Design Notes · · 13 min read

Learning From Your Virtual Twin: Kerry Murphy, Co-founder, The Fabricant

Kerry Murphy on how his virtual fashion house, The Fabricant, explores ideas of embodiment through clothing that can only exist in virtual space.

Learning From Your Virtual Twin: Kerry Murphy, Co-founder, The Fabricant

Liam speaks with Kerry Murphy, co-founder of digital fashion house The Fabricant, to learn how ones and zeros are spun, woven, and stitched into virtual couture. In designing couture that doesn’t—or can’t—exist in physical space, The Fabricant also explores ideas of embodiment and self-actualization. Murphy pushes these concepts even further, by interacting with his own “virtual twin,” composed from 3D-scans of his body.

Liam Spradlin: Kerry, welcome to Design Notes.

Kerry Murphy: Yeah. Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Liam: To start out how I always do, I'm interested in what your journey has been like to your current work and how that journey has influenced the kinds of things that you're working on.

Kerry: So, my background is in film and visual effects and I worked in advertising for over a decade, and I felt that advertising industry is a little bit solace and doesn't necessarily have a purpose in most of the work that we do. And I think I was always searching for purpose in my work. And basically, I just happened to make one animation test with clothing, and it was a complete miserable fail. And through that, I established conversation with some fashion designers, who happened to be digital fashion designers, to basically see how I can animate clothing in much better way, only to realize how far fashion industry is from actual digital transformation 'cause I thought that all fashion designers are designing in 3D software these days, but it happened that it's only the start of the digital transformation of fashion industry currently.

And there I just understood that the whole fashion industry is completely unsustainable, very toxic environmentally, and plus also culturally. So I saw that there was a lot of opportunity to change and I actually saw that there's a lot of opportunity to create that type of change through 3D and fashion because basically if you completely democratize the design practices into digital practices you can be basically saving a lot of materials and waste in the process itself. So meeting up with my current co-founder Amber, who's a, let's say a true Visionary when it comes down to creating that digital change in the fashion industry, it gave me a new opportunity to basically start a 3D animation company focusing completely on fashion. So I think that's basically the short story of how I came about going from visual effects to becoming a fashion design company.

Liam: So you talked about using 3D and digital to reduce waste in the process of creating fashion, but I also want to get into what digital couture is.

Kerry: (Laughs) Well, I mean, if you look at the word couture, it only means sewing, then this of course, haute couture which is like this high-end luxury fashion which is only like I think 30 companies in the world can call themselves haute couture companies. So digital couture is basically the exact same, uh, couture on its own but basically we're doing digital sewing. So we don't use any material samples in the design process whatsoever. Our whole design process is in 3D software and digital couture.

Liam: And how is that work eventually consumed?

Kerry: Oh, I mean, the case change his quite a lot with it because it's digital clothing, so essentially it's not something that you wear on your physical body and it's not something that keeps you warm. We believe that all lives are becoming so virtual these lives that at some point people will actually want to start dressing their virtual identities. And what I mean by virtual identities right now that can be your Instagram profile picture, your Facebook profile picture, your LinkedIn profile picture, but in the future we believe that everybody will have a digital twin of themselves that they will actually want to do create in in a certain way that will go with their identity which we believe it's going to be somewhat different from a physical identity.

The way we identify ourselves in our physical world of course, it's much more limited than in a virtual world. The way we speak on social media is different way that we speak in our physical lives, and we believe that digital clothing is just gonna be a big tool and a vessel to create our digital identities and to communicate to our peers, our different communities, our friends, our family, you name it.

Liam: The distinction between our physical embodiments and the virtual identities that we have is really interesting, especially thinking about how that idea is already manifesting where we're using the physical aspects of our embodiment to create that digital twin that the you mentioned. And I think right now from what I understand when someone buys a piece of digital couture they still need help putting it on because it's still being put onto some representation of their physical embodiment. So I'm wondering do you think that that will change in the future, that the tools that we have for creating these will be such that will be doing that ourselves?

Kerry: Absolutely. I think I always use this example from the film industry because I have to go to university for several years to learn all the tools, and cameras, and editing software, and I really was proud of the fact that I knew all of these tools that nobody else really knew around me. And then with the first smartphone now everybody's basically a filmmaker, everybody has a camera in their pocket, and editing tool in their pocket. YouTube is a great distribution tool, you know, you can basically be marketing all your videos. So it's really the age of consent making and the smartphone has democratized that.

And we're on the same path to create that for fashion basically. We want to enable everybody to have a digital avatar of themselves so they got actually wear digital clothing. We want to make clothing for our lives, our identities, and the question then is what is that experience, what is that tool that enables everybody to live in the virtual realm and allows everybody to be a content maker? We want to be co-creators where we actually bring that fashion craftsmanship as it exists today in the physical world, bring it into the digital space and make those tools that allow everybody to think along and create garments with them for them for their virtual use.

Liam: I'm also interested in, again, this idea of, of having a virtual embodiment and trusting it and having that represent you online, because I think that the initial conceit of social media was that this person who's posting is a representation of you authentically. So when that is maybe less the case, or it's more accepted that these embodiments have capabilities that we don't in the physical world, how does that act of creating your virtual self end up interacting with your real self?

Kerry: No, it's a good question. I think the immediate answer would be, let's say an augmented reality of, um, overlaying digital items on top of our physical lives. So if we talk about it from that perspective, that, okay, everybody's going to have AR contact lens, not that it's like my favorite future, but if that is the case, and then everybody could be wearing digital clothing in their physical lives as well. I think what the blurring between the two right now is I would say the smartphone, we already have AR filters on smartphones. The face filters for Instagram is super popular. And I think a lot of the people that we engage with have asked like, "Oh yeah, when are we going to make the body filter for Instagram for clothing?" Of course, there's a lot more complexities when it comes down to the technical execution of that, but we're starting to see it already.

Uh, I think one of our partners Carlings who also did a digital fashion campaign last year, that was immensely popular, they just released a Instagram filter to go together with their physical t-shirt. So basically you go to Instagram and you open up their filter function and you scan the logo on the t-shirt itself, and then the Instagram filter places a graphic on the t-shirt. So that's already layering a digital layer on top of the, of the physical body, but you still need that medium, which right now is the smartphone. So I think a lot of the answers are going to lie there. And when we talk about the fabric and let's say 100 year vision, I think it was Amber who mentioned at first that she was imagining that we all be wearing holograms, that were basically wearing a basic body suits and on top of that, they will be a form of a hologram on top of us. Technologically, right now that's not really possible, but we can't even imagine what we'll look like a hundred years from now. So I can completely imagine that our clothing can be completely digital at some point.

Liam: Focusing on the creation of digital clothing, in past conversations when I've talked to folks who are working on physical garments, we talk about things like how the garments move, how they drape over a body, how they fit and the texture of the material, things like that. I'm interested in what those are in a virtual environment. What are the constraints, if any, or like what kind of parameters are you thinking about?

Kerry: Good question. I mean, for us, the language is the exact same. We talk about drape, fit, stitches, seams, materials. I think that's basically 80% of the conversation, but we talk about it from a technical pipeline perspective. How do we insert the stitches from our 3D fashion software to our professional software? You know, we're, we're trying to create a pipeline where somebody says, "I want to top stitch there," that that stitch gets automated throughout that whole technical pipeline. So I think that's a little bit of a different part of the discussion, but we also say that we take the language of fashion craftsmanship, and we just do the digital craftsmanship side of it.

So basically it's the same type of craftsmanship, just in a different space. The way we construct stuff is completely different. So when I go to fashion universities and I see these kids there basically with their sisters and their paper patterns, cutting patterns out, kind of reminds me of how film industry was before the '90s that, you know, there was an editor cutting a spool of film, you know, pasting it back together only to check how the edit works. That's kind of where fashion is right now. But when you look at the 3D software itself, you basically have two layouts. You know, one, one side of the window is to draft your 2D pattern, and the other side of the window is to draft the 3D volume, where you basically 3D stitch it together to create the 3D volume of the garment itself.

Now, I don't know exactly how much faster that is, but I can tell you that you're not going to be able to put a physical t-shirt together in two minutes, what's possible basically in 3D. So I think that whole ideation process, that whole design process from a creative perspective becomes so much more powerful because basically you can put your ideas down in 3D almost as fast as you can sketch them down on paper. Within a day, you can go through hundreds of different ideas, color ways, uh, details, uh, blocks, silhouettes, something that typically can take weeks, if not months, to put together in the physical world.

Liam: I'm interested also in the new material possibilities afforded by virtual fashion and what it's like to invent a new material and think about how, how it exists on its own and also how it interacts with the environment and maybe with other virtual materials as well.

Kerry: That's probably my favorite part of the whole process itself is to actually create stuff that's not possible in the physical world. And I believe that's where 3D actually provides the most value for fashion, is to actually do stuff that you will never be able to do physically because of gravity, for instance. Uh, w- with materials, you get to play around a lot with it. It does need to be much more technical and a little bit more engineering type minded from a different perspective to actually ideate and be super creative.

And I guess in 3D, the rule is as long as it looks good, it's good. Oh, at least you need to be able to get some type of emotional engagement out of it. You know, it can be super ugly, it can be super beautiful, as long as you're creating something that resonates and that has visual appeal in one way or another. And again, it's the same thing, you know, you get to play around and try hundreds of different things within a day. Unlike fashion, if you're going to talk about material innovation, you know, can be months, if not years before you're coming up with something that's visually appealing to actually put on the clothing itself.

Liam: I also wanna talk about how people are responding to, uh, these, to these products right now, both as they see things like digital installations that are showing off new garments, or when they actually see themselves or a representation of themselves wearing these garments?

Kerry: It is still a very niche that not many people have a virtual representation of themselves yet alone, a photorealistic representation of themselves in 3D. So not many people have gone through that process of actually getting an avatar of themselves and putting digital clothing on themselves. But this is something that I already did in 2017, as a proof of concept for myself to see how the process goes from technical perspective, only to find out that there was a real, let's say, psychological aspect to it as well. First of all, having to do the body scanning half naked and knowing that I was going to put those results out into the web was kind of scary and yeah, kind of hit my own insecurities in a lot of different ways.

But then the learning that came through, it was actually a lot about body positivity. I started seeing myself in a 360 view and I started understanding how my body works. And then when a digital fashion designer was tailoring digital clothing on my body, and she put clothing on to my body that I wouldn't wear necessarily my physical life, my first reaction was like, "No, I would never wear that." But my second reaction was like, "But hey, what if? How would I feel?" So all of a sudden I started becoming much more open to things that I was not necessarily open for before. And I was kind of able to start breaking those, let's say, stereotypical barriers that I had set for myself, uh, throughout my life, just by being able to observe myself from a third person perspective in the 3D space, doing dance moves that I can't do in my real life, wearing clothing that I would never, ever actually want to wear in my real life to actually start thinking of like, "Hey, what if?"

So, I actually started taking dance lessons to, you know, try different things out, to express myself differently from a creative perspective. And I can just basically, you know, matrix style, almost just upload different dance moves on my body and really just look at myself doing crazy stuff that I can't do in my physical life in third person perspective. It really... There is something like super strong from a psychological perspective that's very hard to put into words. It's just something that people will need to experience for themselves. And I believe that in the future, we're definitely moving towards that space where a lot of other people will start seeing themselves in third person perspective through these avatars. Eventually, I think everybody will have that one-to-one translation of themselves in virtual life, and beyond that they will actually want to start curating their virtual avatars in ways that don't look like themselves, but something that they can still emotionally connect to, something that resonates with their own identity.

Liam: Right. As you were saying that I was thinking a lot about a book by Tom Boellstorff who did an ethnography of second life. And I think earlier when I asked about the interaction between our virtual avatars of ourselves and our physical presence, I was thinking a lot about how other people will experience that. But it strikes me that as Boellstorff says in his book, a lot of the things about the act of creation and second life and about the act of creation of your avatar specifically is about self-actualization, and maybe this is the same thing. The outcomes that you're getting from it are not so much about how they impact your physical embodiment with regard to other people, but how you are able to perceive yourself and understand yourself.

Kerry: It's so powerful to be able to basically just put yourself into a safe space and observe yourself from a distance to kind of see what is it that you do. It's, it's, it's almost just another layer to when you first hear your own voice, or when you first see yourself on video, or when you first see a picture of yourself, this is just like another elevated format of that.

Liam: There is an interesting idea that I came across when I was researching fabricants work, and that was that data can be used as a raw material for creativity or creative work. What's meant by that?

Kerry: Well, just like cotton is a raw material that basically that's where it starts for us. Data is our raw material because all of our work happens in the PC. So we could just call that all of our work starts with ones and zeros, and it also ends up in ones and zeros, but in just a different format. And it goes through that whole process from going from raw ones and zeros to processed ones and zeros, I don't know exactly how to word it, but, uh, in the end, there is a visual output that in its essence is still ones and zeros.

Liam: So assuming that virtual couture and its new capabilities, which are personalization, collaboration, all of the sorts of things about this new virtual embodiment that we've talked about, and also including the possible future where we're wearing holograms and body suits that generate some sort of visual output for clothing, in the meantime, what do you think the impact is going to be on the world of physical fashion and systems by which it operates right now?

Kerry: I think there's gonna be a lot of change coming, and I think it's going to be very disruptive in a lot of ways. I think we're going to move more towards local manufacturing because basically we won't need that overstock anymore. We won't need to produce in high quantity because we're moving towards a production on demand business model where actually all the clothing can be 3D renders until the purchasing point. So once the consumer actually buys the clothing via e-commerce or online store, then that gets manufactured. But I also believe that that whole manufacturing process is going towards atomization, where robots will be making our garments. So that disruption, I think will be, let's say fairly destructive for a lot of countries.

And I hope that there will be companies and organizations who can make that transition as friendly as possible for the people that actually rely on that income on a daily base, because most of our garments are still handmade. It's still manual labor. And I think that's kind of one of the biggest things that some people in our network are asking us, what are we doing about that aspect? And honestly, I don't really know, you know, we're barely surviving as a company to begin with. So that will definitely have to be something that from an ethical perspective, we really need to take a stance on and to be aware of the type of change that can come through virtualization and hope that we can really help support that transformation when it comes down to the places that are very much relying on that physical production at the moment.

Liam: Right. Well, thank you again for joining me, Kerry.

Kerry: Cool. Thank you so much for having me.

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