How Fashion Graduate Aubrey Parnell Is Using 3D Design To Explore Fashion Without Limits

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Aubrey Parnell is a graduate of CSM, where he studied Fashion Design with Marketing. His final collection, The Fold, is inspired by the physics-defying paintings of René Magritte and M.C. Escher, taking place in a utopian world between the sky and the stars and inhabited by inter-dimensional beings. Parnell achieved this by meticulously creating 3D digital garments worn by animated avatars akin to mythical gods. Most of the looks are silicone 3D-printed suits with heavy embellishment at the skin-tight level, with diaphanous, ethereal outerwear taking the form of origami. The processes of creation for his designs included: cutting and folding fabric, bead embellishment, laser cutting and layering, 3D printing and casting, and virtual sculpting. 

Parnell originally wanted to make real clothes whilst also presenting their digital simulations. The designer’s process was upheaved, however, by the pandemic’s closure of the factory that made his chosen fabric (an especially stiff organdie) and the cancellation of the CSM final-year fashion show, which would have been an opportunity to showcase the Class of 2020’s hard work. Despite the setbacks he experienced, Parnell managed to create transcendent designs that were made possible through the endless creative exploration offered by 3D digital design methods. 

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What was the inspiration behind your collection?

I got into fashion design from mathematics: I loved geometry, trigonometry, origami. When I was younger I wanted to be a maths teacher. So a lot of the collection comes from making complex pleats and folds. It’s still fashion, but with quite a mathematical approach. I also like the concept of magic, aliens, otherworldly things. By bridging fashion and video gaming, my designs could have that fantastical, costume-y, sci-fi element.

What software did you use in creating your designs? Were there any challenges?

I started with CLO3D and Marvelous Designer, which is what I use when I do other people’s work (i.e. virtual product visualisation for small clothing and accessory brands alongside developing assets for video games – not just clothing but also environmental pieces like trees and flowers.) I was having trouble doing the pleats that I wanted because there were so many, I needed the folds to be exact. My design was so complex that no clothing simulator could handle all the vertices needed to make the garment. So I went to a regular 3D modelling software called Blender, which is a free one, and I used it to model to garment from scratch. I liked it so I ended up using it a lot. It was difficult because I had to animate everything by hand, frame by frame, which took ages, but it was much easier to model the pleats.

What led you to choose digital fashion design over traditional methods? Was it an unexpected solution to the limitations of COVID-19 or had you been interested in 3D design before?

I’d been doing it [digital design] for a couple of years now. Before I started university, I’d already been pattern-cutting for several years, since I started working as an assistant tailor at 14. Now it’s been almost 10 years. And so I was quite ahead of the game construction-wise. A lot of projects at CSM are theory and sketchbook based, they don’t teach a lot of construction. At first, I found it quite frustrating, but I came to accept it. The final goal for each project was a photograph of the garment. I thought if I could create something digitally, I wouldn’t have to spend money on fabric. I could just do it all on my computer. So I started doing that and turning them in and sort of tricking my tutors, *laughs* saying “Yeah, this is totally real!” That way I saved money and saved time.

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It must have been bittersweet to have your last year cut short; how did you feel?

You’re looking forward to doing this final collection, I knew I was going to spend so much money making it. I’d already ordered maybe half of the fabrics and started doing stuff when they gave us the news that the final show wasn’t going to happen. I told myself: “Well, you know what, I’m saving so much money on models and more fabric and everything else.” Though it was a bummer. I wasn’t quite happy with the way they presented it online, but it’s the first time they’re doing this, it’ll get more and more interesting as it goes on. I missed sharing the experience with my classmates. It was a weird feeling not being able to see them, this family you’d been with for 5 years in some cases. So it was sad to leave without saying goodbye.

How did you overcome the obstacles of designing in lockdown? Was it difficult to stay motivated and in touch with your creativity?

It definitely was for me. I talked to a lot of fellow students about this as well. Designing has always been something that’s about feelings, it’s this feeling that you chase. It’s something you’re doing together as a group, it’s exciting and creative and inventive. When you’re doing it by yourself, for your own brand, it can feel really selfish in a way, as if you’re not really contributing. Especially when you’re getting messages like “We need people on the front line to help fight COVID” and things like that. And so lots of my friends and I were feeling – not quite guilty – but as if we needed to create something that said something and wasn’t going to impact fashion in a negative way. In terms of designing in lockdown, I had hired a studio but I ended the lease and ended up doing everything from my own bedroom. It was hard to be in the same space the whole time, and also feeling like there was no break from this project. You just have to get over it, find the things that excite you, and chase those things.

How do you want to see the fashion industry change? Is it already changing or is this evolution merely superficial (for example in terms of sustainability)?

When I first started doing fashion and submitted my application to CSM I put in zero-waste patterns. And when I first came to the university, I did a lot of zero-waste patterning projects and no one seemed to care. I think part of it was a lack of understanding of how it worked or what it meant. Last year we shared virtual fashion at London Fashion Week and we got very mixed responses. Generally, people thought it wouldn’t really catch on. And then cut to 6 months later, everyone’s doing it. So I don’t know… Part of me is worried that it’ll be a phase, because I believe that the tools aren’t quite ready yet. I think there are some software and hardware things that need to be worked out still. Whether that’ll be accelerated because now there’s more interest or whether it’s a fad that’ll die out, it’s something that I’m always interested in and will continue doing. I do worry that general interest may decrease after this pandemic comes to a close.

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What is your plan after graduation? How do you feel about going into the industry during this uncertain time? 

I was looking for jobs as soon as I finished – and before I finished actually – and had some things lined up but a lot of it fell through, with people unable to hire due to a lack of funding because of COVID. Now I’m just doing a lot of freelancing and consultancy. That works for now but I’d like to find something more permanent because I love working as a team. A lot of people are in that boat now, most of my friends are either doing freelancing or starting a MA.

Is 3D fashion design the future?

I think we’d like it to be. There’s such a huge pushback because people want to feel a physical sample, try it on, feel the fit. I think fashion’s going to move in 2 different ways: I think people will be wearing more sportswear and then the other extreme, couture, that maybe could only exist virtually. I quite like this idea. Maybe I’ll just live in a tracksuit all the time and have virtual clothes. I don’t know if people will design 100% virtually. Certainly for major companies like Zara, who order the same styles quite frequently and just change minor things, virtual would provide a good alternative for them so they don’t have to sample the same stuff over and over.

What about digital fashion from end-to-end (meaning no physical product is made)? 

I love that, that’s what I’m mainly into now. I’m almost trying to get out of fashion. You see all these crazy figures like if we stop producing clothes now we’ll have enough for 100 years. It shows you there’s no really sustainable way to produce clothes, so I might as well do something else with it. I’m doing a lot of character and skin design right now for people. A lot of people are staying at home and they want to have their personalised virtual avatars. So I’m doing stuff like that for games such as Fortnite. People pay so much money for it, sometimes more than what I pay for physical clothes, which is crazy.

Lastly, what do you think digital fashion means for sustainability?

It cuts out the sampling, that’s a fact. Also things like transportation and material cost. But it’s always important to remind people of the cost of producing the machinery and then powering the technology that enables you to do the work. I mean if I could live on an island with solar panels or something, *laughs* have a little farm and do my virtual clothing, that’d be the dream.

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Parnell touches on the difficulties of being a designer during these times: in terms of the lack of stable employment opportunities post-degree, but also in coming to terms with whether it’s even right to create fashion against such a chaotic backdrop. (Though his 3D design skills give him an avenue to work with brands in the booming digital gaming arena.) He and other young designers feel reservations about creating new garments when there is arguably no need for them – we are already saturated with textile waste. Parnell’s existing knowledge of pattern cutting and construction gave him an advantage in this space. Whereas many of his peers were likely learning pattern cutting and construction at the same time as trying to teach themselves 3D design, he was able to simply apply his skills to 3D digital software. That’s why Parnell found creative release in 3D design; with ongoing sustainability imperatives and expanding digital design tools, designers can explore fashion unhindered by real-world limitations. His vision for the future of fashion is an interesting one: physical clothes being comprised almost exclusively of sportswear whilst the traditional fantasy of couture takes place in the virtual world. Considering how many fashion fanatics and industry outsiders already consume high fashion solely through a computer screen, it’s a plausible idea. In any case, even though digital fashion falls short of being the “100% sustainable” solution that we want it to be, it has the potential to revolutionise the industry in terms of both design and consumption.   

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By Anastasia Vartanian