When Richard Ma bought his wife a $10,000 digital dress from the fashion house The Fabricant so that she could ‘wear’ it on social media back in 2019, many of us laughed at such a strange concept. A dress that doesn’t exist? That costs how much? No, you’re having me on. Well, price-tag aside, a year and a half later and the concept doesn’t seem quite so bizarre. “In 10 years time everybody will be ‘wearing’ digital fashion, he explains. It’s a unique memento. It’s a sign of the times.” I think Richard was onto something. In fact, I think he was way ahead of his time.

2021 has turned out to be the year that virtual fashion has been eagerly hitting the headlines for its increasingly pixelated popularity, and yet over in the gaming industry, digital clothing has actually had an established presence for quite some time. Proof of just how much, in 2018, online video game Fortnite made as much money from selling virtual outfits as Amazon made in that same year. Think there isn’t a market for digital clothing? Think again.

Key to connecting with a younger audience who have the gaming bug running through their veins, the gaming industry has quickly levelled up from a bedroom hobby for teenage boys, to a global spectator sport, to ubiquitous in mainstream culture – and now everyone’s competing for an enticing slice of the pie.

Gaming motivations massively differ of course; from adrenaline-fuelled competition, to seeking achievement, otherworldly escapism, or building social relationships – whatever the reason, it seems we all now have the gaming itch. There’s now estimated to be 3.4 billion gamers worldwide – over one third of the entire world’s population – and now with increased spending potential. But as the global community grows ever stronger, throw away any preconceptions you have of gamers, because the recent industry shift has totally rewritten the rule book.

An important new demographic has joined the clan: 41% of all gamers in the US and 40-45% in Asia are female, and they’re also the driving force behind mobile game adoption, spending more in-app than their male counterparts – signalling exciting new opportunities to target consumers with a penchant for both fashion and gaming.


The Luxury Gaming Duet

So where does luxury come into all this? Well, when Louis Vuitton entered the esports arena in 2019 with their League of Legends partnership, it was described as a “validating moment” by Naz Aletaha, Head of global e-sports partnerships and business development at Riot Games. They not only validated the gaming community, but began paving the way for other big players like Gucci to step up.

From that point on, it gave way to a slew of luxury gaming partnerships of branded in-game character skins and virtual gaming worlds – from Moschino x Sims, to Marc Jacobs x Animal Crossing, and more recently, Burberry announcing its partnership with Mythical Gaming – the brand’s first dip of the toe into the wondrous world of NFTs.

But why gaming I hear you ask?

As Lucy Yeomans, founder of Drest, the world’s first luxury style game, explains, both gaming and fashion are “all about entering a fantastical universe, assuming a personality, and using pieces, whether it’s a potion or a Chanel jacket, to make you invisible—or invincible.” Both worlds are ultimately about enabling self-expression, curating that all-important persona that you present to the world – whether real or virtual – and so unexpected the marriage might be, but boy does it work.

The gaming-luxury fashion camaraderie is also helping to democratise the luxury landscape too, transforming a previously elitist industry into one that can be accessible to all. It grants players access to virtual worlds where their avatar can wear Prada or Balenciaga on the daily for a fraction of the cost of the eye-watering real-world price tags. It’s also an ideal gateway for younger consumers not yet able to afford the IRL equivalent.

Harnessing hyper-casual mobile gamers

Catering to the hyper-casual mobile gamers, savvy brands are creating softer in-roads to gaming through gamified, styling apps, whilst pioneering ecommerce into new, interactive realms. Worlds away from the intensity of the esports arena, luxury styling game Drest is one game doing just that. Taking inspiration from Farmville, the infamous agricultural game of the noughties – the app lets you play the role of stylist, taking on challenges for the latest red carpet looks and editorial photoshoots, and decking out your avatar head to toe in the likes of Gucci, Stella McCartney or Bottega Veneta, to name but a few. But if in-game dress-up isn’t enough for you, all of Drest’s avatar clothes are also sold IRL via Farfetch, seamlessly bridging the line between the virtual and real worlds, giving you the chance to style it before you buy it.

Singaporean luxury fashion game ADA is another platform redefining the landscape; a little like the Instagram of gaming, fusing lifestyle aspiration, but with the reward of social currency, entertainment and product-trial through game-play. Players create their own avatars and take part in daily styling challenges that earn them credit, to the point that it can totally subsidise their purchase – an enticing incentive if I ever did see one. Apps like Drest and ADA are making moves that will undoubtedly revolutionise how we shop online as more brands wise up to the lucrative world of gaming.

And with the recent rise of in-game avatar alter-egos, it won’t be long before the beauty industry follows suit with the same vigour as the fashion world, giving players a space to experiment with looks, try new products, and further enhance their virtual identities.

A handful of brands have already cottoned on to the opportunities; Gillette Venus has created in-game codes that allow players to adorn their digital selves with authentic attributes such as wrinkles, cellulite and eczema, Drest has partnered with makeup artist Mary Greenwell for their very own virtual-only makeup, and MAC and Givenchy have launched Animal Crossing makeup looks. It puts the consumer in the role of the ultimate co-creator.

Gamifying the retail experience

Away from the potential of transforming ecommerce – something that has remained largely unevolved since its creation – the beauty of gaming is that it can be blended into real-world game-play too. Niantic, owners of Pokémon Go, has driven a colossal 500 million users to sponsored locations in the game through reward-led incentives, and so the opportunity for brands to craft the ultimate experience through in-app game-play to drive footfall in-store, or to secret locations, is going to be huge.

When Gucci launched their partnership with Pokémon Go and The North Face, within the space of a few days, demand for the collab boomed; millions of avatar items were redeemed, and the corresponding physical store collection sold out in less than a day. The hook? In order to get your hands on the Gucci x The North Face products in the game, players had to visit specific locations, also known as Gucci Pins, at special pop-up shops and stores around the world, incentivising engagement in IRL spaces. Our work for Burberry’s new Shenzhen social retail store capitalises on this concept; rewarding interaction with the ultimate in-store experience, shrouded in mystery.

What does the future hold?

The once unforeseen synergy between the luxury and gaming worlds is now too big to be ignored; it continues to flourish as the value and relevance of digital goods increases. And asides from the necessity of remaining culturally relevant, gaming is fast becoming an increasingly important channel to engage with consumers, providing an opportunity for luxury fashion brands to generate new revenue streams through sought-after, limited-edition virtual lines.

Brands must build their authority in the gaming arena carefully, considering how they show up in the virtual world – this is the chance for brands to really push their boundaries, and try on a new virtual game-face.

The brands who win at gaming over the coming years stand to build a really strong following for the future, whilst connecting with a new generation of female gamers. It could be game-over for any brand that doesn’t keep pace with this ever-evolving digital landscape.





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