For experimental fashion designers, the contemporary fashion industry is not an easy place. Anyone who wants to make money has to design for the general public - and it is precisely this general public that is primarily interested in clothing that conforms to existing conventions. These conventions exist as trends and dress codes, but they are often also simply practical: after all, it is easier to go shopping on a bicycle in jeans than in an extravagant creation with flapping layers or protrusions.
Over the years, however, a new space has opened up where everything seems possible: cyberspace. Here, the same social rules or practical considerations do not apply as in real life. This makes the virtual world the place for experimental design, according to designer Shayli Harrison. Harrison graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 2018. She recently launched the company Mutani (pronounced Mútani), which helps designers translate their work into the digital realm. “Cyberspace is where our work can be of real value,” she says.
Between creativity and commerce
Deconstructed garments, gigantic sleeves of colourful shiny fabrics, fabulous lip jewellery and hypnotic prints, Harrison’s graduation collection ‘Crimes Against Nature’ was one that went completely beyond imagination. In the past, the Antwerp Academy has often produced radical makers who work on the cutting edge of fashion and art. “We don’t come out of the academy as designers, but as creative directors, people with an artistic vision,” said Harrison. “At the academy, you mainly look at illustrations, books, art. You sculpt and draw, and then transform those ideas into clothes.”
For this type of designer, it is often a challenge to find a place in the commercial fashion industry. Harrison explained: “The more creatively free you are, the more likely you are to end up in a kind of limbo between art and fashion. You act as a source of inspiration for many other designers and brands, but you yourself are not hired anywhere.” In the years during and after her training, Harrison learned about other downsides of the industry. “The mass production, the waste, the bad working conditions… I decided: this is not the place for me.”
From digital village to the metaverse
It was not entirely by chance that Harrison found herself in the world of digital fashion. During her studies, she had already developed a virtual reality experience that she presented at the academy. After graduating, she was asked by the art centre, Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium, to work on a VR art project with a small team of digi-artists. “We made an interior of textiles through which virtual creatures walked. You could see them with VR glasses hanging down from the ceiling. That gave me an idea of where I wanted to go.”
Around the same time, an open call came through for Digital Village, a project by Evelyn Mora, also the mastermind behind the virtual Helsinki Fashion Week. This ‘digital village’ is in fact a vast ‘multiplayer metaverse’, a virtual meta-universe with possibilities for browsing, gaming and social interaction. Digital Village also offers a stage to digital designers, who can sell their designs via a marketplace. Harrison applied with her portfolio to the open call of Digital Village, and was met with success. Since last November, she and a team of twelve experts in the field of animation, sculpting and sound have been working on the two-minute film ‘Fear the Foli-age’, which will be released shortly as part of the Digital Village launch. The imaginative film characters and their extreme outfits, designed by Harrison, are based on extinct flower species such as the lapwing flower and blue sea holly.
During the project, Harrison was told she could sell her digital designs and avatars on Digital Village’s online marketplace in the form of NFTs, short for non-fungible tokens. “I really had to find out what that meant. I had heard of it, but what on earth could I do with it?”
The term NFTs will still sound puzzling to many readers as well. In a nutshell, non-fungible tokens are virtual, non-exchangeable proofs of ownership for digital items. These can be, for example, avatars or digital outfits that you can use in games, but also virtual works of art or pieces of music. The NFTs are anchored in a blockchain system, which records who the owner is and where sales transactions are registered. NFTs can be bought with cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoins, but also with dollars or euros. Although trading in NFTs is not yet so widespread, some are already investing heavily in them. The first NFT dress, designed by the Dutch company The Fabricant, was sold in 2019 for the equivalent of 8,120 euros.
A craving for wonderful things
The market for NFTs is now growing fast. NFT dealers, and designers like Harrison, are not only reacting to the increasing use of the Internet among consumers but are also anticipating the developments that it will undergo. “The deeper I dug, the clearer it became to me that there is a lot going on around ‘Web3’,” said Harrison. “That’s basically a future perspective for the Internet in the form of a metaverse, a virtual world created by game developers rather than coders, and where everything is visual.” In Web3, an important role is reserved for personal avatars with which you can move through the metaverse. This avatar can be styled, just like in games such as The Sims, Animal Crossing and Fortnite.
Several major fashion brands are already moving into cyberspace, particularly in the gaming world. These brands mostly offer digital versions of existing looks. Harrison thinks this is boring: “I don’t want to run around in a game in a crop top and leggings. The design has to serve the purpose of the game world, which is to explore our imagination.”
Harrison sees the game world, and the metaverse, as a ‘safe space’ where people can freely experiment with shapes and identities and have fun with fashion, away from the conventions of everyday life. “I sometimes feel that fashion has lost that fun a bit. There is a longing for theatricality, for strange and wonderful things. Fashion has become so rigid. The gaming world is the opposite of that. That’s where my work can really be of value.”
The 'Antwerp Cyber Six'
Harrison additionally wants to offer other designers a way to make the most of their creativity and also to benefit from the revenue model that digital design offers. “Designers who develop their work digitally can sell it online. This could also give them the financial space to continue designing in the real world. Digitisation, however, requires specific knowledge and skills, and is far from self-evident for most designers,” Harrison observed. “There are many designers whose work is very suitable for the metaverse, but who do not understand the technology behind it.”
Enter Mutani. The company brings radical designers together with tech experts to create digital fashion “that encourages players to explore raw forms of self-expression in games and the metaverse”. The developed designs are sold through blockchain platforms, with profits shared equally among contributors. The idea is that the financial and creative freedom that digital fashion offers will ultimately lead to more room for fashion experimentation in the physical world.
Three avatars from ‘Fear the Foli-age’ have already been released under the Mutani name, as have a series of digital versions of spectacular jewellery from Harrison’s graduation collection. Harrison is currently working on a test case for Mutani’s work process, under the name ‘Antwerp Cyber Six’, a playful derivative of the Antwerp Six. The plan is to invite six alumni of the Antwerp Academy to walk through the steps of digitalisation with Mutani. To do this, Harrison digs in the academy’s archives for graduation collections with metaverse potential. “We’re looking at whose work fits best into the gaming fantasy. That has nothing to do with fashion or trends, it’s about being able to build a story around a character.” She laughed: “It basically comes down to looking for the weirdest shit.”
In the future, Mutani should become the starting point for the most far-out fashion in the cyber scene, the place for the most far-out digital designs. In fact, that future is speculative, Harrison observed. “There are many startups that are firmly committed to Web3, but exactly what it will look like and exactly how it will work, nobody knows for sure yet. It takes time to find out. That time had better be well spent.”
This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.NL. Translation and edit by: Rachel Douglass.