AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS – Terms like volumetric capture, photogrammetry and pluriform pixel-based garments are only a few examples of the industry jargon that is bandied about inside ‘digital fashion houses’ like The Fabricant, launched three years ago by an Amsterdam Fashion Institute graduate and a former motion graphics designer.
Virtual clothing is a foreign – and absurd – concept for most of us. But, as the co-founder of Dimension Studio and Virtual Reality (VR) film pioneer, Simon J. Windsor knows, “we’ve got a whole generation […] who have been styling avatars and buying skins for a while now.”
On Monday, this idea seeped further into the mainstream when luxury fashion house Balenciaga announced a collaboration with Epic Games and Windsor’s company to create a digital clothing line for the most popular video game in the world, Fortnite.
In the winter of 2020, they first joined forces to create Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow; a VR fashion show-slash-game to mark the release of Balenciaga’s Fall 2021 collection and billed as “the largest volumetric video project ever undertaken”.
Designed as a scavenger hunt of sorts, participants donning Oculus VR headsets set out from a Balenciaga retail store on a virtual journey through “a wonderland-style future world, passing avatars dressed in ripped jeans and metal-armour boots on the way”.
This glimpse of the so-called Metaverse follows a trend that has been gathering momentum as a result of “staring at ourselves on screens” due to the pandemic protocols. But, which has a much longer trail that spans decades of research and development at the headquarters of Silicon Valley’s most well-known companies and their partners in the military.
Windsor is a relative newcomer despite being considered somewhat of a veteran in the VR/AR space. He was among the first to use Microsoft’s Kinect camera technology, which was pivotal for development the Xbox 360 video game platform, to produce one of the earliest VR films and had been delving into applications of Augmented Reality (AR) before many knew such a thing existed.
Over the years, his relationship with Microsoft has only strengthened. In June 2020, Dimension Studio became the first among only five “certified” mixed reality capture studios in the world. The announcement came on the heels of Microsoft’s expansion of HoloLens 2 to the healthcare, retail and education markets, reflecting Windsor’s close ties to the software giant, which retired the Kinect camera to focus on the HoloLens and AR.
VR/AR form the two pillars of the mixed reality, digital twin universe being foisted upon the younger generations under the guise of “a sustainable way to explore personal identity” through “fashion [that] offers diverse economic and social groups access to luxury, or a cool factor that they could not otherwise afford”, according to behavior modification themes explored at SXSW last spring.
The fusion of art, fashion and cutting-edge technology to bring about the Metaverse has been a long and protracted process, which is part of a larger project of global disenfranchisement and dispossession by the owners of capital, who are trying to erect a digital mansion where you can prance around in the latest Gucci slippers and virtual mink coat, intending to keep the real natural world for themselves.
Timothy John MacMillan’s large-scale video project, “Dead Horse”, made the shortlist of the prestigious Citibank Photography Prize thanks to Esther Windsor, one of the curators for that year’s competition. The year before, a blockbuster Hollywood movie had made much of the world indirectly aware of his work by applying the same groundbreaking photography techniques he used to capture the moment a horse was shot and killed to several of the film’s action sequences.
That movie was The Matrix and the technique had been invented by MacMillan during his studies at the Bath Academy of Art in the early 1980s, when he devised what he called a time-slice camera; a large ring with a series of pinhole shutters exposing the film as it moved around the subject. The effect came to be known as “temps mort” (dead time) or bullet time due to the freeze-frame quality of the motion picture.
Born in Portland, OR, MacMillan’s fame had already begun to accrue in his adopted country. The BBC featured him and his time-slice camera in a 1993 special called BBC Tomorrow’s World. By 1997, he had incorporated Time-Slice Films in the UK and would soon begin working on projects with NBC in Europe, where his “frozen-time” techniques were used in a TV miniseries and a few commercials.
Coming from a painting background, MacMillan says he didn’t pick up a camera for the first five years of his education in photography and despite claiming to have been unimpressed by The Matrix’s use of his methods at the time, he was nonetheless primed for a new career in the burgeoning world of VR and 3-D computer graphics technology.
After spending some time at the broadcast camera manufacturer Grass Valley, MacMillan went on to become GoPro’s advanced products manager, where he would remain until 2016. A year later, he would form Area 4 Professional consulting firm in San Mateo, California to provide insight into the mixed reality, VR/AR space in Silicon Valley. He would also join the board of a startup in England that had developed some of the earliest content for the Oculus VR headset.
Old Money and Young Blood
Callum MacMillan had joined his father’s company in 2006 after eight years working as a motion graphics artist and video editor. He had been at Time-Slice Films for almost six years when his college classmate, Simon Windsor, joined game-industry veteran and former Apple sales executive Steve Duncan Jelley’s AR startup String.
Windsor and Jelley soon built String up to be an international AR platform servicing clients like Nike, Disney, Paramount, Sony, Microsoft and Barclays to name a few. By 2013, the duo branched out to form TMRW (Tomorrow) Ventures, a mixed reality “incubator”. Virtually at the same time, a group of four students at Teesside University in Middlesbrough, who were developing a VR game called Undercurrent received a £4,000 grant to grow it into a business.
Led by Christian Frausig, the students soon incorporated the new company as Hammerhead Interactive Limited (HammerheadVR) and were hiring paid programmers as soon as the fall of 2013. The group advertised content development capabilities for Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, and mobile VR platforms YouTube VR and Samsung Gear VR.
The game received considerable attention by the press, including a news feature on NBC. Word reached Windsor and Jelley and in November, 2014, both were appointed as directors in the company, bringing their funds and their partnership with Microsoft along with them. Three years later, Tim MacMillan and his son would come on board as well, just as HammerheadVR was placed on a list of Future Leaders by Creative England – an investment vehicle of the Creative Industries Federation (CIF).
With a board membership that includes corporate heavyweights like Mastercard’s global chairman and former BP executive, Rick Haythornthwaite, founding father of the UK games industry Ian Livingstone and the director of TIGA, the UK’s games industry trade association along with representatives from government, the BBC and the tech industry, CIF was formed in 2014 to garner “political clout” to the “fastest growing part of the UK economy”.
In 2018, the CEO of Digital Catapult, Jeremy Silver joined the HammerheadVR board just as he was about to take his place on the 5G Advisory Committee of the European Space Agency. It was the beginning of a major transformation at the company as the former Vice President of New Media for EMI Music Group’s arrival coincided with Time-Slice Films absorption by Hammerhead and Callum MacMillan appointed director.
Soon thereafter, Hammerhead received the first of two loans from Creative England that would consolidate TMRW and Time-Slice into a subsidiary of Hammerhead VR called Dimension Studio. Silver would merge it with Catapult’s other labs throughout London, focusing on AI, immersive media, mixed reality, haptics, distributed systems like blockchain and the IoT. In addition, Catapult operates an AI program called Machine Intelligence Garage, which partners with Google, Amazon and Nvidia to bring companies into the machine intelligence space.
Bring Out the Gimp
When Tim MacMillan gave a presentation called “Beyond Virtual Reality, and into the Mixed Reality Future” to Silicon Valley executives in 2017, he detailed all the failings the original technology had in terms of barriers to adoption, hardware limitations and other obstacles. “There will continue to be niche markets where VR will be both appropriate and excellent,” MacMillan said, but warned that the possibility that VR could extend beyond the gaming community was slim. “So, where do we go from here?”, he teased.
Judging by results, the answer was to leverage the luxury fashion industry by recruiting Kim Kardashian to be the pied piper for millions of young girls and young women who follow the social media scandal queen and aspire to her unattainable lifestyle.
After the second daughter of O.J. Simpson’s defense attorney was ostensibly robbed in a Parisian hotel, Kim Kardashian’s viral moments with Balenciaga brand clothing or accessories have been consistent. On September 14, the Paris Hilton protégé caused a media frenzy at the Met Gala when she showed up in what was described as a “full Balenciaga look that had a futuristic aesthetic”. This had followed an earlier appearance in August at her husband Kanye West’s listening party for DONDA with a gimp mask.
Halloween 2020 and her half-sister Kendall’s birthday had provided yet another opportunity to showcase the brainstorms of Balenciaga’s creative director Demna Gvasalia, who seems to have been tasked with turning the Instagram superstar into a color-blocked silhouette at the most high-profile events, as if she were human figure template in a 3-D modeling program just waiting to be mapped.
Balenciaga’s parent company, Kering, also owns Gucci and several other luxury brands. Gucci was the first high-end brand to dabble in the metaverse in 2019 with an AR game in tandem with mobile apparel store Drest. Originally the French timber trading powerhouse Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR), Kering was officially formed in 2013 after it had begun its transition into a luxury brands company.
The name was chosen because it had a phonetic resemblance to the English word ‘caring’ and the company immediately began rebranding itself as an environmentally-friendly corporation in alignment with the sustainable development goals. In 2019, Kering presented the Fashion Pact at the 45th G7 summit, an agreement signed by 32 fashion firms committing to reducing their impact on the environment through a sustainable approach to their supply chains.
This is, of course, all code for the implementation of digital ledger systems and AI mechanisms across the global supply chain or the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution. Kering even launched its own “Environmental Profit & Loss account” (EP&L) app “that instantly calculates the impact of typical items in our wardrobe” and recently announced a 4-year plan to reach a 40% decrease in its “environmental impact”.
Significantly, Kering inaugurated a Material Innovation Lab in 2013, an organization that specializes in “innovative materials and fabric sustainability”. However, most of this entity’s board is comprised of officers of the Good Food Institute, which is among the leading promoters of lab-grown meat and other artificial food cultivation processes.
The voracious ambitions of this company, which is itself part of the Groupe Artémis holding company, is best revealed by the Regenerative Fund for Nature initiative launched in January. Together with Conservation International, Kering aims to “transform 1 million hectares of farms and landscapes producing raw materials in fashion’s supply chains to regenerative agriculture over the next five years” and “protect an additional 1 million hectares of critical, ‘irreplaceable’ habitat outside of its direct supply chain” by providing “grants to farmers, NGOs and key stakeholders”.
Last May, the old commodities exchange building in Paris called the Bourse de Commerce was relaunched as a museum to hold the private art collection of Groupe Artémis’ CEO Francoise Pinault as agreed between Salma Hayek’s multi-billionaire husband and the Mayor of Paris in meeting held in the summer of 2016.
A 50-year lease on the 300-year old building will display the “10,000-plus-piece art collection“, which is believed to be worth $1.45 billion and will cover approximately 75,000 square feet of floor space. Ominously, the inaugural exhibition is titled “Overture“, described in a way that might as well be in the marketing brochures of any given ‘digital fashion’ studio:
“A manifesto of the range of artistic practices [that] reflects the equilibrium between generations, cultures, origins and gender. It is also a manifesto of the diversity of the themes represented in the collection, or rather its key features: the obsessional issues of death, “the passage of time”, vanity […], proclamations of material poverty, the radicalism of the approaches committed to political, social, racial and gender issues…, a deeply humanistic vision, characteristic of works that unrelentingly question the human figure, the face and the body.”
Kim Kardashian may well be invited to attend one of the thirteen scheduled exhibitions. Invitations for the rest of us await us only in the Metaverse, plus one for a digital black tie event.