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'In the virtual world, we can live a fantasy'

The emperor’s new clothes are digital: Israeli designers shape virtual fashion world

Israelis draw acclaim as they carve out a new niche for the future of fashion with digital clothing designs

  • Fashion design by David Cohen for his Studio.Schuna. (DAN YOSEFI)
    Fashion design by David Cohen for his Studio.Schuna. (DAN YOSEFI)
  • Figital fashion design by David Cohen for his Studio.Schuna. (DAN YOSEFI)
    Figital fashion design by David Cohen for his Studio.Schuna. (DAN YOSEFI)
  • Future Positive digital clothing and accessories by designers Nir Goeta and Rotem Goeta. (Future Positive)
    Future Positive digital clothing and accessories by designers Nir Goeta and Rotem Goeta. (Future Positive)
  • Virtual designs by Placebo's Meta Genesis collection. (Placebo)
    Virtual designs by Placebo's Meta Genesis collection. (Placebo)
  • Virtual designs by Israeli fashion house Placebo. (Placebo)
    Virtual designs by Israeli fashion house Placebo. (Placebo)
  • Future Positive digital clothing and accessories by designers Nir Goeta and Rotem Goeta. (Future Positive)
    Future Positive digital clothing and accessories by designers Nir Goeta and Rotem Goeta. (Future Positive)

Two years ago, when Roei Derhi told his parents that he was designing digital clothing for people to don for their social media feeds or put on avatars in gaming worlds, they thought he had lost his mind. But the Shenkar graduate, who designs for H&M in the physical fashion world by day and runs his own digital fashion outfit at all other times, was simply seeing the future.

“Reality is changing constantly,” Derhi told The Times of Israel during a Zoom videoconference call from his home in Stockholm. “My parents asked me, ‘What does it mean… clothes that don’t really exist?’ Fashion today is not necessarily something practical. It is not only a garment that you buy; it is also content.”

Fashion content builds brand awareness, creates trends and tells a story about the clothing or the wearer. Social media platforms are brimming with users posting fashion content on their feeds.

“Fashion is the way we consume life, express ourselves, as well as immerse ourselves in the culture and our life. It’s the way we create our lifestyle and our self in its surrounding,” fashion maven and curator Galit Reismann of TLVstyle, a platform that aims to connect Israeli designers with international audiences, told The Times of Israel. “As Coco Chanel said, fashion doesn’t exist only in a dress, but in people’s stories and places.”

And digital fashion takes this one step further, allowing people to experiment with different looks and try new styles.

“In the virtual world, we can live a fantasy… the way we look, the way we want to look,” says David (Dudi) Cohen, a fashion designer, graduate from Shenkar College and a fashion-tech project manager at Kornit Digital.

Placebo founder Roei Derhi. (Courtesy)

“It doesn’t matter your size; it doesn’t matter how old you are; it doesn’t matter if you are a guy that wants to buy a dress; it doesn’t matter anymore. Digital clothing is made to fit everybody no matter their shape,” says Derhi, founder and creative director of the Placebo Digital Fashion House (DFH) brand.

Digital fashion is an umbrella term that can include digital clothing rendered onto real people, digital modeling of real-world clothing, digital clothing for our future avatar selves in the virtual metaverse world, or blockchain-oriented digital designs to be sold as NFTs.

Though a relatively new fashion subculture, Israeli designers are drawing acclaim as they carve out a new niche for the future of fashion with their digital clothing for real people. The designers are trained in the physical fashion world to understand the movement of material, lines, shapes, form, color, and texture, and the results are crafted with an eye to detail.

Kiryat Ono native Derhi is one of the more prolific Israeli designers in digital fashion. He fine-tuned his fashion skills at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art. While he thought he would one day leverage his 11 years in the scouts movement to work with children as a school principal, upon graduation he was wooed to Sweden to join the H&M design team. In his spare time, he grew his own digital fashion brand, Placebo Digital Fashion House.

He describes Placebo as “a digital fashion house that is genderless, sizeless and ageless.”

There are over 100 digital-only fashion houses around the world, according to various media, catering to social media influencers, gamers, and Web3 tenants.

The concept of dressing a digital character or personalizing accessories in virtual worlds is not new. Gamers have long agreed to pay real money for pixelated personalization. Digital fashion has upped the standards, though, and people expect top-designed clothing in the virtual world even if it does not physically exist.

Virtual designs by Placebo, founded by Israeli designer Roei Derhi. (Placebo)

In January, the fashion industry’s luxury brands — Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Balenciaga among others – joined the digital fashion craze and started charging for branded digital-only clothing and accessories.

“The fashion industry has to embrace technology to be relevant to the new generations,” Derhi said.

How does it work? Potential purchasers peruse digital clothing racks of a fashion house or brand online, choose and pay real money for the outfit they want, send a photo of themselves to the designer and then receive an image of themselves virtually wearing the outfit, which they can post on social media.

For the many fashion houses around the globe, the place to be is on the DressX digital and virtual clothing platform. The pioneering digital fashion platform based in California has been all over the news lately for collaboration projects with the likes of Google, Farfetch, H&M, Fendi, and others looking to make a mark in the virtual fashion arena.

Derhi was among the early birds to launch a collection on the DressX platform. In April 2021, Placebo 0.1, his debut digital collection for DressX, showcased a collection that pushed gender boundaries, mixing masculinity and femininity and featuring oversized puffy jackets and lots and lots of pockets.

“We speak the visual language of fashion,” says Derhi, noting the importance of staying true to his training even if 3D animation software is replacing the traditional needle and thread.

Virtual designs by Placebo’s Meta-Genesis collection. (Placebo)

In November, Derhi unveiled a new collection, Meta-Genesis, at the Kornit Fashion Week LA. In late December, he launched his own online shop for gamers – or anyone – to buy the futuristic-looking, puffy pink custom designs.

Future Positive is another local digital fashion designing crew on the DressX platform. Their dresses, jackets and gloves mesh “traditional garment construction techniques with the advanced possibilities of 3D design to create a new vision of the digital wardrobe.”

Fashion designers Nir Goeta and Rotem Goeta, who run the physical Tel Aviv-based womenswear brand Hannah, started their Future Positive venture during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We chose to sell our collection on the DressX platform because they are the biggest in the digital fashion world. They market our collection, as well as promote technological development for the field of clothing in AR (augmented reality) which is an evolving field,” Rotem Goeta told The Times of Israel.

Future Positive by designers Nir Goeta and Rotem Goeta makes digital clothing and accessories. (Future Positive)

“There will be many more Israeli digital fashion designers,” Cohen predicted.

Shenkar’s Department of Fashion Design, which regularly ranks high among leading and influential schools in the fashion world, has also collaborated with the LA-based digital platform. Cohen said students at Shenkar are “learning how to create digital fashion, visual fashion. There is a great connection between the school and industry, including the virtual fashion industry.”

Cohen made an international buzz in 2021 when he produced the Shenkar school’s first virtual final fashion project. His project, known as Schuna, spotlighted the challenge of the fashion world’s need to adapt itself to virtual representation.

In fact, sustainability is one of the big drivers of the digital fashion movement.

Sustainability and digital fashion

The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters in the world, according to the United Nations. The environmental damage of producing clothes is only half the story. Social media has fueled a practice whereby wearing an outfit once – or up to three times – and then throwing it out has become acceptable.

“Nine percent of bought clothes are returned to the store after one digital shot for Instagram,” said Reismann of TLVstyle.

“Digital fashion is used for the purpose of self-expression; a need that is cultural and social. So, we hope it will come at the expense of fast-paced fashion that is mostly based on cheap purchases of trendy clothing items that are often worn a few times and find their way into the trash,” said Goeta.

Images of digital clothing on real people – whereby people post photos of themselves wearing clothing that only exists in the virtual world – can help reduce this wasteful phenomenon.

“The motto of our Future Positive brand is ‘The most sustainable garment is the one that does not exist,’” said Goeta. “We believe that in order to change the situation a radical solution is needed… It is not enough to just use more ecological materials or recycle fabrics. In our opinion, digital fashion is the best solution because it will significantly reduce the physical fashion market and reduce the pollution created as a result of the production processes.”

Future Positive digital clothing and accessories by designers Nir Goeta and Rotem Goeta. (Future Positive)

But Derhi is not certain the digital fashion sector is as sustainable as some would like it to be. “When it comes to sustainability, we need to be very careful,” he said, noting how digital fashion will change material sourcing needs, supply chain needs, and the manufacturing process. “How much power will we give computers? We are changing jobs for people and sometimes it’s fine. Technology can do the job. But we need to understand how far we can go.”

Of course, digital fashion is not meant to replace physical, tangible clothing. But there is no denying that it is a new subsector of the fashion world, and its role is still being established.

For Derhi, the ethical issues at stake in the digital world are important. “It’s really nice that people buy digital fashion. As a leader of a digital fashion house, I need to feel ethical to sell something that people can actually use… and to make sure they’re getting what they actually paid for,” he says.

“I think fashion needs are going to stay the same, but the media is going to change and is changing,” says Cohen. “Physical fashion will stay. Digital fashion is going to take some of the market share from the physical fashion market and hopefully, it’s going to be more sustainable and cost less.”

Fashion forward

Another force behind the rapid expansion of the digital fashion craze the world over has been the coronavirus pandemic. The health crisis pushed nearly all segments of society to reinvent how things are done.

In Israel, being part of the traditional fashion scene is hard enough without a virus on the loose. For local designers, the small market size, Israel’s physical distance from the global business and fashion markets, and limited access to fabrics are among the obstacles to success.

Young designers need to be individual, audacious and different.

Digital fashion design by David Cohen for his Studio Schuna. (DAN YOSEFI)

“Most of the designers here are busy trying to survive on a day-to-day basis because the fashion market in Israel is so small. We started in digital fashion because of the pandemic — staying at home during the lockdowns made us think about the future of the fashion industry and how we, as designers, can create a better future,” said Goeta.

Meanwhile, the local tech and fashion sectors are adding an Israeli flavor to other parts of the digital fashion playing field.

In mid-January a new digital platform out of Israel joined the growing world of digital fashion. Called Styletech.ai, it says its goal is to update the way retailers create their online lookbook using an AI solution that can replace the need for photoshoots and multiple models.

“Styletech.ai offers an innovative and revolutionary technological service that will serve as a solution for fashion brands and will allow them to optimize their business activities, save costs and increase sales,” Goni Grupper, CEO of StyleTech.ai, said in a press statement. The company’s website has yet to launch.

Meanwhile, the Future Positive studio is looking ahead. At present, it caters to two subsectors of the digital fashion definition: using digital modeling for real-world clothing and creating digital clothing to render onto real people for social media. Goeta says they’re also working to personalize digital outfits for use in AR and VR worlds in the near future and they’re creating a limited collection to sell as NFTs.

“The future of digital fashion is the metaverse,” says Goeta. She says people will spend a lot more time in this new virtual universe and “will work, play, meet friends and relatives, purchase digital and physical products, watch shows and even go for a walk.

“We will have to wear digital clothes for a large part of our time, and whether it is clothes for work or leisure we will be able to build our virtual identity, and enjoy all the unlimited possibilities of digital fashion.”

Cohen says Israeli designers have managed to create an early buzz because they, like many others in the country, are eager to embrace new ideas and new ways.

“Israelis are innovators and at the frontiers in the tech world. Digital fashion holds great opportunities for fashion designers from Israel because there are almost no thresholds… [Once you have] the technical knowledge… to bring your ideas to life, you can create a collection. There is no need to actually contact suppliers of factories or put large investments upfront. You can get into the global market easily,” said Cohen. “In the virtual world, it’s not about local markets or production. It’s all about talent.”

Derhi concurs.

“What’s amazing about digital fashion is that we don’t have any traditional fashion culture. So, we don’t have boundaries of what something means or doesn’t mean,” says Derhi. “It’s a very open-minded place.”

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