Wired published a report on what it coined the “virtual fashion revolution," an outreach program luxury fashion brands are implementing to reach Gen Z and millennial consumers and remain culturally relevant through online gaming. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 214 million U.S. consumers played video games for an hour or more every week, and reports indicate a 45% spike in time since stay-at-home orders originally took effect. What’s more, women now account for nearly 50% of gamers.
As consumers invest more time, energy, and, yes, cash in their digital lives, it makes sense that brands would mirror this shift. For companies targeting younger consumers in particular, gaming presents an opportunity to connect with and engage potential buyers. Just as brands are drawn to social media for its capacity to showcase products and help build relationships with customers, they’re now investing in gaming. The result? Cutting-edge business and marketing partnerships aimed at deepening the relationship between apparel brands and their fans.
Identity Expression in Fashion and Game Culture
There has always been a strong link between fashion and identity. Consumers leverage clothing, style trends, and labels to help them visually express their personalities and unique aesthetics. In many ways, the same can be said of gaming. Some psychologists describe the phenomenon of using games, and the avatars within them, to explore their identities as “the me I want you to see.” From how they look to how they dress, avatars become a stand-in for the players themselves.
Consider the multiplayer shooter game Fortnite, where avatars and the “skins” they choose to play with can display both the player’s personal style and how long they’ve played the game. Like clothing, most skins must be purchased, and some have a limited shelf life. And just like apparel in the physical world, avatars and skins can signal a knowledge of culture and trends — something young consumers are excited to put on display. When you pare these cultures down, the cachet of wearing a designer label isn’t so different from playing a game using a coveted skin.
When Fashion and Gaming Collide
No wonder some apparel brands have started partnering with gaming companies to create customized skins. In 2019, Moschino partnered with Electronic Arts’s life simulation game The Sims to create a “pack” of clothing and furniture items that could be used by Sims characters within the game. Some could even be purchased in real life at Moschino boutiques. “I love the idea of being able to imagine, design and bring to life a world of individual personas with The Sims universe,” Jeremy Scott, Creative Director of Moschino, has said.
Gamers experienced something similar with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, of which manufacturer Nintendo has sold more than 32 million units. Marc Jacobs created a digital-only clothing collection expressly for the characters in the game, while designer Sandy Liang held an exclusive pop-up sale of her digital clothing items. Even Valentino designed 20 custom looks for use within Animal Crossing, and Net-a-Porter worked with designer Isabel Marant to create styles that can be worn within the game or purchased for use in the real world.
We’re seeing a similar trend in esports, a form of gaming that pits teams of players against each other while audiences look on. In 2019 and 2020, Gen.G Esports partnered with Puma to clothe an online squad of League of Legends players. Together, esports and gaming generate an estimated $159.3 billion in revenue annually.
What’s Next for Brands in the Gaming World?
With some well-known luxury labels paving the way, we can expect to see more companies team up with game developers to increase their exposure among younger consumers and build brand loyalty.
Both limited-edition digital fashion collections and gamified shopping experiences can generate interest among prospective buyers and existing fans. For example, Balenciaga chose to launch its Fall 2021 collection via an online game called Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, which is set in a dystopian Balenciaga store and comes complete with a Lookbook of avatar fashions. Of the strategy, GQ writes, “...a video game, it turns out, is a far more immersive way to bring your shopper into your world than by selling them a baseball cap with a logo on it.”
Until now, new products and custom-designed fashion items have primarily been featured within games themselves — but video games can help apparel companies boost product sales in the physical world as well.
Mobile gaming is another frontier we’re likely to see apparel brands continue to explore. For example, Kenneth Cole teamed up with social game developer Zynga to launch its first mobile game, which allows players to dress avatars in LGBTQIA+ Pride–themed fashions. According to reports, High Heels! was downloaded more than 60 million times in its first five months. Aside from providing access to a large audience of potential customers, customized games like this one enable brands to showcase their products in a fun, interactive way.
Until now, new products and custom-designed fashion items have primarily been featured within games themselves — but video games can help apparel companies boost product sales in the physical world as well. Uniqlo recently introduced a line of League of Legends-inspired clothing that the company describes as “a must-have for League fans, highlighting some of the game's most iconic champions and elements.” League of Legends is played by upwards of 115 million users every month.
Another area to watch? Influencer marketing. Back in 2019, fashion industry trade journal WWD reported on collaborations between fashion brands, gaming influencers, and esports organizations. Since then, brands including Louis Vuitton, Adidas, Nike, and K-Swiss have clothed esports gamers and influencers (or their avatars) in an effort to keep their merchandise top-of-mind for the millions of gamers glued to their screens.
What’s next for fashion and gaming? Considering how much closer the relationships are getting between the two genres, the new revenue generation models they create may move well past the collaboration stage — and spawn a whole new industry.