Why & How DREST Is Driving More Reality Into Its Digital Fashion Dreamscapes

2020 was when luxury fashion officially fell hard for gaming. Or, as it’s been less affectionately described, started putting serious resource behind ‘gamerbait’ – in-game or game-aping initiatives targeting younger fashion fans who are less pliable to heritage luxury’s traditional seduction techniques, catwalk-apathetic and now largely online.

From any angle, whether it’s the early pandemic-reflexive forays into Nintendo’s Animal Crossing (Coach, Valentino and Marc Jacobs et al.); ComplexCon’s low-fi but compelling (100k attendees) transition to shoppable virtual festival ComplexLand; or Balenciaga’s full-beam, vibe-summoning, retro-futuristic blitz of immersive tech in proprietary game Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow to showcase its AW21 collection, gaming-centric platforms are now legit social spaces for imbibing cutting-edge pop culture.

As e-commerce-infused initiatives go, arguably ahead of the curve is DREST – the interactive e-tail-meets-styling game that furnishes fashion fans who fancy themselves as industry pros with virtual access to white-hot high fashion, and a community of competitor-corroborators. While not yet as immersive visually as its metaverse-esque contemporaries built on gaming-engines or boasting Hollywood-sized bi-annual production budgets (see Balenciaga) it’s hefty array of luxury goods (precision-crafted virtual iterations of real life items) and industry connections (it was founded by former Harper’s Bazaar UK Editor-in-Chief Lucy Yeomans and is partnered with e-commerce behemoth Farfetch) has made it a force to be reckoned with.

Now, just over a year on since launch (October 2019), its re-evaluating not only how to propel engagement and sales in-game but how what happens in-game can influence behaviours outside it – evolving the platform to include an unusually IRL and more expansive pop cultural bent.

Here, Yeomans and COO Lisa Bridgett discuss the elasticated premise of RVR (originally referring to Real items, made Virtual, then shoppable in Reality) as a tentpole philosophy for what’s coming next.

Drest, The Recap

The DREST app lets users play at being a pro stylist via a menu of virtual goods (painstakingly replicated digital twins of real-world pieces) from 200+ luxury brands including Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Loewe, Stella McCartney, Fenty and most recently watch brand Breitling. They can play or simply shop (anything used in-game can also be wish-listed or bought IRL, in-app) with Bridgett revealing, “there is a clear correlation between the game-play and what ends up in players’ [shopping] baskets.” Styling happens on avatars, chosen from a clutch of supers, or a range of alter egos broadly representative of the civilian fanbase.

Brand partnerships mean labels can set dedicated challenges, live for a limited period of time, in which players exclusively use their products – hiking up their visibility beyond the smorgasbord of other garments/brands generally to hand. While all ‘Photoshoot’ and ‘Mood Board’ challenges in DREST allow users to select locations, backgrounds and stickers to fuel users’ creative juices, within the designer-dedicated concepts those elements (or other pieces of styling ephemera) are entirely bespoke, individualising the brand experience. 

Feeding a powerful competitive-community atmosphere from the outset, looks are graded both by algorithm (a tech-based measure to ensure the criteria’s been met) and DREST-playing peers. Higher ‘critical eye’ scores means rewards ­– in-game payments to buy more virtual clothes, but also (mimicking the privileges of an IRL professional promotion) access additional make-up, locations etc. Nuances add appeal, reflective of IRL professional hierarchies. For instance, ‘reputation points’ promise a graduation to creative director, while work ethic scores relate to number of challenges undertaken.

The platform is currently experiencing a 50% increase month over month in organic installs, with 57% of users skewing relatively young (21-39), affirming its capacity to connect with the much-coveted next generation. The most engaged players spend as much as a whopping 33 minutes a day in-app. Brands, of course, get to revel in the data pooled from users playing habits – a voyeuristic portal more valuable than any focus group.

“People thought I was mad even when I left [Harper’s Bazaar] to go to [Net-a-Porter’s magazine] Porter and then DREST, but I have ultimately always wanted to take fashion and creativity to where women really are and offer them the kind of access I had as an editor,” says Yeomans. “DREST presented a way to bridge the widening gaps between brands and their would-be fans without the brands having to fully sacrifice creative control.”

Context, Culture, Commerce: Introducing Richer RVR

Translating real things into virtual, playable versions has always underscored DREST – in spring 2020 revered British make-up artist Mary Greenwell came on board as a consultant to keep the beauty content as close to the zeitgeist as the sartorial content. But with RVR will also come a greater acknowledgement of the urgent need to contextualise fashion via a wider, real world cultural lens – film, music, art or even a topical news event.

In a time of huge social upheaval, creating looks for the Met Ball (while certainly not to be knocked as a form of escapism and still something you can expect from DREST) will be joined, and quite possibly usurped, by political inauguration fashion (an actual recent challenge), styling based on a history of fashion exhibition or costuming a music video or movie.

“How to blend digital and physical realities, our real and our fantasy worlds? This is a really major challenge of the 21st Century,” says Bridgett.

 A Platform to Meet the Speed of Pop Culture

It’s a notion that lends itself nicely to a platform potentially able to flex at the speed of pop culture in a way print magazines no longer can and makes most e-commerce sites look awkwardly advertorial. In a logical extension DREST’s mission to make the inaccessible irresistibly accessible, Yeomans suggests that one way this will manifest is by introducing the near real-time availability of styling elements you’d only previously be able to ogle on Vogue.com a few days post-show, alongside a pithy summation.

For instance, fans will have borderline immediate access to the hair styles in the Gucci or Prada presentations (wherever or whenever their primary location may now be), thanks to a partnership already brewing with hair styling legend Sam McKnight. There is also currently a DREST podcast, which may be integrated in-game at a future date.

RVR 2021 style will also bring cross-industry pollination, including providing an alternative promo experience for fashion-adjacent media juggernauts. It’s exemplified in a recent 9-day collaboration with Warner Bros. on the 2020 blockbuster Wonder Woman 1984 where users were able to access the entire, fan-fetishized wardrobe of Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot, costumed by Welsh designer Lindy Hemming) as well key backgrounds in thrillingly accurate detail.

Bridgett reveals they’re already “inundated with inquiries from other creative spheres,” while Yeomans describes all the challenges as, “like deploying an Exocet missile, because of the insistence on ‘touch’.” Psychologically speaking, it represents the ‘endowment effect’: once someone has taken ownership of an object, their perceived value of it shoots up, regardless of whether it’s a Birkin bag or a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut. Virtual possession is no less powerful.

Purposeful Play & Collaborative Community

While the challenges are commercial gold, giving power to the ‘prosumer’ (the consumer creative) is a deep-seated, multi-faceted DREST mantra. “DREST was conceived because of the importance of agency, of allowing fans to be part of the conversation,” says Yeomans. “I’ve also always thought that purpose is key, especially for women. There is a desire to learn, about fashion from brands or from those around you. This isn’t just finishing school for fashion, we’re keeping aspiration alive by not being too didactic with style.” 

Bridgett asserts that, “2021 will also see us accelerate the emphasis on social and community factors,” potentially allowing more ‘squad’ play where users could, for instance, collaborate on creating mood-boards, playing to the “fascinating clusters of fans we’re increasingly seeing springing up around particular items or styling tropes. This is probably the element of DREST most ripe for us for take into a more hyper-real space.”

Incoming Tech & Greater Individuation

DREST is a long way from the hyper-realities of hardcore gaming right now, based on what Bridgett describes as a deliberate decision to “wait until capacity for full immersion is more mainstream, accessible to all players” avoiding a splintering of its fanbase and keeping the gameplay genuinely scalable. It’s worth knowing the Balenciaga’s 7-minute video, full of volumetric product capture, is rumoured to have taken an army of digital creatives over six months to make, and that’s a conservative estimate.

But there is a raft of new, mostly individuation-centred tech on the way poised to amplify the platform including an AI project to create digital twin user-avatar faces in just two minutes (apparently the desire to self-identify trumps a famous avatar almost every time); virtual fabric sampling to build fashion items from scratch; and ‘real-time distributed platforming’ – cloud computing tools that will make live challenges (where large number of players are competing against the clock) far more feasible.

Sustainability & Philanthropy

Technological innovation will also fuel its sustainable and philanthropic overview, something that’s long been on Yeomans agenda. For the former, it’s already in talks with brands about virtually prototyping products – allowing it to serve as a pre-production test-space, helping to diminish over-consumption. For the latter, any players casting one of the supermodel avatars are required to donate a portion of the attendant booking fee to that model’s designated charity – via the empathy-inducing mechanics of an in-game dialogue with the digital icon herself.

It may well serve to establish DREST as a counter to toxicity online. Women might constitute a huge chunks of the gamer population right now (current estimates suggest 50%, globally), but it doesn’t yet mean the culture has become a roundly sunny place; Riot Games, among others, is currently investigating using blockchain-secured currency that pays out when gamers display good sportsmanship.

“If you have the privilege of having a platform like this it’s imperative to be very clear and considered about what you represent. Being stylish is no longer about just wearing the right clothes, it’s also about attitude and intention, agency and purpose,” states Yeomans. Increasingly, it seems, what happens in-game is unlikely to stay there. 

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