This is the story of a fashion designer who decided never to make clothes. Physical ones, at least.
Instead, she helped bring about a revolution in the industry deemed a major global polluter - a way of expressing your style and identity in endlessly creative ways, without a dent in the Earth’s resources. A world of hyperrealistic garments in the digital space.
Meet Amber Jae Slooten, who had founded and now at 28, co-commands the Netherlands-based digital fashion house, the Fabricant, behind the design and sale of the world’s first digital-only dress on the blockchain - Iridescence.
‘We waste nothing but data and exploit nothing but our imagination’
So goes the mission of ‘The Fabricant’. In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Slooten says, “When we sold the item, it was absolutely insane. The whole world stopped because it was sold for $9500 (almost Dh35,000). Everybody was like, ‘What, are you paying money for a dress that doesn't exist? Like how is that even possible?’”
Yet, in a world where we spend most of our time online, this could be the answer to digital self-expression. Need a new #OOTD or Outfit of the Day for social media? Pick out a digital dress for your photo or an avatar, instead of a risky one-wear buy. Better still, expect an infinite range of options for style when gaming, your custom Snapchat characters, Instagram, cruising in the Metaverse and all the new digital spaces we now inhabit… even video calls.
Slooten says, “We really like to ask that question, ‘What is the difference? If millions of people see you wearing it online, do you still need to have it in physical reality? You can express yourself so richly in the virtual world, you wouldn’t need all those physical clothes anymore....”
Case in point – we’re on a zoom call, and she’s wearing NFT (Non-fungible token) earrings that sit as a filter on her video from her latest collection. They’re sparkly metal ones that dangle almost down to her shoulders, moving with every tilt of her head. It’s a digital ‘wearable’, certainly very striking and lifelike – I am entranced.
Slooten says, “I am able to speak to you from such a distance. Moreover, you see me through a digital lens, which means that I can wear digital items, right? This is how we see the future, we will all see things though a digital lens or glass....”
With the stuff that we’re not wearing - if we don't make any more physical clothing for the coming 50 years, we can still dress ourselves with all the clothing that’s still on this planet. I think what we have to come to terms with is this fact that this just no longer works – there’s nothing that can bring an answer to still wanting to express ourselves, still wanting to show our identity, but not having it have the impact on the planet that it has now.
She adds, “With the stuff that we’re not wearing - if we don't make any more physical clothing for the coming 50 years, we can still dress ourselves with all the clothing that’s still on this planet. I think what we have to come to terms with is this fact that this just no longer works – there’s nothing that can bring an answer to still wanting to express ourselves, still wanting to show our identity, but not having it have the impact on the planet that it has now.“
It also opens the gates to the fashion design world for all. She says, “I think in the future, everybody will anyway have a digital version of themselves. So it's like, how would you dress that version of yourself? How would you express yourself, and especially if you have an interest in fashion, you don't need to start a physical label anymore, you can do it digitally…. That's my wish for young designers, to be able to express themselves and use this to create a livelihood for themselves like I did, like we did.”
Gaming, self-expression and a college epiphany
Where did her journey begin? While growing up in Arnhem, a little city in eastern Netherlands, her mother would sew many dresses – and little Amber could request special ones for herself. She says, “With that vision of what clothing can mean, I was always very busy with clothing in my life, expressing myself. I was very fascinated with identity and what that means.”
She was also a millennial kid caught on the cusp of the digital revolution – playing virtual reality games like SIMS, Second Life , IMVU as well, in which players create digital avatars for themselves and live as a citizen in these worlds, building a full life, complete with a family, job and daily routines.
Characters in IMVU, a virtual reality game -
She says, “You could change your avatars in IMVU, dress them, you could buy clothing, create your own clothing… I used to game for hours, and really downloading all kinds of weird hacks to hack the SIMS and create my own looks.”
But, it was during her time as fashion design student at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, that the idea of digital fashion design first arose, inspired by her gaming past. “As a young designer, you think like, ‘Oh wow, glamorous fashion is going to be amazing, expressing yourself and making beautiful things’. But then you realise there’s such a serious connotation to the pollution in the industry, and the way it is treating people as well. That kind of broke my reality….
“That’s when I started experimenting with digital fashion, because we had a minor in school, where they were teaching us how to fit clothing in 3D.” As a demo, you could fit clothing on an avatar, and then see how the garment would look like when created, and she loved the freedom to create anything and everything. “I remember, the first time I was using the software, you can just like drape digital fabric on top and bend it around the doll, which for me felt like a huge freedom, because suddenly, I didn’t need to go to the fabric store anymore for my creations but I could just create them in the digital realm….
“I remember thinking, why do we still need to make that in real life? Why can’t we wear that digitally on characters and like go into virtual spaces?”
Becoming a digital fashion designer
Pursuing this field was an immense challenge – she faced laughter and disbelief at every turn. She says, “They said, why would you do something like that, so ridiculous… get your head out of this VR glasses, it is never going to happen….”
But, she was adamant, and went to her teacher about her final assessment as a fashion student, a fashion show, saying, “I don't want to create any clothes ever again, like physical clothes…. I want to show you guys that I can do this, without having to physically produce the garments.”
She became the first person from her university to graduate with a non-physical collection – a 3D fashion show in virtual reality.
For the 3D work, she collaborated with students in that department, using motion capture technology to record the motion of the models and then simulate the garments on top. She says, “The design process is very different, it is very much about creating the sculptural idea of moving around the body, and use of digital fabric to do that.”
The collection, showcased at their graduation ceremony, caught the eye of Kerry Murphy, now, co-founder of the Fabricant. He was an expert in 3D modelling, with his own advertising studio and was intrigued by the show – later comparing it to the shift from analog film to digital film, where now we can all film each other with cameras on our phone. She counts herself lucky to have met the right people: “He thought what I was doing was also very interesting, because he felt like, wow, this is a new way of looking at an industry… right now everything is physical, but in the future, everybody will be able to become a digital fashion designer.”
Her vision of a new industry: everybody can wear and design digital fashion
After working together on various projects, Slooten and Murphy launched ‘The Fabricant’ in 2018, in The Netherlands.
As creative director, she designs amidst her executive tasks. “I would endlessly lose myself in creating things in the software, and working with the team because it's so highly creative. You can create anything, you can you create your own reality, like there's nothing that you cannot do with digital space, which is really scary sometimes, because you start with like this blank canvas …. One of the things we find very interesting, is with NFTs, you can design with time, so you no longer just make a dress that will be the same when you finish, but maybe you program into the dress - that within a month, it changes colour or changes the shape.”
They have gone from releasing their first project as a free downloadable collection to ‘Iridescence’, and now having global collaborations with companies like Tommy Hilfiger, Adidas, Puma, Under Armour amongst others – buoyed by the shift to digital during the pandemic.
She says, “Before when I used to say to people, ‘Oh, I do digital fashion, people were like, what is that? And now people are like, oh yeah, of course. Yeah, I heard about this, it’s like these filters right?’”
They also launched the Fabricant studio, a space where anyone can design a digital fashion piece, wear it or even mint and sell it as an NFT, where Slooten noticed how people loved the experience of picking garments, fabrics and their custom digital looks.
Slooten says, “What we’ve seen is that when people wear it, they really love it. They see that there's so much potential and that we can all create that together.” They’d recently done a fashion show in Berlin, Germany, where a model with skin-coloured clothing walked the runway, and people watched through their phones. Why? “People could scan a QR code with the filter on it, and they would be able to see her wearing this digital item… we had never really done that before. But it worked really well.”
The main consumers? Young millennials and even Gen Z, for whom gaming and digital world is a familiar space, Slooten says.
She adds, “We see digital first as becoming the new reality. So you basically have maybe a few very high-quality pieces in real life that are just very comfortable.” Then, you can freely experiment with digital expression in every platform you use online.