Die Hässlichen Vögel performs at the Reference FestivalPhoto: Courtesy
Ever since we first heard the word phygital last June fashion brands have struggled to figure out how to make virtual reality as emotional and poignant as the real thing. But off the beaten path of New York, London, Milan, and Paris fashion weeks, Reference Studios seems to have figured it out with relative ease. The Berlin-based creative studio hosted the Reference Festival last week with a range of in-person and digital programming that provided a 360 degree view of that city’s thriving creative scenes.
A truck covered with LCD screens broadcasts 032C messaging throughout Berlin Photo: Marvin Jockschat / Courtesy of Reference Studios
The approach was multifaceted: A website mimicked a gallery space with different rooms and installations while physical events took place at Reference’s HQ on Berlin’s Potsdamer Straße and at the Zeiss Major Planetarium space. If you found time between the Paris’s fall 2021 men’s shows to tune in to the Reference Realities site, you would have been shocked at the high-touch of the virtual reality presented. (I was and I’ve experienced a number of video games, alternate realities, and surreal fantasies during recent digital fashion weeks.)
A rehearsal of Anne Imhof and Eliza Douglas's performance in the Zeiss Major Planetarium in Berlin
The Reference Realities website projected Mowalola’s new furniture collaboration with Chapel Petrassi into a levitating form; her M logo stool rendered in virtual 3-d looked almost as lifelike as the real thing. It turned musical compositions by Michel Gaubert and EBIT, a new-ish organization focused on mental health, into a Blue Room where one could virtually hang out and experience the calming or thrilling trills of music. 032C sent an LCD screen-paneled van around Berlin showcasing a new messaging that was translated into online imagery through a virtual “screen.” GmbH also streamed its fall 2021 menswear show on the platform, marking the first time the brand has shown a collection in its home base of Berlin.
Inside the Blue Room by EBIT, Bureau Cool, and Michel Gaubert on the virtual Reference Realities site
But more than just offering virtual shorthands of physical realities, the Reference Festival also transformed IRL programming into a singular digital experience. Within the virtual “room” was a stage live-streaming performances by Anne Imhof, Eliza Douglas, and MJ Harper, styled by Stefano Pilati and Random Identities. In person, Imhof, Douglas, Harper and other performers were in the Zeiss Major Planetarium, a resounding structure, but online they were intimately accessible across a screen within a screen: The Reference Realities site offered a side “stage” to access their live performances. The festival also included talks with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Honey Dijon; HF Talk founder Iolo Lewis Edwards; and Tiffany Godoy.
Chapel Petrassi x Mowalola's installation at the Reference Studios space
All together, the festival was a testament to the ways creativity thrives even in the worst of times—and not just creativity, but ingenuity. Set against the mundane, repetitive nature of digital fashion weeks, Reference Festival felt the closest to the real thing, the way it was in the Before, where you could breeze through a gallery show before checking out a runway and having dinner with artists and friends on the periphery of the fashion bubble. No other virtual platform has figured out exactly how to capture that sense of communion and togetherness as well as the ways that fashion exists within a spectrum of art, music, and live performance.
Reference Studios is also launching the Reference Prize, setting up a new generation of talent with backing from the Berlin agency and Slam Jam, the Milanese purveyor of streetwear. Applications are open to any type of creative, no degree needed, with the goal of spurring more inter-disciplinary conversation. Over email before the festival, Reference Studios founder Mumi Haiati said, “With the festival we made a statement for innovation in our times, and expressed that creativity cannot be limited to a singular form.” As the industry gears up for the women’s fall 2021 fashion season, it’s a message more creatives should heed.