Digital Futures With Gareth Wrighton
Fashion designer, sculptor, computer programmer, philosopher... Gareth Wrighton is an artist whose work knows no boundaries. With his many mediums bleeding into one another across a dazzling spectrum of creativity and ideas, we asked Wrighton to create a series of custom animations as part of his ongoing collaboration with Ib Kamara. Dressed in of-the-moment fashion, Wrighton’s characters blur the ever-blurrier line between fact and fiction, reality and surreality, as they loop and glitch between the URL and the IRL. Below, he tells us more.
Hello Gareth! First off, can you tell us about your journey in fashion?
Hello, thank you for having me! I think most people know of me through Fashion East, but I’ve really spent the last few years working between mediums, from knitwear to photography, video game design to weird, edible, wearable sculpture.
I didn’t study design - I was on the Fashion Communication pathway with Ib. I did a lot of candid, documentary photography, then I started to make the clothes I wanted to shoot, and then I started making video games. It honestly feels like I have 300 tabs open in my browser window.
How did you meet Ib?
I met Ib on our first day at Central Saint Martins. It’s funny how much is left to the chance of being put in the same class at the same time, but our friend group we built there is so strong.
Can you tell us a bit about previous collaborations you’ve worked on together?
In 2017 we packed up and moved to Johannesburg to live with South African photographer Kristin Lee Moolman for three months. We worked on a 22-look collection and a series of experimental styling imagery that we then exhibited in Red Hook Labs in Brooklyn in September 2018 [Titled Soft Criminal]. It was the most perfectly timed escape from London that I really cherish now looking back on it. We were a pair of untrained designers making these ridiculous costumes that were extremely narrative-led, and the purest vision of how we saw the world around us.
“Digital design is the punk medium, it is there for us to cut and paste like a fanzine or remix like a song.”
What were you like as a child? Did you play a lot of video games?
I personally loved playing more gentle games like The Sims, which looking back, foreshadowed the sort of lampooning of suburban world-building that really inspires me at the moment - a protracted parody of the game of life. I would watch my brother play more involved games on his Playstation 2, interactive stories with vivid characters that were all-enveloping. What I really respect about that era is the economy of file sizes - the look of these iconic stories was shaped through the limitations of the medium.
How did you develop your coding and computer skills?
I am self-taught in everything I know as a video game designer. I’ve learnt all the wrong ways to do stuff, weird choppy shortcuts that make things work. This has sort of shaped my eye too, so that cut-and-paste slapdash look has bled into the work I make in the tangible world. Digital design is the punk medium, it is there for us to cut and paste like a fanzine or remix like a song.
You’re also a fashion designer. What’s the difference in approach when designing clothes and designing technology? Is there a difference?
It’s all world building; using surface adornment to tell a story. Something I’m known for is knitting small throwaway objects into sweaters, and that has come directly from video game design. I have this fixation on when the wrong material is applied to the right mesh. For instance, you drag in the shiny plastic guitar plectrum texture files but they accidentally land on the cardigan, so in the game’s logic, the cardigan is now plectrum textured. It is the uncanny, the glitch in the matrix that I love. Going through with the motions of living but everything is cross-pollinating, mutating around you; it’s all wrong and sort of unravelling. I call it a confident wrongness.
Can you tell us a little about these animations you’ve made for “A Family Affair”?
Idle animations are used to bring a realism to characters when there is no input from the player. It’s the character blinking, looking around and their hair and clothes moving in the breeze. I didn’t want to do these CGI animations of garments having fun and going places in the virtual world because that’s not what is happening in lockdown. I wanted the virtual garments to be just as stifled and limited as we are in the tangible world.
I also wanted to hinder the characters more, so I landed on the 8-bit-esque pixel art style, to really reduce the garments to the bare minimum. What is satisfying is how much the looks thrive when reduced down in this way: the Martine Rose tee, the Supriya Lele and Kenneth Ize check textiles are still instantly recognisable. It was important to say: virtuality is not the escape.
As a generation, we’re kind of obsessed with digital avatars at the moment, would you agree? Perhaps it’s because we were raised on a diet of The Sims, but what with virtual influencers like Lil Miquela and games like Animal Crossing seeing such a huge spike in popularity during lockdown, it seems like we’re all destined to live more and more in a virtual world.
I would argue that the fashion industry has been operating in a virtual world for at least the last 50 years. Remember, virtual doesn’t mean digital, it means ‘to exist in essence but not in actuality.’ Virtuality in fashion is more than a CGI render of a garment.
Now we are blurring the line between real and fake in unprecedented ways. It is no coincidence that this is happening alongside the rise of fake news and manipulated media, the gamification of dating, self-publication online, scripted reality, and the extreme style-surfing of fast fashion. The rise of individualism, where we are all the main characters of our own stories. I think non-linear virtual mediums like video game engines are as good as it gets when it comes to making work about all of the above.
What would you say to those that feel the idea of virtual reality and online worlds seems quite dystopian?
I think I have the reputation for being too pessimistic, but surely what lockdown has shown is that a virtual escape can’t replace tangible communication, and that’s okay, it can thrive alongside it. It doesn’t have to be this or that, one or the other.
“It is the uncanny, the glitch in the matrix that I love. Going through with the motions of living but everything is cross-pollinating, mutating around you; it’s all wrong and sort of unravelling. I call it a confident wrongness.”
Do you feel like you exist more online or IRL? What’s your personal relationship to the digital space?
The most exciting thing is when my work sort of leaks out of the young fashion Instagram echo chamber, and seeing people lay into it on Twitter threads for instance. The second your work is roasted on Twitter any original intent is lost - it immediately becomes a part of the culture, which really is hilarious.
How can the fashion industry employ technology to improve the industry?
I think we should stop and critically think which parts of the industry are worth salvaging, because this really is the only chance for great reform, and again, not the time to cyclically repeat the mistakes that got us to this point. Invest our incredible advancements back into the industry, and lift the people who make our garments up.
Most iconic video game character?
Favourite video game?
GTA San Andreas is still a thing of beauty.
If you could have one superpower what would it be?
If you could have one video game “cheat” in life what would it be?
Maxmotives from The Sims 2 would go a long way right now.
Animations by Gareth Wrighton
Interview by Georgia Graham