The Designer Duo of STAFFONLY on Fashion’s NFT Opportunity in China

Shimo Zhou and Une Yea, founders of the menswear brand STAFFONLY, are the next stars to be welcomed into the Jing Daily community of individuals shaping China’s booming luxury fashion industry. These profiles highlight industry leaders who contribute to the national and global fashion communities, from creatives and influencers to business executives and entrepreneurs.

From creative minds to business brains, partnerships make the wheels of the fashion world spin. One great local team is Shimo Zhou and Une Yea, the duo behind the menswear company STAFFONLY. They graduated from MA menswear design at the London College of Fashion and MA Accessory Design at the Royal College of Arts respectively, and started their collaboration for their final projects on these courses before founding the brand in 2015. 

To celebrate its Fall 2022 Collection launch, the label launched “STAFFONLY®️ AUCTION,” a virtual auction platform — where the firm’s own collection of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) was exhibited and bid on. In collaboration with creative workshop Studio Office, the project features a group of 3D virtual characters wearing the house’s current season and UGG ® Tasman footwear series.

STAFFONLY presented its Fall 2022 collection as a virtual auction with 20 different 3D virtual avatars. Photo: STAFFONLY’s Weibo

The auction was designed to be a physical one held during Shanghai Fashion Week; however, the unexpected Shanghai lockdown disrupted the schedule. The initiative still engaged a large number of participants via its online alternative, averaging hundreds of bids for the virtual lots.

Here, we caught up with the designer duo to learn more about their brand journey, discuss the implications of NFTs, and take a behind-the-scenes look at their first virtual auction. 

Tell us about your day. And What does your work division look like? 

We are more business partners than merely a designer duo, and we don’t really have very clear divisions in our daily operations. Our roles are fluid, meaning they are interchangeable and complementary. Likewise, the organizational structure of the brand tends to be horizontal, which allows us to work in project-based teams and be able to exchange ideas and feedback. We see ourselves as just as important as everyone else in the team. That’s why we’ve never appeared in the show’s curtain calls. We don’t want audiences to focus their attention on us.

I see. And how do today’s menswear consumers differ from seven years ago when STAFFONLY debuted? And how do you adapt to the shifts?

Today’s consumers are more dynamic. They have more choices, and a stronger awareness of styling. More importantly, they have also shown more willingness to share their interests and thoughts due to the rise of social media. As such, we’ve tried to target broader demographics in many aspects, including (but not limited) to age, occupation, and mentality. 

For example, we spotlighted finance for the Autumn/Winter 2021 Collection and collaborated with Bank of China for a credit card project, which led to a significant sales increase at a stockist located in the Bund Finance Center, Shanghai. And we explored social phobia for the Spring/Summer 2022 season and engaged many consumers to share their personal experiences with us. 

STAFFONLY’s collaboration with Bank of China aims to create an emotional connection between young consumers and their credit card. Photo: STAFFONLY’s Weibo

How have daily operations been impacted by the Shanghai lockdown? 

Well, we planned the Autumn/Winter 2022 presentation with both online and offline formats, but we had to reschedule it virtually. Meanwhile, buyers cannot see and feel samples at showrooms as usual. The only solution is to add more visual assets, including videos and photos, to help them experience and navigate the collection. 

The COVID spike is like a test to measure a brand’s agility. We’ve noticed brands responding to it in various ways: some may hold presentations back until the lockdown is lifted, but we opted to follow the scheduled pace so as not to disappoint the audience. Being able to move forward in this special situation actually gives us some positive energy.

So, is that where the idea of a virtual auction comes from? 

We were inspired by the theme of “vanity” which became a typical feature that is commonly seen on social media — the “like” — which not only functions as a virtual recognition, but also a unique social currency in today’s digital landscape. That’s why we invented “likecoins” as a virtual currency for the auction. Through exchanging “likes” collected from participants’ social channels to “likecoins,” they can use these “likecoins” to bid on the NFTs — which then function as a materialized medium embodied with their virtual recognition. 

How has it been received?

It has been excellently received. The auction was very intense with hundreds of bids for each lot. It was so exciting. Many participants shared with us that it was one of the most exciting and fun activities they had ever experienced. Some of the winners are using the NFTs as profile photos for their social accounts; they see those characters as their virtual avatars during the pandemic.

NFT collaborations have been booming in China recently. What’s your take on the opportunities presented by NFTs for fashion?

This COVID spike attached greater attention to NFTs, and many brands have released NFT-inspired projects. In my opinion, NFTs are just a medium of expression. It’s the content you want to express that is the most important. Like how we approached NFTs for the Autumn/Winter 2022 presentation: the key message there was about virtual recognition in the age of social media, but not limited to NFTs.

Many local tech giants have made forays into digital fashion, in collaboration with designer brands. What’s the biggest challenge for digital fashion?

The biggest challenge for digital fashion is that the required technology is not yet developed. It cannot be tried on and rendered in real-time like physical clothes. However, the concept does allow brands to break orthodox rules and present more avant-garde works, which definitely means a new space for creators.