With COVID-19 numbers spiking around the globe, the gaming world certainly appears more promising than real life. Just ask Shannon Hall Pereira, who enjoys playing dress-up in the fictional world of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” when her 6-year-old son isn’t hogging the video game.
“I dress very opulently in the game,” said Hall Pereira, who owns a fashion marketing and sales agency in Los Angeles. “I love having crazy hair and a big poufy dress. I wear sneakers with it. In my head, this is what I would want to wear. Where would I wear it? I don’t know.”
Exploring an island paradise built precisely to one’s specifications in a game like “Animal Crossing” might be a worthwhile distraction, and several fashion and beauty companies, including Louis Vuitton, MCM and Tatcha, are eager to harness the enthusiasm that Hall Pereira and thousands of other worldwide have shown for this intersection of gaming and fashion.
Keep in mind, the video game business is small compared to the apparel market. Data research firm Statista said that with a projected decline of nearly 29% from last year, U.S. apparel revenue will total almost $256 billion in 2020.
However, the U.S. games industry is one of the strongest sectors in the pandemic economy.
In the first nine months of 2020, sales of video game hardware, content and accessories grew 21% to $33.7 billion over the same period in 2019, according to the NPD Group. With the holiday releases of the latest PlayStation and Xbox consoles, video game spending is expected to reach $13.4 billion in November and December, up 24% from the same time a year ago. The market research firm also estimates that there are now 244 million video game players in the U.S., or 30 million more than in 2018.
The fashion crowd wants to ride this upward trajectory and develop relationships with new and future customers. Indie designers including Collina Strada’s Hillary Taymour and L.A. designer Mila Sullivan as well as storied brands such as Balenciaga, Gucci and Gillette are accelerating fashion’s crossover to electronic games. A few are creating their own button mashers, while others are collaborating with popular video-game titles, including “Animal Crossing,” “The Sims,” “Tennis Clash” and “League of Legends.”
For their part, game makers are diversifying digital wardrobes not only to reflect players’ interests but also to enliven fans’ cosplay. Once players obtain the software and equipment needed to play a video game, they can get stylish extras for their virtual mini-mes for free — or with in-game points and add-on purchases.
With the pandemic upending in-person fashion shows and traditional sartorial marketing, “designers want to tap into the cachet of games and the strength of that audience and make themselves relevant in a new high-tech world,” said Van Burnham, a former fashion designer and author of “Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971–1984” and its sequel, which she will self-publish next year.
Noting how many so-called hypebeasts who obsess over fashion are also gamers, she added: “The prototypical nerds have evolved to a point where they are very style-conscious. It’s cool to play games now.”
There are so many ways — recent and upcoming — to play dress-up in the virtual life. On Dec. 6, Balenciaga is launching the allegorical adventure game “Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow,” which will double as a reveal for its fall 2021 collection. Set in 2031, the imaginary world could be germane today with COVID-19. After beating the game, the player is rewarded with a real-life breathing exercise in a virtual utopia.
Gucci is no stranger to the video-game world. Having outfitted “Tennis Clash” avatars in its double-G logo and installed a retro-style arcade on its own app over the last year, the famed Italian brand recently picked up the pace for its gaming ventures. As part of November’s Guccifest, Collina Strada and Gareth Wrighton each premiered short films influenced by video games. In “Collina Land,” viewers can use their keyboard to maneuver models-turned-avatars around five different environments, including a neon-tinted Underwater World. (As Gucci put it, Wrighton’s “The Maul” is “a trailer for a video game that doesn’t exist.”)
Before Guccifest, Gucci gave away virtual versions of its eco-friendly merchandise to whoever wanted it in the latest edition of “The Sims.” The brand connected directly with the artists who go by the handles of Harrie and Grimcookies, commissioning digital replicas of a multi-tiered treehouse, sneakers, backpacks and other accessories from Gucci’s Off the Grid collection.
“I didn’t really believe it at first, because you’re wondering why Gucci would want to be in ‘The Sims,’” said Samantha Henderson, the 34-year-old London-based graphic designer known as Harrie. In the first week after the Oct. 21 release of the fashionable freebies, Henderson said players downloaded around 13,000 copies of the modern treehouse she had designed for the computer game.
The status symbols were big scores for her too, because “unfortunately, I can’t quite afford Gucci right now,” she said.
Tatcha, the luxury skin-care brand coveted by celebrities, has also explored the virtual realm. After canceling a trip with influencers to Kyoto, Japan, at the outset of the global pandemic, Tatcha unveiled a dream destination dubbed Tatchaland in “Animal Crossing,” where some 2,000 visitors have checked out its virtual skin-care lab, hot spring spa and other Japanese locales. The project was “a great pivot, if you will, for 2020,” said Sarah Henry, Tatcha’s chief marketing officer.
According to Dan Manioci, head of marketing and communications for MCM’s Americas business, MCM had a pleasant “Animal Crossing” experience of digitizing a $495 jacquard skirt and a $750 velour track jacket, among other items from its fall and winter 2020 collection.
“In terms of gaming, we are looking at opportunities into next year,” Manioci said. “It’s important for us to be pioneers in that [digital] space.”
Looking toward next year, gamers have until Jan. 28 to earn enough points for high-end skins, or in-game looks, designed by Louis Vuitton and Aape by A Bathing Ape in the fighting-and-strategy-heavy PC game “League of Legends.” In the game, a fierce sharpshooter named Senna blasts her Louis Vuitton-monogrammed cannon, while the French fashion house’s flower logo is illuminated under her feet. Also, for DJ and samurai Yasuo, a force shield emanates Aape by A Bathing Ape’s simian logo.
Given how popular special skins have become, the blurring between fashion and gaming was inevitable. “The new economy of games,” Burnham said, “is meshing with the fashion world, and the way those drops are executed, in a really synergistic way.”
Fashion designers also have the power to elevate a gamer’s style. As part of Louis Vuitton’s landmark partnership initiated last year with “League of Legends,” which counts 8 million concurrent players daily worldwide, the luxury label appealed to an untapped audience with Instagram filters, a bespoke case for the esport championship trophy and a capsule collection that included colorful luggage tags, graphic tees and silver biker jackets.
When the deal was announced, Louis Vuitton Chairman and Chief Executive Michael Burke described it in a statement as “an unprecedented opportunity to bring our historical commitment to merging innovation and tradition with our spirit of adventure to a new generation.”
At this fall’s League of Legends World Championship Tournament in Shanghai, pop star Lexie Liu serenaded spectators in a Senna-style ensemble by Louis Vuitton, which also gifted logoed duffle bags to several athletes. Additionally, in September, “League of Legends” launched a streetwear collection with Aape By A Bathing Ape.
“We’re looking at doing a couple of collaborations like this a year,” said Christian Bayley, director of consumer products and licensing at L.A.-based Riot Games, which makes “League of Legends.” “This is somewhat normal and expected in music and sport, right? I think it will be that level of natural and normal in gaming.”
Despite fashion’s intensifying presence in their domain, some gamers feel sheepish about prioritizing aesthetics over points. On Reddit, 55,500 people have joined a community called Fashion Souls, where they bond over the armor they’ve tricked out for the characters they role-play in the action game “Dark Souls.” In a mission statement, Fashion Souls’ organizers reassured members that “some folks will sacrifice stats for a phresh look and that’s OK!”
When Kitfox Games previewed a dress with pockets in its new dating simulator-meets-monster killer game “Boyfriend Dungeon,” “a lot of women were like, ‘Oh, my God, yes!’” said Victoria Tran, communications director at the Montreal-based studio. “It makes people connect to the game more.”
To an extent, video games also reflect shifts in society. In “Goodbye Volcano High,” KO_OP Studio’s upcoming game about teenage dinosaurs falling in love before a meteor destroys their life, players can paint red and purple eyeshadow, along with mascara and eyeliner, on a nonbinary pterodactyl called Fang.
Saleem Dabbous, KO_OP’s studio director in Montreal, said: “For us, [the scene] was specifically about reflecting how stylish young folks are these days, particularly with access to the internet and YouTube and things like makeup tutorials.”
Fans want to be part of the artistic process. In the dating simulation game “Monster Prom,” players can make mods, or alterations, that add custom outfits and special effects. Julián Quijano, founder and creative director of Beautiful Glitch, the Spanish studio that produced “Monster Prom,” said fans have crafted hundreds of themes, including one inspired by drag queens.
Moreover, authenticity can prevail in a realm regarded as make-believe. Nicole Cuddihy recalled how as a child in Oregon, she was ashamed for having a benign skin condition called keratosis pilaris. To show how normal the tiny bumps are, the 24-year-old illustrator placed red dots on her “Animal Crossing” avatar. “Honestly, it looks cute on the character,” said Cuddihy, who now lives in London. “It gives her more personality and makes her look unique.”
Marketers at Boston-based Gillette Venus had a similar idea. They asked Cuddihy to create a custom line of 264 designs, reflecting 19 skin and body types in eight tones, including acne, cellulite and prosthetic legs. A Gillette Venus representative said 20,000 copies of the booklet showing the beach-themed “Animal Crossing” characters and free codes have been downloaded from the company’s website.
The last thing Gillette Venus wanted to do was to “stick a shaver [in the game] and have the avatar start shaving,” said Anthony van Dijk, the company’s senior brand director. “Gaming is a source of escape. It’s a source of entertainment. We all know that in these times we could use that. At the same time, everybody should be proud of how their skin appears.”
For Luke Clarke, who makes a living as a custom games content creator under the moniker Grimcookies, collaborating with Gucci on “The Sims” was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“The reason ‘The Sims’ was perfect for this is high fashion works,” the 22-year-old said from Melbourne, Australia. “People make goofy Sims that are larger than life.”
Here’s a list of mobile, PC and console titles that have a strong fashion game.
“Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow”
Launch date: Dec. 6, 2020
PC and mobile
Quick look: Set in 2031, this allegorical adventure game doubles as a presentation of Balenciaga’s fall 2021 fashion collection. Players try to beat the game so the hero avatar can become a Master of Two Worlds, and the winner is rewarded with a real-life breathing exercise in utopia.
“Animal Crossing: New Horizons”
Launch date: March 2020
Nintendo Switch and Nintendo Switch Lite
Quick look: In addition to customizing their own island, players can dress their avatars in virtual outfits resembling real-life fashion by indie and luxury brands, including Chanel, Mila Sullivan and Valentino. Nintendo said it sold more than 22 million units of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” in the first three months of the game’s release.
Launch date: November 2020
Quick look: Exploring five different environments ranging from the desert to glaciers to underwater, viewers use their computer keyboard to maneuver models-turned-avatars and plant virtual trees.
Launch date: 2013
Free with in-app purchases
Quick look: Players show off their styling prowess in virtual challenges that incorporate the latest trends and real-world brands such as Calvin Klein and Rachel Zoe.
Launch date: Dec. 10, 2020
PC, PlayStation 4, Stadia, Xbox One
Quick look: Evoking the futuristic fashion from “The Matrix” and “Blade Runner,” this action-adventure game revolves around a cyberpunk character who searches for the key to immortality.
Launch date: 2019
Free with in-app purchases
Quick look: Merging gaming, news and entertainment, this fashion app turns the player into a stylist who not only plays with luxe looks but also can make real-life purchases.
Launch date: July 2019
Quick look: Gucci has transformed a section of its app into an arcade with retro-style games, including “Gucci Ace,” which was inspired by the 1972 video game “Pong.”
Gucci “Off the Grid” X “The Sims 4”
Launch date: Oct. 21, 2020
Quick look: Custom content creators Harrie and Grimcookies digitally replicated a treehouse and accessories from Gucci’s eco-friendly Off the Grid collection, which players can add for free to the latest computer version of “The Sims.” The designs can be used with the fashion pack released by Moschino in 2019.
“League of Legends”
Launch date: 2009
Free with in-game cosmetic purchases
Quick look: While helping their five-person team destroy an enemy’s base in a fantasy-based world, players try to earn 100 prestige points and obtain an exclusive skin designed by Aape by A Bathing Ape or Louis Vuitton.
“Love Nikki-Dress Up Queen”
Launch date: 2015
Free with in-app purchases
Quick look: Claiming more than 100 million players worldwide, this addictive game features a character named Nikki, who styles fashion items ranging from Belle Époque dresses to goth get-ups.
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