The past two months have been challenging for fashion. To the world outside, our individual identities have been reduced to just another set of head-and-shoulders on a computer screen grid. Some have curated their bookshelves or green-screened backgrounds of exotic locales. But these rectangular encounters present a particular dilemma for the sneakerhead.
Not only is it impossible to line up outside Nike or Adidas stores to await the next limited-edition drop of merchandise but, for those who do manage to snag a new pair of Yeezys or Jordans online, there are few opportunities to flaunt them. Sneaker resale sites such as Goat and StockX, whose price fluctuations have become barometers for hype, have seen the average cost of some items fall by as much as 20 per cent. On Zoom, no one can see your sneakers.
On Zwift, however, they can. Riding along the virtual roads of the stay-at-home cycle training app, it is easy to tell the pro-bikers from the newbies just by looking at their feet.
New starters are issued white shoes but veterans can upgrade to a black pair. As riders progress, they gain points that can be traded for digital kit from real-life bike brands. Riding Cannondale or Specialized frames and wearing Rapha jerseys allows Zwifters to flaunt their cycling prowess to the rest of the peloton.
Sarah, a 40-year-old lawyer whose Zwift incarnation sports a black-and-purple jersey with matching black shoes and helmet, explains the appeal: “It’s a fun way of differentiating yourself and it has the added benefit of stopping the riders in the virtual world looking too much like a pack of androgynous drones,” she says.
It is not just go-go cyclists that are dressing up online. The decidedly slower paced Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the hit Nintendo game of the Covid era, satisfies many of the same urges. The ability to customise homes and outfits on Animal Crossing’s tropical islands, then show them off to visiting friends, is a huge part of its appeal, with tie-ups with Valentino and Marc Jacobs allowing players to import recreations of their designs. Tom Nook, Animal Crossing’s island impresario, will even sell you a face mask for when you have tourists fly in.
Online communities such as Zwift and Animal Crossing are providing an outlet for fashion and self-expression that the offline world is denying us right now. But people have been dressing up their online avatars for as long as the web has been around. The pixelated customisable “dollz” that populated websites in the mid-1990s paved the way for Habbo Hotel’s digital dollhouses in the 2000s, which informed the likes of Snapchat’s Bitmoji mini-mes today.
Video games from Counter-Strike: Global Offensive to Fortnite allow players to decorate their characters or weapons with elaborate “skins”. Despite having no bearing on in-game performance or ability, these skins fetch real money on the gaming equivalents of StockX and Goat: a sought-after “crimson web” knife in Counter Strike can sell for thousands of dollars.
Reliable data on such sales are hard to come by but while high-street retail suffers, there are signs that in-game stores have been thriving. According to SensorTower, which tracks mobile apps, consumer spending on Fortnite on iOS and Android almost doubled from $23m in March to $44m in April.
V-bucks allow Fortnite players to unlock limited-edition characters such as Meowscles, a beefcake cat-person, or movie tie-ins such as Deadpool and John Wick. And, just as California’s desert festival Coachella has become as much about the fashion as the music, so nobody would want to go to Fortnite’s recent run of in-game “Party Royale” gigs — featuring huge IRL artists Travis Scott, Steve Aoki and Diplo — in a basic outfit.
Though I am wary of stereotyping all gamers as nerdy teenagers, many of the people playing CSGO and Fortnite are, in all likelihood, a somewhat different demographic from the average cycle enthusiast on Zwift. Virtual dressing up has finally hit the mainstream.
My lawyer friend Sarah has her eye on upgrading her Zwift bike to the “Concept Z1”, the glowing wheels of which resemble the light cycles of 1980s sci-fi movie Tron. “The neon tyres are my main motivation to get on the bike and get up the levels,” she says. “Well, that and fitness.”
I hear sneakers can be used for running too.
Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s global technology correspondent
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