Unequivocally embracing the digital world as just another kind of reality, the Digital Realists exhibition organized by Modebelofte challenges traditional analogue perspectives. Installed in an abandoned department store during Dutch Design Week last year, the exhibition design is noteworthy for its iridescent translucent plastic drapes that recall both a hyper-saturated Instagram filter and an industrial meatpacking warehouse.

Curated by HeyNiek and Studio Harm Rensink, the exhibition features the work of 18 ‘digital realists’ who synchronize online and offline modes of design and creation. Frame speaks to Niek Pulles of HeyNiek and Harm Rensink and Lisanne Fransen to find out more about the concept behind the surrealist exhibition design.

How did you come up with the theme Digital Realists? 
We always develop new Modebelofte concepts as a sort of answer to or continuation of the previous one. Last year was all about travel and protection and how this can be translated into a silhouette. So this year we took the ‘travel’ concept and made it digital. How are designers exploring the digital world, and how do they take the things they find on their travels to create in this reality?

The challenges and opportunities we will have in the future are beyond our imagination, but the exhibition gives us a glimpse into what the new generation can bring to the table. 

What were the criteria for selecting the fashion designers?
We are always looking for designs that spark our imagination by hinting at a possible future. This year we looked for bold, disruptive pieces with the Digital Realist concept in mind.

How would you describe the Digital Realists?
Digital Realists are the new generation! Not just newly graduated fashion designers, but all of today’s adolescents. Digital Realism is not the name of a collective or a certain aesthetic expression; it indicates the generation transitioning from childhood to adulthood while exploring the new technological tools that are changing the face of this physical world.

The mark of a true Digital Realist is that they don’t think of what they do as going back and forth between digital and ‘real’ worlds. To them, there are no borders. They exist and create in both worlds simultaneously. Approaching reality like this is a huge advantage as digital techniques are developing with immense speed and having to make a mental switch all the time would only limit you and slow you down. 

The young fashion designers in the Modebelofte this year are excellent examples of Digital Realism: when they create their collections using programmes and techniques such as 3D-modelling and digital printing, they are investigating, experimenting, modelling, failing and flourishing in the digital world. At the same time, everything they find and make is brought into the real world as they hand-cut, sew, and stitch digitally created fabric or shapes into garments that can be seen, touched, smelled and worn.

How did this year’s location – the abandoned V&D department store – inform the design of the exhibition?
The location was absolutely perfect! The V&D store had been empty and abandoned for months and months: it was like a dark hole in the middle of the biggest shopping street in Eindhoven.

With the Modebelofte we always search for places that can bring our exhibited designs as close to the people as possible – not only to Dutch Design Week visitors but also to curious passersby. The abandoned 17,000-sq-m space in the middle of the busiest shopping street in the city made everyone curious. We decided to create an exhibition design that encourages these surprise encounters with a labyrinth that reveals only one garment at a time as visitors zigzag their way through the space.

On top of that, we added huge visual projections, specially composed music and LED screens for a fully immersive experience.

How does the labyrinth exhibition design reflect the theme of Digital Realists?
The multiple layers of the labyrinth create the perception of cinematic special effects on the physical realm, with coloured layers pierced by pulsing lights that switch on and off to reveal the world behind the walls. It’s a very playful environment that both reveals and hides the clothes.

What materials did you use in the exhibition design and why did you choose these specific ones?
We used different kinds of polyester foils with shiny surfaces. The hanging walls of the pavilion are made with a one-way-mirror principle mixed with coloured and transparent iridescent foils. Perhaps the greatest advantage of the material is that the whole 450-sq-m pavilion could fit easily in a little van when rolled up!

Why do you think exhibition design is important in the context of a multi-event such as Dutch Design Week?
I believe that you have to set the right mood in when you want to tell people a story. A good exhibition design can transport people into a new world, opening them up to new stories and experiences. The main aim of our exhibition is to generate as much attention for the fashion designers as possible, so we always go a bit nuts with our exhibition design to make everyone want to come have a look. This year we had 65,000 visitors in 9 days! Bonkers!