Building the Betterverse

Eco Futurism, Avatars, and Creating with a Deeper Perspective of Time with Ecoolska
Phygital [physical/digital] label Ecoolska was created in Lisbon in 2021 based on the principle that fashion is about meaning, about each person's individuality, but most significantly, about a common cause - to save our planet. After 11 years of running a successful fashion label in Russia, Ecoolska founder Olska hit the brakes, determined to stop the industry's race for speed and volume in the production of clothing created off the backs of the exploitation of human labor and the depletion of natural resources. The Ecoolska team is spread across Europe, so we met with Olska and her team members Dmitry and Iraida over video chat. The four of us rolled into a deep dive into the art of being a truly sustainable fashion business, the placing of principles before profit, and the transformative ecological and cultural benefits of the emerging digital fashion industry.
Was anyone else in your family involved in the fashion industry?

Olska: My grandmother was a professional seamstress. And actually, my great grandfather made men's suits. Maybe it's genetics!

It's in your blood! Cool. You work in that meeting place between traditional forms of craftship and emerging technologies. What is it like having one foot in the physical world and one in the digital world?

From the beginning, it was three directions. Digital fashion, ecological fashion, and upcycling. It all happened in parallel. And everything ties back into ecology.

Does working in one space make you more adept in the other?

It's all so connected. In the past, we spent a lot of time doing sample fittings on models. It takes a lot of time, paper, and fabric for samples. But when we started digital fashion, we began to use these tools to produce our physical collections. We fit on 3d avatars, and final samples can be created digitally. It saves money, natural resources, and time. It's so helpful for our production. The digital and physical connect and work together. I believe soon, most physical fashion brands and designers will also use digital fashion in their production.
“We fit on 3d avatars, and final samples can be created digitally. It saves money, natural resources, and time.”
— Olska, Creative Director of Ecoolska.
In your physical designs, I know you focus on fabrication, where and how they are sourced from, their carbon footprint, water use, and avoiding harsh chemical dyes. Do you get inspiration from any un-real or impossible materials in your digital designs?

Until recently, we created our digital collections as if they were real. We have created 2 upcycling collections so far where we bought second-hand clothes and used the materials. And then we digitized that upcycled collection into a digital fashion collection. We donated the proceeds from the upcycled collection to The Ocean Cleanup fund. Maybe you know Boyan Slat? He is such a good guy. He started the fund when he was 18 to collect plastics from the ocean and rivers. We only created one piece per garment because it was all handmade. So by digitizing it, it can last through infinite time. It's amazing for the history of brands too.
Yes, they can digitally archive their collections. So, Ecoolska sometimes starts with the physical designs being digitized and the other way around. What are some ecological benefits you see emerging in the digital fashion space?

We developed digital fashion because it's a transformative industry to support ecology. Digital fashion can allow at least a 10-20% reduction in textile waste in the future. Statistics show that 10% of people buy clothes only for social media, shooting, and throwing away. Digital fashion items are very easy for social media - to introduce yourself and your identity online.

I think it's a powerful tool for designers like yourself if you want to be engaged in influencer marketing. With digital fashion, you can deliver digital items to an influencer's inbox and have them posted on their socials without any waste or co2 emissions. How do you see it developing in the future?

It is only growing. In the future, I see digital fitting rooms. You can choose your clothes digitally in all business meetings, social media, and the metaverse. And we believe in the future, all of us will have a 3d avatar. I have one already! And your 3d avatar needs cool clothes! It will be useful for people, and we believe in it, and that's why we started to develop Ecoolska in this direction.
I know your physical collections are focused on being timeless. When you create digital and physical collections, is the aesthetic different? Are you more playful or lean into the weird with your digital designs?

Yes. When I create physical collections, it's my responsibility to create long-lasting designs. It could be worn today or in 5 years, and it will be cool. But if you create digital-only collections, it's like a movie or art. You can create unbelievable and exciting clothes. We took part in international digital fashion week with a collection presented using 3D avatars. The clothes were more of an artistic expression focused on telling a deeper story about overconsumption.

I think fashion week has always been an exciting time but puts a lot of pressure on designers to produce something bigger and better for each collection. And the result is a lot of waste. This season we saw more timeless designs instead of the elaborate couture pieces that often don't sell because they're price exclusive and one-offs. Digital presentations may be the new space to present something more focused on art, the experiential, and storytelling, as you say, without the waste.

DMITRY: I would just add - you're asking about their weirdness. The digital works are definitely more weird than the physical. Digital technology gives you the freedom to do things you can't do in real life. We have a space-queeny collection, and it looks really strange and cool like it's from another planet in the future. With our digital collections, we're trying to create something for the modern audience interested in the digital and NFT market.
“We only created one piece per garment because it was all handmade. So, by digitizing it, it can last through infinite time.”
— Olska, Creative Director of Ecoolska.
I think that the coolest thing about the digital space is that there are no boundaries at all. Whether you're looking at design from a perspective of utility and function, these don't matter. You don't have to be able to function in the garment because it's digitally put upon you.

DMITRY: Yes. And it's not obligatory that people in the metaverse will want to look like humans. Some of them, and we already have come across, want to look like a cactus or a dinosaur - whatever they want to be. So then it opens up to creating fashion for a cactus or a dinosaur. Fashion for whatever it could be!

Yeah, we're actually so excited to be tapping into fashion for pets!

DMITRY: Absolutely. It's a new amazing, borderless space for creativity.

And self-expression too! If someone wants to be a cactus, do it! If a man wants to be a woman in the metaverse, you can be. To enter a world and be welcomed with the question, "who are you, and what do you want to be?" - I think you learn about yourself in that process.

DMITRY: And it's much cooler that, in the metaverse, today you're a cactus, tomorrow you're a human male, the next you're a dinosaur. If you change your sex in the real world, it's a little harder to change back!
Yes. Olska, you had your own physical fashion line in Russia for a decade and came to a point where you felt like the industry was broken. How do you run your physical fashion line while keeping it sustainable?

So one year ago, we started the physical fashion line out of Portugal.
Portugal has a lot of ecological, high-quality, biodegradable fabrics and high-quality factories to ensure our garment workers' comfort and economic support. Slavery, especially in fast fashion, is a real problem. Every step of our process is designed to support the natural world and our workers. We are very detail-focused.

What keeps you motivated while working to create change in the industry?

We want to teach people about circular fashion, like our upcycled line. You can donate your clothes, then I will buy them second-hand and make them into a new collection you can buy back. Our aim is to make the linear fashion industry circular. Reuse, reduce, recycle.

Where is your mind at the moment? What has been inspiring your work?

We have been thinking a lot about peace this month. We created an NFT and donated all the proceeds to the Red Cross for refugees of Ukraine. Overall, I think the greatest source of inspiration comes from nature.
“In the future, all of us will have a 3d avatar. I have one already! And your 3d avatar needs cool clothes!”
— Olska, Creative Director of Ecoolska.
CEO of Unilever Alan Jope recently said, "Principles are only principles if they cost you something." Ecoolska is willing to privilege your values over profit. Do you believe that brands that don't have a purpose other than making money can survive into the future?

If you create a brand for the future now, not just one year, but look down the line, you should share your values and principles. Generation Z understands and appreciates ecology and wants to save the environment. You should understand that what you do has consequences. What we do today affects our future. It's the principles of sustainability that people, the economy, and the environment should all work together.

If the product isn't designed to be lasting, the community won't be lasting.

I believe the new generation will be more responsible. The Gen-Z people I speak to are so smart and conscious, and with them as the next generation of creators, I believe in our future. Every person should understand that you should have a kind heart when you create something. You want everyone who works for you to be comfortable, with a good salary, with a good atmosphere. I believe that happiness spreads.

Who are some people inspiring you in the digital fashion world?

I appreciate our colleague Regina Turbina. She is the founder of the NFT marketplace ARTISANT. I think she was the first digital designer to create a digital fashion show 2 and a half years ago. She really inspires me a lot.
Interview: Sally Paton
Imagery: Courtesy of Ecoolska