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20 years on: Second Life, the fashion-forward metaverse that keeps on giving

By Rachel Douglass


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Business |Interview

Fashion in Second Life, clothing by AmaliaRainwood, Melina Anatine, Areve, Zaara Kohime and Kunst Himmel. Credits: Second Life Flickr, NuriaNiven.

Years after its inception, the concept of the ‘metaverse’ has seemed to have fallen flat against the backdrop of what was meant to be its magnificent revival. Spurred on by large-scale tech giants that shifted their horizons to the digital realm, the idea of transitioning to such spaces was assumed to be the future of existence. In its simplest form, the metaverse was envisioned as a new way for brands to engage with younger, digitally-native generations, whether that be through digital clothing drops or immersive experiences.

These ‘new’ takes on the virtual world brought a much-needed buzz during a time when various industries had come to a pandemic-induced standstill. However, as the world began to return to a sense of normality, hype wore off as it became clear that many consumers were still not ready to spend the entirety of their lives in a non-existent universe. As a result, Microsoft closed the doors of its AltspaceVR world, while Meta – which had infamously changed its name from Facebook two years ago as it shifted its attention towards virtual realms – admitted to a lack of engagement and lacklustre profits as a result.

However there has been one success story that has quietly been upping its armoury during this time. Initially founded in 1999, Second Life didn’t come into existence until late 2002, offering users a 16 region-map, customisable avatars and, one year later, an in-game currency. From the outside, the platform’s appearance and general setup appeared to mimic mundane, everyday life, yet it was its offering of an explorable world and the ability to formulate an entirely new identity that made it groundbreaking for its time.

Hanami Celebration at Shobu in Second Life. Credits: Second Life, Flickr.

Now 20 years on, this appeal seems to still have some weight. In 2021, it had been reported that there were still some 64.7 million active users on Second Life, with Web Tribunal then stating that in 2023 there was a daily average of 200,000 users spanning 200 countries [figures differ per reporting outlet]. Potential hints at Second Life’s comeback were already present at the beginning of last year, when its creator Philip Rosedale returned to parent company Linden Labs as a strategic advisor. The move followed an undisclosed investment from High Fidelity, a spatial audio company also co-founded by Rosedale.

Now in its 20th anniversary year, and on the brink of releasing a new portable mobile app, Second Life and Linden Labs have set themselves up for the task of bolstering and supporting their already vibrant fashion community, in the hope of maintaining the platform’s status as a pioneer in the sector. To get some insight into the platform’s longevity, FashionUnited spoke with Second Life’s VP of product, Grumpity Linden, as well as some of the designers that paved the way for digital fashion and continue to do so in this immersive world.

What is Second Life doing right and how are designers benefiting?

Hat and gold earrings by Gianna Broda for David Heather. Imagery by NuriaNiven. Credits: Second Life, Flickr.

Grumpity Linden credited much of Second Life’s success to its emphasis on nurturing its community, which has been granted a significant degree of trust and empowerment to create and develop on their own terms. Fashion and avatar customisation are at the core of this creator economy, according to Grumpity Linden, who noted that these individuals have a “tremendous influence and presence” in organising events, publishing materials and keeping customers engaged. In fact, the VP said that there were over 1.6 million transactions happening on the platform everyday, with more than 86 million dollars paid to residents in 2021 for a variety of virtual goods and services. Additionally, over 1,400 people earned over 10,000 dollars last year, while some earned over one million dollars in earnings during 2021, making fashion a significant contributor to Second Life’s prosperity.

Clothing by Violent Seduction, Stealthic and Tentacio. Image by Moco2u. Credits: Second Life, Flickr.

Grumpity Linden added that while these individuals make up a large portion of the platform’s return, they are still rewarded for their participation. He continued: “On our platform, most of the monetisation stays directly with the creator, unlike most other platforms that take the majority of the profits from user-created content.”

Who is creating digital fashion and why?

The length of time creators have been active on the platform is a testament to how it operates and works alongside users, many of which have been residents from early in its lifespan. Iki Akiri, for example, first joined Second Life in 2005, and later launched her own digital lingerie brand Violent Seduction in 2008, at first operating on a part time basis before becoming full-time in 2018. While initially drawn to the opportunities the platform allows when it comes to pushing the boundaries of self expression, for Akiri it was ultimately the combination of freedom and stability that kept her coming back. “It has enabled me to fund my research and development as a 3D artist while also supporting myself,” she said. “It is definitely the most stable role I’ve had in the gaming industry.”

Gown and boots by Iki Akiri's Violent Seduction. Image by Kynne Llewellyn. Credits: Second Life, Flickr.

A similar mindset was shared by other designers. Creator of Salt & Pepper, who goes by Salt Peppermint, said that this same sense of creative expression drew her in, and now her digital fashion label has become her real-life job, leading her to leave her previous fashion design role behind. For both Zaara Kohime and Gianni Broda, on the other hand, their background in graphic design brought them into the space. Both now on the platform for around 17 years, the two creators have continued to explore their own skills while they stated that working through such a site has also helped them to progress in their respective fields.

The way in which Second Life enables creativity is further evident in the tools it offers for creators, which can be combined with external mechanisms, such as Maya, Blender, Zbrush, Marvelous Designer and Photoshop, where the options become even greater. For Akiri, a blend of these platforms, as well as physical sketching, allow for her to create highly realistic garments, one collection of which takes the designer about two weeks in total to complete in 10- to 14-hour days. Her process is similar to Peppermint, who applies cloth simulation, resizing, skinning and texturing across a multitude of platforms before uploading them to Second Life to be tested and edited for avatars.

Clothing design by Salt & Peppermint. Credits: Second Life Flickr, Rachel Davinci.

Designers are also then responsible for marketing, packaging and setting up the sale with vendors – an in-world display rack where it is possible to present and ultimately sell products; some via third-party sites, others through Second Life’s marketplace. Kohime said: “The experience is fairly realistic, where a customer visits a store, sees an item on display and then does a trial of the outfit using a demo. The customer can then see if they like the style or fit of the item and make an informed choice, exactly like in real life.” Further elements to bring the customer journey closer to the real world are present in store loyalty programmes, cash back, store credit offers and influencer management, all of which Kohime noted had been developed by Second Life residents and were “born out of necessity”.

In a time when tech companies are failing to secure space in the metaverse, where does Second Life succeed?

There are an abundance of factors contributing to Second Life’s success, but one thing is clear: independent creators are at the forefront. Meanwhile, other metaverses have shown a tendency to stick closely to established brands when releasing digital fashion collections, instead of favouring their own users, who are just as competent – or often even more so – at creating designs that residents of such worlds are looking for. For many of these individuals, Linden Labs’ emphasis on IP protection is another outstanding factor at play. According to the designers, the platform’s robust system for protecting their IPs outdoes other options available to them. Akiri elaborated: “This encourages people to continue to push the boundaries with their creations without the fear of that asset being easily stolen.”

Imagery by ByteDreams Slade. Credits: Second Life, Flickr.

Another defining quality in the eyes of Akiri and her counterparts was Second Life’s “fully fledged economy”. While for Akiri this has helped bolster the visual quality of the platform, for Peppermint the robust economy once again goes hand-in-hand with community. She noted: “Capturing the attention of users and creators in the virtual world is no easy task. The key lies in creating an ecosystem that fosters creativity, community, and seamless interactions. Second Life's success stems from its longstanding commitment to these principles. Many new platforms may overlook the importance of a strong, active community and an established economy.”

Expanding on this point, Broda stated that the only way in which other metaverses can sustain interest is through a built in economy that remains accessible to users and can offer them profit in the real world, not just online. Kohime also highlighted that newer worlds tend to move towards crypto-backed currencies that make their metaverses more complicated, and ultimately see them stray from user-generated content. Convenience in both this aspect and marketplaces has seen each of these designers dub Second Life their “virtual home” and rarely consider a life and career outside the site. Kohime added: “There is a lot of respect for independent creators and new techniques, and good quality products are noticed and celebrated by their consumers. It’s very rewarding and the appreciation keeps me going.”

What can we expect of the platform’s future?

Clothing by Violent Seduction and Dead Doll. Image by Kynne Llewellyn. Credits: Second Life, Flickr.

While there are evidently plenty of positives that come with Second Life, designers do see opportunities to continue improving the platform. Akiri suggested that Linden Lab could take Second Life further by branching out into a more global marketplace that would allow artists to cross-promote items both inside and outside of the site. The designer noted that such an opportunity would enable her to sell items under her own protected IP for games and other virtual worlds. She added: “This alone would give 3D artists who have been run through the game industry ringer to have a place to support themselves after inevitable redundancies too, just like I did.”

These ideas may not be in Linden Lab’s pipeline right now, but the company is looking towards a handful of new developments to further its creative capabilities. For one, the company’s Grumpity Linden said that several entertainment and brand partnerships are in the works, some of which originate directly from the creator community. One of Second Life’s top creators, virtual fashion design house Blueberry, for example, recently released merchandise with an official licence for the Teletubbies. The company is also continuing to work with residents on hosting annual ‘Shop ‘n Hop’ shopping festivals, where the community can sample and discover designers and their creations over limited periods.

One of the bigger step ups for Second Life, however, is its upcoming mobile app launch, possibly set to drop later in 2023. On the launch, Grumpity Linden said: "Our challenge had been to find a solution that would bring the beauty and complexity of Second Life to a mobile device, and we believe the current development has unlocked this challenge.” Such a feat aims to further the possibilities of Second Life’s offering, expanding its reach to its loyal fanbase and beyond, while ultimately hoping to contribute to the growth of its fashion industry as a result.

Second Life's community forums. Credits: Second Life, Flickr.
Digital Fashion
Second Life