The last 12 months have been busy for sustainability experts and advocates pushing for change within the fashion industry. 2022 saw the passing of the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act—or Fashion Act—in New York alongside the Garment Worker Protection Act in California. And, if predictions are right, 2023 is set to bring the fashion system that bit closer to the goal posts.
The path is, as always, manifold. Some are touting digital fashion design as a possible solution to many of the industry’s issues. After all, digital garments created by leading fashion houses like The Fabricant, which specializes in digital-only clothing, emit on average 97% less carbon emissions, and can save up to 3,300 liters of water per garment. Plus, the rise of Metaverse Fashion Week, fuelled by increasing demand for digital clothing from consumers, is creating space for mainstream brands and digital startups to more easily showcase designs. While others are calling for the industry to slow down its pace of production and focus instead on local materials and alternative business models. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, designers from across the industry came together to write an open letter, pledging to reconsider and simplify the fashion calendar. Those leading the way, however, remain independent brands.
Below, Copenhagen-based designer Nicklas Skovgaard, who creates one-off garments using only handwoven textiles and thrifted fabrics, is in conversation with The Fabricant’s digital design director Anna Liedtke about navigating the fashion system, the respective challenges they’ve faced on the way, and why both slowing and digitizing the fashion system are necessary for meaningful progress to be made.
Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
Both of you represent two different but important pathways to changing the way the fashion system operates for the better. Before we go into that, could you introduce yourselves to our readers? Nicklas, let’s start with you.
I started my brand—unintentionally—around three years ago. My background was in interior design, but I wanted to work with my hands. I’ve been making clothes since I was a child, so that felt like the natural direction for me. So, I bought an old rigid pedal loom and started making small fabric samples and textiles. I started by making a small vest, and slowly my skill set evolved from a side hobby to a brand.
It’s always been a slow process, even when I went full time. I would spend a while creating just one jacket or a skirt or a dress. But then my designs started garnering attention from people on Instagram, which has been such an important part of showcasing work as a young designer. So, I never actually intended to start a brand, which means that the growth has been totally sustainable and completely organic.
Nicklas, your journey resonates with me because I also started out as a fashion designer, experimenting with crafting and producing garments. I wasn’t on social media at the time. I was just in my room making clothes, so I decided to pursue an industry job instead at the German brand, Hugo Boss. The role was more in development instead of creative design. So, around three years ago, I started using CLO3D, which is a software that helps you visualize garments. I was really excited about the creative freedom it gave me, which I felt I had lost during the last few years of essentially just handing over technical sketches. I also started publishing my stuff on Instagram—which is where The Fabricant reached out to me to ask me to work for them. I said yes, and that’s how I started working in the 3D field.
It’s really cool to hear that fashion design has worked so well for you, Nicklas, but I can imagine there are difficulties. I imagine this means a lot of investments from your side or finding ways of financing parts of the operation like leading a bigger team.
In the beginning, there weren’t many problems because I was working in a small space where only the people following me might want to buy a design. But over time, I started working with a sales agent who was in turn reaching out to stores. We now have one stockist, and one of the challenges is that I’m only capable of working with this one store because everything is produced by me right here. Constructing a garment takes a long time, from pattern-cutting to sewing to posting it on Instagram.
The biggest challenge for me is: how do I create a scalable business where I make clothes that are completely sustainable and where I don’t compromise on my initial idea of creating everything locally here in Copenhagen? I don’t have an answer yet. But building a made-to-order business in a really fast paced industry is difficult because magazines, stylists, and customers treat my brand like any other fashion label that has resources to create collections and stage shows multiple times a year. There’s an expectation to keep up, and so my main goal has been carving out my own way in this industry.
But there are also opportunities unique to building a slow fashion brand. I use Instagram in a way that involves my followers in what I do, meaning they can see that everything is made here in my studio. It’s a very personal perspective, which is really rewarding for me because I get to meet so many people who reach out to share their love of craftsmanship and of fashion.
“Building a made-to-order business in a fast paced industry is difficult because customers treat my brand like any other fashion label that has resources to create collections and stage shows multiple times a year.”
I think we share this willingness to be transparent in our workflow, which is also indicative of a new generation of fashion designers. Before, fashion was—even more so—this industry where everyone was fighting for themselves. Now, it seems that we’re going back to the root of fashion where you create something from your heart, something that’s beautiful that doesn’t necessarily require lots of money. There’s more value in this type of art where customers become a community. The Fabricant is similar because I think of it more as a community than a brand. I really enjoy the Twitch streams and sharing files with our community.
But when I started 3D design, it was overwhelming because there was so much to learn. I taught myself everything via YouTube tutorials where a brand or agency might share behind-the-scenes footage on how they create their products. It was all about recreation and co-creation, which I thought was so beautiful and so different from the structures of the more traditional side of the fashion industry. This was something I really wanted to be a part of. And what we want to build is this platform where creators and designers, like Nicklas, can team up with 3D artists on collaborations—because this is also how The Fabricant started. We want to create a platform where you can explore digital fashion, where you can expose your own designs, where you can interact with others. And if you’re not a fashion designer, maybe you can pick a style and co-create it by customizing colors and textures.
I like what you said, Anna, about co-creation and designers coming together to collaborate. I really feel that on Instagram where young designers text each other and support each other. In some ways, that also feels quite old fashioned because it is so reliant on collaboration and, hopefully, this ethos is leading the way for a much nicer, more compassionate industry.
Maybe that’s the point: building an industry where community and sustainability is central to the creative idea, not an afterthought at the production stage. That requires the industry to start listening to more people and their needs.
It can sound idealistic, but also it needs to be in order for change to happen. What the industry can learn from young slow fashion designers is that the job can be done in new ways. How we communicate, how we style, and how we produce can be changed if we’re up for changing them. Big fashion corporations could look to this new generation and genuinely ask: How do they do it? I use a lot of thrifted fabric, for example, which isn’t super scalable because I’ll only have these two meters of fabric and then that’s it. But it can work.
For me, it’s about creating a dress that’s one-off, and then perhaps creating another dress that’s part of a collection that I am able to produce in larger quantities. Not everything in your business needs to be scalable and saleable. I think we need to shift our focus towards organic growth instead of measuring success through profits, margins, or ever-changing goals. That might be easy for me to say because I’m not earning endless amounts of money, but I think there are lessons there for bigger fashion corporations. I think this industry could also do with more patience—as things stand, it’s an impatient industry that shows like six collections a year. It’s not about taking the time to create something that also lasts for a long time.
That’s probably different for you, Anna, in digital design, which allows you to sample without buying and using lots of fabrics?
Yes, when I started this digital journey my main task was to digitize the collections and reduce both the amount as well as the shipping of samples. A company like Hugo Boss has one plane per month, which is going all over the world to just ship swatches from A to B. We also had thousands of prototypes per year, which would end up in the trash because everything you produce for the sample collection is not going to sell afterwards. Just seeing these numbers, I realized that the problem doesn’t even just lie in what the fashion industry produces for the shops—it goes way beyond that. The future of physical fashion should absolutely include more patience as a customer both in waiting for items and in selecting items.
A large part of loving fashion is about collecting treasured items. People buy a Birkin bag or a pair of sneakers, for instance, not only to wear them, but to store them as part of their personal collections. That’s where digital fashion can help us be more sustainable as long as people are willing to change their mindsets toward digital items and digital wardrobes. For example—maybe you have an avatar or a digital identity that you can style and dress up. Maybe you have an exhibition hall or a metaverse space where you visualize your garments just to show other people your taste and connect with them. This also allows people to be more involved in this creative process.
Looking to the future, we need to be open-minded about what fashion can be and how we want to express ourselves when we’re in the digital fashion space. And we also need to consider how this informs our physical wardrobes; perhaps we only buy items that we really need or when we have events in physical spaces. In those instances, we can buy from independent, local designers.
“We need to be open-minded about what fashion can be and how we want to express ourselves when we’re in the digital fashion space.”
Yes, we can only hope for a more sustainable fashion industry if we remain open-minded and speak with each other about the possible ways forward—the good and the bad. We shouldn’t judge each other’s ideas because we’re in a creative industry, which in turn means the solution will need to be creative. That brings me back to what we discussed at the beginning of our call, but talking to each other has also never been easier. It’s not just magazines and newspapers speaking to us, we can speak to each other through social media platforms.
I also think we need to see more humility from the bigger businesses in this industry by looking up to the newer generations, and by creating space for them to experiment and lay the foundations for sustainable fashion. And I think this focus on new talent is already happening, we just have to keep up the momentum.
I agree. What I find fascinating with The Fabricant—and digital fashion more broadly—is that it breaks down the elitist industry hierarchies in regards to education and the accessibility of creative tools. We want to enable everyone to be creative by giving them the necessary tools. With digital fashion, you need the internet to connect to YouTube and train yourself, and then you can continue the journey by being connected with others as Nicklas said. It also gives you a platform where you can show your designs.
The hope is also for smaller designers—like you, Nicklas, who are working to make the industry more sustainable—to have the opportunity to make more money from their intellectual property. Imagine a designer makes a base pattern or a base texture, they can then sell this item as a digital piece and people can co-create it. And every time they co-create it, the designer—who is still the IP owner—gets royalties, like 5% for every 10 items sold. This is a beautiful opportunity to empower small businesses to generate money and to generate an ecosystem where people have an equal chance at becoming a designer or a creator.
Photography Daphne Chouliaraki Milner Styling Nicklas Skovgaard Talent Nasra and Mille Mary @ Unique Models