Cracks in the relentless fashion calendar, which saw designers creating up to eight collections a year, had begun to show long before the pandemic struck. “I think the amount of stuff we make, the quantity we make, and the amount of times it’s shown, it’s just so excessive,” Marc Jacobs explained during the April instalment of Vogue’s Global Conversations. While spring/summer 2020 saw international supply chains freeze and fashion shows postponed indefinitely, creativity, as Jacobs went on to point out, isn’t cancelled.
As early as March, the fashion industry’s traditional forum for exhibiting fresh designs — seasonal 600-guest catwalk shows — began rapidly adapting to a new, virtual playing field that boasts a young, ultra-engaged global audience. In this new fashion utopia, fresh-off-the-runway looks are available free of charge and a ‘runway show’ is guaranteed to be zero waste. How? Because right now, fashion’s most powerful global platform is a video game.
Marc Jacobs, Valentino and Sandy Liang are among the pioneering labels to experiment with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo’s real-time life simulation game (launched on 20 March), which enables fashion designers to virtually showcase new or existing collections in the form of downloadable outfits, designed within the game. Any player who has access to the outfits can ‘wear’ the look — meaning that on 30 April and 1 May, when Valentino dropped 20 custom virtual looks from its men’s and women’s SS20 and pre-fall 20/21 collections, any of the estimated 11 million people worldwide who play Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo Switch enthusiasts Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Karlie Kloss included) could dress their character in Valentino for free.
So, what’s behind fashion’s new fixation with gaming? Why is Animal Crossing: New Horizons the game that finally broke into luxury fashion? And what could this mean for the future of fashion shows?
© Courtesy Valentino and Kara Chung
First, a recap. What is ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’?
As Nintendo explains, the game sees players “escape to a deserted island and create their own paradise; exploring, creating and customising their island life.” Tom Nook, one of the orientation staff, is on hand to welcome you to the new life that awaits with the Nook Inc Deserted Island Getaway Package.
The fact that you can customise your character and control the soothing virtual environment — from elaborately detailed interiors (even museum art collections) to the designer clothes your character wears — is the reason behind the game’s phenomenal success these past few months, and also why it’s so popular in fashion circles. “In the world of Animal Crossing, just as in real life, fashion and interior design are also important elements for players to express their personal tastes and individuality,” Aya Kyogoku, game director for Animal Crossing: New Horizons, explains over email from Japan. “That’s why we try as much as we can to include a wide range of styles for clothing and items, so that all players living in the world of Animal Crossing can surround themselves with the things they like and enjoy their lives in that world.”
More timely still, the game was built to be incredibly therapeutic, meaning that clocking up a few hours of play could also pass as a form of self-care during the pandemic. “Your destination is a peaceful island, where it’s the little things that count,” Nintendo’s online welcome video explains. “The simple joys of nature are just one reason why the island is such a great setting for your new life.”
How do you play?
Once you’ve customised your character and given them (and your island) a name, you can set about decorating your new home.
In order to get different items for your island, you’ll usually have to connect and trade with other players. Plus, there are simple, calming tasks to complete, such as catching fish and picking flowers or fruit, which evolve over the course of the game. You’ll also be talking to lots of different animal characters along the way. (It’s called Animal Crossing because there are hundreds of animals who pop by or join your village.)
Then there’s the social scene. Up to eight players can gather on an island at any one time and you can communicate with other islanders (say, to invite them over) via an in-game postal service — making Animal Crossing this summer’s answer to Houseparty.
© Courtesy Valentino and Kara Chung
Why is ‘Animal Crossing’ so hyped in fashion circles?
Beyond the emphasis on customisation, Animal Crossing is currently at the centre of an online hype storm because the Nintendo Switch lets players share screencaps from the game (i.e. their ingenious fashion looks) on social media — something which has made Instagram accounts including @NookStreetMarket, @CrossingTheRunway and @AnimalCrossingFashionArchive into overnight social-media stars. “Being able to share those creations offers a point for users to connect; it’s a way for players who like creating designs to show them to others,” Kyogoku adds, indicating that Animal Crossing’s cult social media networks were part of the game plan.
“What I find so interesting about Animal Crossing is that you’re not just playing the game, you’re designing an experience for other people because it’s all community-based,” Kara Chung (also known as @AnimalCrossingFashionArchive) tells Vogue. The 28-year-old Hong Kong-based photographer and composer, who’s currently on lockdown in Manila where she grew up, began gaming aged seven after picking up a Game Boy Color. On average, she plays Animal Crossing for about three to four hours a day. The rapidly growing IG account set up in March, which showcases the looks gamers are designing for their Animal Crossing avatars, began “as a joke” after she received a screencap of a bootlegged Supreme hoodie one of her friends had designed in-game. (See @SupremeNookYork for more.) Since then, she’s posted countless runway-inspired looks and collaborated with luxury labels including Marc Jacobs and Valentino.
Creating virtual ‘tributes’ to branded fashion looks is central to Animal Crossing’s fan-dominated fashion scene. “You’re not actually representing the real item,” Chung explains. “You’re just giving a sense of [it]. Even if it’s a bootleg, it feels satisfying to say, ‘I love this brand and I love that at least my video-game character can wear it.’”
Fashion labels were quick to pick up on the tributes circulating on Instagram over the past few months and began reposting gamer screencaps, but the idea of a branded collaboration initially came as a surprise. “I had no idea that a brand like Valentino would come across my [Instagram] page, especially since it was something that I just did out of pure joy and through missing my friends, you know?”
The Italian luxury house was inspired by Animal Crossing’s democratic spirit. “It was so important to [Valentino] that we made the clothing available to everybody,” Chung explains. “A lot of people downloaded the codes and it really did bring awareness to their real collection. As an artist, it is just really nice to see that your art can become part of somebody else’s experience so easily. I love it when I see people using the codes that myself or my friends made.”
Beyond product awareness, this was also an opportunity for Valentino to showcase its influential stance of inclusivity by aligning itself with a game that puts personalisation at its core. “More often than not, people [on Animal Crossing] represent themselves with an avatar that shares their true skin colour and real hair. [The game] is quite special in that way; it is so inclusive [compared to] a lot of the video games I played growing up that, by default, set me as a boy. When I was much younger, I could never even play as a girl, let alone change my hair or look Asian.”
For an industry that’s continuously striving for greater diversity and moving closer to genderless collections, the fact that the game allows players to experiment with different gender identities (characters can appear gendered or as androgynous, as they choose) matters. When thinking about the future of fashion shows, it’s hard to ignore the reality that diverse representation on a catwalk will depend on the models booked to appear in the show and the key influencers/talent stationed on the front row. By comparison, the fully customisable characters who make up the Animal Crossing community are intrinsically inclusive without any limitation.
High-profile designer collabs also show how the dominance of the big four fashion cities (New York, London, Milan and Paris) is being disrupted by the pandemic, as brands cast a wider net when sourcing creatives who can produce innovative digital projects that resonate online. “This is flattening the hierarchy in fashion,” Chung notes, emphasising the importance of using her IG account to showcase south-east Asian brands such as Carl Jan Cruz and Fortune WWD, who previously haven’t enjoyed the same coverage as established luxury houses. “I tapped people from the Philippines in my original group chat to interpret [Valentino’s] designs. I think that was another big step in representation.”
So, what does this all mean for fashion week as we know it?
The need to overhaul the existing seasonal show schedule is rapidly becoming a matter of survival for the fashion industry, as Dries Van Noten’s open letter to the industry revealed this week. But, what platforms like Animal Crossing offer, in the interim, is the chance for designers to showcase new clothes and ideas as and when they want, without adhering to any kind of schedule.
Like real-life catwalk shows, Animal Crossing’s fashion showcases don’t always happen without the odd hitch, however. Sandy Liang’s island pop-up was so successful that it had a queue of more than 100 people waiting to stop by. But perhaps as we begin adjusting to small, intimate gatherings IRL, the idea of attending a virtual eight-person island party (even with incumbent queuing, which hypebeasts are no stranger to anyway) holds fresh appeal? Liang also noted that elaborate Animal Crossing fashion events can’t be pulled together overnight. “Hope you have fun browsing through our lookbook that was oddly just as time-consuming as a real lookbook shoot,” the designer wrote on Instagram.
The potential for Animal Crossing to revolutionise fashion’s former working practices, for better or worse, is something Chung is acutely aware of as a fashion photographer IRL. “Usually you have to cast models, you have to have a photographer, a stylist, all the assistants… But in this game, essentially, you are all those people. And, everybody [in the game] can continue the campaign on their own because they’re setting up their own photoshoots and making their character pose, so it all feels like one big, continuing conversation. I don’t think this game can fill all the gaps in the industry, of course, but it’s a way to keep the story [of fashion] going.”
Most importantly perhaps, Animal Crossing is a step towards building a kinder, more democratic fashion industry, as the game is really about acts of kindness towards other people. It’s no coincidence that the game provides a space that’s designed to be soothing and shielded compared to other virtual social forums, where we typically consume shareable fashion content that can leave you feeling exposed.
“This game is such a good companion for people who are working on their mental health right now. A lot of people are isolated on their own inside a room. [Animal Crossing] can be such a powerful tool to bring you out of that experience and help you feel a sense of warmth — even to go on a date or to hang out with loved ones,” Chung explains.
There’s also something intrinsically hopeful about a real-time simulation that portrays starting over, or building a life from scratch, as something positive. “It’s like it is a metaphor for the deserted island — how you can find a way to flourish in an isolated space.”
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