Every fashion week has its viral moment. Last year, all people with a waist-to-hip ratio below 0.7 shuddered in horror as Miu Miu proposed an ultra-low-rise miniskirt combination, which heralded the return of early ‘00s fashion. This past September, however, it was not an unfortunate silhouette to make headlines. Rather, it was an ensemble by Loewe, which, from afar, looked like an 8-bit sprite animating the runway. The khaki pants had some darker squares mimicking a shadow, while the outline of the white top was, by all means, made to resemble the pixelated black edges of Nintendo-era Mario clouds.
Loewe’s look was perhaps the most pointed reference to video game UI design over the past few years, but it wasn’t the first. Defining elements of what we deem video game-like fashion, which include iridescent textures, armor-like ornaments coupled with flowing fabrics, cutouts, and facial jewelry and headpieces, have fully seeped into the zeitgeist.
Consider Beyoncé’s space-age disco ensembles for Vogue UK; Grimes’s series of cyberpunk and surrealist outfits for Vanity Fair and Vogue China, and her space-operatic metaverse debut; Mamoru Hosoda’s title character in the metaverse-set movie Belle, and a “digitally reimagined” Marilyn Monroe in an iridescent bodysuit for CR Fashionbook, designed by self-described “metaverse native” fashion house Auroboros. All of those looks, designed by couturiers, make the subjects look less like music, movie, and animation-era icons than characters in an epic video game franchise. And now that the video game aesthetic has reached broad adoption, it seems a new in-game aesthetic is booting up online.
In-game to in real life
In the past five years, the futuristic video game aesthetic evolved from being a niche widely appreciated by cosplayers to a mainstay, thanks to a few key factors. On the one hand, online multiplayers that have been increasing in popularity, like Fortnite and Minecraft, place a lot of emphasis on customization, which incentivizes players to create the most extravagant outfits possible. On the other, Twitch streamers, along with their in-game inspired aesthetic, reached mainstream success, thanks to the popularity of the “E-girl” aesthetic among gen-Zers.
There’s also the 20-year nostalgia cycle to thank. We’re now fully in a Y2K nostalgia era among the Gen-Z cohort—and that includes the combinations of sleek, utopian, metallics, cyberpunk-ish, shiny leather and flowing fabrics that were a hallmark of Sci-Fi movies of that era (think the Anakin saga of Star Wars; The Matrix; and Final Fantasy VII to X). The previously mentioned digital design house Auroboros, which often collaborates with Grimes, heavily relies on a combination of cyber and biophilic elements (say, an armor displaying a fern or coral-like growth).
Over the past couple of years, these online aesthetics have started to cross over to IRL physical looks beyond cosplay and alt-fashion. The Japanese, New York-based designer behind Beyoncé’s disco-android look for Vogue has been busy lately: he’s also dressed Spice, Chloe x Halle, Paris Hilton, Lizzo, and Rify Royalty. (His androids originated from the need to adapt armor-like looks, which were made famous by Thierry Mugler’s 1995 “Maschinenmensch” collection, to dynamic stage performances.)
Tokyo and Paris-based brand Anrealage also collaborated with Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle for IRL Spring 2022 fashion week in Paris. The label treads the line between Matrix-like cyberpunk and millennium style à la the 1999 Dreamcast game Space-Channel 5, seamlessly shifting between prism-like garments and moonscape-inspired retrofuturism. In terms of accessories, designer Gregory Kara, who designed cyber-elven-like facepieces for Grimes, created the pieces worn by Willow Smith for Glamour UK’s September 2022 digital cover.
It’s easy to see why videogame fashion resonates so much with audiences: Its origins are deeply embedded within a larger pop-cultural fabric. In the past three decades, the video game industry has created a host of looks that are now on a par, in terms of cultural significance, with Star Trek uniforms and Princess Leia’s all-white gowns. Think of Lara Croft’s crop top and khaki shorts; the art-nouveau/steampunk-inspired costumes designed by artist Yoshitaka Amano and the Y2K, zip-centric getups designed by character designer Tetsuya Nomura for characters in the videogame Final Fantasy; or the coquette and goth outfits of the android 2B in video game Nier Automata. The aesthetics of the Final Fantasy characters have been so genre-defining that they were heavily featured in collaborations with big name designers like Prada (2012), Louis Vuitton (2016), and Vivienne Westwood, who designed an original in-game wedding gown for Final Fantasy XV.
That’s not the only reason in-game aesthetics have broad appeal. According to CJ Yeh, a designer and artist who teaches at FIT, the digital designers behind video game costume design often work across cultural disciplines like film, animation, and video games, “to create visual design for objects, characters, or environments that do not yet exist.”
Futuristic without the fantasy
Not all futuristic-like collections look like something straight out of a videogame, though. “In fashion design, the word ‘futuristic’ is often used to describe avant-garde designs,” says Yeh, citing as examples Issey Miyake’s technology-inspired collection from 1995, which displayed a quiet, otherworldly elegance, and Iris Van Herpen’s 2019 couture, which utilized 3D printing and contemporary filigree-like patterns, making it look futuristic but not punk. “In many ways, the cyberpunk aesthetic does seem like a natural fit for the word futuristic, but I don’t think that’s the only style,” he says.
In fact, we’re already starting to see a shift away from those long-standing tech-y, futuristic tropes. In its most recent collection, Anrealage moved away from the in-game aesthetic in favor of a less bold, more harmonious retrofuturism. The company also recently developed an app “that connects to the garment and allows the wearer—or someone with the wearer’s permission—to pattern, color, or otherwise illustrate the surface of the dresses as they wish: an amazing invention,” reads Vogue Runway’s review.
Our avatars, ourselves
In the digital world, in-game fashion is no longer limited to game-like fashion, either. “In the world of VR or in the Metaverse, fashion is much more of a personal statement because fashion does not have functional utility in this virtual space,” explains Yeh. On the contrary, contemporary games rely more and more on real-world brand inspiration and collaboration, mimicking real life. “For almost as long as video games have been around, players have been customizing their characters’ appearance, and now this vast and diverse audience want more ways to express their personality in-game,” reads a report by WGSN, referring to the fact that, the past couple of years, we’ve seen Gucci partner with Tennis Clash, Louis Vuitton create prestige skins in partnership with League of Legends, and Polish brand MSBHV create in-game outfits for Grand Theft Auto.
"For designers working in this space, the overlap of our virtual and real selves means there will be less out-of-this-world in-game styling and more renderings of clothes based on real-world wearables."
Virtual-fashion ecomm showcases this trend. Take the digital fashion marketplace newcomer Dress X, which hosts digital design labels with clothing options that would look perfectly in place in the closet of a Milanese doyenne. Digital fashion brand Blanche, which offers polished, floral shirt-dresses for $30, does resemble La Double J, after all. Our characters will no longer be limited to wearing spiky bodysuits, flaming gowns, or giant sets of wings. They can change into a ritzy, bedazzled trench coat if they feel like it, without worrying about a lack of size inclusivity, overconsumption, or the sustainability of the manufacturing process.
For designers working in this space—whether that’s at platforms like Roblox or fashion labels themselves—this overlap of our virtual and real selves means there will be less out-of-this-world in-game styling and more digital renderings of clothes based on real-world wearables. And that could spell more digital design opportunities in the fashion business itself. Virtual fashion is becoming more representative of our personal aesthetics, and perhaps, in offering up present day styles, showing that the future is already here. Next up: Level designers build virtual worlds. What does it take to be one?