At a recent presentation in New York, Parsons School of Design students showcased outfits they created over the course of a semester. The looks include a pale pink mock neck top and pants set with deep sea-themed patterns, a strapless mini dress made from glimmering gold feathers, and a patterned gown with strings of gravity-defying water droplets swirling its orbit. But none of the clothes are modeled by humans. They don’t even exist in the physical world.
The nine looks made by students in the Parsons class were made in Roblox, the sprawling online gaming universe that millions of parents can’t get their kids to stop talking about. Those same kids will soon be able to purchase and wear the Parsons designs — or at least their digital counterparts can.
The final presentation is the culmination of a semester-long course offered by Parsons in collaboration with Roblox for the first time this year. It was envisioned as a way to give students hands-on experience with tools that could become increasingly relevant in their future careers, says Kyle Li, assistant professor of communication design and technology who taught the course.
“We as a university wanted to work on this project because we want to learn what skill set students need to be successful on this platform,” Li says. “[Roblox is] also interested in shifting their audience from 12 and younger to 17 to 24. And I thought, ‘We have the perfect specimen to test all those things.’”
Though some of the students who applied and were accepted to the course come from a traditional fashion background constructing garments, the class had an array of experiences from game design to architecture.
Yoshe Li (no relation to Kyle Li) had never played Roblox before taking the course but compares the digital clothing in the game to picking an outfit in Animal Crossing, where getting dressed digitally is more obviously an extension of self-expression.
“It’s funny that when it rains, we just go home and change into raincoats,” Li says of playing Animal Crossing. “That’s very similar to when I was playing Roblox with my friends. We went to this game scene, and we changed clothing that matches that game scene. And we go to that one, and then we have to like change for that.”
Zhenyu Yang, a Parsons student with a fashion background, says he was struck by how easy it was to create clothing digitally and how many options the medium opened up. For one project, he digitally recreated a physical garment he had made in the past. Only this time, he didn’t need to run around New York’s Garment District looking for boning that was just the right size. The weight of the clothing doesn’t matter, either — there’s no need to construct it for physical wearability.
“Working in digital gives you so much freedom in terms of the structures you want to have,” Yang says. For another project, he and a partner made a silver and green cyborg outfit with separate chest, leg, and shoulder armor inspired by anime he grew up with. “[The cyborg armor] is not going to work in real life. [It could be made] out of metals or other stuff — it’s just not possible for people to wear.”
But digital fashion comes with its own set of limitations. Lea Melendez is part of a team that created an asymmetric jacket that looks like it’s made of stretched and condensed disco balls, plus a black bodysuit with a corkscrew coil running down one leg. Melendez’s outfit, with its many reflective sides on each part of the jacket, initially was too detailed to run in Roblox, which has its own set of requirements for items for sale in the marketplace. Melendez and her partner had to cut down on the level of 3D detail the digital design had.
Though Roblox collaborated with Parsons on this course, digital fashion exists beyond the game. Fortnite players have an ever-rotating selection of limited edition in-game skins to purchase and apply to their avatars, including ones that resemble celebrities or Star Wars characters. When Meta launched a store with clothing and accessories for its avatars, designer hoodies and suits were among the first items for sale. The promise of the so-called metaverse is that people would be able to take their items with them wherever they go in digital spaces. But for far, platforms like Roblox are the main ecosystems these goods are being made and used — and one of the few with an audience that’s willing to pay money for them.
Yang was the only student in the class of around 20 that had a Roblox account before taking the course, and he rarely played, he says. Even Li, the instructor, had not played Roblox before his course kicked off. His young son, on the other hand, completes chores in exchange for money to buy Robux, the in-game currency used to purchase clothing items and other digital goods. Yang envisions the audience for his cyborg suit to be kids who like the same things he did when he was younger.
This is one of the key tensions that exist for Roblox — no matter how you slice it, its demographic is young. The company has worked to appeal to slightly older users by introducing features like age-gated games, ad revenue sharing, and has said it would explore fewer language restrictions for older users. Last week, Roblox founder and CEO David Baszucki hinted that more mature experiences like dating, film screenings, or news could be the future of the platform. The Parsons course is an extension of Roblox trying to prove that it’s a viable and legitimate tool for adult life.
For Parsons students in the class, the other reality is that Roblox isn’t first and foremost a gaming platform because hardly any of them use it that way. It’s a potential way to make money off their work and a place where jobs could develop in the future. Digital garments can be wildly profitable for companies like Roblox — Epic Games, for example, made nearly $50 million just on a set of NFL in-game skins purchased by players.
Roblox needs developers like the Parsons students for its platform. For the most part, the company doesn’t create its own games or “experiences,” instead relying on a sea of developers to make content, from novice players, including children, to more established studios with employees. Roblox representatives joined the class for guest lectures and discussions and provided technical support and troubleshooting for students as they created their digital designs. Clothing from the course, which is in the process of being uploaded for sale in Roblox, ranges from 70 to 100 Robux, or about 88 cents to $1.25 (Roblox takes a cut of the sales for marketplace purchases).
“If you stop making content, people will forget you after a month or two.”
For developers, the promise of Roblox has been that they, too, could hit it big and make a living off the game, but success is far from guaranteed. There’s been criticism in the past of how Roblox could be exploitative to young kids who believe they’ll be able to make money on the platform, only to never end up profiting. Last fall, Roblox said that the vast majority of people making money on the platform were over 18 years old and that the top 1,000th developer was earning about $32,000 annually.
“There’s a lot of competition, and people are forgetful,” Li, the instructor, says. “If you stop making content, people will forget you after a month or two.”
Schools like Parsons are hoping to close the gap between what students work on in the classroom and what jobs might look like post-graduation. And though tech companies like Epic Games, Roblox, and Meta are pouring resources into creating fashion events and spaces in the metaverse, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that brands are still building for a limited audience, not an everyday part of most people’s lives.
In Meta’s Horizon Worlds, some users who hang out in the digital sphere are irate over how the company is handling creator concerns — and even before that, not many people are using Horizon in the first place. At the second annual Decentraland Metaverse Fashion Week in April, for example, big-name brands like Coach, Vogue, and Balenciaga gathered in virtual spaces to showcase (and sell) digital goods. Attendees, though, were scant, and exhibits ranged from dreamlike to sloppy and boring. What’s the point of walking around a dead digital mall when you could do the same in person and pick up a soft pretzel while you’re at it?
Students I spoke with all said they intend to use the technical skills they learned in the class — some just for fun as a creative outlet, others to incorporate digital clothing elements into their existing work. Yoshe Li, who is also a singer-songwriter, imagines a project collaborating with other artists that recreates digital versions of their most iconic looks. Could the skills developed in the course lead to her making money this way?
“I hope the answer is yes,” she says. For now, Li is happy to create for fun and for free.
Correction May 25th, 2023 1:03PM ET: This article originally stated that older players are able to use curse words in Roblox. Reduced language filters have not yet been rolled out. We regret the error.