Dispatch From the Metaverse

We dusted off our Nintendo Switch to try the latest Balenciaga’s foray into the metaverse for the sake of all of us washed millennials.

Key Takeaways

  1. Critics argue that online gaming is not the right place for virtual luxury apparel which can leave many young players feeling dejected if they can not afford to purchase it. Weaving these real-world commodities into an online game can create undue societal pressure for teens and young adults when they’re trying to interact with friends.
  2. As people spend more of their day gaming, players will seek out ‘virtual accessories’ to personalize their online avatars as a means of self-expression. Many gamers experience positive feelings of confidence and personal control akin to retail therapy.
  3. For independent designers seeking to compete in an increasingly virtual world, staking out territory in this new frontier is a smart business move. It’s a surefire way to attract new customers and engage with loyal fans.

Balenciaga’s collaboration with the online video game Fortnite made its debut on September 20th, definitively proving that the union between fashion and gaming is here to stay. What was once thought of as a fad, has seen a nearly ubiquitous adaptation by luxury fashion brands in recent years. In the 18 months since Covid began, we’ve all begun spending more time gaming with some 237 million Americans (a whopping ⅔ of the country) participating in this welcome escape from the stressors of everyday life. As gaming moves from a niche hobby once relegated to socially obtuse teenagers to an avocation for people of all ages, the metaverse beckons everyone. Video game players are now seeking to modify the appearance of their avatars with status signifiers like branded streetwear, skins, and accessories. For burgeoning fashion designers seeking to connect with customers that spend their time in an increasingly virtual world, developing a solid understanding of how fashion can be incorporated into this space is vital.

Balenciaga apparel and accessories are currently available for purchase within Fortnite. On top of this, players can visit a virtual destination within the game based on actual Balenciaga stores. Customers that didn’t mind braving the crowds, attended simultaneously timed physical releases of Fortnite-themed apparel in select stores worldwide. Clothing based on archival Balenciaga designs is being offered within the game for 4 popular characters: Doggo, Ramirez, Banshee, and Knight. In addition, zany in-game-only apparel such as pickaxes designed with handles made out of Balenciaga sneakers, and a parasail glider in the shape of a purse can all be purchased for V-Bucks: the in-game currency. The most expensive items are equivalent to USD 12, making virtual apparel accessible for most. Free giveaways including sprays (graffiti designs) will be up for grabs, for players who complete two quests during the promotional period, through September 28th. This is not the first time the two companies have collaborated. Last year, Balenciaga created its own game by using Epic Games’ (the developer of Fortnite) 3D creation platform, Unreal Engine entitled Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow. This was Balenciaga’s first foray into the VR world, where the A/W 2021 collection was showcased. 3D scans of real outfits were made using the Unreal Engine platform, to create a lookbook of lifelike avatars. Both mediums complement one another in such a way that it’s hard to imagine gaming avatars ever going back to impersonal uniform designs.

The references to gaming in last year’s collection, as well as Balenciaga’s current collab have already been met with backlash, as critics point out that many gamers can not afford to buy the real-life clothing drops created by the company. The inability to purchase this collection has created feelings of depression and led to cases of social ostracism where young people are made fun of or ignored by their peers. They worry about the greater social implications of creating and monetizing luxury products in what was once a level playing field (i.e. the parameters of the game). In that place, players could escape from the societal pressures of the real world. Despite the denouncements from some, in the era of “all publicity is good publicity,” the latest limited designs by Balenciaga’s creative director Demna Gvasalia are nearly sold out everywhere. The partnership between these companies has resulted in a synergistic effect for both industries. It’s a teaser for what lies ahead when luxury fashion and tech collide. 

While Balenciaga has shown that its foray into the virtual world will likely prove to be a solid portion of its future business, Epic Games can publicize its Unreal Engine, “which has applications beyond gaming in architecture, film, and fashion. (Vogue Business) Partnerships with fashion companies are an ingenious way to expand the business by challenging the expected demographics for video games. In an article published by Highsnobiety, Lolo Edwards, the director of High Fashion Talk speaks about luxury fashion groups like Kering and LVMH setting themselves up for long term success by making appearances in the VR world where many of its primary participants, are still very young (the oldest Gen Zers were born in 1997). By seeding video games with luxury labels, brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton can ensure that they will remain relevant with a younger generation once those players presumably have access to larger disposable incomes as they mature. 

Gen Z is the first generation to grow up fully immersed in the internet and social media, so they’ve reinvented how they hang out with friends online. According to research conducted by Reach3, a management consulting company, 71% of Gen Z gamers they interviewed said that most of their friends in real life also play Fortnite. Reach3 was able to show that Fortnite “helps strengthen friendships,” in the way social places where kids once congregated like the mall or chat rooms may have done in the past. Understanding this integral component of the Fortnite universe, it’s easy to see why everyone from high fashion brands to entertainers such as Travis Scott has entered the chat. In April 2020, more than 12 million viewers watched Scott’s avatar perform a 15 minute set against a backdrop of psychedelic visuals.

Reporting on this phenomenon, without experiencing Fortnite’s Battle Royale firsthand, would result in an incomplete picture. As a thirty-something, I’d heard of the game but never tried to play it before. I dusted off my Nintendo Switch for the sake of all of us, washed millennials. The user experience was seamless and the world-building was intricate and complex. Yet what struck me was the sleek outfits for all of the characters; I was immediately drawn to the Unchained Ramirez and Game Knight skins as both reminded me of characters from films like The Matrix and a post-apocalyptic Mad Max. These were, of course, Balenciaga outfits that would also feel right at home on the streets of any metropolitan city or the dance floor at an underground rave.The parasailer shaped like a Balenciaga purse was my favorite accessory because I’m a sucker for multifunctional fashion like the rest of us. While I appreciated all of the innovation within the game (skins are reactive and change colors when injured outside of Save the World mode), it was nerve-wracking to wander around waiting for someone to attempt to kill me in a survival game. For those customers who enjoy spending time in an alternate reality, investing in these “cosmetic items that grant no competitive edge”( as stated in the game’s disclaimer), is a common behavior. Contrary to the arguments raised by critics, investing in virtual items within video games is not necessarily harmful. In a study published by the International Gaming Research Unit, Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University, researchers found that gamers can make lasting social connections via video games, practice self-expression, and impress peers when buying ‘virtual assets’ not unlike the experiences reported by real-life consumers of luxury fashion.

The lines between reality and virtual reality are beginning to blur. Balenciaga’s participation in Fortnite, a vast social network where many members of Gen Z and beyond congregate, will likely pave the way for future collaborations between clothing and tech brands. This technology developed by EG’s Unreal Engine will certainly disrupt and energize the fashion world. While detractors will argue that this match is nothing but a short-lived gimmick, the all but sold-out Balenciaga merchandise tells another story. For independent designers that wish to stand out among the pack, seeking out ways to integrate with technology (whether that be via a video game partnership or a self-released NFT) is key.