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Work in progress institute of digital fashion
Work in progressCourtesy of the Institute of Digital Fashion

3D clothes and VR fashion week: meet the duo making them happen

Catty Taylor and Leanne Elliott Young are intent on revolutionising the long-stagnant fashion week formula

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted a desperate need for the fashion industry to slow down, take stock, and come out of the other side with solutions to its multitude of problems – from its obscenely excessive fashion weeks and issues of sustainability, to the pressure it places on its most talented creatives. Almost six months on, however, and all signs point to a return to business as usual – though the SS21 menswear and Couture season took place largely online, the films, moving lookbooks, and sans audience runway shows mostly felt like a quick fix as opposed to something that could be explored in more detail.

With fashion week as we know it set to go full steam in September, two people proposing that fashion doesn’t immediately turn its back on the digital realm are Leanne Elliott Young and Catty Taylor, who have big ideas when it comes to merging the IRL and URL landscapes of fashion and seek to offer up alternatives to all that came before. Having met on a Dazed panel on the future of fashion last year, where they “immediately hit it off”, this year, the pair launched the Institute of Digital Fashion – an initiative they hope will help to revolutionise and breathe new life into an industry that they, like many others, consider incredibly stagnant. 

“We want to be fashion, but not as you know it” – Leanne Elliott Young

With CommuneEAST agency founder Elliott Young having previously worked on VR runway experiences with the likes of Art School London and Liam Hodges, and digital artist Taylor creating boundary-pushing art for Balenciaga and Off-White, the Institute will seek to uplift and support forward-thinking young creatives working in 3D design, AR and VR, in much the same way as Taylor’s Digi-Gxl does. Coming up with new and innovative ideas to take the industry beyond its four-times-annually fashion week format, as well as ways to curb the excessive waste produced by the industry through unnecessary production, the duo list virtual reality presentations, collections rendered solely through 3D design, and interactive and immersive online sales as things we can expect from them. 

Their vision doesn’t stop there, though. The Institute has also partnered with the London College of Fashion, taking over an East London studio where young creatives can go to explore new tech and have their talents nurtured by a bunch of mentors well-versed in its latest advances. One of the most important aspects of fashion truly changing its spots comes from its next generation actually having the skills to do so, and provides a solution to Taylor’s own experience at the hands of tutors who didn’t understand her work.

Others, however, are more receptive, with Vogue Italia recently knocking on the Institute’s virtual door, tasking them with creating an entirely digital editorial, and countless other projects they can’t talk about just yet underway (“I’ve forgotten how many NDAs we’ve signed in the last few months,” laughs Elliott Young.) Here, as the Institute of Digital Fashion prepares to throw open its physical doors later this year, we catch up with Elliott Young and Taylor as they talk alternatives to fashion week, merging the URL and IRL worlds, and more.

When did the idea to launch the Institute of Fashion establish itself? 

Leanne Elliott Young: I think we were both like ‘there’s something in this, let’s do something’ from the off, and that snowballed at a really fast pace. We both feel like something needs to change, and that the fashion industry and the way it works needs to be disrupted. And it’s amazing to be doing that with an amazing global network like Digi-Gxl which is made up of under-represented, marginalised young LGBTQIA+ and creatives of colour whose voices need to be heard, you know – they’re the future of this industry! 

Tell me a bit about the initiative and what we can expect from it? 

Leanne Elliott Young: Right now, we’re future-mapping the whole thing, but basically we want to be fashion, but not as you know it. We want to fuse the tactile reality of the world we live in with the digital, in all kinds of ways – be it runway shows, exhibitions, lookbooks. But nothing like these ‘phygital’ shows we’ve seen over the course of the last few weeks. There’s so much to explore when it comes to the future of fashion and these IRL and URL spaces. We want to open that up to brands and designers and creatives, show them the possibilities, and get them thinking differently. 

You’ve been working with brands on experiences already and obviously you’ve been doing this for a while now Catty. Are they receptive to your ideas? Are they open to the change you’re suggesting?

Catty Taylor: It’s hard because at the moment there’s a lot of grey area around this, with companies thinking what designers like me do is worth a certain amount and takes a certain amount of time to create a digital experience or clothes, which is partly why we wanted to launch the Institute – this is such a new area that we want to set the standard and make sure people are getting paid fairly, because right now it’s totally unregulated. 

Leanne Elliott Young: People don’t really understand what goes into creating a digital collection or whatever yet, because there’s been no conversations about it, and the craft and artisanship have not been exposed. They think it’s a quick fix, like, they can hand us some sketches and in a week the collection will be fully realised, and there’s so much more to it than that. But I think the more we open this up, the more we can show them what we do, the more people will be receptive to exploring it.

“There’s so much to explore when it comes to the future of fashion and these IRL and URL spaces. We want to open that up to brands and designers and creatives, show them the possibilities, and get them thinking differently” – Leanne Elliott Young

Tell me a bit about your physical space and what you’ll be doing there? 

Leanne Elliott Young: We’ve actually been gifted this amazing studio space in East London next to the London College of Fashion. What we’re doing is opening up to submissions to young BAME and disenfranchised people who can send in their portfolios and they’ll get free access to a co-working space, tutoring, mentoring... We’re also partnering with an amazing tech company, so the whole space is going to be a big tech play area where all these young creatives can come and work with tech they’d never usually get to because they’re, like, thousands of pounds and not the kind of thing your average student could get their hands on. 

That’s amazing – particularly given the resistance from you faced when you first told your lecturers and tutors you wanted to explore digital fashion, Catty. 

Catty Taylor: Yeah totally. I remember at my graduation show one of my tutors came into my little space, looked at my work, said ‘I don’t get it’, laughed, and walked out. I was like, I’m so glad I witnessed you do that, it just confirmed a lot of what I thought in that they just didn’t understand the medium. We’re looking forward to having young talents and innovators in the studio, who understand you need to break shit to understand how it works, and who want to do things differently – not just stick to the old ways. 

A number of other brands have established the idea of digital clothing, like Carlings for example. Do you see this taking off? 

Leanne Elliott Young: Totally! It would free so many young, emerging designers and give them so much more room to play, and it would open the industry up in terms of being more inclusive by giving fans of the brand the opportunity to be involved even when they can’t afford to drop a load of money on the collection when it drops IRL on Matches or wherever. Maybe you could buy an entry-level piece like a pair of socks, or a t-shirt, or a hat, scan the code on the item’s label, and you’ve got the whole digital look and an interactive moment where you’re part of the brand. 

For labels like Charles Jeffrey or Art School London, it’s really important to them that they’re not excluding the people from the scenes where their labels were built, the club communities that were there at the start. By digitising their collections, they’re democratising fashion, you know? It’s also a step away from the sale or return model that cripples so many young designers’ finances, meaning stores could implement these kind of digital lookbooks that people could ‘try on’ before taking the plunge, which would also totally reduce waste in terms of sustainability. We’d be moving more towards made-to-order. 

This is interesting because it could also totally revolutionise the fashion industry’s failings when it comes to its exclusion of larger bodies…

Leanne Elliott Young: Absolutely! The software we use, like the avatars, are on a sliding scale, all the way up from zero to… well, there are no limits. Essentially, we could go way beyond predetermined sizes and towards something much more personalised than that. And you know, e-commerce would be revolutionised too – no more flat front and back shots that really don’t show how anything fits, meaning less items sent back and more sales. 

Fusing together the digital and the physical then, what does your dream London Fashion Week look like? 

Leanne Elliott Young: God, where to start? This is something we’re exploring right now and we do have something big coming up for September that we can’t really go into yet. But basically we’re leaning in to AR and VR, and we have all these mad ideas that we’re trying to harness! I think what was missing from the ‘phygital’ shows were the ‘oh my god!’ moments, and when you’re seeing young, innovative designers birth these amazing ideas there still needs to be a way to get people excited by that. 

Catty Taylor: Exactly. So maybe it’s some kind of  Pokémon GO AR technology fashion presentation and 100 people turn up on the South Bank or right next to the London Eye taking a photograph of what looks like nothing from an outsider’s perspective, or maybe it’s a virtual reality runway show in a warehouse that only lasts an hour and then it’s gone, and then maybe the next week there’ll be a virtual drop of the clothes so buyers and consumers alike can ‘try them on’ and the designer can see what worked and what didn’t before even samples go into production, which would totally cut down on waste. 

Leanne Elliott Young: What we want to make clear most of all though, is that there is an alternative to what we have now, and London can really be the place that makes a commitment to exploring new ways of doing things and not remaining stagnant or stuck in the past. 


To submit your portfolio to the Institute of Digital Fashion, head here