Frameworks for Sustainable Careers in Digital Design

Characters in a city street environment in Avakin Life wearing haute couture outfits
What could a career in digital fashion design look like? Image: Lockwood Publishing

Digital fashion has exploded in gaming over recent years. With major brands launching entire runway shows on gaming platforms and users paying for outfits from designer brands for their characters, the potential exists for a new revenue stream for designers – provided that the economic model both protects and compensates them fairly. 

In a collaborative project funded by Future Fashion Factory, game developer Lockwood Publishing worked with fashion researchers at the Royal College of Art to understand and build new frameworks around the technical, legal and economic challenges involved in a new business model for digital fashion in gaming. 

Lockwood Publishing, developer of the immersive 3D social world Avakin Life, has an in-house fashion team that launches 100 items a week for an audience of almost 1,000,000 daily users. Oliver Kern, Chief Commercial Officer, says the company also aspires to become a platform of choice for creatives looking to collaborate and design in-game or to bring their own collections to market. 

“Avakin is an opportunity to democratise how fashion is created, giving opportunities to up and coming designers,” says Oliver. “We’re interested in a value chain in which everyone can participate and benefit, but to do that we need to understand more about how that chain currently operates.” 

Seeking to understand how Avakin could create new opportunities for designers raised a number of questions about how designers can thrive in the digital sphere. The company found the right match of expertise in Zowie Broach, Head of Fashion, and Dr Dawn Ellams at the Royal College of Art, for whom working with Lockwood offered an exciting opportunity to advocate for designers, putting them at the centre of a cross-industry conversation. 

Characters in Avakin Life wearing a variety of streetwear as well as angel wings, rollerskates and high heels
Designing fashion to be worn in the metaverse opens up creative and commercial possibilities. Image: Lockwood Publishing

Zowie has been interested in the convergence of fashion and gaming since the late 1990s and has seen the industry evolve to be able to exploit the potential of new technologies.  

“Digital design tools are now natural choices for fashion students, while the shift to digital-first design in the fashion industry has been accelerated by the pandemic,” Zowie explains. “There is a new space opening up in the digital sphere with a need for aesthetic and technical skills, and the idea of an economic base that is not in the real is intriguing for emerging designers.” 

As creative designs spring from individuals to be created and sold on gaming platforms, intellectual property is being created and shared – but with a relatively untested model for IP ownership and sharing, this is often low on the agenda of businesses. The project attracted the expertise of media and entertainment law firm Sheridans to identify possible solutions to the legal challenges that emerged. 

“Fashion designers often don’t understand IP and its value, and often independent brands have much less experience in licensing than bigger companies,” explains Andrew Bravin, associate at Sheridans. “Developers and designers often don’t even consider that they have valuable and protectable assets, so opportunities to exploit those assets go unexplored.”  

Combining the partners’ technical, design, commercial and legal expertise, the RCA team led the research aiming to understand how designers currently engage with gaming platforms and how this emerging business model can support them to succeed. 

Drawing insights from interviews with stakeholders and a variety of other methods, the RCA research sought to develop a set of recommendations and frameworks for revenue models, licensing agreements, technical developments and more. 

Characters in Avakin Life wearing black outfits and face masks
The project raised complex questions about designing in the fashion metaverse. Image: Lockwood Publishing

The project culminated in a report that brought together all these insights. Not only did it confirm the importance of several key issues and provided an evidence base for future development, but it raised a host of complex, interconnected questions that set the direction for future research. 

“This collaborative R&D project has enabled RCA researchers to link insights from cross-sector experts,” says Dawn. “We have used these to inform the report’s recommendations on the skills, tools, IP and revenue frameworks required to enable fashion designers to work as part of this emerging digital value chain.”

Access to digital tools for emerging designers was a key theme of the research identified by the RCA team. With such a wide range of tools on the market – most of which are incompatible with each other and come with their own costs – the lack of a common language for digital designs is a significant barrier. For Lockwood, this highlighted a market opportunity for tools that allow users to import between different systems, creating more efficient workflows and opening up collaborative and creative possibilities.  

“We’ve had a clear realisation of what we need to do to become easier for designers to work with,” Oliver says. “This evidence base gives us a much stronger starting point for future development that we can build on with further research.” 

At the same time, the project highlighted how many grey areas exist around how and even whether digital assets might be protected and owned. These questions could even lead to a shift in the business model and roles fulfilled by fashion designers. 

“There’s scope for so much work on the new roles that will exist in this sphere, and ultimately it’s about protecting designers and ensuring they have revenue streams,” Dawn adds. “The technical and aesthetic abilities are there and now we need to identify their route into industry. The question is, what skills and tools do designers need to be able to create in this digital space?” 

While providing evidence to support decisions about larger-scale research and development, the project laid the foundations for research into the world of work for digital creatives, technical developments, and industry standards for owning, protecting and managing digital assets.  

“This is about understanding what the market is and whether it is sustainable to be a digital-only fashion designer,” Andrew adds. “We’ve made an important first step to answering some very big questions.”