Fashion’s gaming bug has been a long time in the making, with an ever-growing list of brands dressing avatars, spinning up virtual clothes or promoting their real-world collections in-game, with names like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga partnering with game developers to reach Gen Z consumers.
But there’s much more that games have to offer fashion companies than brand awareness or sales. The tools used to create these impressive worlds, characters and looks are the same ones set to supercharge real-world fashion and retail operations, from design to merchandising.
“If you want to look at where the fashion world’s going and how your structure is going to evolve, you need to look at video games,” Benoit Pagotto, cofounder of RTFKT Studios, told WWD. The buzzworthy maker of custom and virtual sneakers turned heads in January when its all-digital sneaker NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, nabbed more than $3 million. Its latest NFTs in April sold out in less than 12 minutes over the two-day drop, combined.
With a background in fashion, luxury and e-sports, including experience consulting for major brands, Pagatto clearly sees gaming technologies spurring fashion innovation.
“All the advancements regarding machine learning and artificial intelligence, for decades, it’s been used in video games,” he said. “And the industry that has been using the most real-time 3D, which is needed for any type of try-on in fashion or augmented reality experience for e-commerce, is video games.”
Marvelous Designer, the CLO Virtual Fashion Inc. software company that makes digital clothes for games and films, has seen this dynamic evolve firsthand.
“There was a sort of assumed division between the world of fashion and the world of video games. For a very long time, it was assumed that there’s not a whole lot of crossover interests there,” said Eric Hinkley, U.S. business development manager for Marvelous Designer. “But I grew up really interested in fashion and video games, so I knew that these are overlapping interests. Generally, neither industry really seemed to believe that, and we’re now finding out that’s absolutely untrue.”
He sees what game engines like Unreal or Unity can bring to the fashion world. Indeed, the same technology frameworks that facilitate game environments and virtual worlds can open up new use cases like virtual runway shows, demand for which escalated during the pandemic, as well as other scenarios.
“There is really interesting potential there, too, for technology that basically maps your motion to an avatar in a game engine and also, of course, simulating how clothing would fit and how it would look in the real world,” he added. “It’s an ideal that people have been chasing for a really long time, and no one has quite made it there. But it’s getting closer and closer, and it’s really exciting to see that happen.”
Gaming technology company Unity even built a physics engine that can emulate how fabrics drape or flow in real time. But that’s not the extent of its fashion or retail ambitions. In April, its latest pitch to the sector arrived in the form of Unity Computer Vision Datasets, a new offering the tech company describes as “synthetic data.”
Synthetic data is exactly what it sounds like — a set of data that’s not real, but created to meet specific needs or conditions, filling the gaps when authentic data is not available. In one example, the datasets train artificial intelligence models for agents that are then let loose to roam around a retail setting. Think of it as AI game characters wandering the aisles and checking out the shelves and displays on their own, making for a simulation that gives brands better insight into shopping patterns and behavior.
The premise goes back to game theory, in which scientists conceive theoretical social situations among players or competitors.
“We have formalized the concept of curiosity, mathematically, so we can implement that in these agents and we can have them be more or less curious,” Dr. Danny Lange, senior vice president of artificial intelligence and machine learning at Unity, told WWD. “We tried to model different behaviors and see how a given store layout satisfies the curiosity, the curious customer. Or do the curious customers get really bored in there, because it’s just jeans upon jeans upon jeans — nothing interesting?”
What makes the proposition credible is Unity’s deep experience in gaming and its understanding of human behavior. The company is responsible for a large list of titles reaching billions of people across numerous platforms — including Pokémon Go and Angry Birds 2 on mobile, Subnautica on desktop, Cuphead on PC and consoles and virtual reality favorite Beat Saber, just to name a few among many, many others.
Consider that game developers create more than just the environments; they also build game characters to interact with or challenge. From that basis, Unity went on to develop, research and strike partnerships to expand its AI capabilities, taking it from a real-time 3D development platform for gaming into a data science powerhouse that develops intelligent agents for use by the business world.
While it has worked with high-profile brands like Nike on animation projects, its Computer Vision Datasets dive deeper into the operational side of retail.
In the shopping example, the fake customers browse a virtual store to see if, say, the men’s wear section can be found easily or if the merchandising and displays are effective. Other uses include testing for pre-release products, when there’s no real data because no one outside the company has seen the items yet. Simulated characters can also be used to find optimal store locations in a mall or airport.
And that just scratches the surface.
Devices built for fun are becoming important business tools across all areas of retail. Merchandisers can strap on VR headsets to visualize planograms via immersive, virtual stores in 360 degrees. Retailers like Walmart have been using VR for employee training, and VR and AR applications have planted a foot in the supply chain, from logistics data visualization to order picking, and more.
But what gaming can really teach fashion may have less to do with technology than the more human matter of creating a culture of innovation and attracting the right talent.
“I was always telling these fashion brands, ‘Your biggest challenge in the future is going to be your HR department,’” RTFKT’s Pagotto said. “Because you’re going to need to understand how you can source and hire and restructure your team and your company culture to accommodate the standards that come from 3D, that come from games, that come from a totally different culture and background than the usual people you are used to hiring in fashion — from always the same fashion schools and always the same business schools.”
While companies focus on raising efficiencies and data transparency on the back end, consumer-facing efforts on the front end have undoubtedly advanced and continue to juice creative efforts.
In recent years, everyone from Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and Valentino to Anna Sui and Marc Jacobs, among others, have brought their digital wares into all manner of games, from League of Legends and Fortnite to fashion-specific games like Drest and bits of interactive fun in social platforms like Snapchat.
The appeal makes sense, especially now, as the video gaming industry delivered strong pandemic performance during a year that hobbled the apparel sector. According to data from IDC, the pandemic drove nearly $180 billion in sales for software and streaming last year, and that doesn’t even include hardware sales.
The breakdown attributes the $179.9 billion in-game sales to a 24 percent surge in mobile gaming, at $87.7 billion; 20 percent growth in consoles, at $52.5 billion, and an 11 percent increase in PC gaming at $39.5 billion. Add hardware sales to the mix, and the figure jumps even further.
The NPD Group estimates that the gaming ranks have swelled, with some 244 million players in the U.S. alone as of the end of 2020.
For innovative, leading-edge fashion companies, gaming and virtual fashion offer a chance to resonate with the much-desired, digitally native Gen Z consumer base. It also allows them to stretch their creative wings.
Karinna Nobbs, fashion tech futurist, academic and cofounder of The Dematerialised — the invite-only marketplace where RTFKT and digital couture house The Fabricant sold out its all-digital sneakers — see the vast creative potential in digital fashion, as it’s not constrained by the physical laws governing real-world products, “allowing brands to dabble in new aesthetics.”
“Our consumer research says that consumers want to engage with digital fashion. It makes perfect sense, as a way to form a relationship with a brand,” she told WWD. “And more than 50 percent of people that we interviewed said that it was a luxury brand that they want to engage with first, because typically, the accessibility factor is harder or there are more barriers to entry. People said that they want to access pieces that they like, one that they could never be able to afford.”
Where that goes from there is anyone’s guess. But Nobbs has a prediction: She believes digital fashion is not only here to stay, but will also grow to influence physical products and trends.
“[I think] we will see some elements of physical fashion becoming almost a bit more uniform, a little bit more basic, particularly with the advent of AR glasses, for example,” she said of the technology evangelized by the likes of Apple and Facebook, both of which are expected to debut their own versions of the face gear.
“The consumers who want to engage in that may have more of a clean physical outfit,” she added. “And then using augmented layers of technology, they will augment them — a bit like the Carlings’ T-shirt in 2020.“ The shirt was essentially a blank canvas that came alive with graphics when an onlooker pointed their phone at it. The designs were developed using Facebook’s Spark AR toolset.
For all her enthusiasm, Nobbs also had to acknowledge that some fashion houses may still hesitate to come into the fold. She likens the attitude to brands’ initial slow adoption of e-commerce and social media.
Her advice to brands is to look at such efforts as “another digital touchpoint” that, if successful, could lead to more sales of real goods.
Lucy Yeomans, the former fashion journalist at British Harper’s Bazaar and Net-a-porter’s Porter and current founder and chief executive officer of the Drest fashion game, agrees.
“It’s interesting, I see technology as a kind of magic wand that we should be using to better serve our customers, for starters, and obviously, a lot of the elements that are used in gaming can be used,” she said. “Drest starts with the creation of avatars, the creation of all the real-world clothes virtually, which interests me because it’s scalable, it’s sustainable, it’s kind of just democratic.
“And the ability to try something on your body … I know it sounds crazy, but we have so many people who come on and just use it as a kind of style-before-you-buy type piece,” she added.
Ultimately, what gaming and virtual fashion can teach the fashion industry is that technology, for its own sake, isn’t really the goal — and it shouldn’t be. It shines best and brightest when it’s used as a tool that brings people and their favorite designers or retailers closer together, in a way that satisfies consumers’ needs and wants. In other words, it’s not really a game at all, but serious business.