The world of computer gaming has traditionally been assumed to be male-dominated. However, as the gender balance starts to tip, and an increasing number of women take part in online games, fashion designers including Giorgio Armani, Alberta Ferretti and Zac Posen have expanded into the virtual market, targeting the new, style-conscious female gamer. Cue the virtual designer online store, full of attractive virtual designs, which may, in turn, lead to real life sales.

According to a survey conducted last year by the Entertainment Software Association, the average game player is aged 35; the average age of the most frequent game purchaser is 39; and 37 per cent of women over 40 reported that they would rather play a computer game than watch television. As a result, female game players are key advertising targets for branded clothing, according to the 2009 UK National Gamers Survey, conducted by the global market research firm TNS and the gaming information site

Indeed, retail is already an enormous part of virtual shopping: clothing and accessories account for 40 per cent of the sales in Second Life, the online role-playing game where Giorgio Armani set up a virtual store and his own avatar in 2007.

In September last year,, a virtual makeover website, launched a game called Designer Closet, introducing designer Norma Kamali – and her virtual designs – to their three million users. Players select an avatar and then check out a closet packed with Kamali’s spring/summer 2010 collection, which they can use to style their virtual selves. Players can then use a discussion forum to talk to others, criticise choices, and connect directly to Kamali herself. Kamali says: “Online games are useful to fashion designers because they create interaction and intimacy with brands.”

Last month the US designer Zac Posen attended the launch of Next Island, a virtual world debuting this month as part of the Swedish gaming platform Entropia, an online multiplayer virtual universe. Posen was there to promote the sale of his virtual and real life designs online. Designer Ralph Lauren has also expressed interest in the company. As more designers join, Next Island players will be able to purchase not just clothes from their favourite designer but, eventually, even visit various designers’ “islands”.

Susan Posen, chairman of Zac Posen (and the designer’s mother), says: “There are people sitting at their desk on Wall Street and elsewhere who seem to be spending quite a substantial amount of time on this. It’s just a further evolvement of our voyeuristic world, an extension of Facebook and Twitter.”

The hand-held computer world is equally keen to capitalise on fashion. Last month, Nintendo joined forces with designer Charlotte Ronson to preview Style Savvy, a fashion game for the Nintendo DS and DSi handheld systems. The game allows players to create their own clothing boutique, mix and match more than 10,000 fashion items, purchase stock, and monitor the store’s funds. Visitors to the online store see both the interior of the virtual shop as well as web pages full of merchandise, while store owners can view their digital visitors and give style advice. Ronson is the first to jump on board and Nintendo plans to add 16 more designers and their virtual goods to the game.

“This is a real-money economy – you’re not talking about teenage boys in the basement,” says David Post, chairman of Next Island. “One of my original backers came from iVillage [the media firm that owns several female-oriented websites], and they remember when people told them that older women wouldn’t use the internet – now they are the predominant users. About 65m people play casual games on sites such as Facebook, and many of them are women over 40. And fashion in the virtual world is very significant. How your avatar looks is important, and players will spend.” According to Post, one male gamer on the virtual-world website Calypso bought a coat for his avatar that cost $10,000 – in real currency.

The games industry is also bucking the recession trends. A report conducted by Deutsche Bank last August says the industry, which currently generates €30bn, is expected to top €52bn by 2012. More than 200m people worldwide play casual games on the internet every month – of those, women make up 51 per cent of free casual games players and 74 per cent of paying players.

And that is why designers are hoping virtual purchasing will translate into offline sales. Before Christmas, Boy Meets Girl, a brand selling casual separates that has been featured in the television show Sex and the City, collaborated with the website Fashion Fantasy Game, where players are fashion designers or store owners, to give away about 17,000 virtual versions of their Coco hoodie ($78,

As a result, Stacy M Igel, creative director of Boy Meets Girl, says: “For the brand overall, we were up in real sales 50-70 per cent compared to the same period last year. I attribute that directly to this online exposure.”


Browse, then try before you buy

There are now more than 100,000 different applications, or “apps”, available for the iPhone. According to Apple, we’ve downloaded more than three billion of them – and an increasing number are from fashion brands. All apps, however, and especially all fashion apps, are not created equal, writes Simon Brooke.

Abercrombie & Fitch’s app was updated recently to allow users to find their nearest store and to buy online, although you still have to squint pretty hard to see the clothes.

By contrast, Chanel’s app offers not only the inevitable store locator, but slick videos of the catwalk shows as well as articles and interviews, although you cannot buy online. Fendi’s funky version provides the usual mixture of outlet location information and runway shows, and also provides e-cards, which allow you to choose an image of one of their products and e-mail it to a friend with your comments.

Among accessories, watches yield the most options for iPhone enthusiasts. Jaeger-Le Coultre’s app offers as much detail as any watch fetishist could want, including a “lessons” section featuring videos of watch assembly, polishing and engraving, plus a watchmaking dictionary. Rolex’s app is full of facts, well-illustrated and strangely absorbing. Reviewing it, one nameless downloader said it was “a great source of reference with an easy-to-use interface and many excellent photographs”. Tag Heuer’s is a gadget freak’s dream, with detailed images of watches and plenty of time-consuming, interactive content. But the best is IWC’s, which boasts impressive videos, screensavers and a “Try It” function, which allows you to take a picture of your wrist and superimpose one of its watches on top. Boucheron’s recently introduced app offers the same function for jewellery.

Other brands have also indulged in lateral thinking to create their apps. Hugo Boss allows you to photograph pieces from your wardrobe and match them with their Boss collections. Ralph Lauren has a selection of infomercials and a design-your-own-rugby shirt offering (only available in the US).

More successful than the brand apps, however, are the programs dedicated to solving specific style problems: iShoes provides information on more than 50,000 styles of shoe; and iBag does the equivalent for more than 20,000 handbags. For the men, iGentleman offers advice on what to wear and how to choose the best clothes for your body shape, while Artistic Necktie Knots explains the necessary origami involved when doing up your tie. And for all international needs, Clothes Size is an easy-to-use reference tool for shopping abroad. Just choose a type of clothing and it will provide the size equivalent in various countries.

One of the most successful advice apps is Cool Guy and Stylish Girl, which allows you to browse the latest looks by various designers and swap news and ideas with other users. It was launched in January 2009 by Dimitar Popovski, a Toronto-based developer. Popovski says there have been more than half a million downloads since the launch and the app has “100,000 very active users”.

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