5 Digital Trailblazers Debate Fashion's Virtual Future

5 Digital Trailblazers Debate Fashion's Virtual Future
July 23, 2020
(Above: a still from 'Reality Inverse,' a 2018 VR short film by SHOWstudio for Maison Margiela, starring Australian-Sudanese model Duckie Thot. Photography by Nick Knight courtesy of SHOWstudio). 


On the heels of the world's first digital fashion weeks, we speak to some of the industry’s most exciting digital innovators - From SHOWstudio to Helsinki Fashion Week - to see whether fashion’s new reality is set to be a virtual one.


What will happen to fashion week? When the coronavirus pandemic struck and it became clear the (fashion) show could not go on – at least in its current physical form – this was the question facing an industry that has often been slow to embrace change.


But as the weeks wear on, it’s become clear that runways are just one aspect of a system in desperate need of digitisation. So now, hypothetical solutions, as well as acronyms like AR, VR, CGI and 3D, are circulating – like digital lifelines ready to keep this very tactile industry alive.


For fashion fans, this great system reboot all sounds very exciting. But for the creatives actually doing the work, what does it all mean? And with two major virtual fashion weeks having just drawn to a close, is the solution as obvious as replacing a physical runway with a 3D one?


We put these questions to some of the industry’s digital pioneers, who are driving fashion’s tech conversation in their own unique ways. Fashion, it seems, might never be the same – and maybe that’s a very good thing.

(Above: a still from 'Reality Inverse,' a 2018 VR short film by SHOWstudio for Maison Margiela, starring Australian-Sudanese model Duckie Thot. Photography by Nick Knight courtesy of SHOWstudio). 


The Pioneers

When husband-and-wife team Nick and Charlotte Knight first pitched their idea for a digital fashion and film platform, most of the industry thought they were nuts. “They said, ‘We don’t think it’s going to be a thing,’” recalls Charlotte, the director of SHOWstudio.com. “We just said, ‘It has to be’. It’s not exciting to see still images of clothes and models on the Internet. You have to see them move.”


That was 20 years ago. Now, SHOWstudio is fashion’s pre-eminent multimedia innovator. It was one of the first platforms to document catwalks “via camera phone”, and in 2009, it brought us the first live-stream of a runway show, for Alexander McQueen’s historic ‘Plato’s Atlantis’ collection.


The studio blazed the trail (and continues to do so), but up until recently, the rest of the industry has remained skeptical. “It wasn’t seen as very ‘luxury’ to be on the Internet,” says Charlotte. “And I think luxury [brands] felt the Internet had to come a long way before they could get their heads around it.”


In March, when film and photography sets around the world shuttered, SHOWstudio’s clients, which range from luxury brands like Fendi to publications like British Vogue, were left searching for creative solutions. “Magazines still need to have a presence; brands still have to sell their clothes. I think everyone has been made to understand each other’s position, and create a situation that allows us to all keep going,” says Charlotte.


One of the biggest challenges has been explaining that tech isn’t necessarily faster, and the implementation of things like virtual reality can actually be incredibly complex. “You have to think about how it rolls out. If you’re doing a virtual reality runway show for 700 people, you’re probably going to need a lot of headsets,” she laughs.


The global lockdown has sharpened calls for change that have been brewing beneath fashion’s silky sheen for some time, and Charlotte believes that embracing new digital mediums will be just one of many shifts to come. But she’s optimistic.


“People who want to make and show things will always find a way to do it, even if you take everything away. Those people who are really committed and who really love fashion, they’ll find a way.”

(Above: Avatar-ised versions of Helsinki Fashion Week founder Evelyn Mora (left) and Paper Magazine's Mickey Boardman by digital artist Samy La Crapule. Image courtesy of Helsinki Fashion Week.). 


The fashion week disrupter

Evelyn Mora is the 28-year-old founder of Helsinki Fashion Week. If you didn’t know Helsinki had a fashion week, that’s probably because before 2020, it was considered a bit fringe – Mora launched it in 2015 as an alternative to mainstays Paris and Milan, with the intention to create space for sustainable conversation and digital innovation. “It was a very random concept for a fashion week back then,” says the Finnish entrepreneur.


Similar to the digital iteration of London Fashion Week held in June, this year’s HFW will operate out of an online hub. But unlike London Fashion Week, where most collections were shown as fashion films, you can expect Helsinki to push the boat out further.


“It’s going to be this 3D environment that anyone who signs up can explore,” says Mora. Fifteen brands participating in the designer residency program will live-stream their preparation in the lead-up to the official week (inspired, says Mora, by Keeping Up With The Kardashians). Patterns will then be shared with a digital designer, who renders each look before fitting them to 3D scans of the models who, pre-pandemic, were booked to walk in the show.


For Helsinki, which prides itself on being the world’s first truly sustainable fashion week, tech and sustainability need to be part of the same conversation if fashion is going to progress.


“Nobody is thinking about sustainability in the digital world. They’re just thinking: it’s online, so it doesn’t exploit anything,” says Mora. “That’s not true. Data servers have enormous carbon footprints. If we don’t implement the mindset of sustainability into the 3D world then we’ll be exploiting that, too.”


She believes data transparency will be key, but this requires an audience that’s comfortable with having their data collected. Mora is positive we’ll get there. “Remember when CGI influencers were radical?” she laughs. “Change is the only thing that’s forever.”

(Above: A 3D leather jacket created by The Fabricant in collaboration with Hong Kong retailer I.T. Image courtesy of The Fabricant). 


The 3D designers

For The Fabricant, a digital fashion house based in Amsterdam, the pandemic collided with its mission in an abrupt but fortuitous way. “The fashion industry woke up to this immediate need to digitise,” says Adriana Hoppenbrouwer, the company’s commercial director.


“Fashion is in a real state of flux, and this is a moment to instil practices that push for a digital-centric future that’s smarter, more resilient and less wasteful than before.”


Since launching in 2018, The Fabricant has worked with brands like Puma and Japanese streetwear icon A Bathing Ape, to animate and simulate their garments, before placing them in virtual 3D worlds. Hoppenbrouwer is confident the future of fashion is entirely digital, and she speaks excitedly about “operating beyond the structures of the physical realm”.

(Above: An image from the beta stage of The Fabricant's 'Leela' platform, which allows users to create and dress an avatar of themselves. Image courtesy of The Fabricant). 


Even if a complete digital overhaul means the end of physical fashion experiences, The Fabricant doesn’t view this as a negative thing. “A 3D fashion show has no physical boundaries to creativity. It’s not a passive experience but an interactive sensorial narrative that lasts, and that can be accessed anytime, anywhere.”


This only touches on the presentation aspect of fashion, and barely scratches the surface of what’s possible, in terms of sustainability and efficiency, if the industry embraces end-to-end tech solutions, such as designing clothes using 3D programs (instead of sketching them on paper). Hoppenbrouwer advises companies to start with “quick wins”, like digitising clothing samples, or creating virtual showrooms so that buyers don’t have to cross international date lines to view collections IRL.


“3D design will help to preserve a sector that’s long overdue for evolution,” she says. “We’re returning to the heart of what fashion was always meant to be: a playful arena to explore and express identity and individuality.”

(Above: A still from Art School's AW20 VR installation in collaboration with CommuneEAST. Image courtesy of CommuneEAST). 


The luxury brand

Art School’s autumn/winter 2020 collection was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people; not because the London brand had an open invite policy, but because it collaborated with digital ideas institute CommuneEAST on a collection of augmented reality-based Instagram filters that fans of the queer and non-binary brand – both those in the front row and those at home – could play with and share throughout the show.


“You didn’t have to be at the show to engage with it,” says Eden Loweth, who runs Art School with fellow Londoner Tom Barratt. “It got fantastic traction on social media and, I think for us, it was a really logical way of working with a digital element that isn’t part of a real-life runway experience.”


That show happened in January, and since then, Loweth says he’s been thinking about how they can translate Art School’s runways, which are more like theatrical spectacles, into digitised versions of themselves.


“I do think the 3D fashion shows are interesting, but for me, those are really fashion films,” says the designer. Interestingly, none of the major luxury labels chose to invest in putting on a fully 3D runway show as part of Paris of Milan’s recent digital fashion weeks.


“I see [3D shows] as a fantastic contextual element that adds to the story of a collection, but one thing no one has really touched upon within this 3D, VR conversation, is that these clothes aren’t real, so you can’t actually tell how they fit,” adds Loweth.


It’s a good point. Especially when, second to the media hoopla, the point of a runway is to sell clothes. Loweth worries that functional things like how a shirt fits the human body (fairly important) will get lost in translation if 3D renders of clothing replace physical fashion shows (and buying appointments) altogether. “I still think technology has a long way to go before it can fully replace the need to see clothes physically,” he says.


Until then, Art School – which counts Rihanna and Kim Kardashian among its fans – will continue to integrate digital elements into its physical presentations, as it did with the filters for AW20. The brand’s next show will be held in September, and Loweth says it’s the “most ambitious thing” he’s done yet. Given Art School has never lacked imagination, it’s anyone’s guess as to what that actually means.

(Above: Early renders of Selfridges' 'The New Order' denim campaign by Jamie-Maree Shipton, 3D design studio Form Capture and Studio Dosage. Image courtesy of Jamie-Maree Shipton). 


The stylist

“I’ve seen a lot of FaceTime photo shoots,” says Jamie-Maree Shipton, a Melbourne- born, London-based stylist and creative consultant who specialises in projects that fuse fashion with technology. “Some of us have been doing that for a while – it’s called a selfie,” she says with a laugh. “I think we really need to ask ourselves: have we used this opportunity to introduce anything different, or engage with anyone new?”


Shipton’s consulting work often involves marrying big fashion brands with emerging creatives (and explaining one to the other). Before the world shut down, she worked with department store Selfridges on a 3D campaign called ‘The New Order’, where new-season denim looks featuring brands like MM6 Maison Margiela, Diesel and Derek Rose were animated by Bristol-based digital design creatives Studio Dosage.


“That was an interesting job because we started with all of these big, quite challenging ideas, and we ended up having to dial it back a bit. But you’ve got to be willing to do that.”


She says that making tech palatable is fundamental to getting big brands on board, which must happen if change is to be inspired. “Digital is really limitless, and I think brands see it pushed so far that it becomes unrecognisable because it’s overshadowing everything else. I think brands should be thinking about finding digital creatives who can create in line with their aesthetic, in a way that makes sense to their fans.”


By announcing their departures from the traditional fashion week schedule, luxury houses like Saint Laurent, Gucci and Ermenegildo Zegna could become the first to spark change from the top down. Though Saint Laurent won’t show until September, both Zegna and Gucci incorporated livestream and digital elements into their recent SS21 shows. However, in both instances, there was still a reliance on the physical; both presentations used human models and real clothes.


“I think we’ll see brands really looking at how they use social media, and how they engage people that way,” says Shipton. “If brands like Saint Laurent go in that direction, things could get really interesting.”


A number of brands – like Art School – chose not to show as part of the digital fashion weeks just gone in favour of preparing for September, so it’s really too early to say whether this will be the moment fashion really does embrace digital. But given the global pandemic is showing few signs of slowing, the reality of holding physical runway shows in September – and even early next year – is feeling more and more like a distant one. 


Some of the greatest creative solutions are forged through necessity, though. And as for fashion, well, digital has never felt more necessary. 

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