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How Final Fantasy Characters Infiltrated Fashion

As video games have infiltrated pop culture and become more mainstream, so too has Final Fantasy, inspiring an animated TV series, two feature films, three radio dramas, and many novels and manga comic books.
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TOKYO, Japan — Claire Farron, a slender, athletic woman with pink cotton-candy hair and pale blue eyes, is taking her place in fashion lore as the latest star model for Louis Vuitton, joining the likes of Alicia Vikander, Angelina Jolie, and Michelle Williams. The 21-year-old is a former soldier from a place called Cocoon. Her sense of style is, well, aggressive. She wears a bit of armor for protection and carries a "gunblade," a sort of fused sword-firearm combo that folds up and fits into a holster. With it, she destroys robot hoplites and chases down anthropomorphic cacti. Most people know her as Lightning.

Lightning is a protagonist in Final Fantasy, the role-playing video game series in which players explore distant lands and battle evil baddies to save the world. Although it may seem odd to see a video game heroine anointed to represent a huge French fashion house, Lightning’s new modeling gig was perhaps an inevitability. She, along with the rest of Final Fantasy’s hefty cast of characters, has always strived to be chic.

As video games have infiltrated pop culture and become more mainstream, so too has Final Fantasy, inspiring an animated TV series, two feature films, three radio dramas, and many novels and manga comic books. But unlike other famous characters who have transcended the video games they came from, like Mario or Lara Croft, Final Fantasy's various figures were designed with careful attention to style, with the theory that clothing helps bring out a personality. The characters' outfits are as much haute couture as they are Halloween costume—a low-cut dress made out of dozens of belts; a white tunic and blue vest with mighty thigh-high boots.

“A lot of games rely on fantasy tropes and not fashion,” says Mia Consalvo, a professor and research chair in game studies and design at Concordia University. “But Final Fantasy characters have always excelled at that. Not just high fantasy, but fashionable high fantasy.”

The first Final Fantasy was developed and released in Japan by Square (now Square Enix) for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987. The game’s four nameless, pixelated light warriors had trite outfits that corresponded to their abilities—mages had wizard hats; fighters had martial arts garb. Final Fantasy II brought named characters to the franchise, with their own backstories and internal complexities. Some accumulated loyal fans. There’s the mysterious half-human Terra Branford (Final Fantasy VI); talented swordsman Cecil Harvey (IV), crimson-eyed enigma Vincent Valentine (VII); energetic thief Zidane Tribal (IX); debonair sky pirate Balthier (XII); and many more.

Final Fantasy was connected to fashion in part because the repeated redrawing of worlds forced evolving creativity. Each of these worlds is distinct, an entirely new environment with a particular aesthetic—medieval, steampunk, fantasy. Following those themes, the clothes designed for each game are essentially standalone fashion collections.

Take the seventh installment in the series. Society in this world has fallen into an industrial dystopia. Cloud Strife, a dour mercenary, dons a metal pauldron over his sleeveless shirt, with indigo pants and brown army boots. Battle-hardened ecoterrorist Tifa Lockhart spends her days in a simple, white cropped tank and black miniskirt. Aeris Gainsborough, first seen as a flower seller in the slums, wears a pink dress with a blazing red short-cut jacket and thick metal bracers on her wrists. Everything is mechanical, dire, grim.

Compare that with the characters from Final Fantasy X, who reside in a tropical fantasy land. Tidus, a professional athlete, shows a lot of chest in his short hoodie and bizarre asymmetrical pants. Yuna, a magical summoner and healer, is decked out in a kind of floral techno-kimono, with flowing ombre sleeves and a big bright bow. Rikku bares some midriff between her orange crop top and green miniskirt with white frills (in the Final Fantasy X-2 follow-up, she ditches the crop top for a banana-yellow bikini), befitting of the lush paradise.

With Lightning, the main character in Final Fantasy XIII, Square Enix had created a modern heroine it could use to go beyond the gaming realm. Her fashion cred was built up over the years. In 2011, Final Fantasy XIII-2 characters had their own 12-page spread in Japanese men’s fashion magazine Arena Homme+, wearing looks from Prada’s spring 2012 men’s collection.

Square Enix has gone so far as to have Lightning "speak" with the media. In an interview published by the Telegraph, she talked about her place in fashion and her love for Louis Vuitton creative director Nicolas Ghesquière's new collection. She even got philosophical: "Fashion isn't something you're taught or given, it comes from your own taste and your own choices," she told the newspaper. "It displays the essence of who you are to the people around you."

Tetsuya Nomura, a 45-year-old veteran character designer at Square Enix, has styled dozens of Final Fantasy characters since the sixth game, including Lightning. Clothes in a video game are so much a part of a character’s identity that they must be considered in the initial design stages, he says. When devising the look of a game’s cast, Nomura begins with the protagonist. Once that’s determined, he moves on to the supporting cast—both friends and enemies—and arranges their aesthetics to work with, or complement, the main character.

“There are various ways to show an individual’s uniqueness in the real world, but within the limited world of a video game, clothing is one of the most important elements that express and define a character’s individuality,” Nomura says. “One of the biggest elements that helps the player to better imagine a character’s personality or background is fashion.”

Lightning, as she appears in Final Fantasy XIII, is Nomura’s favorite. In that game, she’s in a white-and-beige coat layered over a zip-up vest, with a short leather skirt and myriad accessories, including a cherry cape and cobalt fingerless gloves. “I really felt that the style and color of her hair, facial features, and fashion were most perfectly in tune with each other,” he says. “There are many characters I want to modify afterward, but for the Lightning character in that title, I cannot think of any revisions I would make.”

YouTube: Lightning x Louis Vuitton Extended

Much of the interest in video game fashion originated from cosplayers, fans who dress up as characters from games, films, TV shows, comics, and anime, meticulously crafting their costumes to showcase them at conventions and meetups. Final Fantasy was a natural fit for them, with its unique clothes, cool weapons, and flashy hairdos. When Nomura started designing Final Fantasy characters in the early 1990s, he was wholly unfamiliar with the community, at the time more fringe subculture than thriving performance art. Now conventions that host cosplayers are much more mainstream, following the global spread of Japanese culture. Venues across the U.S. and Europe will host hundreds of anime and cosplay events this year.

“I knew little of that culture, so it wasn’t my intention to influence anyone,” Nomura says of cosplayers. “Now that cosplay is more mainstream, I find it very interesting to see how much effort cosplayers put into their outfits, and I am amazed at how they apply their ideas and create them in the real world.”

While most of these ensembles are far too extravagant for all but the most bold to wear down a city sidewalk, people have found ways to convert video game looks to streetwear. How-to guides that reimagine characters from Final Fantasy and countless other games pepper the Internet, from Pinterest mood boards to makeup tutorials on YouTube. For instance, for an everyday version of Lightning’s look from spinoff title Lightning Returns, one site recommends a little black dress and white bomber jacket from Vila, VonZipper sunglasses, and sneaker heels from Rock & Candy.

Lightning's not the only virtual woman nabbing modeling collaborations. Hatsune Miku, the Japanese hologram pop singer, had an outfit designed by Ghesquière's predecessor at Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, in 2013. As people get more comfortable with virtual models, they'll make sense for fashion labels, says Consalvo, the professor. They can be molded into anything the designers want them to be, and they come pre-airbrushed. Their hair is always flawless. "They're the perfect fantasy characters," she says.

Indeed, Ghesquière, with his penchant for the futuristic, considers Lightning the “perfect avatar for a global, heroic woman.” As he sees it: “Lightning heralds a new era of expression.”

High praise for a model who doesn’t really exist.

By Kim Bhasin; editor: Chris Rovzar.

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