I think in digital fashion, the most interesting developments are taking place. It's not just about money, it's about culture, and it's about identity. Everything aligns in these spaces, and that's extremely powerful - Timo de Rijk, director of Design Museum Den Bosch.
Design Museum Den Bosch's latest exhibition Screenwear - Exploring Digital Fashion champions the artists of the future; just as SHOWstudio has done with ikon-1. More than just an entry into the world of NFTs, the project marks a new chapter in pushing the boundaries of self-expression in the metaverse. Teaming up with model and Instagram sensation Jazzelle (@uglyworldwide), the star has been transformed into a 3D photorealistic avatar by London-based CGI artist and long-time SHOWstudio collaborator Tom Wandrag. In the process, image-maker Nick Knight enlisted the help of 30 digital fashion designers to craft over 200 traits allowing Jazzelle the creative freedom to style her avatar. It's these artists that are also expertly scattered amongst the exhibition's curation. From designers and collectives who work with the latest innovative technologies, including creating NFT collections and AI-led designs, the creatives shaping the future of fashion are spotlighted in one room, brought together as one all-immersive digital vanguard.
Typically, exhibitions are spread across zig-zagging rooms - often dictating the order you interact with the included works. Screenwear, however, is self-contained in one room. Don't be fooled by its size though, the display relies on 60 plus screens, ranging from 50 to 75 inches, accompanied by iPads to display the work which takes on a myriad of formats. From showcasing interviews (SHOWstudio's screen contains footage taken from an interview between Nick Knight and ikon-1 star Jazzelle), works in progress (Studio PMS insist 'it's more about the process than the finished product') and code-led interactives, digital realms and the way in which we consume digital art are challenged across the board.
Usually, I'm somewhat critical of showing immersive digital works on flat, 2D LED screens, a method which can undermine the craft behind it. It can be stifling and limiting, rather than inclusive. However, it's the artful curation of Screenwear that saves this exhibition from falling into the former. Screens come at you from all angles and are presented in a helpful range of sizes, essentially creating a pixelated maze for the visitor. It's their placement that half helps with the immersion. Rather than looking at a 2D screen and feeling separate from it, you become trapped between the edges. Of course, this choice was intentional. 'Not only are the screens visible, but the wires are too', the exhibition's curator Anne-Karlijn van Kesteren admitted when she walked me around the exhibit. 'We're aware that wires are integral to the everyday consumption of digital art, and so we also wanted them on display. We want visitors to view these works in their untampered form, warts and all'.
Many of the artists involved in SHOWstudio and Nick Knight's upcoming debut NFT project ikon-1 are also included in Screenwear. Community is vital when it comes to growing a continued innovation through digital mediums, and in this instance, further highlights just how interlinked all the components to this new frontier are, one that SHOWstudio has proudly stood at the forefront for many years. ikon-1 contributors Studio PMS, Scarlett Yang and Tribute Brand, as well as other SHOWstudio affiliated artists such as Frederik Heyman and The Fabricant, sit alongside newer working artist in the space, like Mutani and Code Couture who in addition to SHOWstudio's spotlighted creatives, are joining in breaking new digital ground. Each armed with their own reasons as to why the virtual realm is important to them, it becomes clear when experiencing this exhibition that many of their reasons overlap, feeding into the ideas of sustainability, accessibility, community and, surprisingly, the physicality of it all.
'What makes us love fashion and what makes us love fabrics and clothes is the feeling of tactility. The feeling of seeing something and thinking, "I want to touch it" is very special to us, and we always work with this idea first and foremost, keeping it in mind, especially when creating something digital. We are always thinking about how the digital can make the physical more sustainable or change the way we produce in our industry. It's something we are always continuing to explore', Studio PMS confided. Avant-garde designer Mutani also shares similar beliefs, thinking the progression into these virtual spaces is more natural than people give them credit for. 'I find, as a visual and creative person, when you do everything on an interface or via text and 2D images, it's just not as magical or imaginative as what you can experience or immerse yourself in when using things like VR and AR. Altogether, I find it even more inspiring and natural because it's like we're in a physical space. Even though it's digital, it's more like this intuitive physical reaction to dressing, your environment and socialising, yet you're still online.' ikon-1 also succeeds at capturing this unique hybrid identity. In order to create our unique NFTs, brimming with interchangeable traits, Jazzelle was captured in real time, in a physical space, before being immortalised online with the trusted help of Knight's forward-thinking collaborators. 'It's like an army of myself and a vision of me in the future', Jazzelle can be heard confessing to Knight in the clip's audio featured in the exhibit.
Another unexpected and rather human element to it all is that Screenwear carefully and elegantly illustrates these artists' respect for history. Unlike the dadaists, futurists and many other previous art movements that championed the future, those at the frontier of digital art are uninterested in ripping up the rule book that's come before them. Instead, they want to preserve it, add to it and change its direction, pointing towards a more inclusive and expansive vision than what came before.
'We thought it was imperative to not only look to the future but also look back to what's already been made', Studio PMS told me. 'Places like Dutch cultural institutions have a tremendous amount of historical fashion in their archives, but no one sees it, and of course, the quality decreases over time; the dress we've profiled with our project will never be able to be worn by a human again because of its delicate and ageing condition. By digitalising it, you can see the movements and how it was supposed to be worn and use the information and technical patterns for the next generation. These are preservable patterns, so by their mere existence, they serve a new purpose in the education of historical fashion.'
One designer, Elizaveta Federmesser, wanted to not only preserve history but think of new ways in which we can embed it into the virtual realm, bettering it as a whole. 'The main difference between digital and physical fashion is that digital garments don't "age". I'm inquisitive to see how we're going to age them because, for me, fashion's unique character and charm lies in its ability to decay and wear, containing traces of history as it ages. Inheriting a dress or piece of jewellery from my mum is infinitely more special, and I think many people can relate to that, so it's about finding ways to also keep this tradition when it comes to the existence of digital garments. It's funny how they're doing it now with the NFTs and how every sale keeps track of a previous sale, so the piece changes with each transaction. I find that very cool and weirdly relatable to this passing down of garments too'.
The underlying thread? Community, coincidentally orchestrated by ikon-1's coming together of talent. SHOWstudio paved the way for this digital ecosystem to take place many years ago, never not ahead of the curve, now we're sharing this platform with artists we help celebrate with our NFT project, helping to form fashion's new frontier. There's a purity to what's on show in Den Bosch, one that also encourages conversation and realisations that may not have previously been had. 'There was this older woman who came in earlier and spent roughly two hours just sitting down taking it all in', Van Kesteren revealed. 'Most people are in an exhibition of this size for half of that time. Afterwards, she came up to me and said, "It's really amazing, I want to come back, and I want to tell my children about it so they can teach me more. This is my children's future, and I want to know what world they will grow up in". It's become clear to the director and I that this is an exhibition that flips the status quo on its head. It's one that instead of the older generation teaching the young, the youth are now in charge; they're the ones teaching their parents and grandparents, and we are grateful for that.'
What Van Kesteren means isn't necessarily about the importance of the young dictating the future to their elder peers, but more to do with the digital movement encouraging a discussion that isn't biased to one age group. 'It's a cross-generational discussion', de Rijk chimes. The aim is inclusivity, not exclusivity, and when you put it like that, clearly something's going right.