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Game companies are allergic to making fashionable merch — so fans stepped in

Gamers can have drip

A design from Jacqueline Yanez shows characters and colors inspired by Pokemon Image: Jacqueline Yanez

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When I say “iconic video game fashion,” your mind may go to Tifa Lockhart’s breezy crop tank top and suspenders look, or the high-fashion mask and jacket style sported by Nier Automata’s 9S. Maybe you think about the trendy tees and school jackets worn by characters in the Persona franchise, the signature billiard-ball T-shirts of Animal Crossing, or the overbranded hypebeast looks of Splatoon. Maybe you even think about how you’ve kitted out your own Final Fantasy 14 or World of Warcraft character.

Video game designers and artists meticulously build in-game cosmetics to be on-trend, fashionable, and in some cases functional pieces of attire. For gamers interested in drip that’s not as drab as the Phil Spencer blazer, T-shirt, and jeans look, it’s fascinating to track how real-world influences affect in-game cosmetics.

But as life influences art in these designs, shouldn’t art influence life? This is why it’s so disappointing that in many cases, even the most ready-to-wear designs from games aren’t available to buy as merch. Some brands partner with external designers and shops like The Yetee, Insert Coin, and Fangamer to recreate specific in-game looks, but for the most part, the fashion options offered by gaming companies are just elevated promotional materials. What many fashion-forward gamers really want, however, is to express themselves the same way their favorite games allow them to.

If you want to wear your favorite looks from a video game, you’ll generally have to roll your sleeves up and make them yourself. I’ve been there. When Splatoon 3 launched, I was so taken with the designs that I upcycled both a Five Four bomber jacket and a Karl Lagerfeld hoodie in order to create Splatoon-inspired pieces I could wear every day. Nintendo wasn’t making them, so I took matters into my own hands with a Cricut Explore Air 2, some SVG files, and a dream in my heart.

A photo shows a Karl Lagerfeld short-sleeve hoodie, customized with the iconic white-on-red logo of the high-fashion designer brand Toni Kensa from Splatoon Photo courtesy of Sam Greszes

And I’m not the only one.

There are plenty of designers out there replicating and iterating on iconic video game looks, making them available to gamers when larger brands don’t.

Skip Barden’s Etsy store SkipDraws is full of Splatoon gear, from Toni Kensa rugs to re-creations of the holographic stickers you can use to decorate your in-game locker, and plushies — highlighted by an impeccable reproduction of Splatoon 3’s Tentatek Tandem tee. Speaking about their inspiration, they expressed disappointment that, at least outside of Japan, official re-creations of in-game looks are very hard to find, especially for a game series like Splatoon that is so centered around wearable, modern, and functional style.

“It definitely is frustrating to see so many insanely cool and talented designs in-game with only a couple of them having been translated to real clothes! The design and aesthetic is a huge part of the core of Splatoon in my opinion, so it really sucks to see that throughout Splatoon 1, 2, and 3, there have been so [few] merch options that actually look like in-game items and clothing.”

This is even more noticeable given the fact that when Nintendo actually does release Splatoon merch inspired by in-game items, the results are usually pretty great. The limited-edition Final Fest tees from Splatoon 2 are high-quality and fashionable, and Barden specifically mentions the Tri-Shred tee sold exclusively at Nintendo stores in Japan.

“I do honestly love Nintendo’s replication of this design,” they say, “but I want more designs, more options, and definitely don’t want to wait around for Nintendo to make my favorite ones when they probably won’t and I can do it myself! [...] The Tentatek Tandem tee was my favorite from the moment I saw it, so I knew I had to start with that to give me something exciting and fun to work on.

A photo of a t-shirt shows designs inspired by Splatoon Photo courtesy of Skip Barden

“The way that I select the designs is hard to explain because I feel like it’s composed of many subconscious decisions, but mostly I choose the ones I find most visually appealing and interesting, as well as what I can envision myself and others actually wearing out and about. I want fans of Splatoon to feel like they’re actually a part of the universe, without that feeling leaving when they exit the game.”

Jacqueline Yanez, another talented designer heavily inspired by the world of gaming, echoes this sentiment. Her Twitter account shows off fashionable illustrations and patterns that iterate on in-game designs and characters, translated through a personal style heavily inspired by her culture as a first-generation Latina.

“Growing up I was exposed to a lot of art that one would consider ‘Mexican maximalism,’” Yanez says. “People tend to dismiss maximalist art for seeming like an incomprehensible, cluttered mess, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I mean, yes, the work is busy, but there is great care and thought put into the colors, the spacing of the elements, and the overall flow of the piece.”

While her designs aren’t one-to-one re-creations or adaptations of in-game fashions, she’s still guided by the philosophy of “if I can’t find it, might as well make it.” She mentions that she doesn’t fault Nintendo, Disney, The Pokémon Company, or others for not creating these products — after all, they’re all bound by pretty restrictive style guides — and as a designer herself, this creates an opportunity for her to create the designs she’d want to wear. This also lets her spotlight characters (she specifically mentions Pokémon’s Trubbish and Minior, both of which she’s spotlighted in patterns) that don’t get the spotlight much in official merchandise.

A man wearing a shirt covered in Pokemon characters stands in front of a ferris wheel at Disney’s California Adventure. Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Yanez

There is often a disconnect between the merchandise produced by IP owners as promotional materials and the fashions people want to wear. Games like Splatoon, Animal Crossing, Final Fantasy 14, and hell, even Fortnite put so much effort into designing hundreds, if not thousands, of in-game pieces that allow gamers to express themselves in fashionable, trendy, and unique ways. It’s part of what attracts people to those games in the first place.

“Gamers have no drip” is a (deserved!) refrain on Twitter every time the summer press conferences spin up. But considering the stylish way they kit themselves out in their favorite games, maybe the problem isn’t with gamers themselves. Given the tools to be creative and fashionable, we rise to the occasion, but if all that’s marketed to us in terms of real-life wearables are T-shirts with cringey slogans on them, can we really be surprised when that’s what people wear?

Game companies could fix this problem by partnering with designers and manufacturers to start replicating in-game designs that spark creativity and an interest in fashion. This would help gamers dip their toes into the world of fashion with a lower barrier to entry, and help them start to figure out what their personal style actually is. Sega has already done this to great effect, partnering with Insert Coin to recreate designs from their games, from the Ono Michio long-sleeve shirt from Yakuza 6 to Ryuji’s hoodie from Persona 5. The speed at which these designs sell out and need to be restocked speaks to the fact that this is something gamers want. We want to be able to express ourselves with our clothing the way we can in our favorite games, not just to be walking billboards. And until more video game companies learn that, well, there’s always Etsy. Or your sewing machine. Or your Cricut.