As Balenciaga makes the leap into online gaming, could this be an untapped resource for the fashion industry?
When Balenciaga dropped its AW21 collection with an online presentation on Sunday, I have to admit, I did not immediately log on to catch it. The pre-show teasers were intriguing, thanks in large part to a pair of thigh-high boots inspired by medieval armour, but it’s December 2020 and the fatigue for fashion ‘films’ that present as little more than taped shows is high. This wouldn’t even be the first one to debut this week, with Chanel’s opulent Metiers d’Art show having been released just a few days before. (The clothes were stunning, some of the best Chanel has created in seasons, but the film was notable mostly for a slightly awkward looking Kristen Stewart as the only guest in attendance.)
A cursory scroll through Instagram showed that Balenciaga had at least tried something different. Select editors were sent Occulus virtual reality headsets with which to ‘attend’ the show and there were plenty of images of models in Demna Gvasalia’s signature street-meets-couture aesthetic. An interesting collection, for sure, but so far so 2020. Then I scrolled across a sponsored post from the Balenciaga account for something called Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow which appeared to be the kind of mobile game that you download for free and then tries to bleed you dry with in-app purchases.
But not so. This is, in fact, the house’s attempt at luring fans and customers into a world far more immersive than any simple fashion film can create. Balenciaga, at the behest of Gvasalia, started working with Unreal Engines (the gaming platform of Fortnite creator Epic Games) back in April to begin work on the project, which can be accessed free from any device.
Let’s be blunt here. As a game it is not particularly entertaining. There’s no dialogue, little in the way of a discernible storyline and the controls are clunky. As a player you are tasked merely with guiding your persona through a series of futuristic landscapes ranging from a dystopian, vaguely Matrix-y city to a woodland rave, navigating avatars dressed in Balenciaga and silently hanging out on street corners in the process.
The game currently boasts a 4.5 star rating on the Apple App Store while recent updates have included the ability to cast real life supermodels, including Irina Shayk, Natalia Vodianova, Precious Lee, Imaan Hammam and Candice Huffine, in virtual catwalk shows and magazine editorials. There are also hairstyles by Sam McKnight and make-up looks by Mary Greenwell, as well as Pinterest style mood boards for aspiring stylists.
Drest is clearly far more e-commerce focused than Afterworld (which directs you, not to the Balenciaga online store, but to a meditation app once you’ve finished playing) but, ultimately, they stem from the same idea that the gaming space is one not to be underestimated by luxury brands. 63% of mobile gamers in 2020 are women and those with expendable cash to spend on designer handbags are not immune to the addictive allure of these games - especially in a year during which lockdowns have seen the uptake of home gaming explode across the world.
Perhaps more than anything, however, these games inject fun back into the business of choosing clothes and getting dressed. In an industry that often takes itself a little too seriously, these apps and games offer a light, low stakes alternative for engaging in the world of high fashion which, importantly, also makes it accessible. After all, if your online avatar dresses in Miu Miu and Roksanda every day, why shouldn’t you afford your real life self the same luxuries?