When pandemic-induced cancellations eliminated most of fashion photographer Kara Chung's upcoming projects, she found herself in the same position as countless other creatives: out of work. Like many of her stuck-inside peers, Chung quickly immersed herself in the casual exploration game Animal Crossing to pass the time.
"You have people in these situations where they're not only isolated, but in small spaces. This game kind of eases the claustrophobia," she says on the phone from her hometown of Manila, Philippines.
For her social circle, which includes creatives from the world of fashion, art, media and design, it's also become a way for everybody to "hang out." And just two weeks since the newest iteration of the game launched, it's also turned into a way for fashion pros to flex their creative muscles, support up-and-coming designers and even keep booking gigs while on lockdown.
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It all started when Chung created an Instagram account, Animal Crossing Fashion Archive, to post images of the outfits that she and her friends were creating for their in-game avatars. Though the game isn't exactly based on fashion design, the newest version of it — Animal Crossing New Horizons, which was released on March 22 — allows for unprecedented levels of customization of clothing and appearance. It was only natural that Chung and her friends started recreating looks by their favorite designers.
As soon as Chung began posting the looks to Instagram, she says, it gained traction quickly. Fashion contacts from Hong Kong, where Chung is usually based, reached out for collaborations. Before she knew it, she was "shooting" virtual editorials and lookbooks for the likes of i-D, Hypebeast and Highsnobiety.
"I essentially prepared what looked like an in-game studio, and I got these items that looked like studio light and studio floor," Chung explains of her first Animal Crossing shoot. Just because it was virtual doesn't mean it was any less collaborative than an IRL setup, she explains — it involved working with the avatars of seven other real people she'd recruited, whom she had to direct just as she would offline.
"I had them hop around to different areas of the map, and I would basically tell them to move a bit to the right, move a bit to the left," she explains. "We tried to mirror the lighting that I would use in real life by choosing these areas in the game that had really interesting places where light would hit dramatically."
Though Chung is likely the most-followed poster of Animal Crossing fashion content at the moment (her account currently has 19.1K followers), she's not the only one. Another up and coming account, currently hovering at just over 6.5K followers, is Nook Street Market. A spoof on Dover Street Market, it's run by model Fernanda Ly, designer and DJ Michelle Yue and photographer and graphic designer Vivian Loh, all based in New York.
While Chung's account centers on "editorial" images that feature elaborate backdrops and settings for the characters, Nook Street showcases its outfits on plain white backdrops and is more focused on providing followers with the QR codes they need so their own avatars can wear the outfits. (Outfits are "designed" by filling in color a pixel at a time — a process that, like real sewing, some find soothing and others find tiresome.)
The thing that all these Animal Crossing fashion account creators have in common is an interest in creativity and community first and foremost.
"Monetary gain has never been the end goal. I'm personally making these because I enjoy the challenge," says Ly via email of why she started creating designer outfits in the game. "It's similar to completing color puzzles."
Loh agrees, describing the process of recreating each outfit as "meditative." And they all concur that it's been a fun way to connect with people – both Animal Crossing Fashion Archive and Nook Street Market originally grew out of groups of friends private messaging about their gaming experiences.
Chung and the Nook Street creators also place a large emphasis on highlighting independent designers likely in need of a boost right now. For Nook Street, that means re-creating pieces by Barragán and Creepyyeha, while Chung is especially focused on the designers at the heart of the vibrant Filipino arts scene, like Toqa, Carl Jan Cruz and the Tropical Futures Institute. Interspersing them with pieces from well-known names like Jacquemus, Chanel and Dior helps boost the profile of the smaller designers.
"I personally am curating a mix of designers who people already absolutely know as well as upcoming, niche or underground designers who deserve more exposure," says Yue in an email.
Though money isn't the goal, it's not a foregone conclusion, either. Chung has already been paid for some of her work in the game, and it's not limited to fashion — clothing brands have reached out, but so did a food brand that wants to host an in-game pop-up.
It's not hard to imagine demand snowballing over time. On Wednesday, cult favorite esports label 100 Thieves dropped its notoriously hard-to-get-your-hands-on-IRL inventory on Animal Crossing. Earlier this week, Ayala Museum, one of Manila's premier art and history museums, released outfit codes showcasing traditional textiles and garments from its costume collection so that people could experience them even while the museum remains closed. Could fashion weeks be next?
"Everybody is trying to predict what will happen in terms of how clothing will be presented," Chung says. "Will people still be gathering in these spaces or having shows?"
Waiting for a post-virus world could take a long time, and the success of accounts like these might offer a way forward for brands still looking to engage with their fans and followers — not to mention find new ones — even while runway shows are off the table.
Some of the conversations that have become so important in the world of IRL fashion are no less present in the virtual one. Representation is a great example: Chung likens Animal Crossing to Fenty in the way it champions inclusivity. While the games she grew up playing might have forced her to assume the shape of a young boy avatar, Animal Crossing lets users select their gender, skin color, eye shape, hair type and of course, clothing.
"The fact that they're able to represent diversity in this game has been so empowering," she says. "Out of a group of 20-30 friends of mine who play, there's only a couple who have tried to make their avatar fantastical. That's really interesting to me because [it says that] people really do see their avatars as reflections of themselves."
But the online nature of it all also makes it easier to experiment — so even people who create avatars in their own likenesses are playing with colors or styles of "gendered" clothing they might not wear in real life. (Chung notes that though she's notorious for wearing nothing but neutrals offline, donning color in the game has made her motivated to try wearing brighter pieces in real life.) The Nook Street Market creators note that the game gives people "a sense of freedom that they cannot express in the external world currently."
Whether Animal Crossing will continue to hold this much sway once people are able to leave their homes and freely congregate in person again remains to be seen. But either way, the space it's created for connection and creativity feels valuable to Chung as she and so many others navigate the world's new normal.
"It's a very welcome breathing space," she says. "We're all remembering the things that we love together. We're all nostalgic for the same things."