One of the most useful subjects I studied in high school was Visual Art. I never thought it at the time, rather believing that Business Studies would be an invaluable source of knowledge I carry with me forever. However, I had this realisation when I first came across Iana van Aken’s digital fashion designs.
Her rich patterns reminded me of Dutch Golden Age murals and neater versions of Vincent van Gogh’s landscape paintings. I immediately assumed Iana had a background in fine art. But, to my amazement, her natural artistic eye is completely self-procured. The more I learnt about her as a digital fashion designer, the more intrigued I became. And, I guarantee, you will too.
One word Iana uses to describe herself is a cosmopolite - “a person of many cultures”. This is because, although she is originally from Russia, Iana has lived in many places, including Italy, Greece and France. Right now, she finds herself in the Netherlands.
Iana graduated in Theoretical and Computational Linguistics, and worked as an Intercultural Specialist and Business Coach for 5 years. While travelling Europe with her fiancé in 2021 however, Iana started to teach herself fashion design.
“All my life, I knew I had to learn foreign languages to understand as many cultures as possible,” Iana says. “My job allowed me to travel and meet amazing people, but I started to feel like I needed to express myself in a more artistic manner. That’s when I decided to radically change my occupation and become a fashion designer.”
After learning as much as she could about the craft for two years, Iana launched her eponymous first collection: IANA. “At that moment, I was living in the Italian Alps. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever stayed in my entire life,” Iana says. “However, it was not the most convenient place to set up a clothing brand. I needed it to be absolutely circular and as green as possible.”
After shopping around for sustainable fabrics and searching for factories with ethical working conditions, Iana eventually found what she was looking for. But, she hit a bit of a speed bump. The carbon efficiency of delivering her garments to customers all the way from her home in an alpine village would pose a problem to her idea of a zero-carbon fashion brand.
“Being restricted in my opportunities territorially and financially offered me the best direction for my fashion career. I thus decided to make my first collection completely digital.”
IANA, the brand, is focused on connecting the physical and digital worlds together by bringing real-world stories, symbols and themes into the digital realm.
“I am mesmerised by the complex crafts different cultures have developed throughout the centuries,” Iana says. “This is why I pay a lot of attention to traditional garment tailoring, embroidered fabrics and symbolic prints. It helps me capture a certain story and deliver a part of human folklore into the timeless metaverse.”
Taking it one step further, Iana hopes to eradicate the perception of digital fashion being less valuable since digital garments aren’t tangible objects. She puts forward a rather good analogy of what we perceive to be real, whether we can physically sense it with touch or not.
It goes like this: “I always say that the greatest novels are not real. War and peace exist in our imaginations. We are not even sure if Shakespeare was a person or a group of writers, but we feel his presence and don’t doubt his impact. Doesn’t this service as some confirmation that intangible things are real?”
The idea of digital transformation and manifestation pulled through as a major motif in Iana’s collaborative collection with OnClickCloset, called SEA FOAM. “I took physical abstract paintings of my dear friend, writer and artist Peter Bear, turned them into seamless prints and applied them to digital fabrics,” Iana explains. “It was a true manifestation of the metamorphosis of art.”
Another inspiring collection worth mentioning is Iana’s EXOTICA AR filter range. The concept is rich in storytelling, recounting a sailor stranded on an island who keeps falling into deep mirage-like dreams. More than that, however, it was an opportunity for Iana to upskill in another area of digital fashion.
“The collection happened as a result of a couple of sessions when I studied Unity together with my friends who are also digital designers,” Iana says. “Every day, I explore more options on how to develop myself in digital fashion. Sometimes, I create something and leave it unpublished, but there are moments when a lot of pieces just come together creating one intricate puzzle.”
Iana has a rather unique workflow when it comes to creating new digital fashion designs. It usually begins with an intuitive feeling that is spurred on by a sense of nostalgia for a past event in her life or, let’s say, her appreciation for how light falls on trees.
“Feelings are caused by a combination of inputs: visual, audial and tactile,” Iana explains. “When I design, I try to figure out how to convey all the factors to recreate a sensation I have felt.”
Once she has an idea, Iana begins by sketching out her concept, modelling it in 3D, creating the materials and, finally, compiling it all into a streamlined product. Then, there is the post-production work which consists of rationales and product descriptions, plus the marketing aspect such as taking part in Twitter spaces and getting the word out there.
“Digital fashion is very versatile. Nowadays, it is important to think about how a digital asset can be used. Is it going to be just a pretty render or will be there any other possibilities to wear it digitally?” Iana says.
“I am a dreamer. I create characters and circumstances in which the fashion I’m creating is being worn. My style might be far from cyber-space-like futuristic aesthetics but, nevertheless, digital fashion allows me to push the boundaries even for the most traditional classic designs, making the most exclusively-crafted fashion items inclusive.”
One of Iana’s favourite pieces she has created thus far is called POWERHOUSE, a classic, champagne-coloured suit with embroidered cells. It is very high fashion
, I might add, and is the first garment Iana made using the principles of haute couture pattern making.
“POWERHOUSE suit literally empowered me for my future designs, when I followed my intuition blindly, not doubting whether it looked good or made sense,” Iana says. “It was bought by Jenny DAO within a month of posting online. And, it was the first NFT I ever minted.”
After just 6 months in the digital fashion space, Iana experienced mass interest from buyers, DAOs and other designers in her work. In the beginning, it was very difficult to orientate myself,” she explains. “Everyone is building something, and everyone suddenly has a proposal for you. Only by trial and error did I figure out how these collaborations would work, what kind of proposals are worth my time, and what leads to burnout.”
This caused Iana some anxiety, even to the point where she was questioning whether digital fashion was in fact the right career path for her. “Thankfully, I met a lot of supportive people whom I can truly call my friends,” Iana says. “If you think about the digital space, it is nothing but people circulating around and around. And it is very important to find your people, who would support you, teach you and encourage you for your next creations.”
Iana’s streamlined approach has enabled her to focus on creating effective strategies when it comes to optimising her brand, as opposed to simply flooding the market with drop after drop after drop.
“It is important for an artist or a designer to see their creations being used or worn. It is a bit problematic with the current state of digital fashion as designers can’t really evaluate the impact their art has on users because everything in web3 is still intimidating,” Iana says.
So, before putting out another collection, Iana is focusing on strengthening other areas of her brand. This is often overlooked, with many artists, musicians and digital fashion designers alike overlooking or sidelining other areas of their brand to focus all of their efforts on the product.
“Adapting your strategy is key. This is what I am currently doing: evaluating the best utilities, trying new technologies, experimenting with new software, and building my website,” Iana explains. “It is important every now and then to step aside and have a good look at what you’ve done and where you want to go.”
And I’m waiting in severe anticipation to see where Iana is going next.**
Connect with Iana here.