Designers are helping the fashion industry spark a digital fashion revolution

The pandemic has forced fashion off catwalks and out of stores – this is how designers are helping move something famously tactile into the virtual world.

Stepping into the Museum of Other Realities is, in some ways, like entering any other gallery. Exhibitions are curated by experts and there is a wealth of talent on display which you are free to explore.

But when Design Week visits the museum to watch the scheduled Fabric of Reality fashion show, there’s a marked difference. Before us, the work of three experimental fashion designers is being showcased – but remove the VR headset and we’re back in a living room.

The Museum of Other Realities is a virtual arts platform designed to emulate the museum journey and The Fabric of Reality, presented by immersive storytelling production house RYOT, is one of a growing number of virtual fashion events taking place during the coronavirus pandemic. With many countries still in various stages of lockdown, fashion has had to pivot to deliver industry staples – trade shows, collection reveals, and, of course, shopping.

Damara’s garment at Fabric of Reality

Early adoption of digital helped “democratise”

The industry has been tentatively dipping its toe in the digital world for some time. Caroline Rush, CEO of the British Fashion Council, tells Design Week that the relationship between fashion and tech goes back “at least two decades”.

London Fashion Week – the biannual trade show event put on by the BFC – she points out, was the first in the world to livestream shows back in 2003. And the rise of social media in the latter part of the 2000s has helped to “democratise” the industry, she adds, and open up shows that “were once very exclusive and aimed only at a select group of industry insiders, celebrities and high-net worth individuals”.

But as the pandemic has shown, simple livestreaming of shows and a presence on social media aren’t enough anymore. In a bid to continue at pace, fashion houses are increasingly enlisting the help of digital and 3D designers to put on events like the Fabric of Reality. Such a change in direction could have a lasting impact on the industry, long after the pandemic is over.

Charli Cohen’s garment at Fabric of Reality

“None of the constraints of a physical event”

The relatively limitless capabilities of virtual reality (VR) means the shows themselves can go far beyond what is possible in the real world.

“From the beginning, we wanted to create an exhibition that had none of the constraints of a physical event,” says RYOT’s head of creative tech Sam Field when asked how the team approached creating the Fabric of Reality. “[The show] is about unleashing fashion designers’ and XR (cross-reality, referring to mixed-reality environments) artists’ creative potential without limits.”

Housed within the Museum of Other Realities, the Fabric of Reality experience features an exhibition room in which “visitors” can explore sculptural garments created by designers Charli Cohen, Damara and Sabinna. Aside from needing a VR headset to browse the offering, this part of the show stays relatively close to how a visitor might experience any fashion exhibition at a museum or gallery.

The experience begins to deviate from the norm as guests travel through each of the garments’ respective portals and enter their “Storyworlds” – self-contained universes expressing the “emotional reality” of the projects on display.

“Virtual reality allows our viewers to enter the mind of the designer and experience their conceptual narratives in a fully immersive and interactive way that would not be possible at an in-person event,” says Field. With no limits, the storyworlds created by the XR designers vary widely — XR designer Anna Duncan has helped Charli Cohen make a statement about mental health by asking guests to embrace their “meh days” in the midst of a rave in a giant frying pan;  while designer Sutu helps Damara question gender norms in a futuristic alien world.

Sabinna’s garment at Fabric of Reality

“Reaching audiences worldwide from the comfort of their homes”

As well as providing an unparalleled look into the thought processes behind the work, displaying fashion online makes it more accessible, Field says. Not all users would have been able to tune in via VR headset in the case of the Fabric of Reality, so the event was also livestreamed.

“These virtual shows are also more accessible, reaching audiences worldwide from the comfort of their homes, eradicating the need for air travel and creating a more sustainable way of showcasing fashion,” says Field. This is echoed by HTC EMEA general manager Graham Wheeler, who says: “We are using our innovation in this space to reach new audiences, particularly in a climate now much more dependent on virtual events.” The Museum of Other Realities is accessible using a HTC Vive headset, and is hosted in its Viveport platform

Rush explains this was also a consideration when creating London Fashion Week’s first ever digital edition back in June. A first for the council, and for global fashion weeks the world over, the event was hosted via an online platform.

“With no international editors and buyers being able to travel to London, it was important that we make the experience free and open for everyone to access from everywhere,” she says. “Our ambition was to create a global meet up point and space for creatives to tell their stories, document their design process and their life during these challenging times.”

The platform, built in just two months, displays the benefits of digital writ large. Rush echoes Field’s views around eradicating unnecessary travel and reinforces the idea that a pivot to digital can widen audiences.

“Virtual fashion shows and films stay online and are easy for anyone to revisit, compared to a physical show that has to be communicated in just a few minutes,” she says. “There is an opportunity to expand the audience through partners and global reach to engage with a broader consumer audience and in turn help designers, especially the SME and start-up businesses, to engage with new customers.”

The Fabricant, Deep – a digital collection

“To art direct the movement of clothing is extremely hard”

But for a craft so rooted in tactility, the process of bringing garments into a digital space is a tricky one.

“Cloth is notoriously difficult to replicate in 3D and to art direct the movement of clothing is extremely hard,” says Kerry Murphy, founder of The Fabricant, an Amsterdam-based design studio that bills itself as the world’s first digital fashion house.

The history of digital fashion may extend back some time, but studios like The Fabricant are laying the groundwork for a new, technology-driven progression. Murphy’s studio presented its first digital catwalk in 2018, and has since worked with several more traditional fashion houses like Tommy Hilfiger and streetwear brand A Bathing Ape (BAPE) to reinvent their digital offering.

The Fabricant’s work falls into three main streams, Murphy tells Design Week. The first step is “digital product creation” — that is, creating a virtual version of a garment for a client. Then, the studio’s designers create content for the client’s selling process, with ecommerce imagery. Finally, The Fabricant creates the marketing campaign for a client, showcasing the digital garments on models.

Browsing The Fabricant’s portfolio, it’s often hard to distinguish virtual garments from real ones, such is the detail going into the work. Consumers buy clothing based off these images, so realism is a must. Only once it has been bought is the garment then made in real life, with the ultimate aim of reducing the amount of waste in fashion.

The Fabricant, Deep – a digital collection

“Is it really only about covering yourself and keeping warm?”

But as Murphy reveals, this approach significantly slows down the fashion experience and consumers are not always used to waiting at least seven to ten days for their hauls. Fortunately, this is where The Fabricant’s “secret” fourth stream comes in: the virtual try on. This development from the studio, he says, allows consumers to use realistic digital avatars of themselves to test options for style and fit.

It is also indicative of the studio’s wider mission: digital-only clothing. When Design Week speaks to Murphy, it isn’t the first time he’s had to explain this goal.

“People ask me why they would want to buy digital-only clothing and I always ask back why they like buying clothing in reality,” Murphy says. “Is it really only about covering yourself and keeping warm? Or is it about the emotional connection you have to those garments and the way you can curate your identity?”

With our virtual lives, led mainly through social media, becoming evermore prominent, Murphy says digital-only clothing could go a long way to fixing some of fashion’s big ethical problems — from poor environmental practices to price hiking and labour exploitation.

“We’re looking to make fashion that exists only digitally because this way we reduce the amount of clothes there are in the world, while still maintaining an emotional connection.”

“Increasingly we’re creating hybrid spaces”

It may feel like a step too far for some, but the wheels are already in motion for this becoming a norm. Helsinki Fashion Week, currently taking place online, is touting itself as the world’s first 3D fashion week and comes complete with a Digital Village for revellers to mingle in.

In this area of cyberspace, which has been designed by real-life studio DaeWha Kang Design, fashion fans can try on clothing virtually and wear it (via their digital avatar) around the rest of the event. It can then be purchased too, to be worn in real life.

“We usually design physical spaces, but increasingly we’re creating hybrid spaces,” says DaeWha Kang, lead designer at the studio. “And everything that felt unreachable even a few years ago can now be done with ease – It will be very interesting to see how this will develop in the coming years, especially with the pandemic having pushed things along.”

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