Back in the days of the year 2000 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 personalized avatar to represent their online presence. At first, the avatars were creepy 3D tennis ball faces. Legend has it that a colleague gave Bumgardner the idea to turn up the heat with personalization. “[Avatar customization] Initially it scared me, because I was afraid the place would fill up with shitty artwork, and it did,” Bumgardner recalled 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 characters wore baggy pants with skateboards, later becoming known as Dollz – the next evolution of the online avatar. At first, Dollz was split into three parts (head, torso, and legs) where you could drag and drop clothes onto their bodies to customize their appearance. It quickly turned into a way to stand out on the internet through self-expression and creativity. Once the need arose, independent artists began to focus on creating bespoke Dollz “Art” and selling them to Dollz enthusiasts. The D2A, or direct-to-avatar, market was formed.
Fast forward 20 years, after Silicon Valley’s tech explosion, after a quarantine of isolation, and the metaverse has now become the world’s new obsession. Bitmojis, profile pictures, and avatars are still helping 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. as fashionable products fall, even forming an underground (and lucrative) resale market, as well as a growing community of digital fashion designers.
Designer Stefan Cooke’s line for simsfor example, provides players with the opportunity to purchase 23 branded male clothes to dress up their sims character for $4.99. Big events like the takeover of fashion by Balenciaga fortnite or Ralph Lauren opening a Polo store in Roblox have become increasingly common. When Gucci released its Dionysus bag as a game accessory for Roblox (costing around $6 in Robux), the digital-only item was resold for $4,115 (350,000 Robux) – more than the actual price of the bag physical.
Roblox is perhaps the biggest contributor to the D2A marketplace. As of November 2021, the online gaming platform had 50 million daily active users who log in to connect, create, and express themselves through interactive gaming experiences. For fashion brands, Roblox is also a portal to Gen Z.
“Self-expression is an important part of any shared experience, whether in real life or in the metaverse,” says Christina Wootton, vice president of global brand partnerships at Roblox. “The Roblox community, more than half of whom are over the age of 13, is highly engaged, spending billions of hours on the platform each month, and digital fashion plays an extremely important role in the creative expression of our community. ” 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,” Wootton adds. “And we’ve seen over 165 billion avatar updates made in total.” The type of metaverse acts as an experiment for brands looking to test new product ideas, innovate, or launch fashion lines in a sustainable, low-risk way. They can also play on current trends or offer limited edition and couture pieces, while opening up new sources of income.
So far, digital fashion designers seem abundant in the metaverse. (So much so that the British Fashion Council has created a whole new category that showcases metaverse design for its annual Fashion Awards ceremony.) Additionally, Roblox being a platform for user-generated content, brands have now access to a talent pool of millions of creators. . Self-taught clothing designer Blizzei DMed on Twitter to help give the iconic Tommy Hilfiger jeans a new twist for the brand’s Roblox collab. She is one of a handful of UGC designers who have worked on the project, as well as proof that it is possible for independent artists to work with some of the biggest names in fashion with fewer barriers 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 tech house building a growing collection of 3D digital spaces designed for Gen Z to experience unique content and experience others in real time. “The economics of making a truly new design can become a real barrier to releasing nuanced work. These same economic considerations hamper any young person who may not have the money to produce something for their community or a business they are considering.
Since we’re talking about digital art in the metaverse, there might be another very popular, celebrity-backed term that also comes to mind: NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. Although NFTs have a nebulous future, they solve the problem of digital fashion designers being awarded for their art.
Going back to the early days of Dollz, there was a group of independent artists who turned away from the popular site to avoid having their creations shared without credit. “As with any subculture, there were various sub-groups and factions on the internet, but Dollz Palace was primarily a place for ‘Twinkie’ Dolz – shorthand for popular, mainstream, basic style, preppy out of the box – jock Barbie and Ken vibes”, artist and designer bhoka said NYLON. “Whereas other smaller websites were hosted by independent artists who showed their bespoke ‘Art’ Dollz with stricter terms.”
Freelance 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 for giving proper credit. It was the artisanal side of the scene,” recalls Bhoka. “Dollz Palace would often get in trouble for ‘stealing’ assets and other general cliche drama coming from both sides. Lots of in-fighting over copyright, credit, ownership, originality, and most importantly what constituted “art” versus “generated” Dollz.
By having an image or graphic element 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 a profile picture, and Meta plans to open an NFT marketplace for users to sell or buy original artwork.
“When we open up the design origin and create more intuitive tools for that production, you create an explosion of young designers eager to create a new culture,” says James. “From launching their own D2A boutiques to being able to submit speculative designs while retaining the rights to their work in an entirely new way. That’s not to say Diet Prada will be out of work, but the goal is certainly a fairer working practice.
What’s next for avatar fashion is a matter of speculation, but James predicts we’ll see all-new D2A brands move closer to the physical with new rules for personal shopping experiences.
“Clothing is one of our OG technologies, it’s been necessary since I left Eden. It’s our first and daily extension of our identity, an enhancement of ourselves,” he says. “We have already seen integrated work from a few fashion houses: Balenciaga and fortnite, Off-White made pieces for Bitmoji in Snap, Balmain made an NFT sneaker that gave you access to their fashion week show. Where it goes from here is simply Following.”