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The Digital Fashion Group: Q&A with co-founder Leslie Holden

By Andrea Byrne

Nov 24, 2021


The Digital Fashion Group is a European-led collaboration between industry innovators and fashion academics. FashionUnited recently spoke to the co-founder of The Digital Fashion Group, Leslie Holden, to discuss how digital fashion is changing the fashion industry, the relevance of studying digital fashion and the advantages/disadvantages of the movement.

How would you describe digital fashion?

Literally it’s the visual representation of clothing using computer technology and other various software. But it is so much more than this, of course. Digital fashion represents a new approach to fashion design and the fashion industry through technology, from the creation process to the consumer experience. It opens a new path to fashion designers and brands in virtual environments, like Web3 and the metaverse, and leads to new business models into decentralised transactions like the blockchain, offering an opportunity for the creator to be in the centre stage of these transformations.

How is digital fashion changing the fashion industry?

Although fashion is all about newness, it is actually one of the most difficult industries or the slowest industries to change, to shift, to rethink. A reason for this is of course the size of the industry. According to FashionUnited, the value of the global fashion industry is three trillion dollars, two percent of the world’s gross domestic profit. If for no other reason, the industry must change to become more sustainable. The industry must stop mass production, and digitalisation can provide solutions and answers to the pressing challenges and needs to change.

It's not news that digitisation and digitalisation have increased the demand for customisation and exclusivity, transforming not only the supply and value chains but also the sustainability of fashion and the rise in the consumption of digital fashion.

For the creative it is a pivotal moment. Advanced tools can now be placed directly in the hands of fashion designers helping to place them at the centre of the data dialogue. This is impacting established design and development processes, from concept to sampling as digital tools allow processes to become fully integrated. Inspiration, research, design, illustration, virtual draping, cutting, prototyping on avatars can all be undertaken by the fashion designer working in the digital sphere.

Designing and developing in this digital sphere allows for immediate alteration and iteration of virtually every creative aspect giving the potential to create, recreate, and review designs, fit and collections in a fraction of the time it has taken in the past. As a result, more solutions and more options can be explored, mistakes eliminated, and costs and time to market reduced dramatically.

What factor(s) do you think is driving digital fashion?

Digital fashion is part of a new industrial revolution that is introducing new digital technologies, new enterprises, and new approaches that are transforming creativity, development, production, and consumption. This revolution is challenging and ultimately, changing the status quo of how the fashion industry operates. It is a tsunami of technology affecting all aspects of the fashion business, from the way designers create, how clothes are produced, and where wearers purchase. While Web 3, the new era of the internet and direct to avatar inhabiting only the digital realm, are relatively new concepts, they have the potential to redefine and democratise the fashion industry to become more inclusive and sustainable.

One could say that fashion tech is no longer just for geeks, influencer marketing, or the wearable-tech dress with flashing lights and the 3D printed shoe. Today gaming, Gen Z and Gen Alpha are leading us in developing our own online identities.

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of digital fashion?

Historically the fashion industry does not invest enough in innovation and new technologies, unlike the automotive industry for example. Even though the fashion industry is primarily about the next new trend or fad it is not innovative. It is basically following the same business model as it has been for the last 30 odd years. And indeed, fashion education, in general, is still teaching the skills required for this model.

Digital fashion is still in its infancy and developing fast. More designers need to learn the mindset and strategies of how to work creatively within the software before its utilisation can be more widespread. It will also take some time for brands, retailers, and consumers to fully adopt the end products. However, the benefits are considerable. Whether it is in the ease of communication through the supply chain, designing and promotion of garments, the fitting or the selling, or the benefits of being able to order on demand-production which results in less waste and therefore a better environmental footprint. 3D software holds the potential for all these benefits.

3D design software solutions facilitate real-time feedback which can also include information on the price of manufacturing, the processes involved and the sustainability of the garment. Working with 3D virtual prototyping allows the designer to design and develop the idea several times without having to make any samples. The design or digital asset can be sent to factories or colleagues anywhere in the world, immediately, without having to wait weeks for samples to be shipped. Working in this way is also significantly more collaborative. Communication concerning the garment is easier and more efficient across the entire value chain.

When researching to develop our first-course Digital Fashion 101, we decided to reach out to nascent tech companies. This is where new developments and new thinking is happening, two things surprised us; it really wasn’t as joined-up as we thought it might be and most of the technology which was being developed for fashion was by people or companies that didn’t have fashion industry experience. The technology used today to create the metaverse has been developed by the gaming industry. This means that the tools weren't thought for fashion purposes and as with the development of the metaverse itself we do need to ensure a joined-up approach. Epic Games is investing in fashion, and at The Digital Fashion Group we see the metaverse as the beginning of a new definition of fashion's purpose and potentially powered by new partners.

Fashion schools are starting to add digital fashion degrees to their curriculum, what do you think is the relevance of this regarding the future of fashion?

Everything starts with education and change in fashion education is urgently needed to reimagine and re identify the new fashion designer, the mindset, and body of knowledge and skills required to interact with the sophisticated technologies now involved.

Fashion merging with gaming has been something on the cards for several years and this opens a huge potential for the employment of fashion designers. In the UK alone, because of the sizable provision of fashion design degrees, one could estimate that around 5000 fashion designers graduate each year with, currently, limited opportunities for direct employment in fashion design.

Fashion education is slowly starting to add and think of adding digital fashion degrees but education, in general, is not pivoting fast enough when one considers the amount of fashion design degree provisions there are currently. Teaching digital fashion isn’t about offering a six-week Clo course in the second year. It must be from point zero in the fashion curriculum to fully embrace the creative potential of the borderless landscape digitalisation can offer fashion.

At The Digital Fashion Group we see the future of the fashion creative as the director of the process in a short supply chain, close to consumers and close to manufacturers. Working with an end-to-end suite of digital solutions where AI is used as a tool to validate their creative hunches. Of course, we are talking about another kind of industry, another kind of fashion designer, and ultimately another kind of fashion education. We need to train fashion designers to be collaborative digital entrepreneurs. Not all students would want to do this, but that’s good.

For students who choose to study digital fashion, what career opportunities are available for them?

At The Digital Fashion Group Academy we are focussing on two digital career and industry pathways that we believe will be the future for designers: the digital-only designer wear designs and collections go direct to avatars, NFTs, gaming and the metaverse and no physical garments are produced. In this pathway, a designer can be completely free of physical restrictions that limit aspects of creativity and innovation, and fashion can be more related to art, fantasy and costume.

The ‘phygital’ designer whose approach is both digital and physical. The digital pieces and collections can move straight into the metaverse, while a selection can become physical pieces perhaps delivered via on-demand manufacturing. With this approach a collection is designed, prototyped, presented to buyers in the form of an avatar fashion show and sold fully digitally, no samples are made until needed at which point the digital twins are born. Only once the orders are placed and the company knows exactly how much fabric to buy and how many styles and sizes to produce does production become physical with on-demand manufacturing. Once manufactured we go back into the digital for online presentation and retail.

Click here to explore fashion schools that offer digital fashion courses.

Photos: hadeeart by Idiat Shiole www.hadeeart.com instagram