The Brave New Futurism: Tamsin Blanchard on the Possibilities of Digital Dressing Up
Over the past year, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to the world of sci-fi. Maybe it’s something to do with not getting out enough, but my space explorations have taken me through pretty much every science fiction fantasy that Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney have to offer. I’ve watched all eleven Star Wars movies and The Mandalorian, and rewatched Ready Player One and Blade Runner. I also immersed myself in Stowaway, Arrival, Gravity, several iterations of The Matrix and, of course, Wandavision.
There’s something about the possibilities that the world of sci-fi offers, beyond the often grim realities of the real world. If I had $28m to spare, I probably would not bid on a seat to fly to space with Jeff Bezos, but I might invest the odd thousand in a new unreal wardrobe. Maybe one fit for a walk-on part in the Mos Eisley cantina on the planet Tatooine. Either way, my first port of call would be a fitting with digital couture pioneers Auroboros.
Not only do Auroboros make clothes that appeal to my replicant-riddled imagination, they also claim to be zero waste and focus on creating experiences, rather than more stuff. For a generation who buy an outfit simply to wear for a single social media post, digital fashion is pretty much already a reality. Clothes have become part of the social media content that feeds our online personas, which are often very different to who we are in real life. It’s interesting because we are in a time when the high street has become so homogeneous and stagnant. Normcore, cottagecore, call it what you will – clothes have become so interchangeable, so comfortable, so… nothing.
The Guardian’s Morwenna Ferrier recently wrote about feeling nauseous when confronted by the rails and rails of “stuff” while shopping on the high street. Even the sustainable fashion movement is reaching a saturation point. There are only so many organic cotton dresses you can buy before you start to become part of the problem. “The industry has translated into just this money–making machine,” says Auroboros’ co-founder Paula Sellos. She’s dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans. “You go into the high street, there’s no creativity whatsoever. Yeah, it’s so incredibly boring.”
We met a few weeks before they made their debut at London Fashion Week in June – the first time an entirely digital fashion collection had been presented as part of the showcase. The designers partnered with the Institute of Digital Fashion and invited Sita Abellán, the Spanish DJ, stylist and jewellery designer, to style their collection for a short video to show the endless, mind–blowing possibilities of the brave new creative universe they have constructed. To make the collection accessible outside of the fashion world, the 14 looks were shown with the help of a series of billboards scattered around the city. Passersby who might not ordinarily have an interest in designer fashion could scan the QR code and try on the Venustrap dress in real-time (rather than having to wait for a photograph to come back with the outfit fitted to it) and share with friends for free. It’s a bit like Pokemon for fashion. Except you become the character.
Walking into the Auroboros studio in Haggerston – located in one of the converted stables at the Sarabande Foundation, which is helping to nurture the digital couture pioneers as they explore the unknown – is enough to ignite the fashion dream in the most jaded of souls. Alongside their digital collections, they create one-off physical pieces too. There’s an air of sparkly, rainbow–coloured creative chaos around the space. There are costumes for TV and film as well as the brand’s own “nature tech” pieces, which uses a crystal solution designed to grow and bloom on the wearer, and then decompose, rather like a flower in nature. They call the process “biomimicry” – they take 100-200 hours to make, and then they disappear. It’s an entirely different way of approaching fashion, where the wearer can make a big splash with an outfit they might not want to wear twice, but without the environmental impact or use of precious resources.
“It’s about time we got to see some completely new things,” Sellos says. Co-founder Alissa Aulbekova – who is Zooming in from Amsterdam – agrees. “Fashion has literally been pretty much the same for the past 100 years. I mean, even with someone like Iris Van Herpen, or Alexander McQueen, or Hussein Chalayan and even these revolutionary designers still worked in a way that was very traditional. They’re confined by the physical limitations – what a human can wear, essentially, even what’s possible. I just think fashion has lost the dream.”
There’s a book about Japanese pattern cutting on Sellos’ desk. I ask if she’s ever made anything from it. “I don’t even bother looking at classic patterns anymore,” she says. “I just go, ‘okay, let’s see, what can I make float in mid air?’ And you know, because there’s no physics, it’s great.” Designing clothes without any of the traditional limitations of physics, the human body, materials, or reality means they can create Shishigami shoes – inspired by a Studio Ghibli forest spirit – or a Venustrap dress that makes you look like some kind of tropical plant, with tentacles and iridescent sprinkles or sprights hovering like fireflies around a light. Some of these clothes look as though they are alive, especially if you go for the whole look, like the Mandrake Bodysuit, the Atokirina Coat and the Shishigami heels. You could choose a Nymph bag, which is made from Murano glass with a silver gold–encrusted handle. Everything is body inclusive and non-binary. The whole experience is very utopian, especially when “worn” by someone who has photographed themselves in a hyper–real landscape.
“Being able to completely push the boundaries is so refreshing, and not having to constantly think of this archaic kind of institutionalised form of fashion,” says Aulbekova, “especially because it’s just always been so exclusive and so niche and very arrogant.” The gaming world – with the type of geeks that have been so long excluded from the luxury fashion world – is already leading the way. “There’s so much hype about creativity [in gaming] and you haven’t had that in fashion for so long,” Sellos says. They have found a niche that sits between the worlds of gaming, science, technology, art and fashion. When you consider that the total available market for digital clothing is projected to hit $10bn by 2030 (excluding skins for video games), it suddenly doesn’t seem so niche.
“There are 2.7 billion gamers right now’ says Aulbekova, “and a lot of them are younger generation, but also spanning to millennial and even older. And we’re just bridging that gap between this digital expression and fashion, finally, into one space.” Covid has really shown that through these digital, social channels and games, you can not only connect, but also represent yourself, and it’s becoming even more important how you look in the digital field, than in the physical. Aulbekova notes that in the Gen Z Asian market, “it’s very native in the culture to kind of play different games and dress up as well. So the same luxury buyer exists in the game, and also exists in fashion.”
To find out more about this technology that augments our wardrobes and the things around us to blend the digital and physical, I sought out an expert. Moin Roberts-Islam, the technology development manager for the Fashion Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion, says that mixed reality is going to become increasingly the norm, whether it’s to try on glasses or to try out a new sofa in your living room. “A digital asset can be repurposed an infinite number of times in an infinite number of ways and it’s only limited by your imagination,” he explains. “We’re spending more and more of our lives online. We have social media personas, [often] more than one Instagram account to represent different sides of ourselves. That ability to clothe each of those online personas and to curate them a bit more to make them more meaningful, more you – that’s a need that needs to be filled, in the same way as we wear our clothes to define ourselves or to change how we feel. Digital fashion offers that ability to express yourself, but online – to a different audience in a different way. And if you can blend those two, if you can bring those digital assets into the real world that’s quite empowering… you can express more of your imagination, more of the thing that really makes you you, than the physical world allows you to do.”
While Auroboros celebrate the inclusive nature of their clothes, the price tag to buy one of their designs is on a par with the world of luxury fashion. The pieces are available to buy via DressX, digital fashion’s answer to Net-A-Porter. You simply choose your look or accessory, upload a carefully selected photograph of yourself and in a day or two you will receive your image “dressed” and ready to share with your adoring followers. It’s a 21st–century update of the old-fashioned idea of dressing paper dolls. Founders Daria Shapovalova and Natalia Modenova see digital fashion as “an opportunity to exceed the boundaries of the physical world and to create looks that could never exist in real life.”
It has to be said, some of the virtual clothes on offer aren’t that exciting. Auroboros’s Biomimicry collection stands out, though, and there is a market keen to experiment and give their avatars the fanciest of wardrobes. Model Alina Baikova and Italian singer and songwriter Rose Villain are fans, as is Viktoria Modesta, who looks extraordinary wearing Auroboros’ Ex Machina-inspired “Ava Look” top and shorts with glowing organic tendrils against a desert landscape. The process of creating these garments in 3D requires the same level of skill, virtuosity, and attention to detail, and is very time-consuming, according to Natalia and Daria. “That’s why it is called digital couture.”
Ultimately though, the world in which Auroboros exists is about imagination and creativity, rather than business. It’s a whole new frontier where literally anything goes – tendrils, forest spirits and all. “With digital fashion, you can wear fire or water, you have so many more possibilities,” says Sellos. “And this is just the beginning, it’s the very tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more coming.”
Photography courtesy of Auroboros. Taken from Issue 67 of 10 Magazine – BOLD & BEAUTIFUL – order your copy here.