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

How Fashion Graduate Mathilde Rougier Is Using AI and AR To Eliminate Fashion Textile Waste

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Mathilde Rougier is a recent graduate of Central Saint Martins, where she studied on the womenswear pathway. For her final collection, she wanted to create new designs from old garments and samples of fabric she had acquired from past internships. This circular approach to fashion – where textile resources remain in repeated use rather than going to a landfill or being incinerated – is one that the industry as a whole must move towards, considering the amount of textile waste it produces. Like Mathilde, many students from Techstyler’s Digi Fashion Class of 2020 showcase have incorporated sustainable/waste-reducing practices into their collection, showing an acute awareness of the climate emergency and the incredibly wasteful and pollutive industry they will inherit. It’s a dilemma many fashion students have tried to come to terms with: loving fashion creation but also knowing that the world does not need more clothes. To overcome this problem, Mathilde decided to adopt innovative techniques.

She took photos of the old garments she wanted to use, and these became the basis of the augmented designs in her final collection, which is a tessellation of leftover textiles and existing garments, re-imagined virtually. Although she was interested in 3D design before and planned to use it in her final collection to some extent, Mathilde is one of the many fashion design graduates for whom digital fashion took on a much larger role in their projects due to COVID-19.

 

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

At the beginning, when lockdown was announced, I had a couple weeks of uncertainty. I didn’t know what to expect or how long lockdown would actually be. So for that period I was a bit of an emotional mess. Then I became very determined to make the situation better for UAL students: with petitions, meetings with university staff, demanding to cut the cost of tuition… This eventually fizzled out because we were getting nowhere. Finally, after that, I began to feel more acceptance. I came to realise that I have the opportunity to really throw myself into something which I had wanted to explore before. I was in a good position as the main equipment I needed was a computer. I already had the squares of second-hand materials (from sample books I had collected over internships to avoid textile waste) I was going to use to map the pixels of the digital garment. The only machinery I needed was a heat press for the recycled plastic I was using.

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

Actually, I thought it was quite exciting in a sense. I was more productive. It may have been the sense that it was all in my hands, no-one was going to push me. The only real problem at the beginning of lockdown was shipping all my stuff back to France, since I was going to spend lockdown with my family. I needed to ship all my squares, all my materials. I couldn’t replace them because the goal was for them to be recycled materials in order to minimise waste.

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 was interested in it before, but it took on a larger role because of the physical limitations of COVID. Digital fashion had already been part of the plan, but not to that extent. What I do is augmented reality, so a middle ground between physical and entirely digital fashion (with 3D avatars). I still want to dress people but want the option to do so without producing waste. You can update your designs constantly without waste.

 

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What was the inspiration behind your collection?

It didn’t actually come from an aesthetic inspiration, more a problem-solving approach. My approach was technical: I wanted to address the issue of sustainability. I used different tech systems (whether that’s pixelation*, convolutional neural network**, etc.) to solve problems to do with sustainability.

* The images of the old garments were pixelated in photoshop or sections of the garment were 3D scanned. This allowed Mathilde to translate the real-life textiles into a virtual medium for use as the basis of new 3D designs (i.e. the old garments would be the foundation for the Augmented Reality digital layer of Mathilde’s designs.)

** A convolutional neural network is a type of deep neural network that analyses images to determine and categorise their visual characteristics, in effect recognising details of the garment – such as edges or hard components like buttons – and allowing the designer to adjust the pixel patterns within these garment details. The significance of being able to adjust the pixel patterns is two-fold: first, ensuring that everything looks as intended and to make the transition from physical to digital more seamless, and second, it gives the designer the option to infinitely rearrange and “play with” the building blocks of their design.

 

 

 

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

I used a convolutional neural network (AI), Spark AR and Blender (3D animation software). I learnt how to 3D model during the project, so it took some time before I was comfortable. It was a challenge to try and get the AR right and plane-track* the clothes. The thing with 3D design is that you need to make sure the design looks good from different angles. This means blocking out the body and using occluders** to make sure that patterns on the back didn’t show up from the front and vice versa. It took a lot of adjustment to make sure it worked.

*Mathilde used plane-tracking on second hand garments to add an Augmented Reality digital layer on top, using software such as Spark AR and Blender. Plane-tracking involves taking a photo of a recognisable high contrast area of the garment, which is the bit that acts as a trigger that causes Augmented Reality interaction.

 

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** Occluders are objects which impede the amount of light that reaches the eye. In this context, an occluder would block a pattern on one side of the garment from bleeding into the other side. Mathilde had to put explicit instructions into the software to ensure that everything was visualised in the correct location and orientation, according to Mathilde’s design.

 

This is an example of what could happen if occluders are not used: you can see the details of one side of the 3D object bleeding into the other.
This is an example of what could happen if occluders are not used: you can see the details of one side of the 3D object bleeding into the other.

 

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

I don’t really know yet. At the moment I’ve had lots of freelance jobs which I don’t think I would have gotten 6 months ago. All of a sudden people are interested in digital fashion, there’s a lot of hype. COVID accelerated things because everyone was in front of their screens. But people have been experiencing fashion digitally for a long time without really realising it: e.g. all the people that watch shows online rather than being there in real life. Fashion enthusiasts have been consuming fashion from their screens for ages, but now, since everyone was in lockdown, industry professionals and the fashion system have had to adapt a bit more. I’m going onto MA Accessories at the Institut Français de la Mode in Paris so I’ll carry on freelancing on the side, but I’m lucky to not have to think about a full-time career yet.

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)?

Fashion needs to move towards a circular model of production, i.e. stopping with the production of new textiles and making use of existing garments and materials. In terms of sustainability I think we’re still quite far behind. Sustainability is such a large word, there are so many ways to go about making the industry more sustainable. In a sense it’s a good thing as there are many small ways to help, but the risk is focussing too much on the small things rather than the big problem at hand. We see a lot of greenwashing and superficial fixes to a problem that is fundamentally wrong. I’m curious to see more systemic change.

 

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Is 3D fashion design the future?

It’s quite revolutionary waste-wise for smaller brands since the proportion of sampling to product output is bigger than for large companies, meaning it would be extremely worthwhile to move to virtual sampling. With this, you reduce waste at the design and sampling stage and can make many alterations on a toile.

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

This would work for brands doing digital showcases. I have a preference for augmented reality (meaning real people wearing digital clothes rather than a 3D avatar). I still want to dress real people, but people have increasingly developed a digital aspect to their personality. For example, influencers on Instagram that wear a whole new outfit for every new post: augmented reality could solve the overconsumption issue caused by this. The medium is digital so why not the clothes? It can be integrated into the way we live our lives already.

 

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

It allows design without physical production, therefore less waste. Though you can’t totally ignore the carbon footprint of technology, the electrical energy used in powering a computer would be less than trying to recycle all the waste material and mixed fibres at recycling plants. Digital fashion at least streamlines the waste and carbon footprint caused by the industry. Also, there’s visibly “tech-y” fashion (virtual fashion) which will certainly affect the zeitgeist and our opinions on owning physical clothes, but I think the core change in terms of sustainability will be about incorporating technologies into making physical products. You might look at a T-shirt and not think there’s anything particularly innovative or futuristic about it, but the truth is it was made using digital processes that aid sustainability.

 

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With the goal of a more sustainable fashion industry in mind, Mathilde wanted to address both our physical and digital identities. This is due to our digital identities playing an increasingly bigger role in our lives, and these digital identities (or rather the social media sites where they live) being ruled by algorithms that constantly call for new content. She remedies this in the physical realm through the fabric squares she used for her designs which can constantly be repositioned, creating new designs without creating more waste. This translates to the digital realm too, where her Augmented Reality virtual outer shells (each of which correspond to a different garment) can continuously be updated. 

Mathilde enjoys being able to design without creating any physical waste and strongly believes the waste issue in fashion is one that needs to be addressed by the industry. However, she doesn’t want this to come at the cost of design, whether that’s aesthetically or in terms of speed. This is what her collection tried to remedy, showing that zero-waste, repurposing and recycling techniques do not have to produce the “crafty” results they are often associated with. Like much of fashion’s “new guard”, Mathilde is an advocate for the circular mindset where things can constantly be re-designed, allowing for full creative expression by the designer and satisfying the fashion crowd’s love for newness without creating more textile waste and contributing to the devastating climate impact that comes along with fashion production and consumption. In this way, the designer can fully explore the best of fashion – unbridled creativity – whilst avoiding its destructive impact.

 

By Anastasia Vartanian