Digital property is big business. It’s estimated consumers spent $100 billion on virtual goods in 2019. That number is expected to grow by at least another $10 billion in 2021. A handful of brands and platforms have emerged in this new reality to offer real-life customers unique virtual items. RTFKT Studios is one of them. I speak to co-founder Benoit Pagotto to find out more.
In 2019, Dutch startup The Fabricant, Dapper Labs, and artist Johanna Jaskowska made headlines when they sold a dress for $9,500 on the blockchain. The main reason it made headlines? The dress doesn’t physically exist. Instead, the dress is entirely digital, tailored for an individual customer based on a photo.
An early example of the blurring between physical and virtual products in the fashion industry, luxury houses from Paris to Milan have since undergone their own efforts to bring their brands into increasingly digitized worlds.
Gucci created a digital collection for Drest, a fashion-themed video game, athleticwear for a mobile tennis game, and virtual looks for online avatars. Inspired by Virgil Abloh’s Fall/Winter 2019 collection, Louis Vuitton launched an ’80s-style side-scroller called Endless Runner.
Although this shift is a striking development in the world of fashion—an industry rooted in craftsmanship, provenance, and heritage—it comes as no surprise to anyone that’s spent time gaming in the last decade. Gamers play an average of seven hours a week and collectively spend around $100 billion on virtual goods. And this is before the pandemic.
Skins, items players acquire to change the appearance of their character, are one of many virtual products that keep gamers engaged and coming back for more. They can often be bought for real-world currency or received as a reward for completing missions.
Fortnite, the video game phenomenon that hosted a Travis Scott concert and famously awarded a 16-year-old $3 million for winning a tournament, has released official skins with some of the world’s biggest franchises, from Marvel and DC to Star Wars and Stranger Things.
Apex Legends, considered a worthy competitor to Fortnite, has taken a similar approach, working with veteran digital creators on rare products to engage players in-game and across social channels. In late 2020, the game teamed up with RTFKT Studios (pronounced “artifact”) on a sneaker inspired by Apex Legends character Rampart and Tinker Hatfield’s famed Air Jordan 3 as part of a wider social media campaign.
While the shoe itself wasn’t made available to players in-game, nearly 30,000 retweets reminded everyone standing on the sidelines of the appetite for virtual goods from gamers and digital collectors alike. The designs RTFKT has released for sale are another story entirely.
A pair of shoes inspired by the Tesla Cybertruck sold for a cool $35,000. Half a dozen other shoes referencing everything from Sony’s PS5 to League of Legends clear four figures easily, including additional designs based on the Apex universe.
Launched in early 2020, the RTFKT story is still being written. Fueled by high-profile collaborations, like a just-announced partnership with Lexus and Complex, I spoke to co-founder Benoit Pagotto over Zoom to find out how RTFKT is laying the foundation to become Supreme for the digital age. Read our interview below.
We've partnered with @RTFKTstudios to bring some of Rampart's finest to life with the Rampart's Rarities Week 1 Giveaway! Drop that shoe size below. 👇— Apex Legends (@PlayApex) October 6, 2020
👟RT this tweet
NO PURCHASE NEC. 18+ Ends 10/13/20 #RespawnGiveaway
📄: https://t.co/KMcpk8QTxM pic.twitter.com/cgLQm4cR6v
Hey Benoit, great to connect. Before we get into the RTFKT story, can you tell me a bit about your career up to this point?
I’ve got a weird profile. I studied fine arts and I always thought I would be an art director. It was cool to play the artist but I realized if I wanted to make a living I should look into advertising. So as a student I worked at colette, working on Millennial strategy and doing cool projects for digital. Throughout that time I was staying plugged into video games and tech, trying to bring ideas and technologies to advertising and marketing from the gaming world.
Afterwards I became a strategic planner for Young & Rubicam. There I understood brands need to have a purpose, a message, that you explain in different ways and activate across channels just like an artist.
From 2016 to 2020, I served as Head of Marketing and Brand at Fnatic. It was only seven people when I joined, not counting players, and we were just starting to prepare the first fundraising. It was right when esports was about to go through crazy growth so it was really great because I was on the brand side, but at the same time using all the skills I had before, working with partners, coming up with creative ideas for the brand, working with technology, game studios, everything.
We were the first to do limited edition merch in esports. Same with collaborations. We did really big collaborations including one with Gucci. And that’s where I met Chris (Le) and Steven (Vasilev), who I started RTFKT with.
Why did you guys decide to start RTFKT?
I thought there was an opportunity for me to start something focused on the actual items with today’s technology. Fnatic at its core is still an esports team, so you can do lots of amazing stuff as a brand but you’re still a team that needs to win. You can’t turn that into an actual fashion company. That’s why I started RTFKT with Chris and Steven.
How long were you guys working on RTFKT before going live?
About six months. We posted our first content on the RTFKT Instagram page in April 2019 but didn’t officially launch until January 2020. We had gotten an offer for funding from an investor and we didn’t take it but we realized we could actually make a brand out of this.
Tell me about some of the first projects you guys did as a brand.
We had lots of contacts at game publishers, so the first big one we did was with Apex Legends. After that we did the Cyber Sneaker and that’s when things really took off.
From the Cyber Sneaker on, it seems like all the designs are rooted not just in video game aesthetics but in pop culture as well. What role does pop culture play in the brand?
We’re super in touch with what’s happening on the culture side, from gaming and anime to memes and hip-hop. We have good friends in all of these industries so everything we do is based on something we feel is hot in the culture.
“We don’t follow a fashion trend calendar because we’re the ones bringing what it really looks like when you match gaming and fashion.”
In that sense, how quickly do you have to turn around these designs so that they’re still relevant?
Quite fast actually, usually we do it all in a week, max, but also we plan. The calendar we follow and that we talk about is the current calendar; when the next big game is coming out, when there’s a big movie coming out. We always get ready.
So you take a real marketing approach with everything you guys do.
Exactly. We don’t follow a fashion trend calendar because we’re the ones bringing what it really looks like when you match gaming and fashion. It’s been tried a lot by fashion brands and they always do one of two approaches: either an old school 8-bit style or a super iridescent/fake futuristic style.
But we know what gamer kids and streetwear guys are going to find cool, so we follow a marketing calendar of what’s happening in the culture and figure out how we can do our own take on it.
I’ve seen that a lot in the last few years. Fashion brands launching side-scrollers you play in your browser or using video game characters as futuristic models.
I know that very well because I’m an advisor to some big fashion brands on the side. Some brands are going to do cool stuff soon. Some already started actually. But it’s always a bit the same when they try to do stuff because they don’t have the culture internally. It’s an HR challenge more than anything.
Why do you think fashion has become so interested in video games over the last few years?
When I joined Fnatic five years ago no one wanted to talk to us. It really took off from 2019 when Louis Vuitton partnered with Riot and League of Legends, doing an amazing job with events and the production. Everyone started to see that gaming was not slowing down and brands from cars and insurance to credit cards and food were starting to come into the mix.
What accelerated everything was COVID and Travis Scott x Fortnite. All the brands were stuck and they saw a massive concept with that collaboration.
For me, the earliest crossover of what we’re seeing today was Louis Vuitton’s use of a Final Fantasy character in 2015. Looking back, it feels a bit ahead of its time.
It was one of the first moves actually, you’re right. It didn’t have much impact though. Whereas when they did the sponsorship of the League of Legends Cup in 2019, that had a huge impact. All the brands started to accelerate because they saw that Louis Vuitton, the number one luxury fashion brand, did it. That’s when they all felt like, “Okay, we need to do this as well.”
“If you look at what’s happening now with cryptocurrencies and Gamestop, consumers are looking for ways to make money.”
Jumping to the consumer side of the equation, how do gamers feel about it? Do gamers even differentiate between physical and virtual products?
Even though RTFKT is rooted in fashion and gaming, we believe consumers are interested in our product outside of fashion and gaming. If you look at what’s happening now with cryptocurrencies and Gamestop, consumers are looking for ways to make money. That’s why sneakers work so well. There’s a big market of people buying and selling sneakers.
The question becomes: can you create products that have market value that you can collect or resell? We bring fashion and gaming together to create collectibles. Right now we make sneakers but in two weeks we’re doing our first jacket. You’ll also start to see some toys we’re working on with athletes.
Is that what you attribute the sale of the Cyber Sneaker to? Creating market value? And how much did it ultimately sell for?
Yes. We make an item that becomes part of culture. People perceive they have value because they made a mark on the internet. Therefore collectors want a piece of it.
We were really happy with the price—it sold for 30 ETH which is around $50,000 today.
Who are these collectors? Are they sneakerheads?
It depends, it’s changing a lot. At the beginning it was mostly people that were super into crypto but now it’s expanding because crypto is becoming more mainstream. Now there are big Twitch streamers starting to buy these types of collectibles, too.
Since these products exist digitally, how do you keep them limited and authentic?
With digital items anyone can copy and paste the file or replicate it, so we use blockchain to authenticate the number of editions and its origins.
You’ve released about a dozen sneakers now. How would you describe the RTFKT aesthetic?
I would describe it as over-the-top gaming fashion. We apply what we know is cool from games—shapes, materials, colors, effects—with what we like in sneakers and fashion. It’s future gaming fashion in a sense but it’s over the top because we always go HAM when we do something.
At the same time, it’s always something that can be made in real life. And that’s where we like to be: in between what’s real and what’s not. We want to create these new, iconic shapes for kids to dream of owning one day.
“Supreme works with brands you never expect, helping them stay relevant in contemporary conversations. We want to do the same for gaming culture.”
All of your designs so far are rooted in pop culture and popular silhouettes. At the same time, you have the freedom to design anything you want. Do you see future designs having an impact on physical products as well?
Absolutely. Actually, some people in China have already started doing 3D-printed versions of our designs. So yeah, absolutely, because if you have impact on culture, there’s someone who’s going to have a commercial response to that.
On that note your partner Steven said you guys see yourselves as “the new age Supreme for a digital audience.” What does that mean to you exactly?
It’s about having the attitude to take a position. Supreme is born from skateboard culture. We are born from gaming culture. Supreme merges cultures and helps artists get discovered by new audiences with their collabs.
Supreme works with brands you never expect as well, helping them stay relevant in contemporary conversations. We want to do the same for gaming culture.
Last question to tie it all together. You guys want to be the new age Supreme for the digital audience while fashion brands are dipping their toes into video games. Is gaming going to completely merge with fashion during this current generation of celebrity designers?
No. Virgil Abloh brought basketball, street culture, and modern art to Louis Vuitton. His approach to creativity is already clearly defined so even if he’s making shoes that say “GAME OVER” in LED, he’s not a gamer bringing that culture. And the thing is you can’t suddenly become that. You can’t. Either you grew up in that culture or you didn’t. So, it’s going to be the next generation that’s going to bring that.
And they are very different from a creative point of view. They are very collaborative. A game is a project that takes a lot of time and you work with developers, artists, marketing. It’s never a product that comes from one person with the rare exception of people like Peter Molyneux or David Cage.
Maybe more importantly, they are more familiar with not thinking of an item strictly as a physical item. I think they will create virtual items first. In games, objects are not static. They evolve with your character. They can be upgraded. In the end they become part of your character story because you’ve been working towards that object for a long time. That’s what’s going to change: items from future designers are not going to stay static.
Lead image: Cyber Sneaker by RTFKT Studios.
Brock Cardiner is the Content Director of HERO® and the Editor-in-Chief of Elsewhere. Previously Brock was the Editorial Director of Highsnobiety.