, lacked the capacity to make it? The Indian government? The culture? The lack of buyers? Skepticism of the industry as a whole? What is the utility of digital art, and is digital fashion more art or is it fashion?
What does it mean for something to be clothes? Do clothes need to be worn for it to be clothes? How do you take fashion that's hundreds of years old and update it to something people want to buy today? Is this Indian or desi, i.e., could Pakistanis and Bangadeshis identify with this piece? After all, this style existed before modern India existed. I could, we could, literally write the textbook on the Principles of Indian Digital Fashion Design, create a course around it.
How did you find your way into NFTs, crypto, and the digital fashion space? What opportunities do NFTs present for artists that are unique from other mediums?
Not "how much money could I make from this?" Because I'm a corporate lawyer, I could be making a lot more money doing other things. I went into this because I'm inspired, I love it, it's super interesting, I could talk about it all day. I cannot talk about secured transactions all day.
What are some of your observations about the emerging behaviors in the NFT space and what do you see as next opportunities for this industry?
Different sectors need to talk, and Facebook and Snapchat and Apple can't be the only games in town. Those behemoths are going to have to get undercut somehow. They can't have a monopoly on all the best VR/AR talent in the world. In other words, designers, programmers, creators, celebrities, need to talk. Cross-discipline teams are badly needed. There needs to be a Clo-3d artist, a blockchain expert, an unreal expert, a lawyer, an AR dev, you need a lot of people around to make something work. Community is needed, investors are needed, buyers are needed. All this stuff needs to happen fast. Crypto is a 24/7 market. There also needs to be diversity, especially race and gender diversity. I'm working on teaching a session on building BIPOC/women communities around NFTs. I know a lot of black and brown Wall Street people. And they're willing to invest, but they want to know who they're investing in, and they want trust that their needs will be considered.
Lastly, as an artist who designed the world’s first digital Indian fashion collection, do you have tips for emerging artists? What advice do you have for people at the beginning of their journey into the world of digital design or NFTs?
Start very small. Literally join a Discord (not Telegram, it's full of people who shill things). DM a moderator or a team member. Say hello, maybe schedule a virtual coffee. Go to Twitter spaces, listen to interesting chats with credible people, leave rooms where you feel like the conversation isn't going anywhere. Follow people on Instagram, like their work. Find like-minded people, and do everything you can to work through the problems and issues before pitching your idea to someone else. So many people have ideas, but you need to prove that your idea is more than just some scribbles and a daydream. Even if one person isn't interested, try someone else. Keep going. I was rejected 99% of the time and I only needed 1 collaborator. I reached out to probably 25 designers, only 2 got back to me, and only Lorena had time. Then execute and move fast.
Check out Ravi Guru Singh's NFT on Portion