Words Bella Webb
Imagining a Digital Fashion Week
Until recently, the idea of a virtual fashion week felt as naive and unrealistic a vision of the future as our enduring obsession with flying cars. Clunky LED t-shirts and cumbersome Virtual Reality headgear are hardly convincing, but the heightening conversation around the environmental impact of fashion weeks could present the perfect springboard for digital fashion to really take off. Here, three fashion tech entrepreneurs and retail futures experts offer their thoughts on the possibility of a virtual fashion industry.
IVA: “What we’re offering is not a small PR project but an integral part of how fashion brands can create revenue”
Assaf Reeb is a designer and stylist based in Berlin, who studied under the late Louise Wilson on the Central Saint Martins MA. His business partner Matt Jones is the former Head of Digital for Dazed Media. The pair are on a mission to connect fashion with technology through their new venture, IVA (Immersive Virtual Apparel).
Fashion loves novelty, and tech has provided the perfect fodder for that. Gimmicky ideas like wearable tech have never really taken off, so tech has been relegated to a fashion PR stunt. “I remember going to SXSW and there were things being shown like a horse dancing on the front of a sweatshirt made of LEDs and thinking, this is really not the future,” says Matt. Several brands have tried AR (Augmented Reality) on for size, but their efforts seem to be limited to, well, trying on. Gucci partnered with tech startup Wannaby to allow customers to photograph their feet in the classic Ace trainer, customising the clean silhouette with embroidered patches, stripes and studs. At John Lewis, customers can virtually try on lipstick from more than 300 brands, including Charlotte Tilbury and MAC — L’Oreal recently launched a version of this that expands to eye looks and hair colours. Back in March, Dior created an Instagram filter to let people try on their new ‘DiorSoLight’ sunglasses. So what will it take for digital fashion to move into the mainstream? Matt thinks big brands hold the key. “I think the floodgates will start to open up once others see a big brand embracing this,” he says. “It will take a brand like Gucci that isn’t afraid to take a bit more risk with things to do a large scale project.”
Matt and Assaf are turning their attention to the gaming industry in a bid to bring digital fashion to the masses. Assaf is keen to point out the financial incentive for making the switch. “The problems young designers are facing now and the problems the big brands are facing are connected,” he explains. “If you don’t have massive backing, there is a very small chance you’ll be able to do your own thing and make it work financially in the long-term. There is a big opportunity in gaming cosmetics, but only a few small collaborations have explored it so far. We want to help fashion and gaming companies make this into a practical solution.” The wildly popular Fortnite game earned its parent company, Epic Games, $1 billion in micro-transactions in 2018. While the game itself is free, users can buy ‘skins’ and other cosmetic upgrades. These microtransactions played a huge part in making Fortnite the most annual revenue of any game in history, and highlight the potential for fashion brands to collaborate with the gaming industry. “What we’re offering is not a small PR project but an integral part of how fashion brands can create revenue,” adds Assaf. IVA offers designers the chance to profit from creations that are rarely deemed commercial by physical stores. The exaggerated show pieces designers are often warned against making after graduation are more viable in digital spaces, so creativity and spectacle becomes an asset instead of a limitation.
“The fashion industry doesn’t necessarily have the technical skills, and the tech side doesn’t necessarily have the cultural background to communicate with the fashion side.”
Gamers are becoming the new influencers. “The big e-sports players are celebrities in that world,” says Matt. “They have millions of people watching them play.” Given the waste currently produced by influencer marketing tactics, embracing digital fashion and e-sports influencers could mark a significant reduction in fashion’s environmental impact. Instead of sending influencers physical clothes, only for them to be photographed and then discarded, brands could send blockchain access to digital clothes, enabling the digital clothes to pass from brand to influencer without risk of tampering or interception. Alternatively, they could simply edit digital clothes onto existing photographs. Scandinavian multi-brand chain Carlings are already trialling the latter method, albeit on a time-consuming, case-by-case basis. IVA are focused on seamlessly integrated, realistic and sustainable solutions, hence their initial spotlight on gaming.
According to Assaf, there are some cultural differences that both industries need to overcome to collaborate successfully. “There’s a disconnect between fashion and tech,” he explains. “The fashion industry doesn’t necessarily have the technical skills, and the tech side doesn’t necessarily have the cultural background to communicate with the fashion side.” While fashion and tech may recognise the potential, both are incredibly protective of their worlds. “Luxury brands have so much desirability because they do fiercely protect their brands,” says Matt. “Gaming users are also extremely protective of their games and their worlds – it’s their culture and you have to be respectful of that,” adds Assaf.
Cultural differences aside, Assaf highlights another barrier: the misconception that digital fashion will replace physical clothing entirely, wiping out centuries of craft and heritage. “Digital clothes will not replace physical clothes where they’re actually valuable. Where craftsmanship brings value, where the physical needs requires a specific garment, it will not come instead. But where hype mechanics come into play, there is a huge value in digital products for fashion brands. They don’t necessarily want to dilute their precious physical product with things that people wear once or twice. That’s almost counter-productive,” he explains. “You will have digital needs for your avatar and physical needs for your physical body.”
Amber Slooten: “Fashion education needs to embrace this and teach students to test it out”
Alongside Kerry Murphy, Amber is the co-founder of digital fashion house The Fabricant. When she graduated from the BA Fashion Design course at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute in 2016, no physical clothes were involved. Instead, she showed a holographic collection on a physical model.
During her placement year, Amber struggled to connect her own desire to create with the obvious impact it had on the planet. “I started looking into different ways I could express myself without wasting anything but data.” This search for an alternative led her to take a semester off from studying, during which time she came across CLO 3D, the main software used for digital prototyping. Amber taught herself how to design digitally in just a year and a half, but that was before YouTube tutorials were released. Now, The Fabricant put all of their files online, so people can understand how it works. When she returned to AMFI, her tutors were hesitant. “They looked at me like I was crazy,” she says. Without physical garments, her tutors had to change how they gave feedback, huddling around her laptop instead of examining models in a line-up. But the real difference was in how she incorporated their advice. “I could change the colour or print of my garments or show different variations and fabrics with the click of a button,” she says.
“We use materials that cannot exist in real life, because we want to push the boundaries of the visual language.”
Digital design saves paper for sketching, calico for toiling and money across the board. But some designers have reservations that it also cuts them out of the process. “I was shocked by that, because it’s meant to bring freedom to designers,” says Amber. “It’s meant to bring endless materials and endless ways of expressing, rather than taking away a traditional job. I drape digitally, I put fabric on my avatar, I throw things on there. But I have a library of fabrics that I can change in the click of a button. I make about a hundred samples in one, because I can keep changing the length and the colour and the patterns completely.” The Fabricant recently sold a digital garment at auction, fetching $9,500 for the iridescent gown, which could never exist in reality. “We use materials that cannot exist in real life, because we want to push the boundaries of the visual language,” explains Amber. Back in June, CSM graduate Fredrik Tjærandsen inflated the possibilities of physical fabrics in a way that captured our collective imagination. Digital design could push this even further. “This could be super interesting for fashion students,” Amber adds. “They could experiment more and, in the end, if they have a shoot or someone wants to buy it, then they could still produce it from the digital designs. You still have patterns that you could print out.”
According to Amber, digital design wouldn’t just allow designers to run wild with their ideas, it would also revolutionise the way we dress every day. “I guess you would have one base suit which would be super comfortable,” she muses. “Then over the top you would have a virtual layer of expression, which you could change at the click of a button. If you ever felt under-dressed at a party, you could say, ‘Actually, I want to spice up my outfit’ and download a new one.” This idea of wearing digital garments in physical spaces isn’t quite ready yet, highlighting one of the key challenges digital fashion faces. “Recently, a digital influencer called Nivva downloaded our files and dressed up in the garments. It’s really cool that that can happen. We can also dress a picture, which we did for the dress that was auctioned, but that’s not a scalable model. The biggest issue at the moment is that there’s no real-time interaction with the clothes because it’s too complicated for a computer to calculate.”
More broadly, Amber’s vision of the future feels like a well-intentioned episode of Black Mirror, albeit with some very real benefits. She highlights the opportunity to make fashion more inclusive through digital innovation: “It’s for every single body size, with no limitation to any sample size. It can change to whatever body you have. We did a video for i-D magazine with a plus size activist and a girl who had an amputated arm, and it was so beautiful to have their avatars and dress them in our outfits. As a model, you could choose to digitally scan yourself, the same size forever. Imagine after that you gained a lot of weight, or lost a lot of weight, or whatever, you would still have the imprint of yourself. You could even be a skinny model and a plus size model at the same time, using your two digital bodies.” It’s an exciting prospect, but carries some problematic undertones. For a start, would we neglect our physical bodies if we could simply alter our digital ones? “At the moment, it’s super popular to use Facetune,” says Amber, “but people don’t say that they’re using it. Just be open and honest about it! For me, it’s a way of democratising fashion. It’s artistic expression, like make-up.”
The word ‘avatar’ brings a whole host of images to mind: playing dress-up on The Sims, the little thumbnails on WordPress, and the James Cameron movie, where humans could occupy blue Na’vi bodies. Surprisingly, the latter is probably the closest fit to what digital avatars will look like in the future. They probably won’t be blue, but the way Cameron made the avatars resemble their actors isn’t too far off how the Superpersonal app creates ‘digital doubles’. Their rendering technology scans your body and micro-movements to create a digital model that looks and moves just like you do. When Katie first tried the technology in February, it took a few hours. Now, it takes a couple of minutes.
“Imagine plugging into a virtual fashion show and having a virtual guide tell you about the context. Then you see your own digital avatar in the garments and you can connect it to your digital wardrobe.”
The possibility of creating a realistic digital avatar builds on Amber’s idea about digital models, except now the model would be you. Imagine watching a virtual fashion show, then using your digital avatar to try the clothes on for size. With Superpersonal’s technology, you could see exactly how the clothes would fall on your body when ordering online: whether it’s better to size up in that jumper or if your bum would look good in those jeans. If everything was pre-ordered, nothing would be wasted, and luxury fashion’s dirty little secret of burning excess stock would cease to be an issue. Fashion weeks would basically act as a catalogue for the coming year, but instead of drawing big red circles around the things you want, you can virtually try them and buy them.
Companies like Save Your Wardrobe are already helping clients digitise their wardrobes. Their stylists photograph and input your current wardrobe into your digital account, so you can see exactly what you have and what it’s worth, which is incredibly useful for reselling. When you go shopping, you can scan your wardrobe for outfit inspiration and see what you already own, so you won’t end up with three blue t-shirts that are exactly the same. Based on the statistic that we only wear 20% of our wardrobes, they aim to repurpose the other 80% by restyling, reselling or donating. It’s sort of like Depop meets Traid meets Cher Horowitz’s computer in Clueless. “Those convergences of different platforms are really exciting,” adds Katie. Live streams have already opened up the possibility of remote personal shopping sessions, with LVMH platform, 24 Sèvres, pooling products from Le Bon Marché with a live stylist, but they are clunky and limited in their current form. Plus, most brands are unwilling to share a platform or data. The appeal of platforms like Save Your Wardrobe is that they function in a way that mirrors how we shop: cross-brand, high-low, old-new. “Very few of us are head-to-toe dressing in one designer. The average person doesn’t shop like that.”
For Katie, avatars and virtual service agents hit a sweet spot when used in tandem. Together, they make digital fashion integrated, personalised and emotive. “There are new virtual service agents that are able to have a much longer, more humanised dialogue with you,” she explains. “Imagine plugging into a virtual fashion show and having a virtual guide tell you about the context – what it’s riffing on historically, what it’s railing against, what cultural movements it’s tapping into. Then you see your own digital avatar in the garments and you can connect it to your digital wardrobe.”
What’s the verdict?
Conversations around sustainable fashion often end by telling designers to produce less and limit their fabric choices. Digital fashion does the opposite. It’s an opportunity for designers to make their wildest fantasies into reality, creating garments that couldn’t exist in physical space, with fabrics that defy the laws of nature. Fashion schools may not have realised it yet, but it’s time to equip students with the skills to incorporate digital fashion into their brands.
What we’ve seen so far is just the beginning, but it already shows so much potential. Cute Circuit has developed a ‘Sound Shirt’ that uses haptic feedback (vibrations and touch-like sensations) to allow deaf wearers to feel music. Young designer Paula Canovas del Vas staged a Virtual Reality Installation in place of a presentation this season. See, Saw, Seen invited viewers into a series of rooms where they were either the observer or the observed, donning VR headsets at various points. Developed by real-time creative animation studio No Ghost with support from VIVE Arts, the installation was an exercise in immersive fashion events and seamless digital integration. And thanks to technology like Smartzer, both physical and digital fashion events can now be made shoppable, like the recent Savage x Fenty show on Amazon. But what if that show was a virtual one, using digital avatars as models, and clothes were actually pre-ordered instead of instantly purchased? Brands could cut the energy and resources it takes to stage a show, make to order to minimise waste and generate desirability by avoiding instant gratification.
The potential impact of such innovations on fashion’s response to the climate crisis, as well as the way we design and shop, is almost unimaginable. At a time when the future of fashion feels murky and abstract, it’s vital that we look to innovators for inspiration and ideas, because you can’t be what you can’t see. IVA is building bridges between fashion and gaming, while Amber is colouring outside the lines, and Katie is connecting the dots, making inconceivable ideas feel achievable in her writing. For the first time, fashion and tech may actually form a fruitful partnership. The future is so close, you can virtually taste it.