Social media has prompted an endless cycle of throwaway fashion culture. Outfits are bought and curated for one-off posts, and then cast aside. Digital fashion offers an attractive alternative to this system. Yimeng Yu is a traditionally trained fashion designer who has expanded her research and creative practice to digital design. Her work is fantastical, often consisting of fashion items that are unachievable using existing physical materials. We talked to her about the technical considerations of digital fashion design, why she made the move to this mode of working and her distinctive digital couture designs. As digital fashion finds more supportive technological ecosystems, and has already begun to populate social media, Yu discusses her approach and what she hopes the future has in store for it.
To start off, could you introduce yourself to those who may not know your work?
I am Yimeng Yu, an interdisciplinary fashion designer and artist focusing on the future of fashion, accessories and materials in the context of the digital age. I graduated from Royal College of Art in London and currently work as the fashion design director at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design in Beijing, China. My studio is also based in Beijing. Currently, my main research focus is on computational design and digital fabrication. My work is dedicated to exploring avant-garde apparel aesthetics and the innovation within the fashion industry.
Your training is in traditional fashion design, how does this inform your current digital design process? When did you first begin to explore digital fashion?
I think it is important to have a traditional fashion design training before stepping into digital fashion, because what we are talking about is still fashion! Basic fashion knowledge and technical skills are the foundations of digital fashion design. Digital fashion is not only a way to replicate what can be done in real life, but more importantly, a way to break the boundaries of physical limitations and achieve something beyond reality.
Through my background in traditional fashion, I got to understand the body’s structures, various material properties, space, the experience of wearing garments and so on. Then, when I started designing digitally, I was able to manage the fitting of virtual materials to a body well and make everything look in proportion. I have been integrating digital methods into much of my research in different stages and in various aspects, but I only started transitioning the core of my research to digital fashion last year.
What constitutes an item of digital clothing? What kind of digital object is it, and how does a designer produce such an item?
There are many ways to produce digital clothing items, and there are two major branches the final product can take. One is a fabric simulation item. Here, the digital clothing move with a body. These can be made using Clo 3D, Marvelous Designers and some other programmes; generally, we use these tools to make patterns. The other is body-surrounding sculptural items. With these, the clothing items are normally static, this kind of object can be made by many software, such as Cinema 4D, Blender and Zbrush. There is not only one way to achieve a final product. The same outcome can often be done using different softwares. The digital design process is a totally new method, and it is significant for designers to have their own tools system, that is the key to remaining unique.
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How does your process differ when designing for digital bodies than for physical ones?
I don’t think there is a lot of difference between designing for digital bodies and for physical ones, because my target is always a body. I still need to consider the same design factors that respond to a body’s shape, structure and movement. The only difference is that using digital tools I can start from anywhere I want.  For example, I can experiment with some new forms first, and then consider how to make the object wearable. I can also check the rendering of a final outfit’s effect in real time and make adjustments immediately. It is very time saving and sitting in front of the computer affords me with a great deal more experimentation. So, using a digital avatar to design can provide me with more possibilities and improve my efficiency.
In the virtual world, material properties do not actually exist, but are signified. How do you work with notions of form and mass while designing in this way? How do you approach new textile designs for your garments?
I think that is the attractive side of digital designing, because I can experimentally tweak everything digitally and can see the real time render effect. Technically, every material property can be simulated in digital world. If you have enough traditional experience of fabrics and special materials, then you can simulate the same in the software. And some of them can be made by 3D printers or by fabrics with the same physical properties in real world. But something that is more fascinating is that digital tools can be used to generate forms and structures that cannot be easily achieved in the real world. I love exploring new visuals and forms in the digital landscape, it totally frees my imagination.
In my design process, I like to use algorithmic generative methods to assist my design, in other words, creating a design machine to design for me, combining the bottom-up and top-down design processes. The parametric method connects textile design very well because both need precision and organisation. This is what I have been constantly researching, using the parametric design method to approach new textile designs.
I find your references to amphibious and insect life an interesting parallel to the high tech, otherworldly sensibilities of your pieces, almost as if made from ferrofluid fractals. How do you balance these references and logics while working?
In design and academic research, I am quite a rational person, I love well-organised things and logical working processes, so that is also the reason why I love fractals and algorithms. But in my daily life, I am quite a perceptive person. I think that affects my work a lot, I am always striking the balance between the sharp and soft, dark and elegant, nature and high-tech, and order and disorder. My initial references are sometimes perceptual, but the way I design always pursues logic and precision. These contradictions shape my own design philosophy and identity.
Digital fashion seems to have drifted to the endlessly customisable and massively distributable, yet much of your digital design work is self-described as couture. Tell us about your couture line, and how you approach designing these digital objects.
Yes, compared to physical clothing, digital fashion is much easier to endlessly customise and is massively distributable, because it won’t be limited by many physical conditions. But you can still spend massive amounts of time and energy on creating a singular digital piece.
The experience of digital fashion is more for visual than functional, so it requires different skills and processes from physical fashion. I call some of my works digital couture because I specifically customised or adjusted the design for a wearer. In these cases, I choose the matchable textures and rendered the clothing according to the wearer’s body shape, body gesture, lighting, surrounding environment, and their whole vibe, etc. After that I use a computer generative method to compose the digital garment over their photos. All of these are the factors which would affect the final product, which means that there are lots of processes required. Normally I use more than five softwares to achieve all the aspects of a couture piece. It’s a one on one process and the piece is unique.
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What do you hope to be the digital lifespan of your work?
I hope my work can stand the test of time, but I always think my best work is the next one, because I am trying to learn and develop myself all the time.
Much of your Master of Arts work was concerned with sustainably enhancing people’s abilities to self-express. Digital fashion design obviously carries this promise forward with concern to its ability to avert polluting production streams. NFTs seem to contradict this with their highly energy use. How do you hope to deliver your products sustainably in the current digital art ecosystem?
NFTs are a way to present digital fashion, but we also have other ways to deliver, experience and share digital fashion. Although NFTs have a high energy use during minting, they pollute less than the traditional fashion industry. Personally, I will try NFTs, but will also build up my own channel to deliver my products, like a website or app.
Debates over the ethics and consequences of a Metaverse continue to rage on, yet there is currently no digital infrastructure for a Metaverse, and it is unclear how users might interact with one another using such a platform. What does your digital utopia look like? How do you see fashion existing in this world?
The concept of Metaverse has been a hot topic for a long time, but as you said, there is currently no infrastructure yet. So, we content creators absolutely must wait for the technology to mature, and until then, be prepared and keep learning.
My digital utopia is a mixed reality world, there are no clear boundaries between virtual and real, you can wear digital dresses in the real world. Augmented reality can do this now, but I hope it becomes more of a part of everyday life. And fashion would definitely be an important part of this world, because apart from their actual functionality, fashion allows us to show and express identities and attitudes; digital fashion brings massive new possibilities in a more sustainable way.
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