Meet Paul Aubrey Parnell: Fashion's Neo-Surrealist

Paul Aubrey Parnell, a self-proclaimed hippie and recent graduate of Central Saint Martins' fashion design and marketing course, talks to Dayna Tohidi about designing digitally and his million-dollar idea


Janus, a 3D avatar created and clothed digitally by Paul Aubrey Parnell for his final collection for Central Saint Martins, titled "The Fold" in June 2020. © Paul Aubrey Parnell

"When I was a kid, I really wanted to become a maths teacher, and that love of geometry and folding translated perfectly into fashion design," Paul Aubrey Parnell, the 22-year-old fashion design and marketing graduate from Central Saint Martins, tells me. Titled The Fold, Parnell's final collection is an homage to the physics-defying paintings of the late surrealist artist René Magritte and artist M.C Escher. It is Parnell’s vision of an utopian world, where sustainability is commonplace and gender is insignificant. The big reveal: that the three final looks do not exist; neither do the models. They are 3D digital garments worn by animated, custom avatars whose skin texture is akin to lizards. This is no surprise, as one of Parnell’s earliest childhood memories is gazing at jarred marine specimens his oceanographer father would bring home after diving expeditions. "I originally wanted to make real clothes for my final collection and also to present their 3D digital garment simulations. However, the factory that supplies me with cotton organdy shut down during the lockdown, so I was unable to finish my work," he says, speaking in his bedroom-cum-studio via Zoom.


"It was a hard sell to get them to approve of me going to fashion school. I had to promise that I wasn't going to add to the waste, but instead only make products that were going to solve problems"

In an attempt to invigorate the final collection’s concept, Parnell gave each avatar a name: Janus, Comet and Stargazer. For his first look modelled by Janus, Parnell created a silk brocade dress featuring six layers of pleats that interlock to give the illusion of chain mail. The design is based on his unfinished physical skirt; each of the four pleated panels has intricate, geometric cutwork, and took eight hours to create by hand. The second look, worn by Comet, has a more utilitarian feel. The armour inspired crop top and chaps allude to Comet’s role as a guardian angel and their mission to defend against foes. The final look is a marbled, rose gold bodysuit made from space-lace, and paired with a skirt that resembles an inverted stargazer lily flower. "I wanted to give each avatar an interesting attribute to drive home the storytelling aspect of this world. They are on a mission to change the world," he tells me. Janus has wings, representing her mission to spread her utopian beliefs on earth, and Stargazer has an eye in her chest to look into the hearts of others in the hope of understanding and connecting with one another.


Stargazer, a 3D avatar created and clothed digitally by Paul Aubrey Parnell for his final collection for Central Saint Martins, titled "The Fold" in June 2020. © Paul Aubrey Parnell

Raised by scientists in San Diego, California, Parnell credits his purpose-driven values to his parents. "It was a hard sell to get them to approve of me going to fashion school. I had to promise that I wasn't going to add to the waste, but instead only make products that were going to solve problems." One of the greatest assets of 3D digital fashion design is that it does not require tangible materials, therefore it doesn't generate any physical waste. Moreover, there is greater scope for creativity and innovative design when creating clothes on a computer. "What he has done far transcends what you can make by hand. It allows designers to explore their creativity in a way that responds to their flow of ideas," Brooke Roberts-Islam, Director of BRIA, where Parnells works as a freelance consultant, tells me. To achieve the metallic, chrome finish of his avatars' looks in the real world, Parnell would have to source materials that have been treated heavily with toxic chemicals. Moreover, the floating chrome plated insets on Janus’ dress would be difficult to replicate by hand.


"The visionary digital versions equally match the complexities of the cut-out pieces and the precision, time and skill that have gone into creating them"

Contrary to popular belief, creating clothes digitally is a laborious and time-consuming task. The looks involve a meticulous three-step process: create the avatar, design the clothes, and animate last. There are several clothing modelling softwares available, including CLO 3D and Marvellous Designer. Parnell used Blender, provided by the makers of Toy Story, for the entire process. To be a successful 3D fashion designer, you are in a better position if you know the foundations of garment construction and pattern cutting. "I think my best asset is that I understand the whole manufacturing process of fashion across levels, but I am also able to translate my designs to digital too," he tells me. Roberts-Islam agrees: "Our original skill and craft were in the manual cutting and creation of garments. Once you understand that, when you are in the digital world, you can make that work for you."


Comet, a 3D avatar created and clothed digitally by Paul Aubrey Parnell for his final collection for Central Saint Martins, titled "The Fold" in June 2020. © Paul Aubrey Parnell

Even for a college as unorthodox as Central Saint Martins, Parnell is one out of a handful of alumni and students who have tapped into the fast-growing sector of 3D digital fashion design. In 2016, alumnus Gareth Wrighton showcased his knitwear collection within a virtual game called The Maul, and Scarlett Yang, who graduated from the college’s Womenswear course this year, presented a final collection that merged bio-materials with virtual design. Parnell admits that he failed his second year because he submitted 3D rendered drawings as opposed to the required physical format. "It makes much more sense to design clothes digitally because you can generate a pattern, view the design from all angles and get a better idea of texture," he explains. Following the failure of his second year, Parnell was assigned a different tutor, Stephanie Cooper, who has championed his work ever since. Cooper describes Parnell as "a Renaissance artist who got into a time machine and was projected ahead of our time into the future." The praise doesn't stop there. "Parnell's final collection is a celebration of amazing technical talent which none of us could have predicted how relevant it would be [amid the outbreak of the coronavirus]," she says. "The visionary digital versions equally match the complexities of the cut-out pieces and the precision, time and skill that have gone into creating them."


"The greatest challenge of all was to persevere with digital creation because it has been such a slow process to get to where people are this interested"

Of all the lessons that the fashion industry should learn following the unprecedented pandemic, an important one is the positive impact of disruptive technologies such as 3D digital fashion design, 3D printing, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. "The greatest challenge of all was to persevere with digital creation because it has been such a slow process to get to where people are this interested," Parnells tells me. The lockdown has forced brands to think laterally and to explore the opportunities afforded by technology. Kerry Murphy, co-founder of digital fashion house, The Fabricant, said that the company has experienced a considerable rise in demand for their services from brands during this period. The Fabricant has received requests to digitise showrooms and presentations for the first digital-only London Fashion week that took place earlier in June. The release of Nintendo’s video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons in March conveniently coincided with the lockdown. Anna Sui, Marc Jacobs and Valentino have already partnered with Instagram accounts such as Nook Street Market, Animal Crossfits and Crossing the Runway to provide Nintendo switch users with downloadable QR codes of their existing looks to dress their gaming avatar.


A close up of Janus, a 3D avatar created and clothed digitally by Paul Aubrey Parnell for his final collection for Central Saint Martins, titled "The Fold" in June 2020. © Paul Aubrey Parnell

When I ask Parnell if he has ever thought about creating his own video game as an extension of his future fashion house, his face lights up. "Yes, I think that is my million dollar idea. It would be very marketable to high school kids," he bursts with excitement. It is a way to attract new customers who may not have the budget to buy an actual piece of clothing from his brand, or may be seeking an immersive, community-centred experience. For now, virtual clothing is predominantly being used in video games but Islam-Roberts predicts we’ll soon be dressing our own virtual avatars. “At the moment, the roadblock for people to have their own avatar and digital wardrobe is the computational power required to make that avatar. However, as those problems get solved with improvements in technology and 5G, the only limitation will be user adoption," she says. In a post-coronavirus epoch that will accelerate the rate at which we live and interact with one another online, Parnell sees digital fashion as a lucrative opportunity to diversify his revenue stream and adapt to changing consumer lifestyles.