How Designer Charli Cohen Uses VR Fashion To Address Mental Health

Explore the designer’s latest collaboration with Sanrio character gudetama in the first hyper-immersive VR fashion show, The Fabric of Reality.

London designer Charli Cohen, the woman behind the eponymous Charli Cohen label, is a name to know. Not only does her brand operate at the intersection of fashion and technology, performance sportswear and high fashion, but it’s also committed to bringing issues beyond fashion to light, like mental health.

Charli Cohen
Charli Cohen
Charli Cohen

One of Snap Inc’s Yellow accelerator companies of 2020, Charli Cohen has quite a few exciting 2020 collaborations, like her newest fashion-meets-technology releases for Reebok, where she reimagines the Reebok Zig Kinetica and FUSIUM Run 20 sock with her signature bar code accents, which the customer can use to discover unique content about the collaboration.

Charli Cohen's latest collaboration with Reebok lets customers scan a bar code on the sneaker to access exclusive content
Charli Cohen x Reebok
Charli Cohen's latest collaboration with Reebok lets customers scan a bar code on the sneaker to access exclusive content

Charli’s also recently released a clothing collaboration with Sanrio character, gudetama, a lazy egg who lacks spunk and suffers from apathy. The collection includes oversized, double-hooded sweatshirts, tees and tracksuit bottoms emblazoned with phrases like: “Social distancing/couldn’t be happier.”

“I fell in love with the character. It’s such a bizarre concept, this very Kawaii cute character that was essentially suffering from all the symptoms of depression,” Charli tells HuffPost UK.

Charli has been fascinated by gudetama since she first discovered the character on a trip to Tokyo seven years ago. No surprise, then, that the egg provided the inspiration for her latest project, as one-third of a hyper-immersive, virtual reality fashion show from Verizon in-house creative studio, RYOT, known as The Fabric of Reality. London designers Sabinna and Damara, whose brands also combine digital technologies with fashion, are also involved.

Charli's launched a collection with Sanrio character, gudetama, who provides the inspiration for her VR story world
Charli x gudetama
Charli's launched a collection with Sanrio character, gudetama, who provides the inspiration for her VR story world

Charli plans to create a docu-series focused on gudetama as part of a mental health awareness campaign that looks at mental health issues within stigmatised communities.

“In Japan, there’s a huge taboo around mental health and I wanted to explore the impact of having a cartoon character representing these issues, within these cultures where it’s not spoken about,” she explains.

However, with the pandemic delaying filming of the documentary, gudetama was the perfect fit for Charli’s immersive virtual reality story world, which she created with brand studio manager Ben Thompson and VR designers Anand Duncan and JOY.

Viewers will see two sides of gudetama in the VR fashion-verse, first as a leader and charismatic DJ, and then, in a moment of darkness, unable to leave its bed.

Users will be able to interact in the story world by pinning messages of support or positive emojis in the space, which is also inhabited by a central, levitating Princess Mononoke-style Manga figure, who wears an oversized slogan coat, emblazoned with some of gudetama’s most popular catchphrases. HANA’s ‘Anxious Alien’ will feature as part of the story world’s soundscape.

In a happy marriage of the digital and physical, versions of Charli Cohen’s gudetama collection pieces that appear in the virtual world are available to order now.

“The most significant thing in the virtual world is there is no gravity in the digital realm, in terms of being able to experiment with silhouettes. There are so many incredible options that aren’t physically possible in the physical realm,” Charli explains.

The designer is excited about the democratising benefits virtual fashion affords customers in terms of engagement, by allowing everyday folk to experience something in the fashion-verse firsthand, rather than as a disseminated product seen through the lens of fashion industry influencers. She’s also keen to explore the potential of the VR universe as a tool for destigmatising issues around mental health.

Mental health has been a key component of the Charli Cohen brand DNA from day one, as a result of Charli’s personal experiences with depression, anxiety and anorexia (as a teen). There’s a mental health awareness platform, Shades of Blue, within the Charli Cohen brand, which includes a podcast and other content and events looking at mental health issues within the creative industries. Charli has also partnered with mental health charity Mind for the initial drop of her gudetama collection - available online now - as well as Black Thrive, a London-based charity which supports black therapists to create healing spaces for black residents.

Having been in the industry for over a decade, Charli’s all too aware of the mental health struggles that people in fashion experience, from pressure on models to look a certain way to the extremely poor factory conditions those working in the supply chain - typically women of colour - are subjected to.

“I got a sense of how unhealthy it was: the exploitation, how poorly people were treated. I am outspoken about that within my brand and I believe I can be part of changing within the industry from the inside. The creative industries attract vulnerable people and have a badly set up infrastructure to support them,” Charli says.

Charli believes the fashion industry should be doing more to address mental health issues within the business, especially at the lower internship level where people are made to feel expendable and accept unreasonable hours, poor working conditions, poor treatment and limited protections. Even those at the top of the industry are expected to perform unrealistically, constantly churning out one collection after the next for mega fashion houses and often their own labels, too.

As a brand that’s focused on sustainability at its core - a fairly set up supply chain, carbon-neutral mills, using recycled yarns to create technical fabrics, limited-edition drops and pre-orders to minimise waste - Charli is particularly excited about the opportunities immersive technologies offer in terms of creating zero-waste, season-less clothes, unlike the current seasonal structure which encourages waste.

One of Charli Cohen's physical-meets-virtual fashion looks
Charli Cohen
One of Charli Cohen's physical-meets-virtual fashion looks

“The digital revolution works with the pre-order model because people can see and experience a 3D render, rather than creating a physical sample which uses physical resources,” Charli says.

“You can present a whole collection without any manufacturing. You can be selective about what gets sampled and what goes into production and you can be conscious about the materials and resources.”

We have barely scratched the surface of what can happen when viewers and customers engage with fashion in immersive environments.

With viewers able to move around and interact during The Fabric of Reality virtual fashion show, it’s not just about experiencing the fabrics, objects and garments, but the emotional response that comes along with participating and enjoying themselves in a gamified environment.

Charli’s brand has always taken a gamified approach from the get-go, taking inspiration from the digital crossover of game culture and technology, and Charli is working with leading games developers on turning game elements into physical products in the coming months (watch this space).

There’s also the emotional connection the VR experience can provide, uniting people around the world with a sense of camaraderie and unity - especially essential if you are feeling anxious or depressed, so you know there are others in the same boat.

The toll the pandemic has caused on our mental health is severe, with so many being thrown into isolation and losing their day-to-day structure. Research from Mind found that 65% of those with a pre-existing mental health condition felt it had been exacerbated during lockdown. Over one in five adults who had no mental health issues prior to lockdown reported their mental health is now poor.

“I want people to come away from this feeling understood, feeling hopeful and knowing they are not alone in their experience. There’s a level of external stress you don’t even realise you’re absorbing until you wonder, ‘why am I struggling to wake up?’” says Charli.

“We speak to this in the story world. This is a collective feeling. It’s not a weakness. There’s nothing wrong with you and it will pass.”