29 May 2020 Courier Weekly

How the pandemic upended fashion’s creative model – featuring Animal Crossing

From Off-White and Bathing Ape to Gucci and Ganni, brands are buying into the concept of dressing digital avatars.

With factories shuttered and photoshoots and catwalk shows cancelled, fashion brands have had to look for new ways to market their products in recent months. One unexpected trend has emerged: labels from Off-White and Sports Banger to Bathing Ape have started to appear on the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons – with avatar versions of their new wares.

The candy-coloured Animal Crossing universe is in some ways similar to that of The Sims, where avatars can do everything from design their homes to plant vegetables and attend pop-up events. Since its launch in March, Nintendo has sold over 13m copies.

During isolation, it’s hardly surprising the game has proved popular. What is a surprise is how the fashion industry has embraced it – it’s an unusually democratic outlet without a tangible sales opportunity. Marc Jacobs and Ganni both designed looks for the game. New York designer Sandy Liang, meanwhile, created a pop-up shop event where avatars could try on one of her best-selling fleeces – the shop had a virtual queue 100-avatar deep, with users waiting their turn to be granted access.

The Instagram account @animalcrossingfashionarchive – which sees avatars dressed up in runway looks – has almost 48,000 followers and counting. There’s even a virtual store called Nook Street Market, which riffs on the fashion flagship Dover Street Market. Outfits from Jacquemus to Molly Goddard can be digitally purchased.

‘Games further the omni-channel touch-points that are essential to retail businesses,’ says Belma Gaudio, founder of the London clothing store Koibird. ‘Getting a different customer through games is as essential as targeting new social media outlets. Advertising on gaming platforms has become a huge focus for luxury brands.’ The gaming app Drest, where users take on the role of stylists, is experiencing a similar lockdown spike. In April, Gucci partnered with it on two new in-game challenges.

Earlier this week, Animal Crossing’s first live runway show was staged by Berlin fashion agency Reference Festival, in partnership with Hong Kong-based photographer Kara Chung and stylist Marc Goehring, of 032C magazine. The lights were dimmed. The front row was filled. French DJ Michel Gaubert played a synth-heavy soundtrack. A line-up of models walked the catwalk in the latest wares from Valentino to Craig Green.

For brands, it’s a fun way to connect at a time when clothing consumption is at a low. In the US, apparel sales nosedived by 79% in April, while the UK’s clothing and footwear sector is expecting a £14bn decline in sales this year. A Marc Jacobs polka dot party dress on Animal Crossing, however, can be purchased for a few currency tokens – the most democratic piece of clothing Jacobs will ever create. In fact, this democracy is something that appealed to Gaubert. It allowed him to DJ for a younger, global audience – not just the usual fashion industry insiders sitting in the front row in Paris.

‘Our social team noticed a trend of our community members creating Ganni looks on Animal Crossing and we absolutely loved it,’ says Ditte Reffstrup, co-creative director of the Copenhagen-based brand. ‘The concept of dressing a digital avatar, rather than an actual person, challenges the idea of having to buy new things to express creative change in your wardrobe and personal style. It’s a cool concept.’

To some extent, this playful, digital-first approach broadens the reach. In lieu of a model-shot lookbook, Central Saint Martins graduate Harris Reed created an Instagram filter, which allows users to effectively try on one of their hats. The novelty of it garnered more attention than a graduate collection otherwise would; Reed now has 161,000 Instagram followers and has been featured in Vogue.

It’s been suggested that it could pave the way for the runway show format to be digitised. But while online events are more sustainable, for the industry at least, in-person appointments or shows are the only way for editors and buyers to see the clothing. ‘It’s really important to see the fabric and cut in person,’ says Gaudio.

Yet it might encourage brands to think more digitally moving forwards. As social distancing becomes a part of our culture, it’s unlikely that in-store launches will return anytime soon – especially with the ongoing threat of second and third wave peaks of the virus. More designers could look to outlets like Animal Crossing or Drest to appeal to younger, digitally-savvy customers.

In the fashion industry of the future, Nook Street Market could become an actual e-commerce shop, where exclusive garments can be bought – with a line-up of avatars waiting in a digital queue, and where social distancing isn’t necessary.

Illustration: R. Fresson

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