by Stella Hughes
10 min
Liam James for CULTED ©

The Institute of Digital Fashion is spearheading fashion’s shift into the metaverse – one pixel at a time. From crafting entirely-digital couture dresses, teaching the industry’s emerging talent on how they can use and capitalise on digital fashion, and being an emblem for change within the archaic industry, we were dying to sit down with co-founders Leanne and Cattytay to talk all things digital.

Liam James for CULTED ©

So, starting at the beginning, where did your passion for digital begin?
C: I guess if we go back to when I was younger, playing GTA with my brother was a good vibe – and I really wanted to work for Ubisoft. The main characters were always in something like box jeans and a Hawaiian shirt – and I just thought that this could be so much better. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be in fashion, but then growing up on computer games fused this passion with digital.

In 2016 I did a wet-look digital project, and at the time there just wasn’t anything like it. I was teaching myself from YouTube, bootlegging A-COLD-WALL* jackets and putting Nike ticks on my 3D garments just to get the internet’s attention and poach their thoughts – sort of saying ‘this is something you’ve never seen your Nike garments looking like’. And then that’s what got their attention – everyone just seemed to be like WTF. Then, for my graduation project in 2017 I did a full 3D collection because I was bored of textile design – a lot of my references were GTA screenshots. I wanted to emulate that aesthetic and just thought fuck it.

Liam James for CULTED ©

Tackling the topic of the moment first, let’s talk about the metaverse.
L: We talk a lot about the metaverse as it’s such a trending topic, but the actual fundamentals of it haven’t been built out. So a lot of our work now is hand-holding with brands, institutions and makers and understanding how to navigate that space. What does it mean for you to have a collection in Decentraland – who out of your audience are already there? Hardly any, is the answer – so what can you bring as a fashion brand to that audience? Not much. Ok, so what is the vocabulary in that space?

As brands’ products are crunched down to a few pixels in the metaverse currently, without the vocabulary of craft and excellence that surrounds physical projects, we’re super interested in what the new vocabulary will look like to describe these digital products.

That’s the difficulty I think, with a space that hasn’t really even been surveyed yet – you should come out with a dictionary for the metaverse!
L: Yes!

C: The thing to craft is describing and making a 3D model functionable. 

L: We’ve done so many AR experiences and are the world’s best at these – and that’s because we understand it. Say you have a space that is millions of polygons large – we have to crunch it down to 4 mps – but this isn’t as simple as just “making it small”. You have to effectively re-make it, mirror it, do insane trickery to give the illusion that it’s the same as it was before, in it’s huge form. As Catty said – that’s the new tier of craft and excellence – having the capability to do those ‘magic tricks’.

C: In terms of how we do this, we recently did a couture gown, and had to make each different gemstone and clasp specific on a 3D model. We wanted to use actual geometry so that the light bounced and refracted properly when we rendered it.

L: We were the hands and eyes of the atelier, which is the first time this has ever happened. There has been digital couture, but not a gown created entirely digitally where there wasn’t a physical atelier. Making it in digital first was a world first. Stick us in the Guinness Book of Records.

Liam James for CULTED ©

So we’ve touched on what you guys have been working on recently, but could you crystallise the main pillars of the Institute?
L: Inclusivity and diversity is the backbone of what we do. Essentially, we’re taking on the responsibilities of this new arena: we’re an emblem for change for the pain points of fashion. This involves supporting the makers – creating an infrastructure that isn’t using unpaid internships or ‘working for accolades’ as well as showcasing that craft and artisan exists within digital making.

Fashion’s past is dark in that space, and avatars and NFTs are dominated by cis white males, which leads to bias. That level of nepotism and cis white bias is rife in the crypto space – so it’s a struggle, but all the work we are doing is to balance that out, to create a much more non-binary space where gender politics are discussed. We put our neck out all the time – saying no to clients if they don’t align with our ethos.

C: We’ve been told that we’re doing too much, but I think it’s really worked in our favour. It’s made sure that every one of our projects is fucking amazing. We do a lot of creative direction, world building too.

Liam James for CULTED ©

Where do you see this going then?
L: We’re all pivoting into this new space and waiting for fashion to catch up, to when wearables are a real thing. Digital fashion is about more than an animation – it can do more than that! Big brands don’t have the vision for it – so that’s why we’re building it ourselves. People have to see what the future is – fashion right now is archaic, it’s like the Titanic, heading towards the iceberg and people are still like, on the top deck playing a violin. Like come on! 

That’s a great analogy… so in that analogy where do you see yourselves?
L: We’re the sea. 

C: Or the wood that keeps Rose alive! A bit too small right now, but the solution that people will eventually get on board with and a lot of people are already.

Maybe you’re the lifeboats – here to save the fashion industry.
L & C: Yes!

C: RNLI… we’re agile and buoyant. And we say that about ourselves actually. We’re constantly thinking about what the new innovation is in this space and spoon-feeding it to the rest of the industry.

That’s a really interesting concept – that you’re already building it out and then spoon-feeding it back to the fashion industry. If you had to predict how big an impact the Metaverse will have on the average fashion fan in 5 years, what would this be?
C: One sick thing for the average fashion fan would be that there will be a lot more designers in the metaverse. People are already doing it now on Depop – creating and selling, bypassing big brands. Fashion week won’t be held down to a BFC-regulated building, it will be completely fractured and democratised, and everyone can get involved.

L: The idea of being able to build an economy based on community will be big, too. Depop is a great example of this happening already, and is already involved in trend cycles with TikTok. I also think we’ll see the death of the superbrand: in the same way that publications are all moving digital, which spawned the whole new thing of the archival coffee table book that you may wear your white gloves to flick through, the bigger fashion brands will lean on their archive and cultural and historical heritage much more. 

That will be the basis of their brand, because they’ll be up against young designers who can create and make money with their mates. It’s like a cooperative; young designers will be giving money to each other rather than to Gucci. Bigger brands can’t compete with local kinship – physical shops and stores will become old school.

Even though the metaverse is the whole world in interlocked spaces, communities will be little pockets. From queer strip clubs to friendship circles – community living will happen in the Metaverse. This is all beyond the algorithm, too.

Liam James for CULTED ©

I want to talk about your world-firsts as well. The first AR red carpet look at the Fashion Awards was great, can you talk a bit about this project?
C: In terms of the design, a lot of the tech just isn’t really there at the moment. So the digital garment we built can fit anyone – because it slots right on to whatever you’re already wearing, which worked really well. To get celebrities involved with digital fashion, like Tommy Hilfiger saying ‘we need it’, was really fun too.

L: I think people still feel that digital fashion as a whole is quite abstract. For example, for someone not interested in high fashion, Balenciaga’s take on digital fashion would probably alienate them, but having something like this digital garment which people can try on and use on their own phone amplified the power potential and messaging around digital fashion. It’s interactive, it’s versatile and you can add to it.

The red carpet was a great place to launch it too I think, as a testing ground for speaking about the metaverse. We wanted to question the future of the red carpet – it’s a very elitist space right now, but having a garment that can be worn by people at home as well as the celebs of the red carpet was an interesting duality. 

You mentioned Balenciaga, who have dominated headlines with digital fashion in the last year. Do you get frustrated with that being the benchmark of public perception of digital fashion, or do you see it as a good thing? I.e raising awareness of digital fashion and increasing accessibility?
L: It’s a bit of both. They’re obviously great at messaging, but then again there’s so much more that they could’ve done. But that’s just us complaining! Sometimes they do stuff that we’ve been doing or thinking about, but it’s the shitter version! No, Demna is amazing and we love what they do and love the team but I think from where we’re completely surrounded by digital fashion, we just see where they could’ve pushed certain projects further.

C: I was actually one of Demna’s steps into digital fashion, as I worked on a digital campaign with him back in 2018. He sent 3 looks over to me which I tried on, which was exciting. It’s funny to see their progression – as it was a long time ago but they were doing it at the same time as other brands. 

Balenciaga is a classic example of their metaverse being more interesting than their clothes: I’m way more interested in their digital identity than their coats, personally.

Liam James for CULTED ©

To finish on, talk to me about your IRL x URL academy!
L: The root of education, globally, is about privilege. We keep getting asked to do lectures but we can’t be everywhere at once, or start teaching on a course written 5 years ago, so we decided to start our own academy to teach digital fashion for marginalised groups. It’s all for free, and we’re taking on new creatives this year again. Through the academy and various other projects last year, we provided over £270,000 of services and money to aid the next generation of people diving into digital fashion.

C: I teach a real broad range of people, and our academy last year ended in an exhibition at CSM. Get involved with the upcoming intake!

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