A virtual concert experience ten years ago inspired Gizem Misha McDuff to launch Wake Forest-based digital fashion brand House of Blueberry.
Since its inception in 2012, Blueberry has sold over 20 million digital fashion assets, along with growing to over 10,000 SKUs (“Stock Keeping Units”, i.e. different items) and over 400,000 unique customers. It collaborates with various popular online games, such as Sims 4 and Roblox, releasing new styles for avatars.
As in real life, self-expression is important to people in digital spaces, said McDuff, who is the founder and CEO of the startup. Anyone in the digital world who cares about their own personality is a potential House of Blueberry customer, she said.
Since the metaverse — the interactive digital world — has been on the rise in recent years, many want to jump into it. The company recently raised about $6 million to fuel its growth.
Blueberry partners with real fashion brands and digitally recreates their designs, said COO Katherine Manuel, but their biggest strength and focus is their own brand of digital wearables.
“We want to have our brand of wearables in every community and on every platform where self-expression matters,” she said.
[Editor’s Note: Manuel was the guest on the Dec. 16, 2022 episode of The Friday Nooner.]
Last year, the startup partnered with renowned luxury designer Jonathan Simkhai and metaverse technology builder Everyrealm to launch the world’s first Metaverse Fashion Week in the popular multiplayer virtual world Second Life.
Manuel recalls how cool it was to see one of the dresses they designed specifically for the metaverse in real life at Simkhai’s boutique in New York.
“We always tell designers if they want to go into the metaverse, don’t just do digital twinning,” she said. “Make it fun. You can fight physics in the metaverse.”
Entering the world of digital fashion
McDuff recognized this business opportunity very quickly in 2012.
Before starting college, McDuff had already started two companies in her native Turkey. At 15, she and her friends started the social network Xuqa and later sold it to Microsoft. The same group then started a game-focused marketing company called Peanut Labs, which they later sold to a big data company.
She said she was about a year out of college when she attended her first virtual concert featuring the band Sky Galaxy in Second Life.
McDuff immediately noticed all the components inside the virtual concert hall, including the microphones and piano. She had her ‘starter’ avatar, but she saw all types: supermodels, fairies and warriors.
“It was fascinating,” McDuff said. “I thought about it.”
That night she pulled out Photoshop and made a polka dot dress for her avatar to ‘wear’ at her next virtual concert. Many people asked her where they could buy it, which led her to create more dresses and open a virtual store.
McDuff said she made more than $1 million in her first three years.
The power of digital communities
Roblox group House of Blueberry has surpassed 10,000 members, despite only starting in September 2022. Their Second Life community has grown to around 400,000.
It’s different when you’re selling digitally, McDuff said—people aren’t buying brands or products, they’re buying a community.
“You’re co-creating with your community, and they’re grateful that they can buy that product,” she said. “Monetizing it while building a huge community around it (seems) like we’re setting the landscape for this industry.”
Manuel agreed, saying that the high quality of design combined with the community aspect is the company’s secret sauce.
Having been involved in the Triangle startup ecosystem for several years, Manuel has long imagined herself on the other side of the ‘Shark Tank’ table. During the pandemic, she became fascinated with the world of games thanks to her children. That’s how she crossed paths with McDuff.
McDuff moved the House of Blueberry brand to the Triangle from Turkey in late 2018 due to talent and a reasonable cost of living. To expand and fund the team, the company launched a seed round in 2021.
The inclusion of Manuel helped Blueberry expand across multiple platforms, McDuff said. Their complementary partnership—describing it as ‘yin and yang’—allows them to make fewer mistakes and ultimately run a healthier company.
It’s rewarding to be a business run by women, she added.
“We need more women leading, especially community-focused businesses,” McDuff said. “We’re so damn good at it.”