MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
Today on the show, incognito. So far this hour, we’ve mostly explored weird and unusual ways people and businesses dress up. But it’s something we all do every day when we get dressed.
GALA MARIJA VRBANIC: Why do we wear clothes? So, first of all, you need clothes to protect yourself, obviously. But how do you choose your clothes – what do they look like? It’s fashion, and it’s part of your identity, and it’s how you want to be perceived.
ZOMORODI: This is Croatian fashion designer Gala Marija Vrbanic. And a few years ago, she started a company called Tribute Brand, and she wanted to debut big.
VRBANIC: Our first dress is, like, a huge dress, a gold dress with a bow and a corset. It’s very simple, but it has a lot of volume.
ZOMORODI: And when Gala says volume, she means volume. This dress looks like a huge balloon folded into a dress. It is made of gold with a huge, massive bow.
VRBANIC: It’s big. It can’t fit in your wardrobe or bedroom. It is very big. The other part is the hardware. So it has this very metallic golden material added, and it’s very shiny and smooth. So it can only be done if you look at a Jeff Koons sculpture or something, but it’s a dress.
ZOMORODI: And if you’re thinking, who could possibly wear this dress, well, that’s more of an analog question because Gala is a digital fashion designer, and this golden balloon dress, it only exists in online in the virtual world, which means you can’t wear it on your real body, but you can put it on a picture of yourself on Instagram.
VRBANIC: It looks real in a perfectly tailored way. So it looks real and unreal at the same time because you see a digital garment. You see there is something different. You see that is not possible. And then you see it mounted on you as if it were there.
ZOMORODI: Digital fashion design has opened up crazy creative possibilities for Gala – like pants on fire, anyone?
VRBANIC: Now you have so many possibilities to create something totally crazy and never seen before.
ZOMORODI: Other virtual outfits she created include a shirt made of butterflies, a dress that shoots lasers. And people are spending millions of real dollars buying virtual clothes online.
VRBANIC: Our community is made up of people who really follow trends, like to create trends, but at the same time are tech-savvy, so they also like to experiment with new technologies. And, you know, of course, it’s the young people. We need mode where we express ourselves, where we socialize. And it’s happening right now, and it’s going to happen even more in online spaces.
ZOMORODI: From what I understand, part of your inspiration for creating cyber fashion came from young people buying and then immediately reselling expensive physical streetwear brands. So who was doing this? And why were they doing it?
VRBANIC: So it’s these kids who buy streetwear, like Supreme, Off-White and, you know, all these brands that provide a very limited amount of clothing. So what I realized – they were gathering in these Facebook groups and reselling the clothes they had just bought. Like, 2 hours ago they bought the item of clothing, then they’re reselling it. They just took a picture of themselves wearing this item of clothing, posted it on their Instagram, then they didn’t need it anymore because they showed I had the item of clothing, then they took it resold because they wanted to buy something new. And I just realized that they just need an image of an item of clothing in a virtual space.
ZOMORODI: Okay, so you’ve seen this Instagram fashion trend happen, but you’ve also experimented with dressing up virtually because you like video games, right?
VRBANIC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yes exactly. I was a fan of the game – and still am – “GTA”, “Grand Theft Auto”.
(SOUND EXCERPT FROM AN ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Out of my car.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Not my wheels, man. These are my wheels.
VRBANIC: I spent my whole childhood playing this game, and that’s actually what got me into digital fashion, because my background is in traditional fashion. And my mom was – is a fashion designer, so I’ve always been surrounded by fashion. But I spent my time since childhood in these virtual spaces playing games. And I realized, like, all the time I was playing this game, I was just, like, going shopping and buying clothes for my avatar. And then I realized that I cared more about how I looked in those games than how I looked in the physical world. And then I also realized that I probably wasn’t the only one because there was a reason there were so many stores in these games.
ZOMORODI: I know that some people – for example, if they play video games, they will spend money to buy, you know, a special cape or a special sword. Is this considered digital fashion?
VRBANIC: It is. Anything you use to express your identity is fashion or digital fashion. And, you know, when we were young – which was very, you know, wrong, I think, with games back then, that all the characters were male characters. And you couldn’t, you know, choose. That’s why I love clothes because that’s how I was able to change characters and do what I wanted to do.
ZOMORODI: I’ve heard that many gamers, especially people who, because of their gender identity or sexuality, may not feel safe in the real world and really appreciate the freedom that virtual worlds can give them. be whoever they want.
VRBANIC: Yes, it’s easier. People feel safer and people feel more confident. Maybe that’s also a reason why online they create the persona they want to be. They are not constrained by their own physical personality from which they cannot move away. And they are – in online spaces, they can be one hundred percent whatever they want to be. So that’s what we noticed. You know, it’s very welcoming. It’s very inclusive. And now they’re, you know, totally free.
ZOMORODI: OK, so cyber fashion is happening in games. It’s happening on social media. But the place I’ve wondered about is augmented reality, like Google Glasses or other wearable devices that are supposed to change the way we see the world around us.
VRBANIC: I think AR glasses will get us there very soon because right now if you want to wear digital fashion in AR you have to pick up your phone and you have to film it. So it’s kind of – you know, it’s not very practical. With AR glasses, you can just put those glasses on yourself, and you look around, and you’ll instantly see that extra layer. And you will see it all through.
ZOMORODI: How will it be? Are we going to have an entire digital wardrobe? What if I decide I don’t want to be a human? What if I want to be a hawk? Like, what will be possible?
VRBANIC: That’s the most exciting thing for me, because there are, I think, many, many people who don’t want to look like humans. Once people realize they can be whatever they want to be – they can be a box, they can be a bear, they can be themselves, they can have many different identities – that’s when I think – you know, it’s kind of like that, I would say a change in mindset is needed for people to realize. And of course technology is also needed. So it will happen over time.
ZOMORODI: I think there are people who might think that it’s actually terrifying for them, that being a real person in the world getting dressed every morning is hard enough as it is. The thought of having to do this for the virtual version of themselves seems exhausting and maybe a little scary.
VRBANIC: Of course, of course. Yeah. I think whenever I talk about, you know, fashion, I always say we’re not doing anything new. We’re just using new media. But fundamentally the principles that work inside traditional or physical fashion – like all the psychology around the product and why would someone buy it and why would someone need it – are the same in digital space. And I think human psychology will always be the same, just the environment we’re in is different. And when it comes to fashion and identity expression, what I think is the most beautiful thing is that you can choose who and how you want to present yourself to. So you can choose to wear several different outfits at the same time.
ZOMORODI: That’s true. Let’s say I’m walking down the street and I see my child’s teacher. She may have chosen to give me the impression that she’s wearing, you know, a nice old-fashioned outfit – clothes, though. But if – maybe she made it possible that if she meets her friends, she looks like a peacock, like a real bird.
VRBANIC: That’s true. Exactly.
ZOMORODI: I mean, it’s mind-boggling.
VRBANIC: And that’s – you know, that’s just the surface, right now, that we’ve been talking about, you know? It can go in many different directions.
ZOMORODI: I’m going through your Instagram, and there’s a woman wearing a beautiful prom dress that looks electrified. There’s another guy wearing what looks like a superhero chest plate, but it fits him perfectly. There’s another dress that’s made out of some kind of metallic, puffy material – like these Jeff Koons artworks. And her dog is wearing the same dress and also looks amazing.
VRBANIC: Yeah, you can be anything, you know?
ZOMORODI: You can be anything.
VRBANIC: Yes, and your dog too.
ZOMORODI: It was Gala Marija Vrbanic, founder of Tribute Brand and digital fashion designer. You can watch his TED Talk at ted.com. Thank you so much for listening to our show this week on incognito. This episode was produced by Katie Monteleone, James Delahoussaye, Fiona Geiran and Katherine Sypher. It was edited by Rachel Faulkner, James Delahoussaye and Katie Simon. Our production team at NPR also includes Sanaz Meshkinpour and Matthew Cloutier. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint, Sammy Case and Daniella Balarezo. I’m Manoush Zomorodi, and you listened to NPR’s TED Radio Hour.
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