Fashion Through a New Lens: Avatars and Apparel

Those of us who work day-to-day in apparel often forget what ‘fashion’ is like for people not in the industry.  We forget, if we ever knew, that industry outsiders may not understand that there are always very real drivers and impetus to how fashion happens.  We look back as much as we look forward, and we analyze fashion trends and fashion disasters.  A critical difference, however, is fashion designers speak a language with vocabulary composed of color, shape, style, and form. Our stylistic judgments are made, and we begin talking about what we think will be ‘important’.  Others in the industry ‘get it’.  We don’t have to say much more than we ‘believe in it’ and we ‘think it is important’ and discussions then become very tactical to get the idea developed into a product.

Using that language to outsiders is akin to American tourists traveling in a non-English-speaking country.  We speak louder in the hopes that our audience will understand what we’re trying to say.  Sometimes, through a common hook, we’re able to communicate. But usually the experience is a handful of apparel industry personnel discussing whatever new concept excites them while the industry outsider tries to keep up by tossing in bits of wisdom they gleaned at or one of the other fashion web sites.

Attending the Japan Fashion Now exhibit at the FIT Museum had additional interest to us beyond being exposed to the latest in fashion development out of Japan. We were joined on this expedition by one of our colleagues at IBM, Aimee Sousa, who likes aspects of fashion (in particular boots), but she isn’t steeped in Fashion. And it was very interesting to us to watch Aimee’s first experience at an event that was very focused at apparel industry practitioners.

With the exception of the guests, the invitees were industry personnel and FIT alumni.  The presenter was Valerie Steele, a world-renowned fashion historian and thought leader in her space.  The language was our language, and Ms. Steele was presenting to us in our mutually-understood language.  It would not have been unlikely that the conversation that evening would have been not accessible to an industry outsider, and that she might have been less than captivated by the experience.

Instead, we had an opportunity to watch as the magic, romance, and passion of our industry, our product, our drive, was distilled and communicated in such a way as to captivate our colleague.  As we rewound the exhibit later that evening at a cocktail function, it was deeply satisfying and interesting to learn how after years of buying off-the-rack, our colleague suddenly ‘got’ that fashion has reasons for design and that we designers do not create in a void.  Rather, we are looking backwards at the past, while predicting the future, and living in the present.  Some of our best resources are still museums and old fashion periodicals, and our best guides are fashion historians and other designers, but at the same time we have also learned to use the many new digital resources available to us.

Watching Aimee’s induction into our language was a curious experience. She is still not immersed in the flow of our world, but she understands better now why we say brown is important, or we believe in cheetah (or denim, or silver, or whatever).

The experience also brought home to me again how tribal our fashion choices are, and how we choose to adorn our bodies is critical to reflecting our beliefs, our alignments, even in some cases our emotional state.  A critical question asked of me prior to the event was ‘what shall I wear?’  Naturally, the answer was ‘black’.  But that answer this set off a whole additional round of questioning: should I wear a dress, what about shoes, what sort of accessories?  My guest wanted desperately to align with our mores, to appear as an outsider at this very insider event.  She choose to do this by the clothing she selected to wear to the event, just like she chooses to align her avatar in virtual worlds with the different communities she belongs to.

There has been a rise of interest lately by corporations and educational organizations in providing attractive avatars for their virtual world projects.  this is not really a surprise to us in the Fashion Research Institute.  We have, after all, been researching the process of immersion and how people adapt their digital avatar representation with new ‘tribes’ or communities in digital spaces.  Moreover, as we were reminded recently at our fashion event at FIT in New York City, people’s desire to align with communities is a transcendent force.

Just like in the physical world where my colleague was flustered until we sorted out the o-so-important question of ‘proper dress’, so too in virtual worlds are people unable to focus on actual work and deeply immerse until they create a visual representation of themselves which they regard as acceptable.  Admittance to a group whether in the physical world or the digital realm is as close as adorning your avatar with the right clothing and accessories.

Acceptance, of course, requires rather more time for other community members to learn about who the person is.

But that initial tentative acceptance is lubricated by the strong visual cues created by the choices an avatar owner makes in dressing and customizing their avatar.  We saw this over and over again when we operated our official Linden Lab® Community Gateway region in Second Life®. After orienting and observing more than 65,000 new users of Second Life, we have good data on how to get new users quickly oriented to these new tools, and  how they learn to immerse.

Needless to say, we were so delighted to be joined by our colleague at the Japan Fashion Now exhibit.  Not only was the fashion fashionable and the company wonderful, but we were pleased to have a learning moment in our area of research.

Fashion Research Institute Announces Butterfly Exhibit Grant Applications Now Open

Fashion Research Institute is pleased to announce the offering of five grant awards to educators around the world to further evolve and develop an exhibit of over 100 unique species of butterflies Shengril La Chamomilein an immersive learning environment using the OpenSim platform, which is an open source virtual world platform that allows actual users to change their digital environment. Using virtual worlds gives educators powerful tools to offer both synchronous and asynchronous education, research, and simulation.

For more information please visit our website. There you will find complete details on applying for this grant valued at over $75,000.

ScienceSim Land Program Usage Covenant

Through our research collaboration with Intel Labs, Fashion Research Institute is overseeing the ScienceSim land grant program, as announced in this blog post.  We’ve been provided with 18 regions, which have been divided into 1/4 region parcels.  Each parcel can contain about 8,000 prims.  The regions will be awarded for a six-month period to educators, scientists, and researchers who wish to explore using OpenSim for their work, but who have not yet managed to have a presence in OpenSim.  These regions will be provided for six months, with the program scheduled to end June 30, 2010. Users will sign a formal agreement with Fashion Research Institute for use of this land.

The following covenant has been developed from our experiences working with new users through our official Community Gateway in our Second life islands of Shengri La.  Over the last year, we have had more than 60,000 new users enter through our region.  In addition to those new users, we also host thousands of more experienced users who visit our regions for various events and shopping.  Handling this level of traffic has presented us with an opportunity to develop functional best practices for educational and professional use for virtual land management and users of our programs.

We have drawn from this body of work to develop the covenant that will govern the land grant program.  This covenant is based on facts and data. In our Second Life islands, we enforce our covenant stringently, which minimizes antisocial and unprofessional behavior.  Our data shows that enabling users to engage in antisocial behavior slows the immersion process because it creates a hostile  environment.  The intent of the land program covenant is to clarify what our expectations are for users of this program so that all users may experience a working environment free of unprofessional behavior.

Land Use Covenant

Thank you for your interest in the ScienceSim land grant program.  The virtual land provided through the land grant program is intended to help educators, scientists, and researchers evaluate the OpenSim platform for use in their extended programs.

This land is provided through June 30, 2010.

Land is assigned in 1/4 region parcels with up to 8,000 objects per parcel.  Land assignees have building privileges.  Terrain textures are applied which remain in common to all parcels in the land program.  Common access features such as paths and parks are included to enable visitors to freely move between parcels.

Assigned land must be built on within three weeks of assignment.  Land which is not improved within four weeks of assignment will be reclaimed, and any objects placed in the region will be returned to the land assignee.

Selected content is provided for the use of land grant recipients, including premium avatar content, default avatars, textures, office equipment, and buildings.  This content is provided only for the use of residents of ScienceSim under various licenses, and may not be removed from Sciencesim or otherwise used to develop derivative works anywhere except in ScienceSim.  Users are encouraged to create their own content as well.  Pirated content will be removed immediately.

A complete orientation gateway which has been successfully used with more than 50,000 new users is provided for the use of  land grant recipients and their program users.

Expected Code of Behavior:

ScienceSim serves a population of educators, researchers and scientists.  Land grant recipients are expected to register with their real names and to manage their programs appropriately.

All users are expected to behave with decorum and respect to others to support this collaborative, interdisciplinary working environment.  Services are provided in English only.  All users who enter and use this grid are expected to behave and dress in a manner appropriate to a corporate or academic setting.  All users are expected to respect others’ beliefs; no solicitation, proselytization, foul language or harassment of any sort is allowed here.  Clothing is mandatory – this means at minimum, shirt and trousers that meets typical community decency standards.

Land grants are provided with an expectation that users will have sufficient expertise to develop their own regions.  There are weekly user meetings at which user experiences can and should be reported, as well as a mailing list where feedback is encouraged.  Lastly, there is a weekly governance meeting at which any conflicts will be arbitrated.


To participate in this land grant program, please send e-mail with your name, your organization, and 2-3 sentence description of the project you’d like to explore in this collaborative environment.  If you have further questions about the program, we have several overview presentations scheduled as follows:

Tuesday, January 5th, 11 am PT/2 pm ET, Shengri La Hope 216, 37, 2001

Wednesday, January 6th, 3 pm PT/6 pm ET, Shengri La Hope 216, 37, 2001

On Thursday, January 7th, 10 am PT/ 1 am ET, we’ll be touring the land grant regions.  Please meet in the Newton welcome area in ScienceSim.