Balenciaga Joins Fortnite in the Metaverse

Fashion
The Demna Gvasalia universe extends further.

Image may contain Clothing and Apparel

Courtesy of Epic Games.

When Kim Kardashian appeared at the Met Gala last Monday night sheathed in an all-black gown by Balenciaga, she inspired a number of memes and comparisons—​​including, as a number of Twitter users pointed out, a likeness to an unlocked character in a video game, inaccessible and shrouded in gray until a player reaches a certain level.

Now, at least theoretically, the Balenciaga and video game connection is fully unlocked. On Monday, the French luxury house and Epic Games, the developer behind Fortnite, announced a collaboration that brings the brand’s clothing and signatures into the game. This is the launch of an ambitious push into fashion for Fortnite, and the partnership includes a number of components that exist both inside and outside the game, foremost among them a “fit set” that puts four beloved Fortnite characters in looks from previous Balenciaga collections—dressing Doggo with a Balenciaga x Fortnite hoodie yanked over his head and a pair of the brand’s futuristic cat-eye sunglasses, for example, and Knight in the armor boots from the Fall 2021 collection. (Examining the uncanny renderings of the looks, it’s hard to imagine that designer Demna Gvasalia didn’t have these virtual characters in mind as much as the flesh and blood Kardashians and Biebers of the world.)

Four fan favorite characters dressed in Balenciaga.Courtesy of Epic Games.

“Our partnership with Epic didn’t start with Fortnite, actually,” Demna Gvasalia, artistic director at Balenciaga, said in a statement. “It started with our own first video game, Afterworld, which we built using Unreal Engine to debut our Fall 2021 collection. From there, we have continued to be inspired by the creativity of Unreal and Fortnite communities. It made total sense, to me, that we collaborate further by creating these authentic Balenciaga looks for Fortnite and a new physical Fortnite clothing series for our stores.”

That history made Balenciaga a natural choice for Epic’s first luxury fashion collaboration; the company has partnered with brands like Nike before. “We were very inspired by how Balenciaga has leaned so heavily into pushing the boundaries of tech in fashion, innovation in fashion,” Epic Games’s Senior Manager of Partnerships, Emily Levy, explained. Levy was quick to point out that fashion already has a natural home in the game. This is the year of the “creator economy,” with everyone from Facebook to Snapchat announcing initiatives intended to encourage their users to monetize content, and Fortnite is starting to emphasize the community side of the game, rather than the solo Battle Royale mode that made it a phenomenon.

“Fortnite is essentially at its core all about fashion and self-expression, agency and fantasy,” Levy said. Fortnite players now spend nearly 50% of their time in the game’s creative mode, where they design their own universes and engage in role-playing games. Last April, a player named Lachlan staged a fashion show in creative mode, in which players showed off their own designs; the video racked up over 11 million YouTube views. “Obviously, as we think about Fortnite expanding into a social entertainment ecosystem, fashion is really at the core of culture,” Levy said, adding that it is “very authentic to our community.”

Balenciaga gave the Fortnite team 3-D scans of each of the garments, which allowed the game’s designers to recreate the clothing with vivid details, from graphics and textures to the way it sits on a character. The Speed 3.0 sneaker is now a pickaxe, and the Hourglass Bag is a glider that players can ride into battle. Players can purchase a dance for their character to perform, set to a track by BFRND, husband and collaborator to Gvasalia.

Balenciaga signatures with a Fortnite twist, like a Speed 3.0 sneaker-slash-pickaxe and an Hourglass Bag that becomes a glider.Courtesy of Epic Games.

The Fortnite project will not merely live within the confines of the Fortnite platform. The partnership has physical manifestations, including a campaign that will put, say, Doggo on 3-D animated billboards in New York, London, Tokyo, and Seoul; and a line of merch, which is destined to be (as only Balenciaga could) at home equally on those parked in front of the TV playing Fortnite for hours and those parked at a chilly booth at Art Basel.

A piece from the Balenciaga x Fortnite capsule collection.Courtesy of Epic Games.

Back in the game, Fortnite has also created a new space in creative mode for a virtual Balenciaga store where players can buy new outfits. There, the billboard images seen in real-life will be continually updated with user-generated content, creating what the Fortnite team refers to as a “living lookbook.”

Courtesy of Epic Games.

Fantasy—imagining yourself as someone else, or maybe even some other being—is the principle at the heart of fashion, and the collaboration seems aimed at drumming up that feeling. “There’s some really fun things that we’ve done with the outfits that are completely impossible in the real world, right?” Levy said. The outfits can change colors, and your handbag can become a glider. You can move throughout the game collecting Triple S sneakers, which will unlock a graffiti spray.

But the project also hints at the increasing interest in the metaverse, or the idea of an always-online virtual space, within fashion. Designers are no longer simply making clothes, as I wrote of Balenciaga’s video game collection, but creating entire universes in which everything from coffee and newspapers to clothing and the cityscape is the product of the brand’s aesthetic. The metaverse, it seems, is becoming more real, and reality, echoing the aesthetics and fantastical values of video games, less so.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the sneaker that is a pickaxe in the game. It is a Speed 3.0 sneaker, not a Triple S.

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