When 22-year-old Samuel Jordan, from Florida, began designing virtual accessories for Roblox three years ago, it was just a hobby — he had always enjoyed designing games and characters as a teenager. But as demand for his intricate virtual earrings, headdresses, hats and garments surged, Jordan turned digital design into a thriving virtual fashion business. Cut to 2022 and he’s one of Roblox’s top sellers, selling 24 million units to date, racking up $1 million in sales for 2021 and working with brands including Stella McCartney and Forever 21 to help them enter Web3.
A similar success story is Mishi McDuff, a US-based digital fashion designer who founded her virtual fashion house Blueberry eight years ago after online users took note of the virtual outfits she was making for herself to wear in the Second Life metaverse. In response, McDuff started creating pieces for various platforms including Roblox. “The first year I did it as a hobby, I made about $60,000. So, I went full time on Blueberry and the next year we made a million dollars.” Mishi focuses on her own designs but has collaborated with luxury brand Jonathan Simkhai on a collection for Metaverse Fashion Week.
Blueberry sales plateaued for a number of years after its launch, with revenues steady at around $1 million annually, McDuff says. Now, as user-generated content platforms such as Roblox have become more mainstream, it’s become much easier to monetise digital fashion. Blueberry is expected to hit $1.8 million in sales this year as the company designs in-game fashion across multiple titles, including Roblox, Fortnite and Spatial.
The number of gamers worldwide is expected to surpass three billion in 2022, representing over a third of the world’s population, according to market research firm Emarketer. As fashion interest surges across games, digital fashion houses are primed for growth on the back of the unique looks they are creating for people’s avatars.
One such startup is Republiqe, a UK-based digital fashion house that designs its own virtual collections for fashion brands such as Coach, Adidas, Axel Arigato and Ester Manas to help them enter gaming, NFTs and Web3. Before launching his virtual fashion house, Republiqe founder James Gaubert had a career as a stylist and designer, working with the likes of Bulgari and Louis Vuitton. He switched to virtual design after spending time in Southeast Asia where he witnessed the environmental and social impact of physical fashion manufacturing, while simultaneously observing his teenage son glued to games like Fortnite.
Republiqe specialises in turning brands’ physical product into NFTs or in-game wearables for a variety of games or metaverses including Ready Player Me, Decentraland, Zepeto, Sandbox, Fortnite and Roblox, depending on the brand’s target audience. “Asos’s consumer base is quite young, for example, so maybe for them, it’s more of a Roblox or a Fortnite route,” Gaubert says. “For Coach, they’re at a premium luxury price point, so maybe more suited to Decentraland, a slightly older market.” Republiqe then works out how clients can monetise these digital assets, either as NFTs or as in-game wearables, he explains. The company can also create virtual fittings for brands, which can forward virtual looks to influencers or to create imagery for e-commerce.
For mass market brands, it makes sense to go for low value, high volume digital fashion, where there is the potential to sell tens or hundreds of thousands of items as skins in a game such as Fortnite for around $1- $3 a piece, Gaubert says. For luxury, Decentraland is a location to sell digital fashion as NFTs at a premium price point of $200-$2,000, but in much lower volumes.
That potential could be heading mainstream. In the south of England, University of the Creative Arts (UCA) is one of the first institutions worldwide to launch a digital fashion design course, led by demand from students, says Neil Bottle, UCA’s Fashion Textiles programme director, who helped launch the course in 2021. “Our students are so well equipped for the future. When they go for job interviews they’ll likely know more than the people interviewing them,” he says. In its inaugural year, the course collaborated with Farfetch on a virtual design project. Farfetch has already hired two of the students who are graduating this summer.
Proving the potential of digital fashion
Even as awareness of Web3 grows, educating potential collaborators and clients remains the biggest hurdle for digital fashion designers, founders agree. “I realise I run a serious business, which is generating massive figures of revenue. But, a couple of years ago I thought to myself, why is no one talking about it in that way?” Jordan says. “People still acted like ‘oh it’s that kids’ game.’” Jordan worked hard on Linkedin and Twitter, communicating his work and the relevance of Roblox for brands that want to shape culture. Soon, the brand deals started rolling in.
“Some of our creators have been creating digital fashion for a decade (long before brands caught up with those trends), and now many are being approached by top brands to create items or experiences for them,” says Christina Wootton, VP of global brand partnerships at Roblox. “We strongly believe that the next generation of fashion designers are cutting their teeth on Roblox where anyone can be a creator.” In 2021, the creator community earned $539 million on Roblox, bringing in $147.1 million in Q1 2022 alone, up 24 per cent year-on-year.
“One of the first challenges was learning to speak corporate talk,” Jordan says. “It was definitely learning how they speak, and then learning to educate in a way that translated well.” Roblox takes a hefty commission on in-game sales, so Jordan says he earned $1 million from around $10 million worth of virtual fashion items sold last year.
Each Roblox player spends around $1 dollar to get R$100 robux, based on the current exchange rate. When a virtual item is sold, 30 per cent of the Robux goes to the item creator, 40 per cent to the item seller (for many sellers including Jordan, Roblox is the seller) and 30 per cent to Roblox. The robux must then be exchanged into dollars, where Roblox also takes a fee. So, for a $R100 robux sale, equal to around $1 dollar, the creator could walk away with 10.5 cents after it’s converted.
Another challenge is navigating the red tape that comes with corporate decisions, designers agree. On gaming platforms, it’s important to iterate designs based on community feedback, within the game and across platforms including Discord, TikTok and Twitter. However, it can take too long for brands to sign off on design decisions, removing the possibility of iteration and community feedback.
“I’m pretty sure I know at least 10 per cent of my customers personally,” says McDuff. Blueberry shows its customers the concept early in the process and uses user feedback to inform design decisions. “It works both ways because it makes my community feel like they’re part of things, but it also means that we’re making products that they will buy.”
Marketing in the metaverse
The best promotional tool for virtual fashion is word of mouth, designers say. That might mean gamers recommending products to each other on TikTok, YouTube, Discord or Twitter, or users talking via in-game chat. The virtual fashion landscape in some ways is more competitive than IRL fashion, Jordan says. “On a high street, you might have 20 stores in competition. In the digital space, you can have a million creators, all competing in the same exact spot.” Virtual designers must rely on both virtual and IRL (real life) influencers to wear and co-sign their products in order to boost their reach.