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You can thank The Sims for the rise of luxury fashion in gaming

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Gaming and fashion might seem unlikely bedfellows, but what our avatars wear — whether they’re parachuting into battle in Fortnite or going out to dinner in The Sims — has been of interest since video game characters were first able to change their clothes.

And more recently, luxury labels have been keen to invade the space. Balenciaga, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger and Valentino have all tried their hand at running catwalk shows in the Animal Crossing village building game for the past three years; Collaborating on clothing and outfits, often referred to as “skins,” in titles like League of Legends and Fortnite; or creating purchasable game environments in Roblox.

And while the appetite for digital apparel outside of games has increased in recent years, alongside the advent of NFTs, gamers have collectibles – see Dolce & Gabbana’s record-breaking $6 million collection or a pair of Nike and RTFKT sneakers , which sell for $133,000 – done the right thing virtually laying the foundation for the current boom.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the gaming community helped create a thriving environment for independent designers to create bespoke fashion in video games such as The Sims, as well as a lucrative system for selling digital goods from EverQuest and World of Warcraft on eBay, years earlier game developers and apparel brands began monetizing skins for a wider audience.

“The direct-to-avatar economy isn’t necessarily new,” Cassandra Napoli, a senior strategist at trend forecasting firm WGSN, said 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 more of a niche experience for people who are already gamers.”

Last year, a virtual Gucci bag in Roblox resold for the equivalent of $4,115, more than the bag's real, physical counterpart was worth.  In September, a digital version of a Carolina Herrera dress worn by Karlie Kloss to New York Fashion Week raised $5,000.

Last year, a virtual Gucci bag in Roblox resold for the equivalent of $4,115, more than the bag’s real, physical counterpart was worth. In September, a digital version of a Carolina Herrera dress worn by Karlie Kloss to New York Fashion Week raised $5,000. Recognition: Roblox

Now, she said, “the scale of gaming in general has really become more mainstream.” According to a report by WGSN in 2020, skin sales accounted for 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 was spending more time at home.

Individual creativity

When The Sims debuted in 2000, offering a world like our own in place of the industry-dominating fantasy titles, the creative pool for virtual fashion exploded. Like many game titles, The Sims can be modified or “modded” with aesthetic changes, such as hairstyles or clothing, imported from programs outside the game.

“That’s really where digital fashion manifested itself – the idea of ​​not always wanting to look like an NPC (non-player character) or like another player,” said Jenni Svoboda, a Texas-based designer, which goes by the online name Lovespun and has been creating custom themes for games such as The Sims, Second Life and Roblox since the mid 80’s.

The Sims have been working with fashion brands for almost two decades, starting with H&M.

The Sims have been working with fashion brands for almost two decades, starting with H&M. Recognition: EA games

Over the years, The Sims has partnered with H&M, Diesel, Moschino and Gucci, but with unofficial player designs, any look was possible. Players make “custom hair, clothes, makeup — just about anything you can think of,” Svoboda explained. If you want Kylie Jenner’s matte lip colors, “Mean Girls” matchy-matchy pink outfits, or any Jules look from “Euphoria,” there’s a mod for that.

But where custom themes are meant to enhance The Sims gameplay, they became the basis for platforms like the early metaverse Second Life, where everything in the virtual world is built by its inhabitants, and Roblox, where users both play and play games on the platform create . In Second Life, major fashion brands began staking their claims back in 2006 when American Apparel, Armani, and Adidas opened their digital storefronts, at a time when the platform was reportedly worth an estimated $64 million. Earlier this year, Jonathan Simkhai presented his fall-winter 2022 collection in Second Life instead of a physical show at New York Fashion Week.

Jonathan Simkhai's virtual collection presented in Second Life.  The open virtual world started attracting top fashion brands in the mid-2000s.

Jonathan Simkhai’s virtual collection presented in Second Life. The open virtual world started attracting top fashion brands in the mid-2000s. Recognition: Linden Laboratory

On Roblox, top developers have reportedly made millions and have the opportunity to design game 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 a lot of brands to come in and work together,” she said.

Coveted virtual goods

Edward Castronova, a professor of media at Indiana University Bloomington and an expert on the virtual economies of video games, has documented the rise of virtual goods since the late 1990s, when there was the first major wave of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). released. One thing that has never surprised him is the amount of effort people put into collecting digital outfits.

When the fantasy MMORPG Ultima Online, which debuted in 1997, offered users unlimited storage space for their gear, one user became monomaniac about collecting shirts, Castronova recounted in his 2006 book, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of on-line games”.

“He somehow acquired and stockpiled over 10,000 of these for reasons unknown,” Castronova wrote.

Video game outfits, or "skins" has grown into a multi-billion dollar business in recent years.

Video game outfits or “skins” have become a multi-billion dollar business in recent years. Recognition: Louis Vuitton x League of Legends

Rare armor and skins became coveted items – and their own off-game economies worth tens of millions on sites like eBay by the mid-2000s, as Castronova documented – but it wasn’t until the 2010s for game companies to start to monetize them. Skins are now a multi-billion dollar revenue stream in gaming and have also caught the attention of fashion brands.

This interest has borne fruit for many multiplayer games, including the wildly popular Fortnite, whose stylistic punch is an integral part of its gaming experience.

Louis Vuitton and League of Legends have teamed up for a series of skins in 2019.

Louis Vuitton and League of Legends have teamed up for a series of skins in 2019. Recognition: Louis Vuitton x League of Legends

“The entire player experience is centered around this idea of ​​awesome self-expression,” said Emily Levy, partnerships director at Epic Games, which publishes the title. Fortnite may have skyrocketed in 2018 for its 100-player competitive fighting game, but it’s also hosting social events like concerts (which Ariana Grande has performed at) and fashion tournaments. Some outfits have developed “cult-like followings,” Levy said.

A long term relationship

Sallyann Houghton, fashion director at Epic Games, believes the two industries will continue to converge, noting in particular that technology is finally in a place where luxury brands can mimic their physical attire. 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 such as Gary James McQueen (Alexander McQueen’s nephew).

“Advancements in graphics have come so far,” she said. “We can now create a digital double, whether it’s a piece of clothing, a building or a landscape, that helps convey the mood of a collection.”

In a partnership with Moncler, for example, the characters’ outfits switched from light to dark depending on their height, a nod to the Italian company’s alpine roots – a creative twist that physical designers would struggle to achieve.

Fortnite has partnered with Moncler and Balenciaga to create creative outfits that can respond to game environments, like Moncler's adjustable-height garments.

Fortnite has partnered with Moncler and Balenciaga to create creative outfits that can respond to game environments, like Moncler’s adjustable-height garments. Recognition: Epic Games

However, many of the recent partnerships have also been one-offs and it will be some time before any major fashion houses make a long-term commitment to the gaming market. Gucci is a brand that invests heavily in space, with projects featuring Pokémon Go, Roblox and Tennis Clash, as well as their own Gucci Arcade inspired by vintage games. According to Robert Triefus, who heads corporate and brand strategy, this is due to its global potential.

“(Gaming) crosses generations, genders and ethnicities. It’s a true global community in every way,” he wrote in an email to CNN. “We realized there was an opportunity for Gucci to have a voice in this community.” Triefus added that her team conducted “a number of different types of experiments” to gain a “deeper understanding of the gaming world.” to get.

Whether we’re in a true digital fashion renaissance, ushering in an era of the so-called metaverse, or what Castronova calls a “hype wave,” Castronova believes branded goods will always be a magnet in video games.

“People care about how they look, whether in a virtual or real environment,” he said. Wearing a Versace hat in a game “is huge marketing,” he added. “It’s getting harder and harder to reach the eyeballs of 18-34 year olds, and their eyeballs are in interactive experiences. So I think that will continue and intensify.”

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