Any reference to ‘virtual’ or ‘digital’ fashion will be concerning the software-based design process explained in the introduction and not other methods of digitisation within the industry. This will be referenced throughout as the ‘new industry’, ‘new branch of’ etc. As a recent graduate student from The Amsterdam Fashion Institute I have focused the examples from my education within this university.
The last five years has seen the fashion industry express significant interest in the possibilities arising from the integration of cloud-based software in the design process. This software, like CLO Virtual Fashion Inc.'s 'CLO', allows designers to cut, sew, drape and simulate garments digitally, present them in a virtual environment and produce them on demand afterwards. This essay will take a moment to question the rosy mist of opportunity associated with this transitional time — assessing at what is at stake other than a departure from the currently broken industry.
THE CURRENT OUTLOOK
The newfound popularity of virtual fashion can be felt in the surge of press in the last year , with headlines such as ‘Virtual Fashion: The Digitally Generated Clothes Appearing On Your IG Influencer Feeds’ and ‘Fashion meets Fortnite’. This promotional push relies heavily on buzzwords, association with other industries like gaming, social media influencers and promises of a fantasy landscape where you can consume and share just as much, but now without any consequences. Educational institutions are also getting involved — setting up courses and training staff to equip students with the skills they will need to meet the new industry standard. Looking deeper into this community, past the congratulatory echo chamber chat of events or social media (like, announcing that we have open sourced desires or how we are living the future), we can see that the foundational values are being laid for this emerging branch of the fashion industry. Two recent cases of success in this area give a taste of what's to come.
The first example comes from Amsterdam-based ‘digital fashion house’ The Fabricant. Founded in 2018, they state that they are “envisioning a future where fashion transcends the physical body, and will be a leader in the movement that uploads the human to the next level of existence.” In mid-2019 the house announced they would be selling the “world’s first digital couture” — a dress called ‘Iridescene’ — in an auction at the Ethereal Summit in New York, collaborating with Dapper Labs (creators of CryptoKitties) and artist Johanna Jaskowska. Reporting on the auction, Forbes explained The Fabricant’s process after Iridescene is purchased: “There is a 28-day window for the couture’s new owner to provide a photo of the future wearer to the creators in order for them to custom fit the digital garments. As a blockchain digital asset, the unique existence of the garment makes it both clothing and (crypto) currency”. The founder of Dapper Labs, Roham Gharegozlou, also notes that “Iridescene hints at the superpowers of decentralization playing a role in fashion as it belongs fully to its owner, is impossible to copy and is portable”.
In an instagram post about the successful sale of the dress for $9,500, The Fabricant stated: “What if the garments you create exist outside ideas established in the 19th century?...This is the story of Mary, the owner of the first digital couture dress on the blockchain EVER. Welcome to Thought Couture”. Alongside this text, the same transparent garment seen on Jaskowska in the promotional image above is seen, but this time as an animation, superimposed over a photograph of Mary.
In an interview with PI Apparel (below), Kerry Murphy — the founder of The Fabricant — unwittingly showed the bubble this discourse is taking place within: as while he mentioned there was a $10,000 pre-bid as well as talk about how the sale could reach 6 figures, Iridescene was ultimately sold for $9,500 and Murphy was left with mixed feelings.. This ambivalence is further shown amongst fashion and tech communities in the comment sections across The Fabricant’s socials and articles on the house, with a steady vacillation from critical musings on how sale was merely a publicity stunt, to swooning over the thought of being gifted such an item. Murphy attempts to account for this by relating virtual fashion to the initial reluctance to adopt the internet and email - stating how these technologies are commonplace today.
A similar story is found in Scandinavian retailer Carlings, who have also cashed in on the growing appetite for consumers to be clothed virtually with Vogue business reporting that they: “sold out of a digital clothing collection in a week”. The collection, named ‘Neo-Ex’, released in partnership with the artificial influencer ‘Perl.www’, is made by “a process which involved digital tailors manipulating customers’ photos so it appeared that they were dressed in the apparel - which cost up to €30 per piece.” The garments have names such as ‘Thunder Jeans’ and ‘Cloud Chaps’, accompanying the clothing on their dedicated website (now defunct) is a text down the side stating ‘Zero% environmental impact’ (note: no asterisk follows that statement) and a footer speaking directly to their Gen Z Tech-engaged demographic with: ‘DROP ONE EXPIRED, DROP TWO LOADING’.
While also drawing inspiration from the sale of skins in the video game Fortnite — another link from gaming to this sector — Carlings’ CEO Ronny Mikalsen stated the reason for the collection: “We know that we have a lot of influencers out there creating this fake reality that is not available for the everyday boy or girl, and we challenge that, and say, hey it's possible”. This fake reality is confirmed on an instagram post from user ‘@aiiidaa’ featureing the ‘Cloud Chaps’ (also tags, links and hashtags to Carlings) stating: “Y’all still wearing physical clothing while I’m rocking a cyber-outfit here in 2038 👽 ”. Carlings shared the post, adding a P.S. reassuring their followers that the physical clothing in the picture would also be available soon.
The BBC, however, reported that while “Mr Mikalsen says Carlings has sold between 200-250 digital pieces… a search to find them on Instagram only resulted in four people who independently purchased from the collection and had no involvement with the company”.
So what can be taken from all the above examples?
Well, firstly, as there is no value in virtual fashion those with interests tied up in its success are trying to construct it. With Iridescene, we see Jaskowska on a New York rooftop with a portrait of Andy Warhol in the distance. Read as: latching onto all Warhol signifies , while reducing him to a prop in a styled background. This is an attempt to elevate the abstract spectacle by blurring virtual fashion into art to inflate the value of worthless pixels. As The Fabricant "make money by servicing fashion brands and retailers with their marketing needs, selling tools, and creating content that uses that aesthetic language of digital fashion", it makes sense that they are pushing this cleverly crafted moment of publicity.
If The Fabricant wants to be seen as the Warhol of this industry then Carlings must be the replica printed t-shirt equivalent that they want you to wear with no understanding of what it means except the social capital it brings. This is an equally dangerous path - relying on the slot machine of social media, hoping for the images they fabricated to be consumed and forwarded in order to profit off the Gen Z group who are already exhausted from living in fraying patchwork of ‘fomo’, anxiety and depression.
With all this said it’s the caption on Iridescene’s sale seems newly poignant:
“What if the garments you create exist outside ideas established in the 19th century?”.
Are these 21st century ideals along the lines of a husband buying his voiceless wife a dress, using her to simply breathe life into it, inflating it’s value, alongside that of his company, while it simultaneously wraps her up like the object she has become? Using falsified ‘sold out’ strategies to urge a young generation to conform to the homogenized demands desperately trying to be created, hoping it will result in later sales? Or is it that virtual fashion cannot escape becoming a commodity and the above is acting as an emblem for remaining in the system we are already in?
Looking back to 2016-2017, around the time of this new industry’s initial emergence, you will find Swedish brand Atacac being discussed for their unique pattern cutting and using 3d visualisations to present garments before being produced. They were repeatedly touted as the future, the first to create a brand completely around virtual fashion technology and subsequently gained press such as “ATACAC USES GAME TECH TO DISRUPT THE FASHION SYSTEM”; and giving us a sense of deja vu with regard to the narrative we are being sold today. Looking at the brand now, they've switched to mainly physical communication, feature in sample sales and use digital technology to release “Nine Unique Garments where only your imagination sets the boundaries”. What happened to Atacac will happen to The Fabricant, Carlings and the rest who are selling this current utopia under the headlines of using technology for good and the incredible impact it could have on the fashion industry. They will, at some point, just work themselves back to the same industry they are currently seeking to distance themselves from, all while convincing the consumer to purchase more garments that they don’t need.
The examples of The Fabricant and Carlings have one key thing in common: the use of software.
In Cutting Edge: Technology, Information Capitalism and Social Revolution software is defined as:
Software in essence consists of instructions for performing a particular task, and a major technological key to the growth of computing was the creation of means by which these instructions could readily be stored and fed into a machine, which by its nature, simultaneously hides and reveals itself as it works.
The user's knowledge of how software really works could be related to the consequences of ideology on the public’s grasp of social reality. Increasingly, software is now extended one layer further away from the user as it is based in The Cloud. Cloud computing is a term which has been around since the early 2000s, which essentially means the delivery of on-demand computing services - from applications to storage and processing power, typically over the internet and on a pay-as-you-go basis. Per Google CEO Eric Schmidt in 2004:
I don’t think people have really understood how big this opportunity really is. It starts with the premise that the data services and architecture should be on servers. We call it cloud computing—they should be in a “cloud” somewhere. And that if you have the right kind of browser or the right kind of access, you can get access to the cloud.
Cloud computing does not describe a single thing — rather , it’s a general term that describes a variety of services, from infrastructure as a service (IaaS) at the base, through platform as a service (PaaS) as a development tool, to software as a service (SaaS) replacing on-premises applications. Within the creative sector, it is in the software of Adobe where this shift to the cloud has been felt the most. Across the creative industries, Adobe’s software has been — and remains — dominant (as we see in the prevalence of Photoshop/Indesign/Illustrator/etc. file types): with users trained in and more or less dependent upon the company’s software ecosystem. Where before a user could purchase a version of the Adobe Creative Suite and use it at any time for all time, since 2013 users have been required to pay a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud, effectively converted from owners into renters. And over the last years we have seen SaaS move beyond standalone software to become a platform.
Platforms are all around us. Nick Srnicek, author of Platform Capitalism, states that
“...a platform is the intermediary between two or more different groups. We might think here of early market squares, but the platform as a model has really taken off with digital technologies in the past 10 years. Facebook, for example, is an intermediary between advertisers on the one hand, and users, software developers, and companies who create pages and chatbots on the other. Facebook brings together all these different groups and gets its value from them.
Benjamin Bratton, writer of the Stack, explains this further, how platforms induce users to behave according to the platform’s regulations and capacities — certainly while using the platform, but sometimes even in advance of joining it: “They provide an armature and induce processes to conform to it,” he writes. “People are oiling the economic machine; they make the mechanism run smoothly”.
A platform therefore can be said to rely on user participation, with the total value of the platform being directly linked to the number of participants. As Rudolf Müller (Professor in Quantitative Infonomics at Maastricht University) notes, “Platforms have to work hard to get the first critical mass of people and starting from zero is difficult. This is why we will see a pre-existing network being brought into the digital.” Expanding, then, Srnicek’s example of Facebook, the platform’s origins in American university campuses shows how this can be key to growing a large user base. We see a similar phenomenon in the case of virtual fashion, with the form of the work and the method of distribution currently being reshaped towards a platform; combining creation, display and feedback.
CLO - THE PLATFORM OF VIRTUAL FASHION
Searching for ‘virtual/digital fashion software’ on google shows us where the platform of virtual fashion is located - in CLO. CLO is a cloud-based 3D fashion design software developed and marketed by the South Korean company CLO Virtual Fashion Inc. Originally a cloth simulation technology called ‘Marvellous Designer’ that found popularity within Cosplay communities and the CG/Gaming industry, CLO was launched as a program specifically for the apparel industry a year after.
A company snapshot on the Business of Fashion websites quotes CLO:
CLO Virtual Fashion is a world leader in 3D garment simulation technology. With more than 10 years of research and development in garment simulation, we envision our technology to become not only the tool to create virtual garments, but also the platform to provide valuable data about garments, designs, and trends, by virtualizing every garment on Earth.
CLO’s website explains further: “our products range from CLO, Marvelous Designer, Virtual Fitting Platform, Communications and Archiving Platform for virtual garments, to Real Time Draping Engine for games to create a new ecosystem for virtual garments”. To use CLO, software licenses can be purchased on a variable individual, business or enterprise tariff. The personal use license is available for $50 per month or $450 annually. The personal license allows the user to sell the items created with the software, but companies must purchase the more expensive enterprise license. Looking through the store, such items as $50 avatars named Harper, Cole and Mason, $2 suit hangers and all the fabrics one is used to in the real world (polyester, cotton, etc.) can be found.
In recent years the communication of CLO has changed drastically — coinciding with their rapid growth within Europe. Viewing their landing page in 2013 it states how CLO ‘is an easy to use 3D apparel CAD’ with a simple pattern piece as an image. Now — after a “a 121 percent increase in European regional sales growth and almost a 300 percent increase in European user growth”, per Businesswire — a visitor (at the time of research) is met with a bold piece of text stating ‘DESIGN SMARTER’ , and a divider named ‘the scoop’, where there are 4 recent articles promoting a paid entry CLO user competition, the new software version 5.2, a Facebook live event and a webinar explaining about the new features in 5.2. What can be noted here is the push towards the user: a spew of ambiguous phraseology in the theme of ‘designed just for you’ and ‘be the first to experience’. CLO's blog, in contrast, focuses on community — with a recent post introducing their ‘power users’ and sharing their positive feelings towards the software, describing CLO as a “family” and “that there is no limit to what’s possible” in the platform.
Speaking to an employee of a 3D company, she noted that “CLO is similar to Adobe for being user friendly, although as a company CLO wants to own the industry - it’s closed off . They don’t listen to what the user needs, but just assume what would be cool”. A similar sentiment is shared by looking into the comments across their socials, with their community saying: “Pricing still is ridiculous. $50 a month or $450 a year, it's obvious you're only targeting corporate companies. I could totally see using this for 3d content sales, but that price for licensing is a joke”, and another asking “Is the participation fee too high?” regarding their most recent design competition where general users are charged $25 to enter.
Speaking to an ex employee of CLO, she said:
When you work for CLO essentially you are selling software. You are selling an illusion - a way of working. What matters in the very end is that you sell software. In the last 5 years the developments have been insane, and the workload was really high. In my second interview I was asked by the CEO what I was willing to sacrifice for the company, and after answering ‘my time’, I was told it was the right answer. This growth has really shown with the reduction of players in the field as a couple of years ago there were so much more. For example if you look at a company like Lectra who were once a big deal in virtual fashion they have clearly lost and are long gone.
One thing that I was never happy about was working with the big fast fashion companies, as I feel if you use 3D you should use it to make the product better and not to make more - instead of just crapping out more products in less time. I cannot say numbers but say a fast fashion buys a large amount, i’ll say ‘x’ amount of licenses, compared to Atacac who only have 3 - then of course CLO push the narrative of a brand like Atacac to represent their values, but in the end they need to make the money.
This push for user participation, increased control of the market and guise of a community isn’t surprising to Sangeeth Choudary — the author of Platform Revolution — who notes: “Through network effects it means platforms tend towards a winner-takes all model. More and more people on board which consolidates their position - resulting in a massive, closed, expansive company which is difficult if not impossible to dislodge”.
Given platforms’ tendency towards monopoly and the explosive growth of CLO’s userbase, questions arise as to whether CLO (if it becomes the de facto standard for virtual fashion) will follow a path like that of Adobe , encouraging their users to assemble an environment around themselves which they will later be trapped inside — leaving the future of fashion to be found in a CLO .zpac file.
BLURRING BOUNDARIES OF EDUCATION AND INDUSTRY
With a large part of fashion education being shaped by the demands of consumers and industry, it’s no surprise that educational institutions are also involved in virtual fashion. This is shown most clearly on CLO’s website where under ‘clients’ you will find a lengthy page of University logos, covering institutions from the U.S. to China. But how does education itself react to virtual fashion?
The Amsterdam Fashion Institute (AMFI) describe themselves as “unique in education on 3D virtual prototyping and developing a high level of products and performance”- with this mainly taking place within their course named ‘Hypercraft’. In conducting a survey amongst students who had completed the course, many noted the prior pressure to learn CLO3D, but now feel they have an advantage in the industry having developed the skills.
With regard to the software’s ease of use, one student commented: “CLO is easy to understand and learn. It's like playing a video game because you have results very quickly and can see every change you make”. Another noted its comparison to Instagram with “high amount of stylized visuals, and popularity where you can make something on screen look a lot more attractive as in real life”. Regarding concerns around the software it was said: “Teachers are definitely biased towards certain software. They want you to learn the softwares they can teach you as otherwise they might feel useless and get insecurities around the purpose of the minor”.
Another student highlighted the hazards of the software: The school is trying to become relevant again, and in doing so has become completely reliant on the software. There have been times when we can’t login into CLO so all just sit there clueless on when we can work again, and other moments where AMFI have just updated the software and all our work is messed up.” This difficulty to login was also seen in one Hypercraft class’ Whatsapp group where students tried to troubleshoot how to login to the programm, ultimately saying: “There is probably a CLO class right now, with to many people working on the server..It's really annoying and clear that the licences are not enough anymore.”
Even with some pitfalls, the ease of use and fast learning curve has given rise to various short courses for this type of skill. Alongside Hypercraft students can enrol in a two week summer course (costing €1,100.00) where you can learn to ‘empower yourself and gain ‘results that will be of interest for your portfolio’. On one teacher even advertised private courses (8 days priced at €1200) to her community of students, with a similar sentiment of “Be ahead! Join us!”.
Finally an email sent out at the end of 2019 shows this is quickly becoming the status quo: “Building on the success and experience of the minor Hypercraft, AMFI proposes to develop a one-year international master in Digital Fashion in partnership with PVH-STITCH, Burberry and CLO.”
Is this then just business as usual, with education remaining as merely a submissive facilitator for the actions of big brands of the industry? In the previously-quoted interview with the ex-CLO employee, she gave an insight into how this will work with software, noting in the case of AMFI they are hesitant to speak up about any issues regarding virtual fashion as they are stuck between two companies. “On one hand they still have free equipment and licenses from Lectra, but now have to pay for CLO - so they [AMFI] have created a false narrative where they tell students limitations in each programme to make sure both are used.” She then mentioned that “CLO make sure that educational institutions have to give a ‘pay of appreciation’ for the software to ensure they are more likely to use it and implement it into their curriculum - meaning all students leaving will be trained in that.”
The work of The Fabricant, alongside Carlings’ desire to allow the creation of a “fake reality for all boys and girls”, should stand as cautionary tales of how this new industry will operate. The system will not change because garments can now be shown via pixels, but will merely be a new layer on top of the one we already have. The emerging venture capital funded startup culture is currently creating an unstable bubble filled with influencers and manipulation, leaving the industry — after it’s inevitable bursting -- looking towards another innovation to become the answer. Behind all this will of course always be the software companies, who after constructing communities of users, will jostle to lock them into an industry standard and extract rents.
With their Adobe-like approach to the market including a glut of tutorials, intuitive UI, high social media presence and strategy of targeting students it seems that CLO3D are leading the charge for this ‘standard’ and it’s only a matter of time before any discussions of alternatives will seem futile due to the monopoly they will hold. This will force all those who enter virtual fashion, from students into freelancers into compliance with their .zpac file type.
With the largely positive press surrounding virtual fashion and fashion institutions’ broader desire to not be left behind, it’s no surprise many are enthusiastically welcoming the promise of this technology. Luring us in by showing us its ability to reduce and eliminate barriers of entry — with those who have no prior skills entering a ‘gamified’ way of creation and believing the power is now in their hands to don themselves with no limitations except how many likes they will receive once shared.
Yet while we remain within the framework of fashion (capitalism) we will not only fail to accomplish these ends, but exacerbate the problems already existing — perhaps one day we won’t even own the items we are told to consume. With all this said, now more than ever it is time for education to come to maturity with the technology it is using. I believe there is still a small window of opportunity for fashion schools to come together collectively, forming joint conditions of usage relating to all software providers. This will not only ensure a safe and responsible digital environment for future students, but also remove the fear of retribution that software companies are hanging over their head. Now is the time to act instead of churning out an assembly line full of graduates for the industry standard they are helping to create.
Tom Robertson explores the intersection of systematic searching and co incidental finding in his archival project 40th formula. He graduated in International Fashion & Design at AMFI in august 2020. This essay was based on his BA thesis.