I’ve been advising a friends FAAS (fashion-as-a-service) digital online dress-up doll company and I’ve been reminded of many of the deep behaviors that we as primates have, how badly poor design here is upsetting for us (uncanny valley) and how making digital clothing is at least as much work as making a real piece of clothing!
Here for example is a frame from a demo video for Marvelous Designer that lets you build clothing from scratch.
I realize both how fashion aesthetics drives my own behavior more than I thought. It suggests to me that once we leave the 2d realm of bitmoji and get closer to our own image we may want to be more thoughtful about what kinds of services we provide or create for people. In particular there is a huge tension between the real and the virtual; we may not be thinking it through.
We have huge powers as creators, being thoughtful about second order effects that we did not anticipate, or that we overlooked, is important — especially in virtual product where our virtual architectures can have so much impact and the cost to build them is so low. Not only do we build better products when we think better, but we also build better people.
Fashion as a Fun House Mirror
Thoughts about fashion immediately lends itself to many kinds of thoughts. We can think about what is “Real Fashion” — is it the social act of shopping with girlfriends, oohing and ahhing over different fabrics and cloth? The smell, texture, the discovery, the rapid interaction and evolution and playfulness? We can think of fashion as art, fashion as a social lens, fashion as a form of communication. We can make fun of the idea that we wear clothes itself. Or note how clothing ties into everything; body shame, body security, drivers of the industrial revolution, slavery, cotton production, international child labor laws. When you think about it, it is hard to pick a topic that touches on more issues. But remarkably, because fashion is *visible* it stands on its own in a way nothing else does. Clothing can be shiny, colorful, black, subdued, bold, playful, eccentric — but any choice is clearly visible to any observer — even a lack of choice.
There is something at the heart of manufactured aesthetics around appearance. Something about how our primate behavior extends to everything we touch; our homes, our cars, our phones, our makeup, our tattoos, our hair, who we socialize with, our pets, where we vacation, what we read or say, smoke, drink, eat, pierce, have sex with. In our constant posing, photographing, doing art, doing dress-up, trying out appearances. There is an endless simian mirror we gaze into — trying to see ourselves — see others — examine how we are kind of re-envisioned by our appearance. It is as if human identity isn’t internal but externalized through our artifacts; especially our fashion.
But what makes this so special, and so interesting is that it yields to casual observation. The statements we are trying to make here are so very visual; they just await the observers input.
This is remarkable when you think about it — if not unique. So many of our affectations are invisible: our politics, our arguments, our thoughts. Yet here we have a way to perceive a gestalt understanding of internal mental states and social dynamics of a person or group of people.
Personal fashion story #1
I remember one time I was invited to be an arm charm for a visit with actual real live royalty as part of a larger event. While only a meet-and-greet this nevertheless threw me into a whole furor of producing the right image. Finding the right tailor, getting custom suits made, picking out fabrics, thinking about other suits I’d loved, thinking about my own identity. I imagined that the royals I was going to meet had a certain construction they wanted to see. Something graceful, understated, probably outdoors, with horsedevors or hors d’oeuvres or however those fancy people say it. I imagined the king and queen in a tuxedo and a flowing dress; saying nice words, being politic and engaged, and then moving onto the next person. Ultimately it was a bit much for me and I didn’t end up going on the trip. But I did very much, and still do enjoy these beautiful garments. It took me about a year to want to wear them for other events — they felt awkward and over the top in some ways (although in fact they were remarkably understated and of simply superior materials).
Fashion as Therapy
Fashion itself can be a form of therapy; both in a casual and very serious literal sense.
It is at least an inspection of our past present and future. We look at what we wear and it somehow inspects the identity we have so far and that we are attached to.
We look at clothing options we feel comfortable with and that in turn explores multiple possible realities in our present; who we are, what we are. We look further afield at haute couture, or over the top fashion choices, or certain people we admire are wearing and it explores possible futures — invites a possibility of rewriting ourselves. Almost like a short-cut or cheat.
Like many techniques in a therapeutic tool chest — fashion in this regard is just a tool or technique — just another lens for inspecting ourselves, inspecting others. By projecting a certain image onto ourselves, or witnessing constructions of others we are exploring certain ideas about how we want to live in this world, what we want to do, what we want to be, what we want others to be.
More formally we see articles and comments that inspect fashion, our needs for it and attachment to it:
“Using fashion as a medium to discuss mental health is not a new phenomenon. At the beginning of 2000, Alexander McQueen, tied between addictions, mental disorders and anxiety, used his shows to translate his inner thoughts to the world. His suicide at the end of this decade rattled the industry. This dramatic event shed light on the necessity to talk about mental health in the field. However, we would need to wait until the mid-2010 to deeply tackle this issue and bring it to the mainstream.” [ https://www.geraldinewharry.com/getinspired/fashion-as-therapy ]
Often in fact fashion doesn’t even speak to the individual; it’s arguable if an individual person is even equivalent to an individual unit of humanity. Rather, fashion speaks to the group. Fashion is deeply political. It signals, shows and defines alignment. It can be dangerous even deadly to flash the wrong appearance in certain crowds; and many social and political movements are also draped in fashion accessories making certain statements. A well packaged and well-manufactured social or political movement inevitably also has a fashion component.
“Fashion is one of the world’s most damaging industries — it is responsible for about 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, sucks up scarce water and creates vast amounts of pollution and waste. But the desire for the latest look is only increasing. Global fashion sales grew by about 4.5 percent to $1.7 trillion in 2018, found analysts at McKinsey and Company, who said social media is bringing trends to consumers at an ever swifter pace.” [ https://vrroom.buzz/vr-news/fashion/trendsetters-embrace-virtual-clothing ]
Fashion in Virtual Reality
Today technology puts us at an interesting point — we have bifurcated fashion into two separate realms; the virtual and the real.
Interestingly in the context of looking at payment systems I ended up also chatting with Amber Brashears about fashion in second life. There are entire careers as fashion designers just in the virtual world:
Fashion Houses such as https://fabricant.com are focused purely on the virtual story, unaware of how or if that will push back and affect the real, and in some ways simply diving into a new space as we often do.
The virtual appeals. Possibly because it is faster; and perhaps less damaging to the real world, possibly for creative possibilities. But it is different — it may not make sense to conflate the two ideas or to recognize what we are throwing away.
This is obviously led by video games — but it speaks more broadly. I am a firm believer that the things we do to patch around or enable other things end up in themselves becoming our goals.
We can today each manufacture online identities that are separate from our physical embodiment. Fashion becomes more about this alter image we present; this semi-autonomous representative of our will. Our image is lensed through a faceted reality; projected onto the web, onto instagram, into virtual reality. And fashion in this sense is a separate product, a separate experience, with separate meaning from the idea of physically shopping and physically trying on garments and physically wearing them. In this other sense fashion becomes an untethered fantasy media construction where the cost of materials is zero, the labor of wearing a costume is zero, the risk of a costume getting dirty is zero. It doesn’t matter how a fabric feels or smells or if it is durable or even if it defies physics. The dangers and risks of a clothing malfunction are different. While few would wear high couture on the street — many wear high couture on Instagram.
Notably there are many tools for building fashion online — in infinite detail. Similar to musical tools such as Ableton or drawing tools like as Photoshop — a huge complexity emerges once you examine the space more closely:
There are areas where the virtual and the real are similar however; even if the virtual can explore ideas at a higher velocity — often touching on the same strange cultural boundaries and taboos that guide our real world decisions. I might personally avoid creating a media construction of myself as a clown, or wearing only neon pink leggings and a cowboy hat. I might instead wear a sober grey suit to project an image of being a sober serious business person who fits in with the wall street crowd; and I might post an instagram or profile picture of me wearing that suit — because it constructs a certain image. People today appreciate that any image is not reality; but they also understand that the image we shows is one that indicates where we ourselves are placing our values — and so those images still hold weight.
In a sense virtual complements the real. There is a previz aspect that is common in say more expensive sets and actors. I remember one time working with some famous actors, and how we had to have body doubles to be able to spend the time to get the shot setup right before bringing them on set. Apps like “set a light” in fact work in a purely virtual realm, with virtual actors, to help photographers get the experience and training they need before spending thousands of dollars in the real world:
(It’s worth noting again that often the virtual replaces the real entirely; so these may not end up feeding back into the real but simply replacing it)
Of course finally I do want to note that there is a real tension between the physical and the virtual. The virtual is often skeuomorphic — but throws away things that it does not care about — that it does not consider as important. For example think about a physical notebook — perhaps a heavy Moleskine. Nobody really uses a real notebook anymore, but so much is lost in translation, the actual slowness and the weight, and the seeing the old notes, and the pen, and the smell, and the richness of that lived experience; dwelling on your notes as you page through the book before adding more notes. The special rareness of it — the way that it literally cannot be duplicated. Think about all that we lose when we leap to the virtual — simply because we didn’t appreciate or value the co-traits, or that we thought that we wanted to optimize them away.
We live and love in very royally messed up world; one that is constantly new to us. Hemmed into mega-communities by invisible social, economic and environmental pressures, by the superficial judgement and opinions of others. There’s no room for real personal freedom, for real eccentricity. We’re forced to be as alike as cookie cutter images stacked together in dense piles. It’s arguable if we are even individual humans in fact. As a social pack animal, with an uneasy past, and confused dynamics around hierarchy, we sit at a juxtaposition between our reason — what we know — and our instinct — what we want. And so much of that is driven by our past, our stories, the pressures of people and systems around us. We think we can reason our way out of these traps, that we can find objective truth to anchor ourselves to, but often we only choose to reason about that which we want — or that others want. We are only presented with a small range of choices about what to wear, how to act, what to say, what to do, what is right, what is wrong.
But whats worse — beyond all this — is that we now also live in a world of gargantuan economic engines at scale — where bad actors can spend millions of dollars to psychologically profile us. And can often entrain us in compulsive chains of behavior as a result; in ways we don’t even appreciate. They can succeed at scale by if we simply believe that jeans with selvedge are better — and that we cannot make jeans ourselves.
This is a world where addictive buttons are presented to us. Not only are we often frustrated by relative inequity and a fear of being left behind but also powerful agents place traps in our path that are hard to resist.
Today we disallow cigarette companies from selling to minors. And we work to stop them from selling variations of their products in ways that are appealing to minors. Regulation helps restrict dangerous products to people who are more adult, who are arguably able to make their own choices. But we don’t have the same laws yet around many kinds of addictive products that while not so clearly damaging to our bodies, do create addictive cycles and pathologies of their own. We do push our own views on people who are not yet old enough, or who do not have the cognitive powers, to understand the risks. And we attempt to cultivate their appetites for profit in terrifying ways that damage them.
Our primate hearts do long to be free; to explore — and often we are sold a fictional substitute that doesn’t actually help us grow.
Any mature fashion product, service, store or venture needs to have larger conversations around “why” people are fixating on their products. It is possible, that like art therapy, or some forms of shock therapy, that fashion compulsions can be examined through the lens of fashion — but this needs to be done from the perspective of giving people tools to understand themselves from the outside, to see their own compulsions, and to see the systems around them that magnify these compulsions.
For many people fashion can be used to rewrite their own body. To change their shape, their social class, their gender, even their color.
What’s especially troubling is that fashion reflects cultural biases — there can be pressure to present a certain way. At the same time however, this becomes a lever. What is stated one way to start with becomes a pathway to create a success for a broader reading in and healthier values.
Fashion applied to the Body
Let’s take this idea of rewriting ourselves further. Let’s imagine an anti-pattern or dark-pattern fashion app that shows you the kinds of plastic surgery that you can have done to yourself. It could show you the altered images you can have, and then show you the price for those images. Who wouldn’t want to use that app and then have those services done? Yet what it would fail to show you is how your altered image will crumble in ten years, or the pain and suffering or failures of that image construction.
This plastic surgery pathology is in fact common. In South Korea, Brazil even Hollywood — the idea of rewriting yourself is common. In fiction of course this is a trop as well — we see the faults in it. It is explored to great effect in Terry Gilliam’s movie with his amplified social criticism and humor:
It’s for this reason that any fashion product probably needs to talk about the externalities, the real costs. This isn’t to say that body-mods or rewriting ourselves is a bad idea per se; it is just that people who want to sell us product will paint a rosy picture.
It may be that we can never escape our aesthetics. It may be that any new place we get to, any new idea we find — itself just breaks off and falls to the forest floor and becomes part of us. There’s an endless churning of the new into the old; the littoral bed of ideas digested by millions of minds into these deeply tread paths we live within.
But there are also glimpses of freedom. Maybe it is in the constant newness; the attempt to break free. Maybe it is inspecting *why* we feel such a need to iterate and constantly rewrite our appearance. Maybe it is in challenging what is even real or why we are attached to appearance.
We (as relative outsiders) see in indigenous cultures a sense of time that from our point of view we may be jealous of. We see artifacts that are not merely todays fashion but are durable art and identity. That appear to have a consensus agreement on meaning and often that meaning is multi-generational. For better or worse certain aesthetics appear to be for certain roles. A headdress, or garmet, or specific artifact — these seem to have meaning that eludes us. And in some cases those cultures state boundaries to reduce appropriation of those ideas outside of their cultural ritual. It feels like (to an outsider) that in some ways these communities have broken free of a manic rewriting of identity that we seem to be engaging in constantly ourselves.
Here I do want to acknowledge that through our lens we see this as “pretty” or as fashion — but we may not entirely understand or appreciate what else is going on. There’s a way that we cherrypick what we like or recognize, while not taking the whole set of values whole-cloth; and in some senses we harm both groups — we harm the people we take it from because we take their best ideas without supporting them in continuity — and we harm ourselves because we don’t get the rest of the story; the full intent or value of the story. I’m sure others who are better versed in this will also have a lot to say about where it is appropriate to lift ideas or not from other groups.
Escaping the Fashion Police
There are times and places where we are allowed to play. Halloween and other cultural rituals are often a simple pleasure; a chance to playfully explore identity. Ideas like gender-swapping are less loaded. It’s merely funny to dress up as a something else — and criticism is diluted.
Playing with more outrageous images and constructions can be a huge tension relief. In some ways though this is a real and sincere exploration of embodiment. It is a kindness in a sense; to wear somebody elses shoes for a moment. And also it is a privilege — that some of us have more freedom to do this than others.
Drag itself is arguably a sincere cultural ritual; something both ancient but then also always slightly outside of what is accepted. Yet it is arguably the “real” — and the rest is just a different costume for a different day. When we start picking apart and rebuilding identity in this way — the question becomes “what is real”? And in this there may be freedom. To remove the pressure of having to find “real”. It makes sense that Drag becomes a critical inspection of our identities and values — it becomes like using oneself as an art-brush to paint on the world.
In the sprawling technically creative, identity challenging communities such as Burning Man and Second Life online communities, or even the underground sex positive communities such as Kinky Salon there is often a focus on hugely creative, absurdly over the top costuming and regalia. One cannot go too far or be too fabulous. We see events like the Edwardian Ball, itself a riff on Edward Gorey and many other influences, where people dress up as solar systems, or as genes, or even in a more muted way as steampunk or cyberpunk characters. There are costuming efforts where outdoing each other is the goal. What starts off as kids facepainting becomes works of art on par with wearable Hollywood set production efforts. And this also in a way points to an escape. Maybe if we are all so different from each other, that our fashion becomes just a celebration of creativity — then it may also liberate us from some of the anxieties we have.
In dungeon crawl classic your appearance is a function of your trajectory through the game — you start off with a fairly boring experience and then you end up being like a golden skinned hydra holding two lemons and a toaster
And we can also imagine a fashion randomizer — where fashion images are simply produced external to ourselves; and where therefore we are somewhat freed of an idea that there’s some objective truth about the world outside ourselves — that what we are wearing has anything to do with who we are:
The Character Creator
Frédéric Guimont The continuation of this project is made possible by the contributions of our distinguished patrons.
If fashion could tell a story — as well as being playful, this might be a way to have both worlds; to have meaning, but have it not be artificial.
Personal Fashion Story #2
“This one time at burning man”… yes it is true, I am a burner, and I’ve had good experiences there. Burning man is arguably all about personal freedom of expression. It’s deemed a contribution to the event if you do something thought provoking, imaginative, surprising. And there’s a strong expectation that everybody contributes. You are censured to some degree if you do not — and you certainly miss out on a lot of participation opportunities. At the same time a good consume can be a way to hide therefore; you fit in by being equally eccentric.
I’ve had two interesting experiences. One in a formal role where I had to appear a certain way, and one in a playful role where I created a costume.
- The one exception to self expression is the Burning Man Rangers — who all dress alike — to show that they are providing an important community safety service. This costume is either brown shorts or a kilt, and a brown shirt and a brown hat, with radios and typically some other role signifiers. In this role you are seen as providing a certain duty, and expected both to not step in to innocent play, but to also step in when there is real risk. I did take this program and I did learn a lot in terms of finding the right social safety balance between letting issues take care of themselves but also being proactive and being willing to “wear the costume” and step in when one felt like it was otherwise normally inappropriate to do so.
2) Another time I build a full body LED lightsuit that was spatially programmable. This was before LEDs were very common, so I was one of the first people on the playa that could do this. It was like being an instant rock star. If I turned on the light show I was crowded by flocks of people wanting to know more. If I turned off the light show I became invisible. It was a fascinating sense of being able to put on and take off a kind of makeup or appearance on demand.
Let’s pretend you are all in for fashion. Despite any misgivings I’ve raised — you just want to find a way to pair this blouse with something fabulous for Friday night.
Of course this can be done — and it’s often worth thinking about what is going on more deeply. Significant computation and thought is going into what seems like a simple action.
Fashion like food often has many subtle pairings. Accessories go with certain accessories. Certain shoe straps go with certain shoulder straps. Certain colors pair well — or speak to other narratives in our memories. Garments have many subtle aspects; color, appearance, texture, glossiness, how they drape, durability. There are many vivid memories garments speak to, they reflect on certain histories and assumptions in the past. There’s an often predominant western heritage that says an african Agbada here in the west is unusual. Or that the male silhouette is best showcased by a full-skirted knee-length coat, knee breeches, a vest or long waistcoat, and beneath that a linen shirt with frills and linen under-drawers.
Any fashion expert can speak to these hidden clusters. In a way any service, tool or interface for building fashion will eventually unearth these clusters as well. These are hidden non-linear non-rational territories — often best captured using prototype based categorization schemes. Services like Pinterest and Lookbooks and Moodboards are ways that people often try to bracket or capture these fleeting relationships.
With the idea of fashion then comes an idea of the “opposite” of fashion (even though like gravity no opposite truly exists). Of course even being nude is fashion. But there’s a way to shift focus. Marie Kondo talks about throwing away that which no longer delights you. Einstein is reputed to have had many copies of the same shirt and pants so that he could focus on other things rather than his clothing. Sam Harris, a philosopher and podcast host talks to an idea of being mindful about what drives us through the world — to see the hidden agents in our mind that take control of our bodies — and to be careful which wolves you feed.
Fashion Personal Story #3
I have an absurdly lovely, absurdly expensive short sleeved dress shirt that I bought on a vacation after I had run out of shirts. The materiality and the feel are just so. And for me it is an artifact — not just a pretty garmet — but also a memory. This was a purchase carefully made, in person, fraught with concerns — is it too expensive? But it is so nice. Is it going to get damaged? There isn’t much more to say; but that sometimes when we make things easier we also destroy the weight of those things, the value, the memory, the attachment. If I could “solve the fashion problem” and easily have more perfect garments — would those garments have any meaning for me?
We are coming up on a year now where the whole world moved online; moved into our rickety virtual realities. And we (being human) often forget that the future changes.
We’re all going to soon emerge blinking from the light, back into the real world. Craving real world interactions, real world engagement. It will be the roaring 20's.
But we return equipped with new tools. These “digital twins” we inhabited still exist; like a chrysalis or a skin; and the future we move into may be a hybrid of both of these worlds. The answer often isn’t one or the other but “both”.
So much of what we are as people is our embodiment in the flesh. Our reality is a story painted after the fact — we just have a pile of experiences and then our minds try to create a narrative — as if we were in any way consistent instead of just randomly walking through life.
But there’s an opportunity here, as we circle back to reality, decamping from our online crystalline palaces, to bring some fresh thinking, some of the eccentricity only possible online, back to the real world — to be more playful around our appearance, to use appearance as therapy, to in a sense become therapists, and to also see ourselves as artists — not as slaves to our fashion. To use appearance in new and unexpected ways — as literally new forms of communication, as therapy itself, as a bridge between the real in the virtual in ways we didn’t conceive. To use ourselves as art, but also to find our selves.
As an appendix, let’s think briefly about what it would take to build a faas service from the ground up.
First; although typically one would do user interviews, define typical use cases and persona, I do think tools in general express capabilities — if you can’t do something silly or creative with a tool it may be too narrow. On this particular topic the instinct I am feeling is that the right demographic for this is an outrageous one. I imagine as a consumer that I would want a pre-visualization tool that lets me stray way outside the box of regular fashion. From the thinking earlier I’m seeing fashion more as therapy; more as more a way to scrawl on the world; more like graffiti — and more about art than just aesthetics, it involves self-expression and in a sense working out “a relationship with the world” that people are in, or want to be in. I only say this because I think we tend to classify fashion as simply “looking pretty”. It looks like thinking that way (in terms of setting the scope of a software application) is probably too limiting; the software tool has to bracket a fairly wide range of possibilities — effectively the tool is like a painting tool or any other art tool — it has to at least think about a very wide range of possible uses.
So from that root instinct or urge then “MVP” or minimal-viable-prototype at the heart of the business venture is one that allows people to capture a self representation, dress it and (less critically to start) share it. We can also imagine adjacent services such as a brokerage role to help people source customers or clothing (and clearly that is likely how such a venture funds itself)— but the hardest problem is some kind of real time costume previz possibly with poseable puppets.
When I build businesses I tend to sprint as fast as possible. I know the world is full of surprises, and minimizing exposure time is critical. So the question for me always is “what is the absolute fastest way to get to life?” The venture has to go from an idea to something that is testable, showable, fundable. In my mind the quickest way to life is to knock together prototypes with existing tools.
So to re-iterate the MVP core here is some kind of puppet or doll editor. It has two jobs:
- It lets you build a puppet.
- It lets you dress a puppet.
On the building front puppets are going to have different body shapes; skinny, large, tall, short, genders, colors, other variations; ideally as well representing different capabilities, handicaps, even fantasy ideas — I’d want to not deny a wide range of self expression if is computationally possible to deliver it.
The 2d/3d question always comes up. I lean towards 3d since deformation is required; and any 2d engine is not going to scale — like it’s largely the same set of problems and as well you get so much more simplicity and clarity with 3d from scratch rather than trying to masquerade as 3dish with 2d. Also you can always render 3d to 2d and use cartoon renderers to approximate a consumer gaze; leaving room for the consumer to have their own interpretation.
I imagine something that has posable puppets, costumes and is script driven. It manufactures images on demand, and in a sense can be a service in the cloud — doesn’t have to run on device (for an MVP). I’d like either morph targets between two body types or some kind of more thoughtful body type scaling. Lighting can be placed. Makeup and tattoos can be applied. Renders can be passed through a cartoon renderer and polygon reduction is probably possible. This could be used to statically generate images on a cloud service and then the testbed client can just have some knobs and dials to noodle with basic properties. Effectively the tool becomes a handle or interface for novice users to use a very complicated tool chain.
If doing this from scratch I think I’d probably look closely at a tool like makehuman — which has articulated puppets that run in blender3d. Looking around at the UnReal, Unity3D and games community I do see many character authoring tools but they seem a bit immature; lack of clothing collections for example; basically diy hacky efforts that would end up having no runway.
Daz3d is a good tool for a testbed implementation; there would be legal concerns to work after a venture has proved the point — and they don’t seem extremely charitable to broader market uses. Another good MVP option is something like Character Creator:
The cost and time here is probably on the order of a couple of weeks to test out the ideas using a third party tool. In my mind a single programmer or expert developer could knock together a test in 2 weeks to a month.
Another tempting approach is the DIY from scratch. Here you may use makehuman, and then you have to define clothing, and deformations so that clothing can “slide” over the body rather than just stretch (it’s not entirely clear what Character Creator does)-or have multiple variations of clothing for different body sizes with some morphing in-between. This starts to look like a full team effort; with two or three engineers and a couple of artists working for something more like six months.
I tend to lean towards fastest quickest; quality is less important than velocity when you’re under extremely constrained time windows, financial pressures and you’re trying to survive to your next meal. Also, too much money tends to destroy ventures; it corrupts the team and allows too much fantasy ideation and exploration of non mission critical goals.
Any idea is always going to be wrong; you just want to be wrong faster, and you want to iterate as quickly as possible to find the sweet spot. These are rough maxims, and not always even true themselves, but as a general practice I find more success this way more often, so I tend to lean towards leveraging a third party tool for a quick build of any kind of fashion as a service venture.