Gaming and fashion may appear to be unlikely bedfellows, but what our avatars wear — whether skydiving into a battle in Fortnite or having a dinner date in The Sims — has been of interest since video game characters could first change their clothes.
And more recently, luxury labels have been keen to enter the space. Balenciaga, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger and Valentino have all dabbled over the past three years, hosting runway shows in the village-building game Animal Crossing; collaborating on clothing and outfits, often called “skins,” in titles like League of Legends and Fortnite; or creating shoppable gaming environments in Roblox.
And while the appetite for digital garments has taken off outside of games in recent years, alongside the advent of collectible NFTs — see Dolce & Gabbana’s record-setting $6 million collection, or a pair of Nike and RTFKT sneakers selling for $133,000 — gamers laid the groundwork for the current boom in virtual fashion.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the gaming community helped to establish a thriving environment for independent designers creating custom fashion in video games like The Sims as well as a lucrative system for selling digital goods from EverQuest and World of Warcraft on eBay, years before game developers and clothing brands began to monetize skins for wider audiences.
“The direct-to-avatar economy isn’t necessarily new,” said Cassandra Napoli, a senior strategist at trend-forecasting company WGSN, in a video call with CNN. “I think what’s new now is that people are more aware that this is an opportunity, whereas in the past, it was very much a niche experience for people who are already gamers.”
Now, she said, “the magnitude of gaming in general has really become more mainstream.” According to a report by WGSN in 2020, the sales of skins made up 80 percent of the $120 billion spent on digital video games in 2019 — and that was before the industry’s pandemic boom as much of the world spent more time at home.
When The Sims first debuted in 2000, offering a world like our own instead of the fantasy titles dominating the industry, the creative pool for virtual fashion exploded. Like many game titles, The Sims could be modified or “modded” with aesthetic changes, like hairstyles or clothes, imported from programs outside of the game.
“That’s really where digital fashion manifested — the idea of not wanting to always look like either an NPC (non-player character) or another player,” said Jenni Svoboda, a Texas-based designer who goes by the online moniker Lovespun and has been creating custom designs for games including The Sims, Second Life and Roblox since the mid-aughts.
Over the years, The Sims has partnered with H&M, Diesel, Moschino and Gucci, but with unofficial designs made by players, any look became possible. Players make “custom hairs, clothes, makeup — almost anything you could think of,” Svoboda explained. If you want Kylie Jenner’s matte lip colors, “Mean Girls” matchy-matchy pink outfits or every Jules look from “Euphoria,” there’s a mod for that.
But where custom designs are meant to enhance The Sims’ gameplay, they became the basis for platforms like early metaverse Second Life, where everything in the virtual world is built by its residents, and Roblox, where users both play and create games on the platform. In Second Life, major fashion brands began staking their claims as early as 2006, with American Apparel, Armani and Adidas opening up their digital storefronts, at a time when the platform reportedly valued at an estimated $64 million. Earlier this year, Jonathan Simkhai presented his Fall-Winter 2022 collection in Second Life in lieu of a physical show at New York Fashion Week.
On Roblox, top developers have reportedly made millions, and have the opportunity to design gaming environments for their fashion partnerships. Svoboda has worked with Forever 21, Tommy Hilfiger and Karlie Kloss, and she believes Roblox has “definitely been a gateway and an opening for lots of brands to come in and collaborate,” she said.
Coveted virtual goods
Edward Castronova, a professor of media at Indiana University Bloomington and expert on the virtual economies of video games, has documented the ascent of virtual goods since the late 1990s, when the first major wave of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) were released. One thing he has never been surprised by is the length people will go to to collect digital outfits.
When fantasy MMORPG Ultima Online, which debuted in 1997, offered users unlimited storage for their gear, one user became monomaniacal about collecting shirts, recounted Castronova in his 2006 book, “Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games.”
“He somehow acquired and stored over 10,000 of them, for reasons unknown,” Castronova wrote.
Rare armor and skins became coveted items — and their own off-game economy worth tens of millions on sites like eBay in the mid-2000s, as Castronova documented — but it took until the 2010s for game companies to begin monetizing them. Now a multibillion-dollar source of revenue in gaming, skins have attracted the attention of fashion brands, too.
That interest has been fruitful for many multiplayer games, including the uber-popular Fortnite, whose style clout is integral to its gameplay experience.
“The entire player experience is centered on this idea of fantastical self-expression,” said Emily Levy, partnerships director at Epic Games, which publishes the title. Fortnite may have skyrocketed in fame in 2018 for its 100-person competitive combat play, but it also hosts social events like concerts (where Ariana Grande has performed) and fashion tournaments. Some outfits have developed “cult-like followings,” Levy said.
A long-term relationship
Sallyann Houghton, fashion director at Epic Games, believes that the two industries will continue to converge, noting in particular that technology is finally in a place where luxury brands can mimic their physical clothes. Epic is also the developer of Unreal Engine 5, a real-time 3D modeling tool that powers many video games and metaverse platforms, and has also created runway experiences for designers like Gary James McQueen (Alexander McQueen’s nephew).
“The advances in graphics have come so far,” she said. “We can now create a digital double, whether it’s a piece of clothing, or a building or a landscape, that helps communicate the mood of a collection.”
For a partnership with Moncler, for example, characters’ outfits changed from light to dark depending on their altitude, a nod to the Italian company’s alpine roots — a creative twist that physical designers would be hard-pressed to achieve.
But many of the recent partnerships have also been one-offs, and it will be some time until it’s clear whether major fashion houses commit to the gaming market long-term. Gucci is one brand investing heavily in the space, with projects with Pokémon Go, Roblox and Tennis Clash, as well as their own Gucci Arcade, inspired by vintage gaming. That’s because of its global potential, according to Robert Triefus, who leads its corporate and brand strategy.
“(Gaming) crosses generations, crosses genders, crosses ethnicities. It’s a true global community in every sense,” he wrote in an email to CNN. “We realized that there was an opportunity for Gucci to have a voice in that community.” Triefus added that their team has conducted “a number of different kinds of experiments” for a “deeper understanding of the gaming world.”
Whether we’re in a true digital fashion renaissance as we’re ushered into an era of the so-called metaverse or what Castronova calls a “hype wave,” Castronova believes that branded goods in video games will always be a draw.
“People care about what they look like, whether it’s in a virtual environment or real,” he said. Wearing a Versace hat in a game “is tremendous marketing,” he added. “It’s getting harder and harder to get the eyeballs of 18 to 34-year-olds, and their eyeballs are in interactive experiences. So, I think that will continue and intensify.”