Digital fashion brand The Fabricant has been leading the way for direct-to-avatar fashion, helping guide everyone from Adidas to Tommy Hilfiger into the metaverse. But the Finnish-born founder Kerry Murphy has bigger plans. He wants to create a completely new digital fashion industry.
Words KONRAD OLSSON • 3D rendering and retouch DOUBLE UP STUDIO
The most fascinating thing about The Fabricant might not be realised until ten years from now. For a tech startup, selling the future is common practice, but the Finnish-born founder Kerry Murphy is more honest about long-term than most tech entrepreneurs. He admits that the promise of The Fabricant’s vision might not come to fruition until 2030. But it’s a promise that might be worth waiting for. And it’s a promise that has influenced this entire issue of Scandinavian MIND. The promise of a new fashion industry.
A new and completely digital fashion industry, which fulfils all our needs of identity, community, vanity, cultural relevance, and thirst for aesthetics. But one that does it without putting the burden on our planet’s finite resources the way the old, physical industry does. An industry that, in the words of Kerry Murphy himself, ”wastes nothing but data and exploits nothing but imagination.”
Sounds idealistic? Sure thing. But also titillating. And meticulously well thought out. When speaking to Murphy it’s clear that he and his co-founder, creative director Amber Slooten, will have covered every aspect of digital fashion that one can come up with by the spring of 2022. The notion of a generational shift when it comes to digital interactions. The potential of scarce digital assets and NFTs. The idea of new digital worlds, i.e. metaverses, where we will congregate, interact, work, and play.
When talking about the applications for digital fashion, Murphy is noticeably tech-agnostic. He doesn’t care if it’s consumed and experienced through ar-filters in Snapchat or in the immersive metaverses of Roblox or Sandbox. Time will tell, he seems to think, as he’s not exactly sure how it will play out. What he is sure of is that it will play a role in the years to come.
In many ways, it already has. Since launching their digital-only fashion brand in 2018, The Fabricant has collaborated with the likes of Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger, Under Armour, Puma, and rftkt, the digital sneaker brand that recently sold to Nike for an undisclosed sum. As a forerunner in the ”direct-to-avatar” space, The Fabricant has been selling the idea of digital style to an amused crypto-community and sceptical public.
What started out as the idea for a digital fashion brand is now evolving into a new definition of what a ”fashion house” can be. According to Murphy, The Fabricant’s vision includes both a brand, a community, an educational platform, and a newly launched studio, which enables anyone to become a digital fashion designer. The idea being that by bringing traditional fashion and textile experts together with 3d-designers and tech developers, The Fabricant will lay the foundation for this brave new digital fashion world.
Whether or not they will succeed, remains to be seen. If nothing else, it’s reassuring that Murphy, who grew up in the small town of Hollola in northern Finland, aims to build his company on a foundation of our region’s values. Says Murphy, when I interview him over a video call: ”Our company has all the Finnish and Nordic values in it: sustainability, creativity, and innovation.”
Digital interview. Stockholm/Amsterdam, February 2022.
When talking about things like digital fashion, NFTs, and the metaverse, there’s always this notion of wrapping your head around new concepts. I’m curious if you remember the moment when you realised digital fashion is going to be a thing. Was there a light bulb moment for you?
— There have been many light bulb moments. There are two that I always reflect back on. When I realised that every other design industry had gone through digital transformation and fashion hadn’t. We’ve seen it with photography, film and visual effects, architecture, aeronautical, automotive, you name it. Every big industry has gone through it. Now the moment of digital fashion has come. This was around 2016. When I started looking into it, there was no real data to show you that people were buying digital fashion. That was something that was missing. It gave me what I call a crystal ball look into the future, that fashion was going to be digital.
It was strengthened by the vision of my co-founder Amber, who is a digital‑only fashion designer and creative director at The Fabricant. She imagined this future where everybody will only wear one physical item of clothing overlaid by a digital layer of clothing. She said it was a hologram back then, but I was never a big fan of the word hologram because, right now, hologram technologies are very clunky. Regardless of the tech, this is the future that we foresee. It’s our guiding light towards a digital‑only fashion industry.
That’s what you call augmented reality, AR. Something digital laid upon traditional reality. That’s where it all started?
— It’s the blurring of the digital world and the physical world. Right now, we call it augmented reality. In the future, we don’t know what we’re going to call it. We’re not so focused on the hardware and the technology side of it. We’re focused on how we can make fashion beautiful and emotional in the so‑called metaverse. In our virtual lives, how can we tell our stories? How can we create our identities in our physical lives through digital fashion? Those are the guiding questions.
We’re relying on Apple, Snap, and all the big tech companies to come up with cool tech that will allow us to put the digital fashion assets to use. We’re waiting for that moment when technology catches up with our vision. Then we can put it out there and the world will be ready to wear digital clothing.
You mentioned the word identity, which, to me, which is at the core of what fashion is about. It’s us projecting ourselves to the world. Whether we’re super conscious about it or less conscious about it, we all do it. Take me back to those early conversations with you and Amber. How did you define fashion?
— From the very first conversation, we were very aligned on the future vision. A lot of conversations were: how can we get people to wear digital clothing? What is the true value of digital clothing? With physical clothing, it’s to cover your body. That’s the functionality, but the true functionality of clothing is in the stories that we’re telling. We really needed to focus on that because everybody was like, ”Oh, digital fashion? That doesn’t make any sense. That’s pretty stupid. How do I watch it? How do I wear it? I want to smell it.”
We started focusing on the identities, and that was our leading conversation, trying to understand what is the true emotional need that people have with clothing. All the way from the hardcore fashionistas to people who don’t care about fashion. Anytime we decide to put clothing on our bodies, it’s a statement. It’s a form of storytelling. It’s a form of identity. How can we create that experience? I always say that we need to create an interactive digital experience that’s better than the physical experience.
You mentioned there were two light bulb moments.
— The other is my favourite reference, Kodak. Kodak was the monopoly for 100 years in the film industry. They went bankrupt in 2012 simply because they refused to do digital transformation. My question is always: which big fashion house is going to go bankrupt in the future because they refuse to digitise? That’s 100 % sure going to happen. They still value that old traditional craftsmanship, when, in fact, digital is also craftsmanship. It just takes craftsmanship to a different place, to a different level.
— The things that they value in the traditional fashion industry are going to start disappearing. It’s going to be a generational change. When the kids who are 15 now, who love buying skins on Fortnite, will start emerging, they will demand those digital experiences.
There are still fashion companies who pride themselves on not being on social media, not having an e‑commerce channel, and not doing anything digital. We can’t deny that digital is going to be part of our futures. All lives are becoming more and more digital. That’s why it’s super important for brands to embrace this and understand this, and keep their integrity in place while embodying new technologies. I think that’s going to be very, very crucial for these brands.
Has that given you the confidence to go forward with this even though people around you want to shoot you down?
— [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. But we try to avoid those conversations because you can’t convince somebody who is self‑convinced that this will not happen. That’s why we focus on people who are open‑minded, curious, and are asking the questions, because the questions are more important right now than the solutions.
You mentioned a generational thing. My favourite eye‑opening moment in my life was last spring, when my daughter, who was 10, was calling from me from the other room. She was shouting, ”Dad, Dad, do you think I should wear this cap?” I get into the room and she’s not wearing a cap physically. She’s holding up her phone with her avatar in a red cap. The light bulb moment for me was that not that she wanted to buy digital stuff. She said, ”Do you think I should wear this cap?” For her, it was her identity. It was an extension of herself. Where do you see the generational shift? Will The Fabricant blow up only when my daughter’s generation will be old enough to pay for these things? Who is your target group?
— That’s the great speculation right now, knowing that this will be the biggest thing in the future, but not knowing when it will happen. That’s why it becomes quite strategic to have a proper understanding of how to move forward. The answer is that we just keep focusing on the target audiences that do understand it, but also the target audiences that have the purchasing power. Your daughter is still not making money, but she grows up with this idea that digital assets have value. In 10–15 years from now, when she has her own job and she’s going into these digital experiences, she will be part of our target audience. Of course, by that time, there’s going to be thousands of different digital brands already.
The Fabricant’s target audience right now is the so‑called crypto bros, the people who understand digital assets on the blockchain, because those are the people that typically see the most value. Traditional fashionistas are scared about blockchain. They’re scared of digital experiences. They’re scared of our digital lives. They’re like, ”I still want my real life experiences, my real life events. I still want real clothing. I want to go to real fashion shows.” We will definitely have to wait a while, let’s say 2025, 2030, something like that, before we get true mainstream adoption throughout the whole world. But there’s already millions of people buying it.
A great example is all the games that exist. Fortnite is generating 60 million a month from skins. All the Activision Blizzard games and League of Legends, most of their money is made from the in‑game assets. They just have non‑sexy names right now. ”In‑game asset!” Nobody wakes up in the morning like, ”Oh, my God, in‑game assets. I’m so excited.” When you change that dialogue into something different, and when it’s really about identity, fashion, and storytelling, then it becomes something different. If I’m waking up and I need to ask myself, ”What am I going to wear in the metaverse today? What am I going to wear in my virtual identity today? How do I want to present myself today as a spiritual person?” I love the example of your daughter because she doesn’t differentiate. She’s interacting through a computer, through a virtual medium, and just hanging out with her friends in the metaverse. They’re not playing first‑person shooters. It doesn’t have to have a point other than this socialising and community perspective.
Community is one of the biggest keywords in the Web 3 space that we need to focus on. We’re going to go after the people who already have this virtual existence. They hang out in Discord, Roblox, and Twitter, having conversations with the whole world. Any fashion brand that starts, let’s say, in France, it’s so hard and so difficult to get into China and start connecting to those consumers. As a metaverse native company, we can do that today super easily. We already are. We’re a multinational company with remote workers all over the world and audiences all over the world, and constantly getting people from Japan, Argentina, Hawaii, all the corners of the world asking about digital fashion.
That’s why I say digital fashion will be way larger than physical fashion — it’s the scalability. That’s one of the core things that will make us more successful than physical fashion brands. No supply chains, no expansion plans, which are super difficult to do.
In your recent white paper you write that it’s your vision to lead the fashion industry towards a new sector of digital‑only clothing that, ”wastes nothing but data and exploits nothing but imagination.” My entry point into this as a journalist was covering the apparent issues of sustainability and harm on the planet from the traditional fashion industry. It was my reasoning that if my daughter’s generation can spend less money on physical clothes and we can ease the pressure on the planet that way, and she can spend the need for her identity in digital worlds, perhaps it could be a way forward in terms of sustainability. Has that been part of the conversation for you guys as well?
— 100 per cent. Like I said, scalability is one of the key things that’s going to make us bigger than the physical fashion industry. Sustainability is the other one. It has been at the core of everything we do since the very beginning. We just need to create a digital experience that’s better than the physical. It’s really about identifying people’s psychological needs, but also understanding their socio‑economic backgrounds. Why does somebody go into Primark or h&m to buy six bags of clothing, and walk out of there only to wear it once or never on their bodies. What is that emotional need that drives them to do something like that? It gets very, very deep.
”Your daughter is still not making money, but she grows up with this idea that digital assets have value. In 10—15 years from now, when she has her own job and she’s going into these digital experiences.”
We’ve been talking about sustainability since day one. We have a sustainability report on our website on what a digital T‑shirt costs versus a physical T‑shirt? We have to think about energy use. The physical fashion industry needs to think about water‑use, materials, so many other things. The result, in very short, is that we’re actually three per cent of the carbon footprint from physical fashion.
It’s that low?
— Yeah, three per cent.
— We’ve done extensive research with the Imperial College in London about this. Other players have done the same, and everybody comes up with the same results. It’s three per cent. But sustainability is not something that gets people excited about digital fashion.
— When it comes to shopping, e‑commerce channels are these white pages with flat 2d items. It’s very informative. Now, go into the High Street. It’s an emotional experience. It’s curated. As soon as you enter the store, you’re already getting a wave of emotions. There’s music, art, people, everything’s curated. There are smells, colours, so it becomes something that’s just nice to do. That’s why window shopping is a term. How do we create a digital experience that people are like, ”I don’t want to go out to the High Street. I want to have a digital shopping experience because it’s interactive, because it’s fun.” That’s the world that we’re moving towards.
— There are some fantastic people already building there, including us, but the gaming companies are actually giving us the biggest view on what an interactive experience will be. There are going to be thousands of these experiences where you can buy digital clothing. I’m not saying that it’s going to completely replace the physical fashion industry. It’s going to create additional value for the physical fashion industry, where people who buy digital items will want the physical item as well.
It’s time to talk about The Fabricant. Give us the elevator pitch, and we’ll go from there.
— The Fabricant is building the digital‑only fashion industry. We’re not only building a fashion brand where we design digital clothing, we’re actually building the new fashion industry. Right now, we’re focusing on the wardrobe experience. What does wearing mean with The Fabricant? It’s augmented reality filters using Snapchat camera kits. It’s optimising assets for nft games. When I talk about nft games, it’s like Star Atlas, which is on Unreal Engine, and Sandbox, which is on Unity, and multiple other ones. Then constantly doing that optimisation of those assets so they can live in the so‑called metaverse.
Meaning portability. That you’re able to put the fashion pieces of digital garments into various different metaverses and environments, right?
— Exactly. Interoperability is something that we talk about all the time. It’s very important. Then, of course, the sharing to social media. That’s a niche trend where people send pictures to a service and this service puts digital clothing onto the pictures themselves, so people can share them on social media. We want people to interact and ”wear” digital clothing. Wearing will evolve as the technologies evolve as well.
Then we want people to become creators of digital clothing. Similar to how the smartphone made everybody a photographer, a videographer, a content maker. All of a sudden, my mom is taking pictures of landscapes and people and sharing it on social media. We’re creating the tool that makes everybody a digital fashion designer, or at least gives them that sense and the feeling that they are designing clothes. Right now, it’s picking materials, picking items, and creating unique combinations.
We’re creating a very powerful garment configurator, where you get to design your clothing to the point where you’re choosing buttons and stitches, where you’re thinking about the seams, where you’re thinking about all the details, and see your creative expression connected to the digital‑only clothing. You get to own it, wear it, and sell it in the metaverse. This is the starting point.
From there, we’re going to expand to experiences that go all the way to the beginning — which is material creation, how you create materials in the metaverse — to the end, which is recycling. What does recycling of digital‑clothing mean? Upselling of digital clothing, to sell it for more than you bought it for, is already happening. There’s so many different experiences that we can think of, but you need to change the meaning of it in the metaverse. Vintage digital clothing has a different function than in the real world, so we need to create those experiences.
What I love about the Web 3 world, where it’s decentralised, is that we don’t have to do it all on our own. We build a community of creators who are going to build it together with us. The metaverse is not going to come from one company. It’s not going to come from Facebook. It’s not going to come from Epic Games. It’s going to come from the whole world of creators and builders who are going to start connecting.
That’s going to be interesting to see. I’m picking up on what you said about vintage clothing. I’m sure there are certain aspects about digital vintage clothing that are going to be the same as physical clothing because styles differ over the years. In ten years, looking back at some of the first garments that you released, perhaps they will be ”so 2022”.
— Absolutely. The experience is different because you have the timestamp on the clothing. Because it lives on the blockchain, you know the exact moment that it was created. You get a history connected to it. You’re going to have historians seeing what wallet owned this digital fashion item. You’re going to be like, ”Oh, Kanye owned this item at some point,” which is going to give it additional value. That history, provenance, legacy, the storytelling aspect is going to be super visible, which is going to create more value for these items. That being said, there’s also going to be a lot of noise because so many digital items can be made, it’s going to be hard to find what is valuable and what’s not.
You’re not just creating a digital fashion brand. You’re creating a much bigger ecosystem. Can you talk about the studio and how that works?
— A traditional fashion house designs, produces, and sells clothing. The digital fashion house is much more than that. Our business is built on four pillars. We have a label where we design clothing. That’s where we create curiosity and inspire people to understand the craftsmanship of digital fashion. Then we have The Fabricant Studio, which is a scalable platform that makes everybody a digital fashion designer. Then we have the community. It’s not only people who buy our digital clothing. It’s people who build with us.
The fourth pillar is the academy, where we’re teaching people who don’t understand what we do, because it’s so complex. It’s fashion design. It’s visual effects. It’s gaming technology. It’s blockchain technology. We’re really sitting at the intersection between all of those. We want to teach our community how to become an amazing fashion designer using clothe‑ready software, and how to become an amazing visual effects designer. How to do lighting, materials, and rendering. That way, we create a funnel so we get talent into The Fabricant Studio and The Fabricant label.
What does the business model look like?
— The main drivers are from The Fabricant Studio right now. There, we have a marketplace where we have marketplace fees. Our Legacy is working with brands, and we’re continuing that. We want brands to come to the platform, as well. Typically, these brands don’t have any digital assets. We help them with those digital assets and onboard on the marketplace. But the primary driver of the business model is the marketplace.
The blockchain enables us to get a primary marketplace fee. When those items sell further down the line, we still get secondary fees forever and forever. That’s why it’s important to get quality items that just keep selling for a lifetime because that’s the way you’re going to exponentially grow the revenues.
”We’re at the intersection of fashion, gaming, and blockchain. Three different skill sets, three different languages, three different cultures.”
You do have aspects of your business, whether it’s design, communication, community, that are also strong in the legacy fashion business. Can you describe what you do similar to the traditional fashion industry and what you’re doing that’s completely new?
— As I mentioned, we’re at the intersection of fashion, gaming, and blockchain. It’s those three different industries coming together. Three different skill sets, three different languages, three different cultures. If you think of a blockchain developer working together with a fashion designer, you can imagine… That’s a soap opera right there. A lot of visual effects designers have come in and left very quickly, simply because they couldn’t operate in the environment.
— Bringing all these different cultures into this fashion mindset, into this fashion world has always been a challenge. For me, any fashion brand of the future needs to bring in people who understand 3d design, 3d engineering, visual effects pipelines, and gaming technology like Unreal Engine.
Another challenge for traditional fashion companies is the metaverse idea. All the luxury brands that I’ve been speaking to for years, all of a sudden they all have chief metaverse officers. Nike is hiring like crazy. The Kering group brands are all hiring like crazy. Everybody’s getting promoted to head of metaverse, director of metaverse, CEO of metaverse. That’s a big challenge for them, but they are making the right moves. The traditional creative directors for fashion brands are still like, ”I need to touch it. I need to do everything by hand,” rather than, ”Hey, you can do everything with the computer these days.” The generational change needs to happen. They need to get out their old dinosaurs, and they need to bring in young super talent.
I’m super curious to see how this will play out. I always thought that the type of fashion that has a strong community around it, and a strong collectability around it, will do fairly well in digital spaces. That’s sneakers, that’s luxury brands. You have worked with some of the traditional fashion brands. Where do you see this going?
— There’s going to be the ones who totally don’t get it. They are going to lose out in the long term. Then there are the ones who are already making great steps towards the space. Nike bought RTFKT a few months back, which of course was a big thing for us because it’s the first time that a digitally native brand has been bought. That’s a big move. Gucci is doing great things. Balenciaga is doing great things. That’s from the Kering group. I don’t know if we’ve really seen anything from the LVMH group yet.
On the contrary, they’ve said that they don’t want to get into it, at least right now.
— Right, which doesn’t surprise me because speaking with LVMH has always been like, ”Oh, but this is not us,” because they are still stuck in that old frame thinking. That’s fine. Sooner or later, they’re also going to move into that space. Everything is a matter of timing. It comes down to when their target consumer is ready to adopt thinking that digital Louis Vuitton is actually cool. That’s the time that they’re going to move into that space. If their consumers are still like, ”No, we don’t care anything about the metaverse,” they’re also not going to move into that space. These brands are massive, they’re super smart. They have great teams who are capable of understanding what the consumers want. They’re capable of moving there.
The big challenge will be for the smaller brands. The ones who are in this constant survival mode, who are constantly trying to get out a new collection so they can make enough money to survive the next six months. Those are the brands that are going to suffer the most. Because, first of all, they don’t have the resources to understand where the world is truly moving to. They only have current data of the current market, but not of where the market is heading towards. They can’t move to 3d. They don’t have the capacity. That’s why we started The Fabricant Studio, which essentially should make it easier for everybody to start a digital‑only brand without having to have that 3d knowledge.
Speaking about The Fabricant Studio. Give me a little sense of what the tools are. You mentioned digital garments, things that take a long time to develop for a digital designer, I’m sure. How does that work?
— There’s two components to that. First of all, it’s the software component. We use software to create our digital fashion items. We happen to use CLO 3d and Marvelous Designer for the modelling of the 3d clothing. There you need software knowledge, you need to understand patterns. You need to understand stitching, sewing. You need to understand all the craftsmanship of fashion. That’s what our academy is for. Our academy is focused on those people who have a traditional background and want to understand software knowledge. We help them out, but that’s on a much smaller scale.
Then there’s the other side, which is The Fabricant Studio, which is simplifying digital clothing creation by putting it into a tool. If you think about how photography has gone from super‑complex cameras using jargon that nobody understands, like f‑stop, shutter speed, iris, iso. Most people don’t even have an understanding of that. All of a sudden, you have the smartphone and you just click and you have a great picture that is trying to adjust the lighting for you and trying to make the picture as beautiful as possible. It’s a similar type of concept where we take the complexities of the technicalities away and give people the power to do something that they understand.
”There you need software knowledge, you need to understand patterns. You need to understand stitching, sewing. You need to understand all the craftsmanship of fashion.”
Everybody understands how clothing functions. It’s just about creating that experience for them where they can say, ”I like those buttons. I want those buttons to be placed there. I like that zipper. I like that colour. I like that material.” It’s super basic. It’s basically choosing your garment, choosing your material, creating a combination, and that’s your unique combination. In the future, this tool is going to become much more powerful. The Fabricant Studio is going to create the designers of the future. The virtual Ablohs, Karl Lagerfelds, and Coco Chanels of the future are going to come from The Fabricant Studio.
A lot of what’s happening right now is we are creating new environments, new spaces, new countries, new lands. It’s like a new frontier, and you have a chance to decide what world we want there. To me, it’s interesting to talk about what are the values we are bringing into this. You have a Finnish-American background. I’m curious if there’s something from your Nordic background that you’re bringing with you in creating your company, but also in creating these new digital worlds?
— I love the topic. It’s something that I never get asked about and something that I think about every single day. For me, running our company, it has all the so‑called Finnish values or the Nordic values. Sustainability is a big one. In the Nordics, we’re very good at it. It’s something that’s inherent in our culture, and something that I would say the rest of the world is not so good at. At least Central Europeans, they don’t really care about it.
If you think about what the Nordic values are, it’s sustainability, creativity, and innovation. Sweden is especially known for its music, for its design, and so many different aspects. You’re good at talking about it in the world as well. Finland has great stuff, but they’re not capable of getting it out of Finland for some reason. That’s one part of those values. We’re humble. We don’t boast about the things that we do good. We’re always very quality focused. We think that the product itself will sell itself when it’s good enough. Equality is very important. Compassion, trust, openness, transparency. Those are a lot of the things that I speak about with my friends in Finland. That is something that is very core to our nature.
That’s what I think running a business should be about. It should not be profit first and people last. No, it has to be balanced. Most companies these days will be like, ”Yeah, we’re all about the planet and the people, and we don’t care about profit,” but then when it comes down to the end of the day, profit is still the most important thing, and that really drives decision making. To me, it is so far away from the values that I embody for myself and for my background.
Since we’re questioning the whole existence of an industry, we need to also question how businesses are being run. We’re not going to innovate and create a whole new world if we’re still running businesses like they have been traditionally run. That’s why we need to run the business in completely different ways. It’s about resilience and grit. It’s about collaboration and community. Then empathy, really trusting the people, really giving them autonomy, independence, to really empowering somebody to be the best version of themselves. For me, it’s just as important to be listening to the interns as it is to be listening to the leadership team. That is very inherent to the values of the Nordics.
Whereabouts in Finland are you from?
— Hollola. That’s next to Lahti, which is where we have the big skiing and ski jumping competitions. It’s about 100 kilometres north of Helsinki. I’m a small town Finnish boy, but I left Finland back in 1995. I’m capable of embodying both, which is really like having this small town mentality, but acting like a big city. My dream is to buy a wooden cabin, so that when I really need to get away from the craziness, I’ll go back to my hometown, and just live a very quiet and simple life by the lake.
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