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Screenwear exhibition highlights short but complex history of digital fashion

By Rachel Douglass


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Image: Auroboros, Atokirina jacket and Mandrake bodysuit, 2021

With the launch of Metaverse Fashion Week in March and the array of virtual campaigns being led by brands throughout the industry, it is fair to say that digital fashion is currently at the centre of conversation. As it continues to grow, those unfamiliar with the concept have begun to question: “Why does this relate to me?”

It is this query that curator Anne-Karlijn van Kesteren is intending to answer through a new exhibition at Design Museum Den Bosch, ‘Screenwear - Exploring Digital Fashion’, which is running from October 15 to February 26. Within the Dutch museum, each aspect of this increasingly expanding industry is explored, from its short but complex history to the importance placed on digital identities for the younger generation.

Speaking to FashionUnited, Van Kesteren said: “The starting point for the exhibition was to explore how digital fashion actually relates to the human experience, to show everything that is happening now – the fashion industry is one of the industries that is stepping up and moving digitalisation forward.”

Image: Tribute Brand, BICA Dress, 2021 - courtesy of Design Museum Den Bosch

Fittingly, the display was kitted out solely with 60 plus screens, ranging from 50 to 75 inches or iPads, an intentional choice by Van Kesteren, who wanted visitors to view the works in their ‘natural’ form. “All screens are visible, all wires are visible, because that’s how you take in the content of digital fashion,” she said.

From hyper-realistic avatars to live streaming designers

Stepping into the exhibit, the first screen to be seen showed Shudu, a digital supermodel with scarily realistic features. Her hyper-realism already put to the forefront the lengths in which digitalisation can go, highlighting the intricacy of the work creators in this field are striving for. It is something Van Kesteren also wanted to put a spotlight on throughout the display, as she noted that those outside of the industry often have misconceptions of the elaborate skills needed. She added: “It takes a lot of time, craft and knowledge, something people often don't consider.”

A concise timeline of digital fashion is then presented, spanning from the early 1980s, when the word ‘metaverse’ was first coined, to the recent pandemic years, in which the development of the industry gained momentum. Visitors can go on to explore virtual reality pieces by the likes of The Fabricant, Hanifa and Auroboros, or utilise various interactive areas, through which it is possible to ‘wear’ a digital item via smart mirrors.

Image: IoDF X DAZ3D, Catty 8.1, 2022 - courtesy of Design Museum Den Bosch

A fairly integral part of the exhibition was its inclusion of the gaming industry, for which digital fashion has already been present in for years, albeit with an entirely different viewpoint, as noted by Van Kesteren. Visitors can sit at a desktop and view ‘gamers’ reacting to collection launches in metaverse platforms such as Roblox or Fortnite, putting on display this already well-developed community and its ideas on this rising industry, which often tend to differ from that of the fashion crowd.

Younger designers also play a key role, with a particularly notable screen showing work by the Twitch streamer Stephy Fung, who regularly live streams herself working on her own digital fashion designs. “A lot of digital makers teach themselves, resulting in makers that stream. For their audience, they are very open in their failures and their entire process,” Van Kesteren said. “These communities find each other and they share a lot of knowledge. A lot of young makers also said they wanted a more democratic fashion scene, which is what we wanted to highlight.”

The curator further noted the importance of taking the concept beyond just fashion, as seen in a short documentary by Reblika, an initiative which created a life-like virtual Filipino girl in 2013 as a method to highlight online child sexual exploitation. The short film was located in the section of the exhibition dedicated to digital identities, which Van Kesteren said questioned “both the lack of boundaries and, at the same time, the experience of still having boundaries” in digitalisation, whether they be social or technological.

Image: The Fabricant, DEEP, 2018 - courtesy of Design Museum Den Bosch

It was of further importance for her to emphasise that this particular industry was still under development, with changes and new innovations coming almost every week. This aspect could be observed in a seated area where visitors could view an online platform created by the museum, where any news from the industry could be seen, with updates to be made almost daily.

Challenges and opportunities in presenting digital fashion

Despite only beginning on the exhibition’s concept back in May, Van Kesteren said she didn’t have an initial background in digital fashion, however, noted: “I understand where it is going and where it wants to go, and where the limitations lie at this point. I think it is an interesting subject to bring to people. It’s more ingrained in your world than you may realise.”

Image: Harriet Davey, Whowle, 2022 - courtesy of Design Museum Den Bosch

As its curator, she said she needed to develop the digital language quickly, but makers she connected with were understanding as they knew that the industry was still a new idea for outsiders. With the concept itself, Van Kesteren also recognised that this form of exhibition is something of a vastly different challenge when compared to other forms of exhibits, with a massive amount of technology and expertise needed in order to install each individual piece. While there are always challenges in setting up all types of exhibits, she noted that, in comparison to an art-centred display, the use of screens and digitalisation called for a different set of installation skills.

Technology itself is still touch-and-go, and while some elements of the exhibition only involved a quick installation, varying screen types, files and videos had often caused delays or crashed completely, ultimately requiring professional attendance.

While the exhibit has only just launched, and despite its initial hindrances, interest in taking it further afield had already been made known. Ahead of the museum’s appearance at Muscon 2022, the organisation had become aware of a number of international museums that had an interest in taking on the concept for their own locations. It comes as the subject of digital fashion continues to rise, with the metaverse said to potentially become a five trillion dollar industry by 2030, likely spurring on the increased interest in bringing the concept to new audiences.

Image: The Fabricant, Iridescence Dress, 2019 - courtesy of Design Museum Den Bosch
Digital Fashion