While most of us fondly cherish the memories of playing with low-resolution, pixelated video games as kids - where our characters were stuck in predetermined outfits that all looked the same - today’s generation is currently busy playing with characters as lifelike as themselves. The digital fashion platform SKNUPS has fuelled a collaboration, empowering the London-based brand Paolina Russo to transport their key AW23 looks into the digital realm of Roblox. Now, 65 million daily active gamers can buy and wear their looks digitally, collectively mocking the 8-bit fashion faux-pas generation.
In this exclusive interview with brand creators Paolina Russo and Lucile Guilmard, we discuss the innovative intersection of folklore and futurism that defines their brand, before digging into the intricacies of this phygital partnership. We explore the hurdles involved in translating traditional craft into the digital realm, to the role of digitalisation as a tool for data research, trend-forecasting and generally a potential force for broader sustainability changes within the fashion industry.
Your work is described as residing at the intersection of folklore and futurism. Are there challenges in preserving the essence of traditional craft while modernising it? 
It's this delicate balance of keeping the handmade spirit alive while navigating the realm of modern garment production. A big part of our creative process draws from the rich tapestry of traditional crafts, and we're always exploring ways to elevate those techniques with technology. For us, technology isn't just a tool; it's a means to honour craftsmanship by pushing its boundaries beyond what's achievable by hand alone. We're constantly experimenting with the synergy of techniques – using hand-dyed and spun yarns on industrial knitting machines or seamlessly fusing artisanal methods with the sleek aesthetics of technical sportswear, like our sneaker corsets. It's like curating a visual juxtaposition that intertwines the nostalgia of the past with the innovation of the future. It's challenging, no doubt, but within that challenge lies the beauty of our craft.
Each of your collections has such a strong concept base, falling under this umbrella of traditional craftsmanship with futuristic elements. Regardless of this overarching approach, is there a specific influence that consistently finds its way into your work?
It has always been about tapping into this world of nostalgic dreams and teenage escapism that threads its way through each of our collections. Growing up in the midst of suburbia and the countryside, where the main things to do were local team sports and arts and crafts is where the essence of our work takes root. Those memories serve as the beating heart of our creative process and is the starting point for all our concepts.
We also have modern-day muses, our warrior princesses straight out of a video game fantasy. Artists like Björk and Grimes, and characters like Princess Mononoke or Link from The Legend of Zelda – embody this perfect synthesis of strength and softness!
In your Spring/Summer 2024 collection, Monolithics, you explored the intelligence of human ancestral wisdom by juxtaposing prehistoric cave markings with childhood scribbles. How did you approach translating this concept sartorially, and did challenges emerge as you sought to convey this narrative through your designs? 
For our Spring/Summer 2024 collection, Monolithics, we took a deep dive into the intelligence of human ancestral wisdom. The journey began with a visit to the Royston Caves, these ancient hand-carved drawings in the UK that spoke to us on a profound level. There was this intriguing link we discovered between those prehistoric markings and the playful scribbles we make as children with chalk on pavements. It got us thinking about how, as humans, we've been weaving these timeless narratives throughout the ages.
Translating this concept - we wanted to capture the essence of those drawings and markings, so we played with graphics and chalk colours that wove through the entire collection. The challenge was translating stone and elemental textures, especially in our knitwear and denim. Take our denim, for instance – we aimed for it to look as if we had personally carved our own symbols into chalk. It led us to a lot of experimentation, collaborating closely with manufacturers at Pizarro in Portugal to find sustainable and responsible solutions.
Ultimately, we found ourselves applying laser graphics directly onto finished dyed garments, achieving a balance between the ancient and the contemporary. It's about preserving the essence of the past while embracing the technology of today.
Reflecting on your diverse upbringings  - Paolina having been raised in the suburban town of Markham, Canada, and Lucile in the cosmopolitan city of Paris - your backgrounds converged in London, where you both studied at the University of the Arts. Could you share how these experiences have collectively shaped your design perspective? Are there specific aspects of your work that you see mirror your background?
Absolutely. Our upbringing serves as the foundation for everything we do. It's like this continuous well of inspiration that fuels the essence of the brand. We have this inherent belief that magic is embedded in the ordinary, that even the most mundane aspects of life hold the potential to be beautiful and thrilling.
Growing up in small towns, where boredom was a catalyst for creativity, we found ourselves engaging in diverse activities – from taekwondo training to immersing ourselves in mediaeval festivals and even joining the local quilting guild. These seemingly random experiences played a crucial role in shaping our perspectives.
Transitioning from the tranquillity of suburbia to the vibrant pulse of an international city like London was like stepping into a whole new universe. The contrast was stark, and it expanded our horizons in ways we couldn't have imagined. It was at Central Saint Martins, where we first felt the weight of being taken seriously as designers. The tutors there approached every idea and project with consideration and critique, compelling us to elevate our own expectations and take ourselves more seriously. Our upbringing shaped our tastes and our studies gave us the tools to translate them into something tangible. 
In the past, you’ve highlighted the importance of spending time on the ground in the factories you work with. How does this hands-on approach influence the development of each collection, and what drives your commitment to partaking in the diverse craftsmanship involved in the making of your garment?
Our approach is hands-on from the get-go, immersing ourselves in the factories alongside manufacturers and developers at the start of every season. It's a collaborative process where we enter with open minds, embracing experimentation with techniques and fabrics as the initial spark for the collection. Our work is very process driven, emphasising inclusivity by involving everyone in the creative journey – asking questions, seeking solutions, and fostering collaboration with our manufacturers.
We find a lot of creative breakthroughs when you treat the work in factories as a craft, and we're passionate about dismantling the notion that it's anything less. We believe in the collective intelligence that arises from idea exchange, and we see the factory as a hub of untapped potential for innovation in materials, techniques, and sustainability.
By blurring the lines between the studio and the factory floor, we lay the groundwork for garments that are not only timeless but also functional, durable, and responsible. The commitment to this collaborative, hands-on approach is deeply rooted in our belief that true creativity knows no boundaries, and the most transformative ideas often emerge from the intersection of diverse perspectives.
You’ve mentioned your work being heavily inspired by gaming and online universes tracing back to your childhood; it’s really interesting to see how this has seemingly manifested in your current collaboration with SKNUPS. Can you shed light on what sparked this collaboration? Did the influences you’ve drawn from these universes contribute to the way this collaboration came together?
The collaboration with SKNUPS emerged organically through our involvement with the 1 Granary mentorship programme. This platform has consistently encouraged us to break free from the confines of the young London designer archetype, leading us to connect with Charlie Thomas and Fred Speirs, the co-founders of SKNUPS.
What drew us to SKNUPS was a shared ethos that places a strong emphasis on craftsmanship and hands-on practices. For us, craftsmanship is ingrained in the way we approach textiles and collaborate with artisans and makers. SKNUPS, on the other hand, interprets craftsmanship in a fascinating way – the meticulous recreation of real-life textures, colours, and movements, pixel by pixel. It's about pushing the boundaries of what's possible by transcending the limitations of the physical world, creating this unique fusion of digital and physical fashion.
The prospect of collaborating on a Paolina Russo video game with SKNUPS felt like a dream come true. Growing up playing games like The Sims, where constructing our own secret worlds was a formative experience, has undoubtedly influenced the way we approach our brand. It's this intersection of real and virtual, of craftsmanship in the physical and digital realms, that makes the collaboration with SKNUPS particularly exciting and meaningful for us.
I find that this collaboration stands as confirmation of your ability to preserve traditional crafts through digitalisation. Following our earlier discussion on the challenges of maintaining traditional craft within modernisation, in the context of this collaboration, can you explain how you ensured the integrity of your designs during the transition into the digital landscape? Did you face challenges when meshing these two dimensions?
When it came to selecting pieces from the AW23 collection to feature on Roblox, our primary focus was on ensuring the seamless translation of our core values – craftsmanship, innovation, sustainability, and community – into the digital realm. We wanted to spotlight our most artisanal and collaborative pieces from the season, ensuring that the integrity of our designs was not only recreated but preserved forever within the digital landscape.
The process of digitising the garments was truly fascinating and, in its own right, a form of craftsmanship. SKNUPS has this incredible team of developers who delved deep into developing each piece, translating each stitch pixel by pixel. Using 360 images, they managed to capture all the intricate details and textures of the actual fabrics. What's truly remarkable is how they replicated even the disappearing and reappearing lenticular effects of our illusion knit graphics – it's honestly kind of unbelievable.
The collaboration presented a unique set of challenges, as meshing the tangible with the digital always requires a delicate balance. However, through the skillful work of SKNUPS and their dedication to capturing the essence of our designs, we successfully navigated these challenges, creating a digital extension of our craftsmanship that feels authentic and true to our brand. It's a testament to the exciting possibilities that arise when traditional crafts meet the boundless realm of digitalisation.
Given the digital nature of Roblox combined with garment intricacies, I’m curious: was it challenging to ensure fluid movement in your creations when worn by the characters in the game?
The trickiest part was getting the fabric movement just right, you know, how materials drape, fold, and react as the character moves. In the beginning, when the characters would swim in the water, there were glitches in the beginning where the clothes would magically disappear. But we figured it out, and now she can swim with her dress on without any disappearing acts.
Stepping back and considering the entire collaboration with SKNUPS and Roblox, from conceptualisation to the launch, what aspects of this collaboration have been the most fulfilling for you personally? Were there elements that challenged your initial expectations?
During the design and development phases, the characters we were working on remained static for a considerable period while we focused on crafting the textures, colours, and shapes.
The pivotal moment arrived when Charlie and Fred unveiled videos of the characters moving and  playing in the game for the first time. That experience was genuinely so surreal. It was a transformative moment when our character, born from images and references, suddenly became alive. That was really beyond our expectation. 
Sustainability-wise, this collaboration is described as a tool for data research and trend forecasting, contributing to reducing overproduction and waste in the fashion industry. Do you view the digital approach as a potential force for broader sustainability changes within the fashion industry?
Designing digitally addresses many sustainability challenges inherent in the manufacturing industry, specifically allowing us to circumvent issues like waste and overproduction. Every creative experiment being conducted online reduces physical waste associated with traditional prototyping processes.
Moreover, overproduction is eliminated in the digital realm, as items are produced on demand for the customer. Additionally, the absence of physical shipping and transportation in the digital space contributes to reducing carbon footprints. This is a key aspect of the beauty of the digital era—everything is instantly accessible in one place.
What opportunities do you see in the digital realm? Do you believe it opens up new possibilities for independent designers?
Yes, for sure! We are not bound by the constraints of physical materials or production limitations manufacturing challenges that often hinder young designers – no worrying about Minimum Order Quantities (MOQ), lead times for raw materials, overproduction, or seasonal market dependencies. This allows us to focus solely on our creative vision and to push the boundaries of design, experimentation, and fantasy that may be challenging or impossible in real life.
It also transforms the way we think about monetising our designs. The prospect of reaching a completely new audience is very exciting by tapping into the expansive world of gaming. This crossover provides a unique avenue to connect with individuals who may not have been traditional followers of fashion and opens up a new audience for our work.
How do you see the digital and physical aspects of your brand evolving in tandem over the coming years? Are there any technological advancements or platforms you find promising for the future expression of your brand?
Looking ahead, we envision the digital and physical aspects of our brand evolving in tandem, and we view our collaboration with SKNUPS as a long-term journey. The plan is to introduce selected looks from each upcoming season into the game, establishing a bridge between the tangible and the virtual. With the foundation of garment shapes in the game, we're exploring the concept of releasing exclusive online colourways, treating the digital versions as an extension of the real pieces. It's about creating a seamless connection between the physical and the digital, emphasising the craftsmanship inherent in both realms.
As we move forward, it would be amazing if we could design for more video games. A dream would be to help design the clothes for the next Legend of Zelda games. 
At such a young age, you’ve gathered an impressive array of accomplishments and awards up your sleeve! From a multi-project collaboration with Adidas to being finalists for the LVMH Prize and the International Woolmark Prize to your current collaboration with SKNUPS. How do you perceive these accomplishments, and do they impact your approach to design and business in any way?
We consider ourselves incredibly fortunate to have received recognition and support from esteemed institutions throughout our journey. Winning the Zalando Visionary Award and meeting the high sustainability standards associated with such an prize aligns perfectly with our mission: modernising craftsmanship and reimagining traditional techniques through innovation and responsible practices. It serves as both encouragement and validation, propelling us to persist in building a sustainable brand and championing an alternative approach to our work.
Hosting the show in Copenhagen in the summer marked a significant milestone for us, and we're enthusiastic about continuing our journey. These accomplishments not only fuel our passion but also reinforce our commitment to pushing boundaries in design and business. 
Thank you for your time! Before you go, you mentioned launching three new looks on Roblox each season. Can you give us a glimpse into the themes or inspirations for future releases?
Thank you for having us! We are entering into an icy world!