Women-led Digital Fashion Brand Helps You Dress Up Your Virtual Persona

Some House of Blueberry avatars displaying the brand's digital fashions in the game Roblox.

A virtual concert experience a decade ago inspired Gizem Mishi McDuff to launch the Wake Forest-based digital fashion brand, House of Blueberry.

Since its founding in 2012, Blueberry has sold more than 20 million digital fashion assets, along with growing to over 10,000 SKUs (“stock-keeping units,” i.e. distinct 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.

Just like in real life, self-expression is important to people in digital spaces, said McDuff, who is the startup’s founder and CEO. Anyone in the digital world who cares about their persona is a potential House of Blueberry customer, she said.

With the metaverse—an interactive digital world—on the rise in recent years, many want to jump on the bandwagon. The company recently raised about $6M to fuel its growth.

Blueberry does partner with real-life fashion brands and recreates their designs digitally, COO Katherine Manuel said, but their biggest strength and focus is their own house brand of digital wearables.

“We want to have our brand of wearables in every community and 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 teamed up with renowned luxury designer Jonathan Simkhai and metaverse technology builder Everyrealm in launching the world’s inaugural 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 are going to go in the metaverse, don’t just do the digital twinning,” she said. “Make it fun. You can fight physics in the metaverse.”

House of Blueberry Founder & CEO Gizem Mishi McDuff (left) and COO Katherine Manuel
Entering the digital fashion world

McDuff recognized this business opportunity rather quickly in 2012.

Before starting college, McDuff had already launched two companies in her native Turkey. At 15, she and her friends launched a social network called Xuqa and later sold it to Microsoft. The same group then launched a marketing company focused on gaming called Peanut Labs, which they sold later to a large data company.

She said it was a year or so out of college when she attended her first-ever virtual concert featuring the band Sky Galaxy in Second Life. 

McDuff immediately took notice of all the components within the virtual concert venue, including the microphones and piano. She had her ‘starter’ avatar, but she saw all types: supermodels, fairies and warriors. 

“It was fascinating,” McDuff said. “My mind was blown.”

That night she downloaded Photoshop and made herself a polka-dotted dress for her avatar, which she ‘wore’ to her next virtual concert. Many asked her where they could buy it, leading her to create more dresses and open a virtual store. 

McDuff said within the first three years, she made more than $1 million. 

The power of digital communities

House of Blueberry’s Roblox group has exceeded 10,000 members, despite only starting in September 2022. Its Second Life community has grown to about 400,000.

It’s different when you’re selling digitally, McDuff said—people don’t buy into brands or products, they buy into the community.

“You co-create with your community, and they’re grateful for the ability to buy that product,” she said. “Monetizing that while building a massive community around it (feels) 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.

Being involved in Triangle startup ecosystem for several years, Manuel had long envisioned herself on the other side of the ‘Shark Tank’ table. During the pandemic, she became fascinated by the gaming world thanks to her kids. That’s how she crossed paths with McDuff. 

McDuff had moved the House of Blueberry brand to the Triangle from Turkey in late 2018 because of the talent and reasonable cost of living. To scale and fund a team, the company raised an initial seed round in 2021. 

Getting Manuel on board helped Blueberry scale to multiple platforms, McDuff said. Their complementary partnership—describing it as ‘yin and yang’—enables them to make fewer mistakes and ultimately run a healthier company. 

It’s rewarding to be a women-led business, she added. 

“We need more women leading, especially community-focused businesses,” McDuff said. “We are so damn good at it.” 

About Jackie Sizing 40 Articles
Jackie is a reporter and the social media/multimedia producer at GrepBeat. Along with writing about tech startups and entrepreneurs, she oversees all social media platforms and produces digital media content. Before starting at GrepBeat, she graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in media and journalism in May 2021. She has written for The Daily Tar Heel and Boston Herald.