In the first few months of 2019, representatives from Riot Games and Louis Vuitton were introduced to one another, and they started to talk about esports. A sense of curiosity flourished, and over time, conversations snowballed into a landmark collaboration. As well as physical and digital Louis Vuitton clothing capsules, the atelier created a branded travel case for the “League of Legends” Summoner’s Cup, the $2.2 million prize for the most-watched esports tournament on the planet, Worlds. The branded trophy was put on display at the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
From the outside, the two may have seemed strange bedfellows: a legendary French fashion house and a game developer. And it’d be hard to argue that the audience is strictly the same. Anyone can play “League of Legends.” Very few can afford Louis Vuitton.
But games have long been interested in fashion. And now that gaming has cemented its place in the cultural canon, with investment money pouring in and the audience maturing, fashion is reciprocating the attention.
It’s a lifestyle
As part of the League of Legends x Louis Vuitton collaboration, LV creative director Nicolas Ghesquière worked alongside Riot’s artists to produce prestige in-game cosmetics and a physical capsule collection of bracelets, boots and bubble skirts. One of the League of Legends champions who received the high fashion treatment was Qiyana, a melee assassin whose circular blade was adorned with LV’s famous monogram.
But whereas the in-game items sold for $10 and 2000 tokens, a Qiyana-focused piece from Louis Vuitton’s physical League of Legends collection retailed for $2,280. This disparity wasn’t lost on Riot.
“Most people are gamers in some sense of the word, whether that means you play on your mobile phone from time to time, or you’re putting hundreds of hours into a game like ‘League of Legends,’” said Naz Aletaha, head of global esports partnerships and business development at Riot Games. “And so I think it’s only natural that, finally, the stereotypes of what a gamer is are being broken.”
As the identity of the typical gamer broadens, Riot is folding high fashion into its mainstream marketing to appeal to the players that want something more from the developer’s virtual worlds. “We really do see League as not just a game anymore, I think it’s become a lifestyle for our fans,” Aletaha adds.
Far away from MOBAs and microtransactions, Kojima Productions also engaged with lifestyle branding for the studio’s single-player debut, “Death Stranding.” As well as an album of in-game music from artists like Bring Me The Horizon and CHVRCHES, the undershirt worn by protagonist Sam Porter Bridges (and modeled by actor Norman Reedus) was designed by techwear brand Acronym.
Kojima Productions contacted Acronym via email as fans, extending an invite to the game studio. The feeling of admiration was mutual, and Acronym co-founder Errolson Hugh didn’t hesitate. He immediately found a reason to go to Tokyo.
Acronym designed the piece as they would a real-world garment, sending renderings and sketches to Kojima Productions so they could be translated into 3D assets. “Work based in reality is quite different from work based in a digital world, but I felt that we were both striving for the same kind of expression,” said Yoji Shinkawa, Art Director at Kojima Productions.
Timing meant the vest wasn’t actually built outside of the game, but the two studios would go on to develop a physical “Death Stranding” variant of Acronym’s flagship J1A-GT jacket, which Shinkawa wore to his first meeting with Hugh.
“He’d sent us this perfectly rendered Photoshop version of [the jacket],” Hugh told The Post. “That was probably the fastest design collaboration to ever happen. Literally opened the email and typed ‘yes.’”
When it launched in April 2020, the jacket retailed at close to $2000 and sold out instantly. “It was one of the fastest-selling items we’ve ever, ever done,” said Hugh.
And it’s this imagination that can draw consumers toward these physical products, that represent the digital avatars whose shoes they’ve walked miles in. “If you’re designing a fashion collection or making a video game, you’re building a world. And when people inhabit that world and they engage with it, it’s a powerful thing regardless of the medium,” Hugh said. “It feels very easy for it to cross that line between real and fictional.”
Brothers Michael and Daniel Casarella run Barking Irons, a design and apparel company. Their job is to cross that line — all while elevating what they call “the creatively dead category of artist merch.”
During the development of 2010s “Red Dead Redemption,” Rockstar Games asked Barking Irons to create a commemorative shirt to distribute internally. For the sequel, 2018’s “Red Dead Redemption 2,” Barking Irons developed an entire capsule of premium clothing based on outfits worn by the game’s protagonist, Arthur Morgan.
The collection does not feature any blatant Red Dead Redemption iconography, per Rockstar’s request. “Merch used to just be ‘slap the album cover on a T-shirt,’ and you can tell everybody you’re a Pantera fan,” Daniel Casarella said.
The Gunslinger Jacket, the most expensive item in the collection, sold out within two weeks.
Michael Casarella recalled a 17-year-old who purchased the coat. “He’s probably never bought a waxed canvas jacket in his life, and he’s asking all these questions — it just leads me to believe this isn’t a fashion customer, this is more of a game guy.”
The virtual on-ramp
The phrase “gaming fashion” doesn’t bring to mind particularly attractive imagery.
But the branding faux-pas of the past may be attributable to growing pains, as the merchandise licensing business became accustomed to gaming, said Jerry Chu, director of licensing at The Coalition, the “Gears 5” developer. “Limited artwork [and] partners that don’t understand gaming and the gaming audience all contribute toward simpler, stale designs,” said Chu.
A collaboration between The Coalition and AAPE, the cheaper sub-label of the iconic Tokyo streetwear brand A Bathing Ape, walks the line between merchandise and wearable streetwear. One of its more innovative facets was a virtual capsule for “Gears 5” that allowed players to dress in-game characters in adapted designs from the physical apparel line.
Chu stressed the accessibility of having both options: modern streetwear prices tend to run high. Depending on how you look at it, virtual alternatives to costlier physical items are either hollow advertising ploys or signs of a more democratic future for fashion, enabled by games.
The Sims franchise, which offers a robust self-expressive tool kit, has naturally become a pioneer in the trend of democratizing virtual fashion. Products from H&M and Diesel have made their way into the series over the years, with a virtual Moschino collection coming to The Sims 4 in 2019. A physical Moschino x Sims capsule was also made available, containing entry-level items like phone cases and T-shirts.
“Fans who knew of this clothing line but wouldn’t necessarily buy luxury clothing in real life could now play with these pieces and use them in their game,” said Lyndsay Pearson, executive producer and general manager of The Sims.
Having clothing from high fashion brands available in The Sims can also help to widen the net when it comes to diversity and representation, said Pearson. “You want to see fashion that will fit your avatar or your characters or your designs, no matter who they may be — we all don’t want to just see models of the same shapes and sizes and colors.”
Is it realistic that the average gamer would buy these designs?
“Absolutely not. I think your average gamer will not,” said Dr. Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a consumer and business psychologist at University College London. “But then again, if this is successful, these sort of trends will actually trickle down to more entry-level products. Any brand, any sort of a fashion house, also has entry-level products. So these are the products that train young consumers to love and associate themselves with a brand, and once they have the income available to them, then they can actually purchase something that’s slightly more expensive.”
ESPORTS x FASHION
The games industry’s foray into the mainstream has been complemented by the esports and influencer boom. Fans align with teams and personalities within their virtual hobby and represent them physically at meetups and events. Clothing plays a big part in that.
Instead of just jerseys, 100 Thieves suave approach to apparel has proven to be a hit, with scarce streetwear capsules selling fast online and in-store at the company compound in Culver City, Los Angeles. The esports organization and lifestyle brand was established in 2017 and boasts investment from Drake and Groupe Arnault.
“We didn’t want to turn over creativity to some sports licensing firm who would make dozens of ugly T-shirts,” said John Robinson, President and COO of 100 Thieves. “Licensed apparel might have worked in the ’90s, but I don’t think it fits what our fans want today.”
100 Thieves saw how apparel brands like Jordan, OVO and Supreme came from the basketball, rap and skate communities, respectively, and wondered if they could provide something similar in the world of gaming. And while the demographics within these communities can vary wildly, the way they deal with brand loyalty is similar. How far are hypebeasts queuing for sneakers from gamers at a console’s midnight launch?
100 Thieves’ successful lifestyle brand is supported by a stable of popular content creators on YouTube and Twitch. Ex-professional player Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag built his brand off the back of his Call of Duty skills. Then, his three million subscribers followed and supported him during his foray into team ownership and apparel.
Brand behemoths like Adidas have taken notice, tapping content creators to promote their apparel to the massive gaming audience. In 2019, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins penned a deal with Adidas to create a series of branded sneakers, which have proved to be in-demand items for fans of the streamer.
“As gaming’s influence on sports and culture grows, we want to live at the heart of that,” Adidas told The Post in a statement. “Thirty years ago, a sports brand signing hip-hop artists was unheard of, but now it’s an industry norm, and our work with hip-hop legends Run DMC set that course — in 30 years, people might look at our partnership with Ninja the same way.”
It’s easy to see these collaborations as cynical attempts to ape gaming’s relevancy. But that view undermines the clear passion and craft that power them, with some pushing the industry away from mere merchandise and toward the heights of haute couture.
And it’s here, at the bleeding edge of creativity and popularity, where the tension between these two industries lies. “We see that the rise of luxury is changing,” Tsivrikos told The Post. “And the luxury has to actually demolish that wall of superiority and exclusivity.”
The games industry is an obvious avenue for fashion brands to achieve that goal by latching onto a market that is accessible to all. “Gaming is not just simply a trend,” said Tsivrikos. “It’s a lifestyle that cuts across all income brackets and is relevant across nations, and it has created a universal language between people who can connect together and engage with each other.”
Hugh, the Acronym designer, remembered when it all clicked for him. “The thing that really drove it home for me was a couple years ago when I read that Fortnite did more fashion business than Amazon that year, because it’s, you know, billions of dollars of virtual outfits,” he said. “That’s the future. Social media, AR, VR, face filters — all of that stuff is just gonna blur the line between what’s considered virtual and real, online and not, game world and real world. … By no means at all is [gaming] a niche thing anymore. It’s gonna continue to just eat everything else because it’s the most engaging and the most technologically cutting edge of all entertainment forms.”