Miércoles 29 de Agosto de 2007, Ip nº 205

Fashion giants are venturing into virtual worlds
Por Jessica Michault

PARIS: The world is not enough for the global fashion community. The industry has now set its sights on the virtual realms of online communities like The Sims 2 and Second Life, which have become the latest and possibly the most innovative playgrounds for budding fashion designers and well-established brands. Forget "Project Runway," and start thinking virtual runway.

Major fashion corporations around the globe are now scrambling to tap into this nascent market where creativity is king. One of the first fashion brands to take on the virtual world in earnest is the retail giant H & M.

In The Sims 2, the world's most popular PC game, avatars (a person's virtual identity) can now dress in this season's spring-summer collection from H & M. These outfits are also available in the brand's real brick-and-mortar stores around the world, thereby making it possible for members of the game to wear the same clothing in real life that their avatar is wearing in the virtual Sims 2 world.

"Marrying a fashion-forward company with a game and community recognized around the world for their user-generated content will allow people to reflect their personalities and express their creativity. We couldn't imagine a more perfect match," says Steve Seabolt, a vice president at Electronic Arts, which has been producing The Sims 2 game.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg of this partnership. Members can also build their own virtual H & M stores in The Sims 2 world. Another groundbreaking element of this joint venture is the virtual runway competition. Using the basic 60 digital clothing designs furnished by H & M, members have built their own original creations hoping to make the final cut to see their outfits on the virtual runway. Game members from all over the globe are competing in six design themes (Party Time, Skate Park, Street Wear, Night Out, Let's Go to the Beach and Red Carpet). The 12 top designs will take part in a virtual runway competition. Two winners have already been crowned: Salix Tree, who won the "Party Time" runway show with her white and gold asymmetrical dress, and SI Tigerbabe, who came in first in the "Skate Park" contest with a street-savvy creation pairing a bejeweled top with dark denim jeans and a fitted two-toned jacket.

This week voting is taking place to determine the winner of the "Street Wear" runway show at Yahoo.com or TheSims.com.

It is even possible to watch the shows with the running commentary of a fashion insider. Listen to Susan Schutz, editor in chief of Cosmogirl describe the looks. One design she called "funky and different" and she compared to Missoni a black, white and red zigzag design by StarChildXenu for the "Skate Park" show. "I did it my way," said StarChildXenu, who also had an outfit on the runway in the "Party Time" competition. "I enjoyed this contest, it was really fun thinking up and making these outfits."

Blurring the line between the real world and its virtual counterpart even further, H & M has agreed to produce one of the winning six outfits featured in the Grand Finale Fashion Runway Showcase in its factories and sell it in its retail stores.

In the virtual world of Second Life, with its more than eight million members worldwide, fashion is a serious business, with online designs for avatars generating hard currency for its users. There are even some real-life cosmetics and apparel companies that have sold virtual items in Second Life. They include big-name brands like Reebok, Aveda, American Apparel, Union Bay and Adidas, while companies like Lacoste and L'Oréal have dipped a toe into the virtual world by doing some branding activities in Second Life.

Second Life has its own successful virtual glossy magazine called Second Style. The publisher and editor in chief of the magazine, Celebrity Trollop, has created exceptional fashion spreads and insightful article for virtual fashion followers. "One of the major social activities in Second Life is shopping, and most Second Life residents love to experiment with clothing styles, colors and shapes. Buying new outfits to show your friends is a common way avatars entertain each other," says Trollop in an e-mailed interview, as anonymity is a key element in virtual living.

At the moment there are no well-known upscale fashion labels that are working in Second Life. But that hasn't kept virtual fashion designers from creating intricate homages to favorite fashion designers. "In-world," a term used for logging into Second Life, fashion house Paper Couture came up with a breathtaking gown for some lucky avatar, inspired by a spring/summer 2007 haute couture gown by Christian Lacroix. The Canadian fashion designer Nyla has taken her real-world creations and morphed them into Second Life ensembles. This way shoppers can "try on" an outfit on their avatar to see how it looks before they purchase it for themselves in the real world. She also recently recreated a dress worn by a celebrity at Cannes in Second Life (houseofnyla.com).

"Second Life is what the Internet was in 1994," said Digital Francis, a member of Second Life for eight months, in an e-mailed interview. Francis, a video producer in the real world, has used his virtual knowledge to build prototypes of stores for prospective fashion houses looking to go in-world. "It's a communication tool that's in its infancy," Digital Francis said.

"It could act as a great 'marketing' tool for many fashion companies looking to solicit their wares and offer people information about their brand. It would also give players the ability to buy the real-life versions via hyper-links embedded in the Second Life store," he said. "But there is a certain culture that needs to be understood first and foremost. A company can't just come in-world and say 'here we are' buy our virtual and real-life stuff, and expect the same success they have in the real world."

But selling to consumers via the virtual world is not the only reason fashion houses will be buying into online universes. They can use it as a testing ground for ideas and generate feedback from avatars about fashion designs before they go into production. Fashion in virtual worlds is "made of pixels and those are very ephemeral things," said Celebrity Trollop. "In Second Life I can make a garment that was patterned with polka dots into one that sports a trendy paisley with three mouse clicks. Plus, virtual worlds offer a huge potential for market research - should you buy a million dollars worth of polka dots or paisley fabrics? Why not test them both in Second Life - and see if they're both hits."

  06/08/2007. HeraldTribune.com.