Overwatch has its One Punch Man skins. Warzone has playable Snoop Dogg. Fortnite has cosmetics for every celeb and IP imaginable, from The Mandalorian to Ariana Grande. But Apex Legends has something none of those other games have: style.
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From Seer’s Afrofuturistic fit to a bomber jacket that was so cool they had to make it IRL, the team at Respawn is consistently putting out looks that are more than just empty-headed collabs or tired recreations. And with a lineup of Legends that run the gamut in terms of race, gender identity, and body type, there’s a diverse set of virtual paper dolls on which you can affix a delightful variety of vetements.
Naturally, as Kotaku’s highest-ranking member of the fashion police, I spoke with Respawn’s artists via Zoom to learn more about what inspires them, from Titanfall to streetwear and even Event Horizon.
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Echoes of Titanfall
Apex Legends’ foothold in the Titanfall universe presents both a unique challenge and a consistent centering for its designers: Every single character and their kit has to have a clear connection to the iconic first-person shooter’s lore and world, which means the team needs to be constantly referencing it when creating new characters. In some cases, that inspiration is more obvious than others.
“Valkyrie was a design that was meant to reflect Titanfall,” lead character concept artist Cristina Ferez says about the high-flying Japanese-American character who rocks a jetpack and can fire missiles normally reserved for fighter jets. “One of her biggest inspirations is actually her father’s mech [Viper was an antagonist in Titanfall 2], so we have this awesome lore that comes from Titanfall…when we design skins, main characters, they’re always inspired by Titanfall.”
Tying in every character’s look and kit to the Titanfall universe also means grounding them in a kind of futuristic military realism that you won’t find in Fortnite. It’s why, when you look closely, you’ll notice an array of tactical clothing like cargo pants and gloves or gear hanging off of belts, tucked into arm pouches, and slung across chests.
“There’s a very specific effort on grounding things in a way that feels like they’re tactical, like they’re functional,” concept art and lighting director Hafid Roserie says. “That’s part of the DNA that the team has brought with them from Titanfall.” But the creative juices really flow once the team gets past the original character’s design, and starts getting into their individual skins, which are often designed around a specific season’s theme. “When we start to transition into designing skins, that’s when we can get a little bit more playful and a little bit more expansive.”
Skin in the game
Respawn rarely pulls something out of left field—Apex Legends’ skins are all iterations on its original characters, taking their unique stories and using them as launching pads to reach newer, flashier heights. Skins don’t feel as blatantly cash-grabby as say, Ghost Face in Call of Duty or Creed in Fortnite—and when there is obvious pop culture inspiration at play, it feels sensible. Horizon’s very obvious Scarlet Witch skin still somewhat relates to her character, who can manipulate gravity and open up black holes.
“We ground the Legend and the story, we ground it with the narrative, we take that DNA that we have from the Titanfall aesthetic where they’re combat-ready for the Apex Games, but when it comes to their skins, we evolve that where we show an alternate fantasy,” Roserie says. “So if you look at Horizon, she’s got a scientific background, so we’re like, ‘What’s scientific, what could be kind of cool? Well, it’s an alchemist’…But then we also played around with something a bit more edgy, a bit on the darker side of science. And so we have this sort of Event Horizon skin where she’s a little darker.”
As we chat, Ferez shares her screen to show some of Seer’s concept art. His default skin features a mix of the tactical Titanfall inspo (light armor on the chest, functional gauntlets) and more playful nods to his character (he’s in a crop top and wide-brimmed hat), while his other looks play off of this visual language.
“Seer is a performer, so a lot of the skins had bright, bold, colors and some of those elements that represent his character,” Rosarie explains before Ferez swaps to show off an orange and gold, Afrofuturistic skin that has his infamous hat, but reshaped in a manner that feels more science fiction-y, more fantastical, and reminiscent of the cultural movement’s visual language.
“The skins allow people to get a window into an alternate fantasy of him, so we have the hat, but how do we create elements where we can push and pull details? We always try to find that core anchor point…and then that becomes the sort of layer that we start to build the different skins on.” Ferez cycles through a few more images of the team’s sketch process. I catch glimpses of the latest character Catalyst’s many iterations, some leaning more Mad Max, others more The Fifth Element.
Beyond the Titanfall universe, Respawn’s design team tells me they’re always plugged into the fashion scene to find inspiration. And lately, it’s been easy to make connections between the tactical, efficient military gear of Titanfall’s near-future world and today’s fashion trends.
Streetwear style dramatically shifted towards gorpcore (utilitarian, functional outdoor wear) and techwear (cyberpunky streetwear made to shield the wearer against the elements) in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, which means cargo pants with tons of pockets, hiking boots, and weather-proofing materials aren’t just for your cousin who hiked the entire Appalachian Trail last year—they’re for everyone.
Lifeline’s base outfit could be found on a number of people walking around Brooklyn during a warm spring day: layered, torn-up tank tops, baggy cargo pants that look like they could zip into shorts or capris, heavy, clunky combat boots, and two perfectly ‘00s space buns on top of her head. The same goes for Rampart, whose look, Ferez tells, me was pulled directly from streetwear fashions.
The blue-collar weapons modder dons a mechanic’s jumpsuit that’s partially unzipped to reveal a crop top underneath, and a high, messy ponytail in her base skin. Ferez’ moodboard for Rampart (who is of British-Indian descent) featured pics of rapper M.I.A. and streetwear shots of women donning jumpsuits that are casually falling off their shoulders, with some hypebeast sneakers thrown in for good measure.
“With Rampart we wanted to bring all the spice of streetwear. We wanted to bring all the story that she has behind her, of being an underground mechanic, she’s a crafter, she doesn’t care about what anybody thinks. She has her own style, so it was very unique to her,” Ferez explains. “The biggest thing is trying to find that attitude for a character…in this case Rampart was very heavily leaning on that street fashion type of vibe, but still keeping parts of her culture because she is British-Indian it was important to bring certain colors, certain patterns, and certain things to her.”
“More often than not, we find ourselves returning to street fashion to bring that contemporary and modern aspect to our Legends,” Ferez says. “I find street fashion so inspiring because it’s based on people using clothes to create their own identity.”
The Respawn design team’s love for fashion is probably why Wraith has Tabis on in her season 10 skin (pictured above), right? Or why one of Crypto’s most popular skins, which features a colorful puffer jacket, wild sneakers, and a giant gold chain, is called Hype Beast? It’s definitely why Loba’s Purple Reign skin (and the Bangalore and Valkyrie skins designed to match it) features an ode to Christian Louboutin’s iconic red soles.
Apex Legends’ characters look so good because their designs sit squarely where Titanfall meets streetwear, and their diversity gives players a chance to choose whoever they feel drawn to, outside of their kit and capability within the current meta. It’s why my previously bald ass obsessed over getting the bald Wraith skin, and why, to this day, I still use it with a wry smile on my face.