Patrick McDowell: How I Created My First Fully Digital Fashion Collection

Images: The ‘Catholic Fairytales’ collection takes place in a queer Vatican city in the digital clouds, Credit: Patrick McDowell

A virtual fashion show celebrating the LGBTQ+ community, Patrick McDowell’s latest collection presents a new vision for inclusivity and accessability in the industry. The upcoming designer opens up about how his first digital fashion collection came to be, and why this could be one of the most dynamic growth areas in the sustainable fashion movement.

I think all of us had very different ideas of how this year would pan out. I was certainly not expecting a global pandemic that presented each and every one of us with some very real dilemmas. In reality it was hard, it was uncomfortable and emotional.

We have been living though one of the most difficult periods we have faced in recent history. For me, there was the ongoing threat of losing my business, my home and my studio – not to mention having my 80-year-old Nana diagnosed with Covid-19 and losing an uncle to cancer. 

In these dark times, I thought to myself: what is it that fashion can offer us now? What can fashion do, to offer some relief or acceptance?

Images: Digital garment creation by Scotomolab, Paris, Credit: Patrick McDowell

My answer came through religion – well, my take on it. Even pre-pandemic, I had long been mulling over the idea to do a fashion show based around this idea, before I first showed my last collection ‘Fire Fighting Aunties’ last July for Helsinki Fashion Week. I always envisaged ‘Catholic Fairytales’ as a collection telling the story of a magical world where the catholic church would celebrate and accept everybody. However, I had such a strong vision of how it would look in my head that I could never have imagined it would manifest itself in an entirely digital format one year later. 

I knew that I wanted to offer this collection as our robes of celebration, as a mode of escapism. And coincidentally, the very last thing I did before lockdown was go to a panel talk on digital fashion with SWIM XYZ. It blew my mind. I couldn’t believe how amazing this prospect was. The opportunities it could offer to all points of the industry just seemed to make so much common sense. So, when the pandemic happened, I knew it was the only way to go, in order to continue creating while keeping everyone safe. 

I asked myself: how can I work with the digital world to push the vision of fantasy and luxury into a place that can even for a brief moment allow us to escape from the mess this year has been?

Image: Set design and animatiton by NDA PARIS, Credit: Patrick McDowell

I knew Evelyn Mora, founder of Helsinki Fashion Week, had already planned to have a digital element for this year. However, against the backdrop of lockdown, this was quickly ramped up to create the world’s first fully digital fashion week, going ahead as scheduled except this time completely computer generated and presented online.

I initially had to design and select the sketches to be digitised very early on, unlike a traditional show where you continue to evolve and develop the designs right up to the last minute. Here, we had to make all of those decisions by mid-April, in order for the digitisation to take place. 

We began by working with the digital tailors of Scotomolab, Paris. As we sent sketches and digital scans of the pattern pieces back and forth, they took notes on the fabric and construction and created the clothing. There was certainly a challenge in letting go creatively of many aspects and not having everyone in the room while it happened. I found it was both good for me but also frustrating to not have access to the pieces 24/7. However, we did also have fittings just like with traditional clothing, and eventually you have a finished 3D garment that you are happy with.

Images: Digital garment creation by Scotomolab, Paris, Credit: Patrick McDowell

Next, we had to select which hairstyles and shoes the models would wear, and even details such as exactly how they would walk. The animation team at NDA PARIS were responsible for creating the environment for the show, as well as making the models dance, walk and strut down the catwalk. 

It was my vision to have a Vatican-like setting, but they worked incredibly hard and brought in an amazing director for the show, bringing it to life and then some. It was inspiring to know that some creatives can take your ideas and then amplify them to new heights. Everything from the Queer Vatican in the sky, to the way the models walked, and the crystal-embellished everything, we went big and we went pink! It was all unashamedly camp. 

I watched it from my dining room table on my laptop. It seemed so odd to just be sitting there – no running about and no last-minute sewing. It was an incredibly ‘new’ feeling; on one hand refreshing to see that you can completely remove the stress of a physical fashion show, yet at the same time it’s clear that a great amount of work and huge teams of people are needed to create something like this. The truth is that this show was the culmination of work from people all over the world who came together to make it possible.

Image: Set design and animatiton by NDA PARIS, Credit: Patrick McDowell

Do I think digital fashion is the future? Well, it won’t ever take over from physical clothes – after all, we legally have to wear them in public. But I think this is going to be one of the most interesting and dynamic growth areas in sustainable fashion.

Interestingly, Helsinki Fashion Week has been working with Normative to calculate the carbon footprint of the whole digital event. I actually think the pre-show emissions may even mark at the same level as a physical show, as the computer power is so high. But where you see the huge difference is that you know exactly who is working on what and where they did it – there is no unethical labour, and the supply chain is completely transparent. No one flew in, no one needed a driver, and no one had a string of parties afterwards – at the very most, YouTube links and press releases were sent by email.

For me, the most integrally sustainable part of digital fashion is the sense of inclusivity and accessibility that comes with it, because everyone with Wifi can experience it. This collection was open to everyone; everyone had a front row seat and everyone was served a new version of religion they didn’t know existed. For me, that encapsulates the spirit of sustainability.

I think that this is one of those things we will look back on in 50 years and think: “Wow, remember when we all used to think that digital fashion was weird?!”