A styling game helped me rediscover my inner creative during the pandemic—and I’m not alone. The virtual fashion revolution is coming. 

A few months ago I discovered an unexpected, mind-soothing salve: Drest, a fashion styling game I downloaded when it came out in 2019 but hadn’t yet actually played. Now I’m on it constantly.

As a thirtysomething obsessed with luxury fashion, I love the creativity and artistry of fashion, but I’m not a fan of the industry’s murky ethics. And Drest feels very much like it’s made for me, although people aged 18 to 60 around the globe are playing it (including those likely to be featured in it, like Kate Moss). Best of all, it satiates my appetite for fashion without costing me a penny. For those who want to spend, there’s ample opportunity, from in-game upgrades to buying yourself that Simone Rocha beaded bag you keep adding to every virtual outfit.

Each morning, I’ll choose a few styling challenges to do, adding stickers to a mood board or giving a model an Audrey Hepburn red-carpet look.

Drest is just one of many ways fashion lovers can consume high-fashion content through mobile and video games. Louis Vuitton partnered with Riot Games’ League of Legends on prestige skins for 2019’s League of Legends World Championship Finals. (In April 2021, Riot announced a new collaboration with UNIQLO.) Marc Jacobs and Valentino outfits have turned up in Animal Crossing; Burberry has its own range of cutesy website games like B Surf, a fun Mario Kart-meets-monogram racing game, and the brand created skins for Tencent’s Honor of Kings characters.

Drest is designed with a fashion editor’s vision. The game was created by Lucy Yeomans, former editor of Porter magazine, head of content at Net-a-Porter, and editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar UK. It features a curated selection of big-name brands as well as up-and-coming labels. One particularly pleasing aspect of the game (which doesn’t reflect how the fashion world typically operates), is how the smaller brands get as much visibility as the big ones.

Of course, it’s no surprise that luxury fashion brands want to position themselves at the center of an industry that made $175 billion in 2020, one with an increasing number of women. A 2020 report from the Entertainment Software Association found that women account for 41 percent of all gamers in the United States. Esports are also infiltrating popular culture, with an audience that’s predicted to reach 729 million in 2021, according to research from Newzoo.

Like other reward-based mobile games, Drest nurtures friendly competition and gives players added benefits the more often they engage with it. Those looking for quick upgrades can pay to unlock goodies or book supermodel shoots with digital versions of Natalia Vodianova and Precious Lee.

The game has certainly provided me with some much-needed escapism, as well as a healthy dose of fashion news and community camaraderie. I’m considered a “creative player,” someone who plays for joy and inspiration rather than trying to rise up the rankings. Having (virtual) access to amazing garments I can’t afford and don’t have occasion to wear in reality, is a source of pleasure in itself.

But Drest is more than a bit of fun; it’s also reflective of a changing fashion industry that’s embracing all things virtual and heading to games to engage directly with consumers. The same customers you’ll find gaming are the ones who view many of the traditional approaches to fashion and retail as cumbersome and outdated. Data from thredUP suggests that the secondhand fashion market, including apps like Poshmark and Depop, will hit $64 billion in the next five years. These digital platforms are thriving because they encourage a gentler, circular approach to fashion as well as nurturing a strong sense of community, much like what you find in gaming communities.

Gaming Plus Fashion Just Makes Sense

Fashion has been slow on the uptake with digital and immersive technologies, but the pandemic forced the industry’s hand. Businesses grappled with new ways to reach consumers as global fashion events were canceled and stores closed.

“The pandemic accelerated the mainstream visibility of these subcultures that are having a huge impact,” says Benoit Pagotto, one of three cofounders of RTFKT Studios, purveyors of virtual sneakers and NFT collectibles. Its recent virtual sneaker collaboration with Fewocious raised over $3 million.

Some of the more adventurous luxury fashion brands are already experimenting with immersive gaming, like Balenciaga’s retro video game Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, which the brand released to showcase its fall 2021 collection. Lauded as an industry example of fashion and gaming working together beautifully, Afterworld immerses players in the brand identity using three-dimensional capture and Epic’s Unreal Engine.

fabricant shoes on fire
Courtesy of Fabricant

The move got shoppers’ attention. According to figures from the shopping app Lyst, which explored the rise of digital fashion in a recent report with the Fabricant, 48 hours after the release of the Balenciaga game, searches for the brand on Lyst rose by 41 percent. In the most recent Lyst Index, published quarterly, Balenciaga was ranked second—up three spots in the ranking from its position the previous quarter.

“Gamification is going to influence many things, but there’s an obvious application for fashion. Fashion is meant to be this playful arena where you should be able to express yourself and you should be able to experiment,” Michaela Larosse, head of content and strategy at the Fabricant, says.

Gaming and fashion also go hand in hand because both aim to give enthusiasts a world of larger-than-life, aspirational experiences. As anyone who has ever attended a fashion show in Paris can attest, it’s a grand spectacle, like the most exuberant theatrical performance, often with a captivating narrative unfolding across every element of the show. Capturing that energy in a game is certain to pique consumers’ interests. When Drest partnered with Warner Bros. on the film Wonder Woman 1984, complete with players using costumes from the movie to dress their avatars, users were so receptive to the looks that over half of all users watched or were planning to watch the movie, according to customer feedback after the campaign.

“I believe that technology should be like fashion’s best friend. It’s like the magic wand that can get you closer to the consumer, that can allow the consumer to be part of your storytelling,” says Yeomans.

In her view, gaming not only gives fashion brands the opportunity for “deep immersion,” it also protects luxury brands, allowing them to maintain their messaging, iconography, and integrity.

From the ‘Phygital’ to the Purely Digital

With most actual shopping now taking place online, retail has become experiential, with brands and stores aiming to bring customers in as brand enthusiasts, not just shoppers. This means the “phygital,” a marketing term that describes the desire to combine a physical store with the seamlessness of the digital experience, is becoming more prevalent.

Most fashion-gaming collaborations also offer customers a chance to get their hands on a physical garment, like an exclusive, limited-edition piece featured in the game. In the case of Drest, garments can be purchased via the website Farfetch. Some of the game’s younger players use it as a way to “style before you buy.”

“We developed this RVR concept of real to virtual to real. Everything that you see is part of real life, so if we’re doing a partnership with Prada, it is part of a capsule collection that is launching and dropping in stores,” says Yeomans.

“We know that these experiences increase dwell time, make consumers feel more connected to the brand, and make them value physical products more highly. We are undoubtedly entering into an entirely new era of experiential retail,” explains Matthew Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at the London College of Fashion, who notes that these principles are starting to impact traditional ecommerce too.

These purely digital fashion items and experiences offer the added bonus of not using up precious natural resources or leaving a trail of production waste—although, looking ahead, digital pollution is something brands will need to start thinking about, even if it’s far less toxic than the alternative. It’s estimated that digital technologies emit 4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

When Customer Becomes Cocreator

“At some point, gaming will go in fashion, rather than fashion trying to go in gaming. They won’t have the choice, because their inspiration will come from the youth, and the youth is all playing games, all of them,” says Pagotto.

One of the criticisms often leveled against the world of high fashion is that it is neither inclusive nor democratic. Some of the pioneers of digital fashion want to change that. For example, the Fabricant encourages others to interpret designs on their own terms and gives away free digital pattern files. Larosse has noticed designers moving beyond face filters to filters for the body, which move effortlessly and incorporate a wide swath of body types. (Technology innovator Alvanon is pioneering size-inclusivity via 3D avatars, with the ultimate aim of making the production of garments more inclusive, seamless, and sustainable.)

“Key to the whole digital fashion world is the full-body filter. Rather than the current Snapchat filter where you end up with a pair of cat ears on your head or whatever, the full-body filter will enable you to move very naturally and see yourself in a garment flawlessly,” Larosse says. “We’ll probably all have a digital expression that roams around the metaverse existing on our behalf in a digital way. Digital fashion has a natural, obvious, home there.”

Turning shoppers into cocreators is also one of Yeomans’ missions at Drest. She wants players to have access to all of the items in her editor’s toolkit, and then to take it a step further by inviting players to help mold the game to what they want it to be.

“I do really feel like our players and our stylists are collaborators in shaping the game, as well as shaping the looks within the game. That feels very modern. If we talk about democratization, that is probably the ultimate thing, because they’re effectively creating the product with us,” she says.

Well, since she’s asking: I would love an avatar of myself spinning around with a virtual closet full of whimsical Molly Goddard tulle dresses.


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