Back in the Y2K era and the early days of the internet, there was a magical chat server called “The Palace.” Here, computer programmer Jim Bumgardner created a virtual space where young internet users could chat anonymously while using a custom avatar to represent their online presence. In the beginning, the avatars were scary-looking 3-D tennis ball faces. Legend has it, a colleague gave Bumgardner the idea to turn up the heat with customization. “[Avatar customization] initially scared me, because I was afraid it would cause the place to fill with sh*tty artwork, and it kind of did,” recalled Bumgardner in an interview with The Outline.
Among all the sh*tty art, a culturally defining moment was forming. In the depths of The Palace, doll-style figures were wearing baggy pants with skateboards, later becoming known as Dollz — the next evolution in the online avatar. In the beginning, Dollz were divided up into three pieces (head, torso, and legs) where you could drag and drop clothing pieces over their bodies to customize what they looked like. This quickly turned into a way to set yourself apart on the internet out of self-expression and creativity. Once the need was there, independent artists began focusing on creating custom-made “Art” Dollz and selling them to Dollz lovers. The D2A, or direct-to-avatar, market was formed.
Fast forward 20 years, post the Silicon Valley tech explosion, post an isolating quarantine, and the metaverse has now become the world’s new obsession. Bitmojis, profile pictures, and avatars still help us express ourselves as we spend more and more time online, and as a result, the D2A economy is thriving while fashion brands have started cashing in. Direct-to-avatar fashion collections are now approached the same way as hyped-up product drops, even forming an underground (and lucrative) resale market, as well as a growing community of digital fashion creators.
Designer Stefan Cooke’s line for Sims, for example, gives players the option to buy 23 of the brand’s menswear items to dress their Sims character for $4.99. Huge events like Balenciaga’s fashion takeover on Fortnite or Ralph Lauren opening up a Polo shop in Roblox have become more and more common. When Gucci released its Dionysus bag as an in-game accessory for Roblox (costing about $6 worth in Robux), the digital-only item was resold at a whopping $4,115 (350,000 Robux) — more than the actual, physical bag’s price tag.
Roblox is perhaps the biggest contributor to the D2A market. As of November 2021, the online gaming platform boasts 50 million active daily users who log on to connect, create, and express themselves through interactive gaming experiences. For fashion brands, Roblox is also a portal to Gen Z.
“Self-expression is a huge part of any shared experiences, be it in real life or in the metaverse,” says Christina Wootton, VP of global brand partnerships at Roblox. “The Roblox community, over half of which is over 13 years old, is very engaged, spending billions of hours on the platform every month, and digital fashion plays a hugely important role in our community’s creative self-expression.” According to Wootton, 25 million virtual items were created by the Roblox community in 2021 alone, and over 5.8 billion virtual items (both free and paid) were acquired on the platform.
“One in five of our daily active users updated their avatar on any given day,” adds Wootton. “And we saw over 165 billion avatar updates performed in total.” The metaverse sort of acts as an experiment for brands looking to test new product ideas, innovate, or launch fashion lines in a low-risk, sustainable way. They can also play on current trends or offer limited-edition and couture pieces, all while opening new revenue streams.
So far, digital fashion designers seem abundant in the metaverse. (So much so that the British Fashion Council created a whole new category that highlights metaverse design for its annual Fashion Awards ceremony.) Plus, with Roblox being a user-generated content platform, brands now have access to a talent pool of millions of creators. Self-taught clothing designer Blizzei was DM’d on Twitter to contribute to giving the iconic Tommy Hilfiger jeans a fresh twist for the brand’s Roblox collaboration. She is one of a handful of UGC creators who worked on the project, as well as proof that there’s opportunity for independent artists to work with some of the biggest names in fashion with less of a barrier to entry.
“What’s most exciting about the D2A economy is releasing the restrictions of physical production,” says Reggie James, co-founder and CEO of eternal, a technology house building a growing collection of designed digital 3D spaces for Gen Z to discover unique content and each other in real time. “The economics around manufacturing a genuinely new design can become a real road-blocker for nuanced work getting out. Those same economics get in the way of anyone young that might not have the cash on hand to produce something for their community or a venture that they are thinking about.”
Since we’re talking about digital art in the metaverse, there might be another very buzzy, celebrity-backed term that comes to mind, as well: NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. While NFTs have a nebulous future, they do solve the problem of digital fashion designers being attributed for their art.
Going back to the prime days of Dollz, there was a group of independent artists that diverted from the popular site to avoid their designs being shared without credit. “As with any subculture, there were different subgroups and factions across the internet, but the Dollz Palace was primarily a place for ‘Twinkie’ Dollz — shorthand for popular, mainstream, basic-b*tch style, off-the-rack preppy-jock Barbie and Ken vibes,” artist and designer Bhoka tells NYLON. “While other smaller websites were hosted by independent artists who would show off their custom-made ‘Art’ Dollz with stricter conditions.”
Independent artists would code their own sites or “bases” — the base layer of the Doll without clothes. “You could save [bases] or share them under strict guidelines around giving proper credit. It was the artisan side of the scene,” recalls Bhoka. “The Dollz Palace would often get in trouble for ‘stealing’ assets, and other general cliquey drama coming from both sides. Lots of in-fighting about copyright, credit, ownership, originality, and especially what constituted ‘art’ versus ‘generated’ Dollz.”
By having an image or graphic asset as an NFT, you can own your avatar — or at least give proper credit to the artist. Twitter is adding an option to set an NFT as your profile picture and Meta is planning to open an NFT marketplace allowing users to sell or buy original artwork.
“When we open-source where design comes from in the first place and create more intuitive tools for that production, you create an explosion of young designers wanting to build a new culture,” says James. “From launching their own D2A shops to being able to submit speculative designs while maintaining the rights to their work in an entirely new way. Not to say that Diet Prada will be out of a job, but the goal is definitely a more equitable labor practice.”
What’s next for avatar fashion is up to speculation, but James predicts we’ll see fully new D2A brands bridge into the physical with new rules for personal shopping experiences.
“Clothing is one of our OG technologies, it’s been necessary since leaving Eden. It’s our first and daily extension of our identity, a putting on of ourselves,” he says. “We've already seen some integrated work from a few fashion houses: Balenciaga and Fortnite, Off-White did pieces for Bitmoji within Snap, Balmain did a sneaker NFT that gave you access to their fashion week show. Where it goes from here is simply more.”
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