Gala Marija Vrbanic: How a fashion designer creates clothes for our digital selves Fashion designer Gala Marija Vrbanic creates digital clothes that defy physics and outshine superheroes' wardrobes. Vrbanic says the future of AR and VR will change how we express our identities.

Gala Marija Vrbanic: How a fashion designer creates clothes for our digital selves

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Today on the show, incognito. So far this hour, we have mostly explored strange and unusual ways that people and companies disguise themselves. But it's something we all do every single 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 you choose your clothes - how do they look? This is fashion, and this is part of your identity, and this is 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 her work in a big way.

VRBANIC: Our first dress is, like, a huge dress, golden 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 bent into a dress. It's made of gold with a humungous bow, massive.

VRBANIC: It's big. It's couldn't fit your wardrobe or Room. It's very big. The other part is the material. So it has this very metallic golden material added to it, and it's very shiny and smooth. So it could be only done, like, if you look at, like, Jeff Koons sculpture or something like that, but it's a dress.

ZOMORODI: And if you're thinking, who could possibly wear this dress, well, that's a rather analog question because Gala is a digital fashion designer, and this golden balloonlike gown, it only exists online in the virtual world, meaning you can't wear it on your actual body, but you could put it on a photo of yourself on Instagram.

VRBANIC: It looks real in a manner that it looks perfectly fitted. So it looks real and unreal at the same time because you see a digital garment. You see there's something different. You see that this is not possible. And then you see it fitted on you like it was there.

ZOMORODI: Designing digital fashion has opened Gala up to wild creative possibilities - like pants made of fire, anyone?

VRBANIC: Now you have so many possibilities to create something totally crazy and never seen before.

ZOMORODI: Other virtual outfits that she's made include a shirt made of butterflies, a dress that shoots lasers. And people are spending millions of real dollars shopping for virtual clothes online.

VRBANIC: Our community are people who actually follow trends, like to set trends, but they're at the same time tech savvy, so they like to also experiment with the new technologies. And, you know, of course, it's younger people. We need fashion where we express ourselves, where we socialize. And this is currently happening, and it will happen even more inside online spaces.

ZOMORODI: So from what I understand, part of your inspiration for creating cyber-fashion came from noticing that young people were buying and then immediately reselling expensive physical streetwear brands. So who was doing this? And why were they doing it?

VRBANIC: So those are those kids that are buying streetwear, like Supreme, Off-White and, you know, all of those brands that supply very limited amount of clothing. So what I realized - they were gathering in those Facebook groups and reselling the garments they just bought. Like, 2 hours ago, they bought the garment, and then they're reselling. They just took a photo of themself wearing that garment, posted it on their Instagram, and then they didn't need it anymore because they've shown I got the garment, and then they resell it because they wanted to buy something new. And I just realized they just need an image of a garment in a virtual space.

ZOMORODI: OK, so you saw this Instagram fashion trend happening, but you had also experienced dressing up virtually yourself 'cause you're into video games, right?

VRBANIC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. I was a fan of the game - and I still am - "GTA," "Grand Theft Auto."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Out of my car.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Not my wheels, man. That's my wheels.

VRBANIC: I spent all of my childhood playing that game, and this is actually what brought me to digital fashion because my background is in traditional fashion. And my mom was - is a fashion designer, so I was always surrounded by fashion. But I was spending my time since childhood in those virtual spaces playing games. And I realized, like, all of the time I was playing that game, I was just going to, like, shops and buying clothing for my avatar. And then I realized that I cared more, like, how I look in those games than how I looked in physical world. And then I also realized that I'm not probably the only one because there was a reason there were so many stores in those games.

ZOMORODI: I know that some people - like, if they are playing video games, they will spend money to buy, you know, a special cape or a special sword. Is that considered digital fashion?

VRBANIC: It is. Everything you use to express your identity is fashion or digital fashion. And, you know, when we were young - what was very, you know, wrong, I think, with the games back then, that all of the characters were male characters. And you couldn't, you know, choose. This is why I like the clothes because this was how was I able to change my character and do whatever I want to do.

ZOMORODI: I've heard that from a lot of gamers, especially people who, because of their gender identity or sexuality, that maybe they don't feel safe in the real world and that they really appreciate the freedom that virtual worlds can give them to be whomever they want.

VRBANIC: Yeah, it's easier. People feel more safe and people feel more confident. It might be also a reason that online, they are creating that persona they want to be. They are not constrained by their own physical persona they can't move away from. And they're - in online spaces, they can be hundred percent what they want to be. So it's what we've been noticing. 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 gaming. It's happening on social media. But the place that I've been wondering about is augmented reality, like Google glasses or other wearable devices that are allegedly going to change the way we see the world around us.

VRBANIC: I think AR glasses will bring us there very soon because right now, if you want to wear digital fashion in AR, you have to take your phone and you have to film it. So it's kind of - you know, it's not very convenient. With AR glasses, you can just put those glasses on yourself, and you look at around you, and you'll see that added layer instantly. And you'll see everything through it.

ZOMORODI: What is it going to be like? 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 to 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 multiple different identities - this is where I think - you know, it's kind of this, I would say, mindset shift is needed for people to realize. And of course, the tech is also needed. So it will happen with time.

ZOMORODI: I think there are some people who might think that this is actually terrifying to them, that being a real person in the world who gets dressed every morning is hard enough as it is. The thought of having to do it for the virtual version of themselves seems exhausting and maybe a little scary.

VRBANIC: Of course, of course. Yeah. I think, like, each time I'm speaking, you know, about fashion, I always say we are not doing anything new. We are just using a new medium. But basically, the principles that work inside traditional or physical fashion - like, the whole psychology around the product and why would anyone buy it and why would anyone need it - is the same in the digital space. And I think human psychology will always stay the same, just the medium where we are is different. And regarding fashion and identity expression, which is, like, I think, the most beautiful thing, is you'll be able to choose to whom and how you want to present yourself. So you'll be able to choose to wear multiple different outfits at the same time.

ZOMORODI: Right. So let's say I'm walking down the street, and I see my kid's teacher. She might have chosen to look to me like she's wearing, you know, an old-fashioned, beautiful outfit - clothes, though. But if - maybe she's made it possible that if she runs into her friends, she looks like a peacock, like an actual bird.

VRBANIC: That's right. Exactly.

ZOMORODI: I mean, it's mind-boggling.

VRBANIC: And this is - you know, this is just the surface, right now, we've been speaking about, you know? It can go in many different directions.

ZOMORODI: I'm just scrolling through your Instagram, and there's a woman wearing a beautiful ball gown that looks as though it's electrified. There's another guy wearing what kind of looks like a superhero chest plate, but it's fitted to him kind of perfectly. There's another gown that's made out of sort of metallic, puffy material - like those 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: Yeah, and your dog, too.

ZOMORODI: That was Tribute Brand founder and digital fashion designer Gala Marija Vrbanic. You can watch her TED talk at Thank you so much for listening to our show this week about being 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 staff 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've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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