Now, Virtual Fashion
Second Life Designers Make Real Money Creating Clothes For Simulation Game's PlayersWall Street Journal
September 22, 2006
In the real world, fashionistas are recovering from the spring collections in New York and London and gearing up for shows in Milan and Paris.
But in the fast-growing virtual world of Second Life, many players are too enmeshed in the game's online fashion community to dissect what Vera Wang or Baby Phat sent down the catwalk in New York. Some players are buying up high fashion for their online graphic incarnations, known as avatars. Others, armed with Adobe Photoshop instead of a needle and thread, are creating their own clothing lines, pitching their designs to style editors, selling their creations, and — in some cases — even earning a living.
Second Life is a simulated world with more than 700,000 "residents," or players, who sometimes refer to their offline existence as their "first life." As in earlier computer simulation games like the Sims series, the point isn't to fulfill a quest, and there are no dragons or wizards to slay. Instead, San Francisco-based Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, has provided a platform for players — median age 32 and 57% male, with 40% living outside the U.S. — to do whatever they want, whether it is building a business, tending bar or launching a space shuttle. Residents chat, shop, build homes, travel and hold down jobs, and they are encouraged to create items in Second Life that they can sell to others or use themselves.
The items and services are virtual, but real money is involved. Second Life's in-game currency, Linden dollars, is based on U.S. dollars ($1 U.S. buys about 280 Linden dollars). It's possible for users to play Second Life free of charge, but closely held Linden takes a cut of many in-world transactions (such as uploading a design to the game), and it charges players for "premium" accounts, which offer more flexibility in owning land and displaying merchandise.
Many virtual items are bought and sold in Second Life, but clothing has emerged as one of the hottest categories. Real clothing makers, including American Apparel Inc. and Adidas, sell items in Second Life that mimic apparel they sell in the real world. Thus, players can dress their avatars in some of the same clothes they wear themselves.
Because Second Life creators own their products and can sell them, the game has attracted both professional and amateur designers, says Linden spokeswoman Catherine Smith. That has led to a thriving fashion scene that includes not just dressmaking but also jewelry, hair and even skin design, as people purchase the elements to create a look for their online alter egos. Selling virtual clothes to real people for their avatars can even be lucrative: In August, the 20 best-selling Second Life fashion designers generated a combined $140,466 in sales, Linden says.
"We found out pretty quickly that people loved owning things," Ms. Smith says, and many start by buying items for their avatars. "It's not surprising that fashion and hairstyles and skins are as attractive and as exciting and as valuable as they are, because it's part of individualizing" the appearance of a player's online persona.
Like offline fashion designers, Second Lifers can spend hours or days sketching and developing the textures and patterns of a single garment, then refining its measurements through fittings on an online model. "It's actually, conceptually, not unlike making real clothing," says Alyssa LaRoche, 26 years old, who began designing clothes for Second Life in 2004 under her avatar's name, Aimee Weber. Her line originally consisted of the club wear she would have worn if she hadn't had a day job as a Web designer, she says.
By April of this year, though, Ms. LaRoche no longer had that day job. Her online design business had become full time, aided by the success of her fashions and other contract work, such as helping American Apparel launch a store inside Second Life.
Raz Schionning, American Apparel's director of Web services, admits to some initial ambivalence about the Second Life store, which opened June 21. Many of the clothes sold in Second Life are on the racy, "Matrix"-inspired side. "I wasn't sure if the concept of selling T-shirts to that audience was going to fly at all," he says. Since then, though, the store has sold some 4,000 items, catering to players who want their avatars to dress as they do.
One target customer is Lizbeth Moore, a 45-year-old office manager in Santa Barbara, Calif., who got hooked on Second Life while recovering from knee surgery ("It was the painkillers," she jokes). She now has more than 15,000 items in her virtual closet and doesn't mind shelling out as much as 1,000 Linden dollars (about $3.50) for an elegant gown. Ms. Moore says she spends about $15 to $20 a month on Second Life clothes, though she spent about $75 a month when she first became a resident.
Designers do have some costs. Uploading a dress design from a computer to the Second Life world costs about four cents, though once it's there it can be duplicated and sold over and over again. Many designers also "rent" online storefronts or stalls in shopping malls, which cost about $5 a month.
Designing for a virtual environment has its own particular challenges. Real-world designers like Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan don't need to worry about drawing in shadows that pleats or belts cast on their clothes, but attention to such details, which make clothes look three-dimensional, is one of the marks of a seasoned Second Life designer.
"You have to create the illusion of a belt. You have to make it look like that collar is actually standing up," says Mike Hester, 38, who has been designing clothes for Second Life for two years. He spends 30 to 40 hours a week designing men's and women's outfits, and his online business, DE Designs, has expanded enough so that he was able to justify buying a second computer, with a dual-monitor display, to accommodate his work. "I need more hands," he says.
Competition has also intensified as more designers have tried to establish themselves. To gain attention, many designers have started blogs or bought online advertising. Several virtual publications, including Second Style, Linden Lifestyles and Pixel Pinup, troll for new releases, and a favorable review can make a big difference for fledgling lines.
Sales of her designs increased about 25% after glowing mentions in Second Style, says Kate Kirkpatrick, who joined the online world in November. She now earns the equivalent of $530 a month from her swimwear and lingerie line, Poppy Designs, she says.
"People depend on all these other Web sites to find new products," adds Valerie Mitchell, a designer whose Astry Mirabeau avatar sells as many as 500 pieces of jewelry and clothing a week. Ms. Mitchell, a 30-year-old mother of two in Austin, Texas, says the editorial exposure has helped her pull in "a substantial second income."
Editors of the online fashion magazines say the growing number of clothing lines can be overwhelming, and designers don't always take kindly to rejection. "I definitely don't put everything up that I get because it's just not up to the quality I want to present," says Nick Springer, a 36-year-old graphic designer from Crosswicks, N.J., who founded the Second Man, a menswear blog that recently merged with Second Style. "It's the same as any fashion magazine. Vogue isn't going to show stuff from Wal-Mart." He and some other critics have also adopted their own ethics code. They have begun noting, for example, if a designer is on their "friends list" and if they received any freebies.
A continuing headache for many designers is the ease with which others can copy their creations, and several have discovered boutiques that sell knockoffs of their clothes. A well-known Second Life designer was recently accused of stealing skin textures and withdrew from Second Life after . receiving harassing messages. Linden says it investigates accusations of design theft, and repeat offenders can have their online accounts closed. Some designers, like DE Designs' Mr. Hester, have taken steps to copyright their work.
Most designers say that cattiness goes hand in hand with their "devil-wears-virtual-Prada" world. "Like any fashion environment, there tends to be a lot of drama," Ms. LaRoche says. One designer recently found the entrance to her shop obstructed by an ugly shrub (anyone can build almost anything in Second Life). Ms. Kirkpatrick had a snippy customer who dumped a pile of returned clothes in the middle of her store, for all to see.
The scene — drama and all — keeps Janine Hawkins engaged in fashion in a way that wouldn't be possible for her offline. "It's totally different to pay $15 to keep up with the fashions in Second Life than" the $1,500 that would be necessary in real life, she says. Her avatar, Iris Ophelia, originally paid for outfits by dancing at Second Life bars. "Every time I had enough money, I'd run there and buy everything I could," she says.
Several Second Life fashionistas confess that their real lives aren't terribly fashionable. "I wear scrubs and jeans all the time," says Tanya Hughes, a Cookeville, Tenn., critical-care nurse who has been selling dresses since May.
"My wife totally makes fun of me," says Mr. Springer, the online fashion critic. "I don't like to shop in real life."
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