IODF: THE RISE OF DIGITAL FASHION, THERE'S NO TURNING BACK

2020 was the year of digital, as the COVID-19 outbreak forced the world to lockdown. We entered a new era of Zoom drinks and working from home, as IRL collided with URL. The online games market saw a 9.3% increase in revenue, and according to Euromonitor, online sales grew globally by 24%. The world of digital has truly become a lifeline for many sectors across the globe, with fashion being at the forefront. With runway shows cancelled and fashion weeks heading online, Leanne Elliott Young and Cattytay are spearheading the long overdue digital fashion revolution. The Institute of Digital Fashion is setting out to disrupt the fashion landscape as we know it, so we sat down with co-founder Leanne to discuss the future of fashion and the endless digital possibilities on offer.

Images courtesy of The Institute of Digital Fashion

Can you explain what the Institute of Digital Fashion?

Leanne: The idea is to pioneer a new era institute; we bring disruptive change to a broken system and we're an emblem for change. Through innovative tech strategies, activations, and digital craftsmanship, we are leading the industry towards an inclusive, democratic and sustainable fashion future.

You founded the IoDF alongside Cattytay, how did the 2 of you meet?

Leanne: Myself and Catty were on a panel for Dazed on the future of fashion. It was really exciting to sit alongside and hear from the mouth of someone who I'd admired so much. We'd actually intercepted each other quite a lot. For example, Selfridges being one of my clients and also one of the big projects that Catty and Digi Gxl just delivered. I was working with CommuneEAST strategy, and then the activation came from Digi Gxl. So really, we were kind of always working collaboratively in the first line anyway. We spent the whole of the panel just ranting about these, kind of, radical metaverse futures which look at sustainability and how diversity and inclusion intercepts that and what that means for the future of the industry. We then left to go to an event together, and from that point onward, we just kind of worked out how we could work together. And in the end, we just thought, instead of working collaboratively, why don't we pool all of our resources and birth something bigger, which is the Institute.

Why did you decide to create the IoDF?

Leanne: The main reason was our frustrations with the industry. Two of us working in tech, and finding that it was predominantly a male space. Diversity and inclusion wasn't something that was really considered with digital representation so we wanted to think about how we can, not just work with brands and digital solutions, we actually wanted to make a markable change in the industry. But how do we step away from the exhausting cycle that the fashion industry sits within? How do we create an innovation within that? And how can we look at the online and the offline working together, lots of companies or creators are working on digital or physical and that hasn’t seemed to really intertwine. With all of those points, it seemed that we both wanted to educate, from the position of the makers - educate the brand, educate the Fashion Weeks, work with colleges and universities to educate the future makers in the industry. How can we work collaboratively with the industry to make it a better place and I think that's what we've kind of set about doing and our key pillars are inclusivity, diversity, sustainability, and then all that comes back to education.


Can you tell me a bit more about the inclusivity and diversity aspect of IoDF?

Leanne: Cancel culture and calling people out has been this big thing. Within that, I think what we wanted to do specifically is not just burn down the house, call people out, you know, eradicate them, but instead, look at how we can see the problems in the industry and how we can fix them. The software that a lot of the digital makers use, the dials effectively are very cis (cisgender) and white, so to create anything outside of that you have to break down these systems. One of the companies that we partnered with is Daz 3D. With them, what we're doing is creating a board; any things that they are creating, they then have the ears and, cultural vocabulary of the individuals themselves, that becomes less about characterisation, and more about representation. There's all these different fractures of how and where you would like to see yourself as a queer individual, and again, the spectrum of that if we're talking about Trans individuals, how, and where do you sit on that scale of body type? Well, it's not up for anyone apart from those individuals in that community to allow the representation of themselves to occur. They're the only individuals that should be within that conversation.

Images courtesy of The Institute of Digital Fashion

As well we are working on a project with CFS Lablaco, which is a VR summit. We're working on the avatar creation, to make sure that it's all inclusive and you have an avatar version of yourself. But what does that look like? What is the scope of how you could create the body VR version of you? And then also what kind of clothes would you wear, thinking about religious background, etc. Effectively with the Institute, we're working with stakeholders in the conversations in the digital space to be able to make sure that representation isn't negated in the way that it is in the fashion world and isn't within the bracket of tokenism, which occurs quite a lot. As we, step into the metaverse, you want to make sure that all of these questions are being answered or thought about. And that's what we view our position to be doing: asking those questions, creating the formulas for the answers and solutions effectively.


It's crazy right now that so many people are just completely ignoring this. And like you said, doing it on a surface social media level and that needs to be addressed if we’re truly going to bring about change.

Leanne: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly.

So following on from the other core pillar, can you tell us more about the sustainability aspect of the Institute?

Leanne: By proxy digital making is sustainable and effectively what we're trying to bring into that is look at some of the ways in which it actually can be used. We talk about digital fashion, but what exactly is digital fashion? It hits so many different factors across the fashion industry, from the studio, to the shop floor. We want to allow everyone to be able to create digitally and implement digital into their workflow, and it not just be for those that can afford it. So again, partnering with some of the software companies so that they can deliver the packages to more people than normally have it. If you can use digital in your studio for example when you're thinking about your design, there's lots of ways to quickly bring in different colours, textures, samples, etc. rather than, having to go to a fabrics fair, order all the fabrics, and bring them back to the UK.

Images courtesy of The Institute of Digital Fashion

Imagine at that point, if you instead could download the fabric with all the physics; its weight, its texture, and the way that it moves effectively. That speeds up a lot of the process, it gives the creative more time to be able to play. Another one of the things that we're pushing back against is the big expensive drama of an IRL show, (which I love going to I'm not going to pretend) but there's a lot of wastage there. Perhaps this means brands only doing one show a season for example. I mean seasons are basically irrelevant now anyway. So it's kind of going back to your own tune of making that allows you to be more selective about what you do when. Within the digital world you can create an effective digital show, beyond reality. So shows can be even more inspiring, and even more in tune to your brand's inspiration. And then if you think around e-com, and retail activations, if you think about sustainability, well the returns are really the thing affecting retail the most. What we can do is create a digital store and it can be augmented. And that feeds nicely into digital try-ons. Which means that you can physically wear the item, see what it looks like, feels like, styles with and then do I want to buy it, you can make that decision. The fashion cycle is certainly broken, and digital has absolutely got the opportunity to fix it.

It’s wild that it took COVID for people to sit back and reassess the possibilities that digital has to offer, especially under the ever increasing sustainability lens. When digital solutions have been around for as long as they have, why have we not been utilising them before?

Leanne: Oh, my God, totally it's been weird because tech was almost like a cherry on the cake - it was an add on. Pre-COVID with CommuneEAST and Digi Gxl we’d be working with big brands and it was always the little bit, you know, those little kind of micro moments, whereas now it's not. It comes down to how you can explore digital, feed both the business and creativity, as well. That's the thing about it. Why did it take so long for anyone to either, okay, jump on a zoom call. I mean, I used to go on flights, for meetings like this and board a plane and that's the other thing with sustainability is the fact that who's boarding planes now, you know, for meetings, etc. Digital provides us these alternatives and you can reach so many more people with digital, you don't have to create a big spectacular. You can speak to a global community over Zoom.


Speaking of the big shows and flying out to meetings, aside from the obvious sustainability benefits, what kind of financial benefits are there for brands in utilising digital technology?

Leanne: I think breaking the current fashion cycle will be the biggest return of investment for all of the designers and the whole of the industry because right now it just doesn't work. The fashion show was supposed to be for press and buyers and influential individuals, now it's exposed so that everyone can see it. All the marketing literature, you know, like, the mood boards, etc, aren't seen until the marketing campaign comes out for the normal people, which is like three months And then it isn't in the stores for another three months, after that six months since I saw this show. And as we know, everyone's appetite is hungry at the moment, but then it it dwindles - it's like fast food, right? And that's where fast fashion steps in because they stalk the shows, the patterns, the inspiration, see what everyone liked on Instagram, from emerging to established, and they rip them off.  So if we can crack that system, break it up, forget about it, you know, forget genders, forget seasons and just create based on our creative appetites, then I think that would be the biggest ROI. But specifically, say working with us? Well, we would say the brand work we do is trying to innovate as much as possible. A lot of people think that digital is all techy, glitchy looking but as you can see from our couture work, it can have the elegance and romanticism of whatever your brand has, which freaks a lot of people out because it doesn't look digital.

Images courtesy of The Institute of Digital Fashion

The fashion industry as we know is so rigid and steeped in tradition that it's become almost reluctant to change. A lot of the brands jumping on the digital hype last year, for example, purely came about because they were forced into it. So do you think now post COVID and lockdowns, we will see a lot of brands going back to how they were before? Or do you think we will see more continuing with digital methods?

Leanne: I think that it will be a mixture of the 2 and that's why I think what we're doing in blending the 2 is super important. All of a sudden there’s a really interesting perspective of where and what digital is, and where these digital assets that we've created can sit. There's so many different companies that are creating eyewear that have got Snapchat filters, etc. so there’s already augmentations right in front of you. There will be so many different patches of how we step into that. As well, I think what will slowly happen is that these experienced driven moments will transgress to stores. Now that everyone's tuned online you'll have a strong digital experience happening in those online streams, as well servicing the overseas customers effectively as well as in stores. There’ll be these big spectaculars but the independent stores will do things exactly as they used to. I think it will just be 50/50. But the presence of digital isn’t going anywhere. I don't think it's going to slow down at all.

What’s your favourite project that you’ve worked on with IoDF?

Leanne: I would say, as for the message, our London Fashion Week project because we decided we wanted to give something back to London. It was London Fashion week and, because of Brexit, fabrics hadn't even been delivered. No one knows if they can even sell to a community beyond their mates living next door because everything was concerned with what is the tax and shipping? How does that all work? Oh, my God, my main communities in Asia? How do I even sell there? We wanted to give something back. digital is expensive; we knew that really, in this time, no one probably could afford to do a big activation, or do digital's so we said let's bring the solutions to them and let's just do it to support our family in London. Thinking of family, we went to Machine-A and Stavross and spoke to them. Machine-A look after and support emerging established artists and push them out into the global arena. They've got the same ethos as us so we worked with them and said, look, this is what we can do. We want to make your store augmented and we want you to get to the store via big campaign signs. We're going to take over all of the big billboards in London, when you scan the advertisement, you could then walk into the Machine-A store virtually instead of being in the physical store. And also as well, these big campaign billboard areas no one was there, [because of] what's happened with COVID. So we also took over the whole of London with fly posting in these new areas where people are migrating now i.e walking dogs etc. We’re also democratising Fashion Week by giving it to everyone so everyone can see. You know it was like this massive moment that we were giving to Joe Bloggs going on a bus, you know, or walking their dog, and all of a sudden they were part of Fashion Week.

Images courtesy of The Institute of Digital Fashion

What does the future of fashion look like to you?

Leanne: I think it's the metaverse and the two worlds working in unison; having clothes be about creativity, and where representation isn’t fantasy in the digital space. It's where everyone, including brands, has transparency. Ie, we know no one's suffering in the production. Basically, transparency is a big thing, and representation, and that will feed into sustainability. I think there's going to be lots of hardware that means that we’re immersed within an augmented version of our reality. And I think that collaboration will be the key moving forward. And that's, again, something we're really behind is this kind of overseas, you know, cross channels, collaboration with tech, and software and physical and digital. And, you know, from one continent to the other. I think collaboration is a really exciting thing. We all need to do more of it. Really. That's what the future holds. And no COVID!

To find out more about the Institute of Digital Fashion, head here, and to keep up to date with their work follow @institute_digital_fashion on Instagram.

Text: Sam Pennington

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