Balenciaga blurs real with Unreal in Fortnite

It may be more than 50 years since Cristóbal Balenciaga held the needle that stitched together era-defining designs, but the same spirit of innovation and creative leadership lives on at the brand that bears his name, with Creative Director Demna Gvasalia at the helm.

In 2021, the house of Balenciaga has a reputation for pushing boundaries. Fitting, then, that this should be the first high-fashion label to drop in Fortnite. Starting today, players can express themselves with digital Outfits inspired by real-life Balenciaga silhouettes, purchasing them in a virtual version of a brick-and-mortar Balenciaga boutique, and also snag an exclusive real-world hoodie that unlocks the Outfit in-game.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Since dipping its toe into virtual worlds with the Unreal Engine-powered Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, Balenciaga has embraced cutting-edge technologies in a way few other fashion houses have.

A new partnership that blurs physical and virtual realities like never before sees Fortnite players and characters stepping between the two realms in a mind-bending multi-touchpoint experience. 

With 3D models repurposed for the game, 3D billboards, traditional promo materials, and the Fortnite ‘Strange Times Featured Hub,’ Balenciaga has built a true transmedia pipeline, giving a glimpse of reality-jumping experiences enabled by the Metaverse. 

The end result is an exciting new way to engage with fashion—and a new mode of self-expression.

“Our partnership with Epic didn’t start with Fortnite, actually,” says Demna Gvasalia, artistic director at Balenciaga. “It started with our own first video game, Afterworld, which we built using Unreal Engine to debut our Fall 2021 collection. From there, we have continued to be inspired by the creativity of Unreal and Fortnite communities. It made total sense, to me, that we collaborate further by creating these authentic Balenciaga looks for Fortnite and a new physical Fortnite clothing series for our stores.”

Creating Balenciaga Outfits for Fortnite 

Exquisite craftsmanship and innovative designs are signatures of Balenciaga. Those benchmarks extend into the virtual world also, and so naturally, the fashion house was eager to ensure the digital replicas of its clothing do justice to the real-life versions.

Creating the Balenciaga Outfits for Fortnite was a collaborative creative endeavor between the teams at all levels of production. The process involved multiple artists from various disciplines working together towards a very specified visual goal: to recreate the quality of the stunning real-life garments chosen by Balenciaga within the stylized world of Fortnite.

With access to the 3D scans of Balenciaga’s designs, the Fortnite team replicated the apparel and put a Fortnite spin on it. The modeling process and toolset used to create the Balenciaga Outfits was the established Fortnite standard. 

To start, an artist produced concept art that defined the character’s outfit, attitude, and overall appearance. Then, the Fortnite team created a 3D ‘proto-model’ using the concept art as a guide. A proto-model is a rough but functional approximation of the character’s silhouette and volumes. 
This proto-model was handed off to a technical artist, who then created a virtual skeleton to drive the character’s movements. Once technical animation signed off on the functionality of the proto mesh, it was moved into the high-polygon modeling phase using digital sculpting software ZBrush. In this phase, the team polished and refined the rough forms established in the proto phase—creating a complex, detailed 3D sculpture.
After this high-poly model was approved, the team used Maya to create the low-poly model that would be used in Fortnite. This model is lighter and more efficient than the high-polygon model. The efficiency of the mesh enables it to be rendered in real time in Unreal Engine whether the player is on a mobile device or a high-end gaming console—a critical consideration for enabling cross-platform play. 

The team used Marmoset Toolbag to transfer the surface details and lighting information from the high-polygon model to the low-polygon model. The image files rendered out of Marmoset are the foundation of the texturing process.

Finally, to recreate the material properties of Balenciaga’s real-world clothes in 3D, the team used Substance Painter to paint the low-polygon model, defining the character’s color, specularity, and fine patterning.

Strike a pose 

The big challenge lay in creating realistic materials and textures that matched the real-world fabric reference while staying true to the Fortnite style. The most important considerations were staying true to the fabric weaves and material qualities.

Scan data and CAD models provided by Balenciaga were vital when it came to accurately recreating digital versions of the real-world Balenciaga clothing.

These assets enabled the Fortnite team to rapidly replicate the complex construction of the real-world items for the Fortnite Outfits. This was especially true on Doggo’s shoes—the team took the Triple S sneaker CAD data provided by Balenciaga, and were able to move directly into low poly, bake, and UVs.
The team also referenced photography and videos of the materials used to construct real-world Balenciaga apparel to build like-for-like digital versions. 

Special care was taken to find fabric weaves and grain that not only matched closely to the reference provided, but also still lived in the world of Fortnite

The team was able to develop a procedurally based sequin pattern that enabled them to maintain a high level of texture fidelity regardless of the existing texel density. From there, they developed the textures and materials under neutralized and controlled lighting environments to ensure everything worked appropriately.

Unreal Engine’s shader system was particularly useful when it came to recreating these sophisticated materials. Because the engine’s shaders are physically based, they obey the rules of how light behaves in the real world.
This enabled the team to replicate real-world materials accurately while also allowing for customization of specialized surface properties. For the complex materials used on the Balenciaga items, the team used high-fidelity material layers to show a detailed weave at a much higher resolution than their usual setups. The real-time nature of working in Unreal Engine unlocked rapid iterations for immediate feedback from artists.

The character poses were also a big part of the visual ideation. The team had to make sure that the characters presented the Outfits with a fashion theme that represented Balenciaga accurately.

Right from the outset, they had detailed conversations with Balenciaga about tone for the characters and unique takes on design and aesthetic. It was important to strike the right balance between avoiding traditional catwalk fashion poses while still capturing the unique abstract nature of Fortnite’s/Balenciaga’s slant on design and fashion. 

One of the poses has elements of a famous fashion pose, and one has a nod to the abstract distortion that is mirrored throughout the partnership. It was also important to have the poses show off the material surfaces of the designs, as once rendered they needed to have parity with the same real-life materials that Balenciaga would use.

A virtual store to purchase digital garments 

The ability to wear Balenciaga attire digitally is just part of this unique Fortnite experience. The fashion label has gone a step further—as well as unlocking them in the game, you can visit a virtual store to purchase these Outfits in addition to Fortnite’s Item Shop. 
Inspired by the brutalistic look of Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, this virtual store will be the ‘featured hub’ in Fortnite Creative from September 21 at 10 AM ET. Creative Hubs are 3D playable spaces that serve as a gateway to high-quality community-built experiences. 

Outside of the virtual store, Fortnite and Balenciaga are also launching a real-life physical collab, with a new merch collection titled “Fortnite | Balenciaga Series” available in select Balenciaga boutiques and at Fans who purchase the real-life apparel will unlock the Balenciaga Outfits in Fortnite, further blending the virtual and physical. 

Taking immersive 3D visuals to the streets

Bringing real-world garments into the world of Fortnite is one thing, but Balenciaga’s melding of the virtual and the real doesn’t stop there. 

The Fortnite characters and Outfits were then used to create spectacular real-world immersive 3D billboard experiences that will surely entrance passers-by in London, New York, Tokyo, and Seoul.

Lounging around between skyscrapers, a Balenciaga-wearing Fortnite favorite Doggo looms larger than life over the sidewalks, bringing the Balenciaga x Fortnite partnership to the physical world in an entertaining, attention-grabbing way. 

In a further twist, that same real-life billboard has been replicated digitally in the virtual store hosted in Balenciaga’s Creative Hub—part of an efficient transmedia approach that avoided having to create new assets from scratch.
Repurposing existing assets enabled the team to faithfully maintain the defined material surfaces that had been designed with Balenciaga for the Fortnite crossover—for example, the materials on Doggo’s shoes mirror the real-world sneakers perfectly.

The billboard scene was assembled in Unreal Engine and adjustments were made to shading, lighting, scene layout, and camera positions in real time.

Leveraging real-time ray tracing and physically based lighting materials helped the team to match the lighting in each physical location. This enabled them to anchor the lighting and make Doggo feel like he is actually in each location. 

Knowing the sun position based on the time of day, as well as where the sun will be in the sky, aided in achieving realistic lighting.

Virtually no limits 

Balenciaga’s partnership with Fortnite and ongoing work with Unreal Engine provides a fascinating glimpse at the sorts of innovative cross-over experiences that are now possible, unlocking new ways to represent ourselves and connect with each other.

In reusing the same character models for multiple different experiences and communications, the fashion label has shone a light on the opportunities afforded by a transmedia approach—a key building block for an open Metaverse where we can all be a part of the inclusive digital ecosystem of the future. 

The lines between the virtual and physical worlds are becoming increasingly blurred, offering fresh ways to beguile and delight. In embracing cutting-edge technologies, Balenciaga has been empowered to court a new digital-native audience, unconstrained by the limits of either world. 

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