Emerging as the world’s first digital-only fashion house, Amsterdam-based The Fabricant combines 3-D fashion design, cutting-edge visual effects animation and technology to build the future of fashion. The limit? Your imagination.
Creator of a one-of-a-kind digital dress designed by Johanna Jaskowska that sold for USD9.5k and the powerhouse behind the digital collection of I.T Hong Kong’s sell-out collection, The Fabricant is a fashion house of the future; one that specialises in photo-real 3D fashion design and animation in lieu of any physical pieces of apparel.
Operating since 2018, at the intersection of fashion and technology, the company creates ‘digital couture’—virtual clothing imbued with the mystery and emotional frisson tied to the best fashion experiences. Not just pioneers in the digital fashion revolution, the company also aims to promote sustainability by shifting actual physical production of fashion to its digital alternative, all without negating the value of the individual experience or their client’s bottom line.
We caught up with Kerry Murphy, the multi-hyphenate founder of The Fabricant, via a zoom chat (#socialdistancing) to find out just how this works.
ESQUIRE: Hey Kerry, thanks for taking the time to connect. How are you guys doing?
KERRY MURPHY: We're already working remotely quite often anyway so it is fairly easy on us.
ESQ: To me, digital fashion isn't a luxury; it is something that is already here. It's the future of fashion. So I'm really excited to speak with you because of what you guys are doing.
KM: It's super nice to hear that because that [digital fashion] mindset was very different from where it was even a year ago because back then, it was seen as a novelty. Now the amount of support that we are getting—people like you—is fantastic. But it's still the early stages and it requires the rest of the world to start seeing the opportunity that it brings on so many different aspects.
There are a lot of opportunities for a small start-up like us to bring change into large corporations. It's an exciting place to be in at the moment.
ESQ: Before we jump into the ‘how’ of the company, let’s start with the ‘who’. So, who is Kerry Murphy?
KM: [laughs] My name is the most Irish name you'll probably ever hear but I'm actually from Finland. [My mom] is Finnish and I grew up internationally. I started filming visual effects in the early 2000s, back when it was going through a digital transformation. I also worked in advertising for over a decade doing a lot of animations and I'd later ran my own Motion Graphics company as well.
I saw that there was this fashion tool that created something extremely complicated in the [arena of] fashion visual effects. I thought that because of how innovative the tool was, that the fashion industry must be really advanced in terms of digital transformation. That it is going through the digitisation of supply chains, communication networks, etcetera… that everything is automated or done by robots.
This was how I imagined it. Of course, I was very far from the truth [laughs].
In 2016, I met a digital fashion designer by chance and we began talking and [decided to] combine our expertise to see what emerged. It started out as something that's intuitive and spontaneous but [with the results came the realisation] of using the aesthetic language of clothing in my animations. I met with other people and developed more proof-of-concept projects combining these visual effect tools with the fashion design process really well. The fashion industry became excited by all the visualisations that we were doing.
The next year I started developing the business aspect—connecting the nodes to understand why anyone would want to use 3-D visualisations in fashion. I saw a big opportunity to change the fashion design process and use these visualisations for marketing campaigns; not just for consumer-facing campaigns but also for internal selling and go-to-market meetings. It's a very effective internal communication tool for brands themselves, along with the big opportunity of the virtual try-on, enabling (both brands and customers) to put digital clothing onto their unique virtual selves.
On the 5th of March, 2018, I left my advertising career and took all the content I had, launched a new website and put it on LinkedIn. The next day Nike called me up and even though nothing came out of it, it gave me hope that if (a brand like Nike) was interested then surely there would be others interested as well.
The Fabricant office.
ESQ: What other brands did you work with?
KM: Our biggest project to date was with I.T in Hong Kong and it came through Instagram. I.T wanted to do a full digital campaign for their 30th anniversary to (jumpstart) their eCommerce website.
I’m seeing a lot of companies that weren't selling online a few years ago are now saying that they needed to take that step into the future. Take Carlings for example (ed’s note: Carlings is a Scandinavian multi-brand retailer that sells apparel inspired by music and youth-culture).
When Carlings launched their eCommerce site a year ago, they approached Virtue/VICE Nordic to do something big. The agency came back with a marketing campaign that answered the question: ‘what would eCommerce look like 10 years from now?’. The timing was perfect. All these different players started recognising the value of digital fashion and while we were one of the first few in this space, it was Carling's that made (digital-only fashion) visible to a wider audience. Because they had put a price-point on a digital-only asset.
ESQ: Was this recognition followed by more commercial work for your company?
KM: We were seen by many as those “funny designers doing funny visualisations”. [laughs] After Carlings came lilmiquela, the virtual influencer, and shudu.gram—the world’s first digital-only supermodel. All these different players became big and mainly through Instagram. The Carlings campaign sold out. Nobody knew what that meant, I mean, how can you sell out a digital campaign? Then we sold this digital-only garment for USD9.5K last May and that again created another wave of press.
ESQ: Most people don't really understand the concept of "digital-only fashion".
KM: It's happening! That's the need for luxury brands to connect to the youth who cannot afford USD600 tees because these luxury brands are so traditional and they think in traditional ways. We had another call with a luxury brand who recognises the value of digital and is super excited about what we do. Especially with the current global pandemic, there is no other way but to go virtual. It has become a necessity.
Because these brands have a very set way of operation and thinking; working with us would require a completely different way of engagement—new terminology, new processes and lead times. When they hear that everything that they are used to will go out of the window they start sweating.
ESQ: It's hard for established heritage brands to shift that mindset. But this is a huge opportunity to invest in online because people are moving online to shop now.
The Marques Almeida puffer jacket in I.T Hong Kong’s collection sold out in two days and the buyers only saw the virtual edition. The digital renderings actually look more real than a photograph, so much more emotional and relatable than something on a model.
KM: An emotional connection is the number one thing that we try to establish with everything that we do because we understand that fashion is emotion. There have been other digital fashion players but because the product always looks very digital—like something from a game—there is no sense that it is fashion.
It's like art. When you go to a museum, there will be certain paintings that will speak to you and some paintings that don’t. Clothing is similar but much more personal because it's something that we put on our bodies. But the functionality changes because we aren't putting on a digital outfit but it's about that virtual identity. The next part of our evolution is to create that experience where people can connect (their digital apparel) to their virtual identities.
Our digital fashion designers, especially Amber (Jae-Slooten), the first person ever to graduate with a digital portfolio from fashion, are creating this language of digital-only fashion and always looking to create something to evokes an emotional reaction that immediately connects you to the piece.
ESQ: Is there a downside to this?
KM: It's not scalable. When you do a campaign like Carlings, you have a bunch of 3-D artists and those 3-D artists are more expensive than the revenue from the clothing itself. If a million people want to buy this clothing, you'll need a million 3-D artists… how do you create technology that allows for that?
ESQ: It's not scalable but more similar to couture where there is a high value; as well as a lot of emotion and time invested in creating each piece. It links back to something you said in a previous interview, about digital clothing being 'Thought Couture'. I really like that term because it's not being handcrafted like a traditional couture garment but it is being mind-crafted.
KM: Absolutely, we use 'Thought Couture' and 'Digi-Couture' as well because it is digital craftsmanship. And it worries people—that we are taking the craftsmanship away from clothes. No, we are doing it digitally. This is true digital craftsmanship because we bring all those details like the stitches, the seam, pockets, trims, zippers, and so on.
We look at it very closely and we create a translation of that. It doesn't have to be a physically accurate translation, it just has to look good. If it looks good, it is correct. That's the beauty of 3-D because we don't need to create (an actual physical garment).
ESQ: Can these 3-D files make more clothing?
KM: Yes but it is a different craftsmanship and we don't want to create more clothing in the world. We want to create less clothing. Digital clothing can reduce the number of physical items and still maintain profit margins—because every business is about growth and that means selling more physical items.
Ultimately, The Fabricant changes that experience to something more experiential. That's fashion—a unique and personal experience created by the fashion industry. So let's create a fashion experience that is digital-only; one that's interactive and with that emotional connection. That's what we want to create.
ESQ: I have 20 suits in my closet and every day I would be in a collared shirt, trousers and often a jacket in the office. But now I work from home. All my suits are in dust jackets and I tend to wear the same five items of apparel for the whole week. Especially now in these pandemic times, when people are working remotely.
Though, it'd be great to have a digital avatar where I can switch between digital suits. It sounds almost like a sci-fi tale but I think it is about being open, to embracing change. That digital clothing is not a novelty but, rather, where the future of fashion lies.
KM: Absolutely. We don't need to think with our physical bodies anymore but rather think about digital representations of ourselves. It's still far to be able to wear digital-clothing in meetings but eventually, it will happen.
In the age of AI and technology, if we start thinking ahead, right now, it won't even be me talking to you. It'll be my AI, with my consciousness or at least, a simplified version. We are already starting to see something like this. I mean, my email tries to finish my sentences.
ESQ: That's right, even for writing and features and articles. There are already machine learning algorithms and AI that can curate text that exists on the Internet and create intelligent-sounding, engaging articles.
KM: We realise people don't want to see the actual representation of themselves, which is a very vulnerable thing. Even me, before I scanned myself, I went on a diet a week before. People are very conscious of their bodies. How do we address that?
If an e-commerce platform is going to give a real representation of your body, I think a lot of people will be scared. Especially when fashion is about selling the dream, along with the emotion and aspiration of how you would feel in a piece of clothing. That's why they use supermodels. What's your take on this?
ESQ: In the US it says that the average waist size for the American woman is 38.7 inches. But there is definitely a market for people who want to see inclusive size representation so that they can identify with the products that are being sold.
It's being able to see an aspirational style in a larger size, for example, on someone who has a 37-inch waist would be like ‘Oh that looks good!’ I want to wear that. I’ve worked with Bold Metrics that uses predictive algorithms to generate size recommendations for clothing that fits best but it also takes into consideration personal fit and style preferences. Being able to give people that kind of preference, you're giving them the freedom of being able to have that choice, and it helps people to be more accepting of the technology because it doesn't categorise them.
I see a future where there is no size in terms of small, medium or large, it is just your size. And that to me is what connects the dots of what digital fashion, clothing and what shopping could be in the future.
KM: I see two opportunities there. We still need to create a virtual body that the clothing fits on. So that data that you create out of that 3-D body could be used as a body double, to dress a photograph for instance. Secondly, what you said about having no (categorised) sizing that has a lot to do with manufacturing—how do you change your manufacturing model when you can enter a store and have a piece of clothing made according to your measurements? That's basically tailoring. How do you create an automated tailoring process? Are you aware of Zozosuit?
ESQ: Yes, I tried it out.
KM: I heard feedback that a lot of people who used it received clothing that didn't fit them right.
ESQ: I wouldn't say that it was the best T-shirt I've ever owned but it did fit me in terms of body size. But would I have bought it? Probably not because it didn't get my style.
KM: [laughs] It's everything we just talked about. It's the personal representation of yourself where you are able to wear digital clothing and to create that content around you so that you become the object of your own photoshoot. Basically, you're creating photography and video content around your virtual twin, wearing digital clothing from various brands.
ESQ: So, what's in the works for The Fabricant?
KM: I saw [our] first demo today and had to laugh. It was a little bit of a Frankenstein experience because the biggest challenge was how to create that virtual representation of yourself where you don't get freaked out but where you truly feel that this is me.
When I got myself 3-D scanned, that scan itself cost more than 2,000 euros, and then a few weeks of work to get the virtual clothing on. We need the experience to be completely free or very cost-effective and fast, so within 30 seconds, we'll be able to wear clothing from these digital brands.
We are also looking for 300 beta testers. It's going to be a launch to get people to use it and get feedback on the process and whether they are emotionally engaging with it. What we are doing now isn't for the masses but rather for early adopters like yourself.
Right now, we are bootstrapping this through our client projects (and fortunately), we have a stable service where we're working with global brands on luxury and apparel. We’re also focusing on connecting consumers to digital fashion and educating them about the sustainability side of it. I think [digital fashion] is a way of reinventing fashion. We want and need to make the world a better place and not a worse place.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Click here for more information about The Fabricant.