NEW YORK, United States — Like nearly everyone else staying indoors during the coronavirus pandemic, Denise Alejandro, a dental assistant living in Queens, New York, hasn’t gotten dressed up lately.
Like many gamers, Alejandro has become hooked to Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the latest version of the Nintendo game that was released in late March for Switch devices, just as millions of people in the US, Europe and beyond were told to practice social distancing.
The game, where player-controlled avatars live out virtual lives on their own islands and socialise with other players around the world, has struck a chord with the global communication-starved population (it’s even been dubbed “coronavirus therapy”). Over the last month, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has sold 5 million copies, according to Nielsen SuperData.
But it is the ability to create custom clothing for avatars that has turned the latest Animal Crossing into a fashion moment. Quarantined players who might not be in the mood to buy hoodies, hats and dresses for themselves have jumped at the chance to deck out their in-game representations in designer labels, which they create by importing images or designing pixel by pixel.
Instagram accounts like Animal Crossing Fashion Archive, Nook Street Market and Crossing the Runway have cultivated tens of thousands of followers who celebrate virtual Aimé Leon Dore streetwear and Alexander McQueen couture. Players also swap outfits by sharing QR codes, including on a dedicated Reddit community, Animal Crossing Luxury & Designer Fashion, where pixelated Yeezy and Fendi are up for grabs.
“The clothing is the best part of the game because I can recreate pieces from my favourite designers,” said Alejandro. “Animal Crossing is pretty much the only way to show off your daily outfits because everyone is home and not getting dressed, so instead I’m posting a different fit pic of what I wear in the game to Instagram every day.”
Animal Crossing’s popularity among the fashion set is the latest example of fashion and gaming colliding. Fortnite, the wildly popular game from Epic, reportedly makes $300 million a month selling skins.
Last May, Nike debuted special Jordan sneakers that were only available to “wear” in Fortnite. In October, Louis Vuitton designed skins for the world championship of the League of Legends. Gucci sponsors outfit challenges inside Drest, a fashion styling game that launched in September, while Covet Fashion, another fashion styling game, drives traffic to the websites of brands like Badgley Mischka.
Animal Crossing is pretty much the only way to show off your daily outfits because everyone is home and not getting dressed.
What can brands get out of fashion’s current obsession with Animal Crossing? Not much else, beyond exposure.
Nintendo doesn’t allow brands to buy ads or pay for product placement inside Animal Crossing, and avatar outfits are free, whether they bear the Prada logo or not (Nintendo did not immediately respond for comment.)
“I’m not sure Nintendo’s mindset is to open up its userbase and platform to loads of branded content,” said Piers Harding-Rolls, a gaming research director at Ampere Analysis. “It goes to great lengths to protect its brand image.”
Michael Pachter, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities said fashion brands are usually involved in the production of virtual products inside video games, and the free-for-all designs happening in Animal Crossing right now aren't necessarily good for brand image.
“Imagine you create your own Mickey Mouse bobblehead; if it doesn’t look like Mickey Mouse, Disney gets pissed, but if it does, Disney gets even more pissed because it’s a branding opportunity that Disney doesn't get paid for,” said Pachter. “Louis Vuitton doesn’t want Animal Crossing toilet paper or whatever. If you slap the logo onto anything, like a Louis Vuitton tractor, the branding is misappropriated. They want to maintain brand integrity.”
On the other hand, fashion brands are currently losing out on the potential to make money off of Animal Crossing clothes. Pachter said he wouldn't be surprised if all the custom clothes in Animal Crossing leads to lawsuits between luxury brands and Nintendo down the road.
“People would definitely pay $1 for Louis Vuitton stuff in Animal Crossing, and that could be $20 million dollars if 20 million were to buy that, so there’s money to be made,” Pachter said. “The first brand that reaches out to Nintendo and says they can’t let their brand appear without paying them will be the end of it all. I think Nintendo’s legal team will probably freak out when they catch on to what’s going on.”
I think Nintendo’s legal team will probably freak out when they catch on to what’s going on.
Outside of mainstream fashion, though, some small brands have decided to use the Animal Crossing to their advantage. A few weeks ago, Julian Consuegra, the founder of streetwear brand Stray Rats, began making digital clothes for Animal Crossing and sharing the QR codes on Instagram. He recreated pieces like branded tees and a striped sweater from a collab Stray Rats released recently with Marc Jacobs.
A gamer himself, Consuegra said his Animal Crossing collection was mostly about connecting to fans in the middle of a dismal shopping environment. But he also noted the marketing clout that comes with it.
“We had a lot of fans asking for our clothes in the game, and this is a way to add fun for fans of the brand,” he said. “But the game has also breached outside the world of people who traditionally pick up a system, so it’s reaching them too.”
Nathalie Nguyen, co-founder of the streetwear brand Happy99, believes there could be a correlation between digital products and fashion sales. Happy99 released Animal Crossing clothes of its own, and Dominic Lopez, Nguyen’s co-founder said the company saw about a 30 percent increase in product sales after releasing those digital assets.
“I think there’s a pretty good attachment between owning a hoodie in a game and then later deciding to buy the hoodie so that you match your avatar,” Lopez said.
I think there’s a pretty good attachment between owning a hoodie in a game and then later deciding to buy the hoodie so that you match your avatar.
And even if it doesn’t translate to sales directly, Nguyen said it was important to be where the eyeballs are.
“It’s creating a pulse; like, ‘Hey, we are still here and alive,’” she said. “Whether or not a consumer actually buys into the Happy99 brand or not, we’re still very happy to be hanging out with them in this world.”
The process of making custom clothes in Animal Crossing can be tedious, but it’s also helping hypebeasts like Chuck Franco, a marketing coordinator at sneaker resale site Stadium Goods, pass the time.
“Dressing up your character on Animal Crossing is, in a way, almost more rewarding than shopping because there’s no limit to how you can dress,” Franco said. “I probably won’t fit into a lot of the clothes from [Japanese cult denim brand] Kapital, but my character can wear all their pieces.”
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