With estimated global revenue of $159 billion this year and an audience of 2.7 billion worldwide, gaming is now as viable and lucrative as any emerging market or region in the world. Yet the fashion industry is still struggling to gain any traction in it.
The main reason is that while consumers are increasingly living in digital and virtual worlds, fashion continues to hold on to the 19th-century world of “high fashion.” The industry is still largely based on the old model of a designer presenting definitive, seasonal runway collections: one-way channels of communication that dictate to people what to wear, and how to wear it.
This is preventing the industry from fully exploiting opportunities within gamification because the world of gaming demands the complete opposite. It is a space where consumers seek to be immersed in new, interactive worlds. A space where they’re not watching shows, but participating in and co-creating them. The need to produce a season, a singular direction that everyone should wear, is replaced with the necessity of adapting and responding to the cultural context of the moment — and to let consumers be a part of this journey. The shift is symptomatic of the increasingly organic, interactive way that people buy products now and the industry needs to wake up to this.
I’m not talking about the demise of fashion here. I’m talking about the urgent need for the fashion industry to transform from a 19th-century model into a 21st-century one; from an idea of fashion which is about dictating seasonal style toward an idea of dressing for your own individual expression where the consumer is empowered to make individual choices.
This is a crucial part of the mind-set we see in gamers and younger consumers. While a small number of brands understand and act on this, the overall lack of fluidity and flexibility in the fashion industry is constraining most companies’ ability to enter the virtual space.
For example, today’s consumer wants to be able to flow effortlessly between digital and physical channels. And as consumers start to spend more of their time gaming (between 70 percent to 80 percent of Millennials and Gen Z-ers are active gamers), the virtual world will become just as important as the physical world. A migration of habits and needs from the physical to the virtual is underway and these consumers are increasingly seeking to express their IRL values, style and aspirations through their avatars — or experiment with new modes of expression in the virtual world.
The current framework of the fashion industry doesn’t allow for this fluidity between virtual and brick-and-mortar worlds. What we need is physical stores to offer consumers the chance to try out and discover products for both themselves and their avatars. In the meantime, games need to offer virtual products as well as purchases and experiences that direct consumers back to the physical store. In the Nike SNKRS app, customers compete with each other to buy limited-edition drops before going to collect in-store on the launch day for a full launch experience. These approaches require a complete overhaul of the traditional, one-way model of engaging with consumers.
By not addressing this, the fashion industry is also missing out on the many commercial and sustainability opportunities that the virtual world unlocks. Gaming enables virtual-first launches where brands can test which garments and looks generate most interest and hype, before deciding what to physically produce, with minimal expense, no impact on supply chain or value engineering. This also reduces the fashion waste cycle, something we already know is at the top of the consumer agenda. Swedish fashion start-up Atacac uses 3-D renderings to present garments in their online store and produces only made-to-order once the customer selects the garment. This is a complete transformation because we’re talking about something which is immaterial transforming and influencing the material world. It raises the question of, do we even need physical runway shows anymore?
At the same time, an evolving fashion industry demands new talent. Every fashion house has its celebrated fashion designer or creative director, but where is their digital designer ushering the products into a virtual world? Designing products for games requires a new set of skills and insights into the symbolism, codes and visual language of each individual game, and the virtual world as a whole, and a knowledge of how Millennials and Gen Z-ers navigate this. Just like when designing products for a social media-first launch, it follows a whole new set of rules that the industry is currently not set up to fully embrace.
It’s time for the fashion industry at large to start treating the virtual world like a new geographical region — with its own values, codes and aspirations — and diversify the skills and experience of their teams in response. This will help bring about the widespread change that is so needed in the industry and only then will fashion brands be able to truly harness the abundance of opportunities within gamification.
George Gottl is chief creative officer and cofounder of UXUS, an independent multidisciplinary design agency.
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