Discussing the Tensions Between Fashion, Technology and Sustainability with Vanessa Friedman

Before meeting Vanessa Friedman, I considered the perspective she could lend on the tension between designers’ ability to create freely and the need to choose sustainable materials.  Is there a conflict?  Does working with sustainable fabrics limit designers?  What new technologies excite her?  What does she think of ‘wearables’?  I posed these questions and more to her, considering her answers in the context of the the wider fashion industry.

When discussing whether she perceives sustainability being at odds with unlimited creativity in fashion design, Vanessa told me “Fashion has always had that tension – sometimes it’s about pricing, sometimes its more practical restrictions, like the need for two armholes and a place for your head… that creates discipline for designers and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.  Sustainability is part of the challenge of design”.  She believes that when you are making something that is functional, which fashion is, you have to wrestle with the egregiousness of the product you are making.  Her standpoint is one of sustainable materials posing a challenge, rather than being a problem.

Vanessa cites the possibility that aesthetics may be shaped by the advance of new materials, smart textiles and new fibre composites – cellulosic and animal fibre blends, for example – as a huge opportunity.  If such advances could result in less seams required and ultra light materials, like those used by Moncler who are “making warm coats that can by smushed into a tiny ball for carry on”, then all these advances are exciting.  “Designers should embrace these challenges and opportunities as a chance for them to think differently – It should be something they look forward to”.

I am curious to know whether (and when) Vanessa sees a future where the discussion on sustainability becomes a part of the high profile seasonal fashion discourse during fashion month, taking place in New York, Paris, London and Milan, where she sits front row in her capacity as the Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic of The New York Times.  “In my dream world, you don’t need a Copenhagen Fashion Summit that’s all about sustainability – this is not a discourse that is combined with a mainstream event because it is a mainstream event and it is part of best practice – period”.  Her take on the sustainability message is “we can talk about it or not talk about it.  You don’t want to be an eco brand, you just want to be a brand that happens to be sustainable.  It shouldn’t be the thing that sets you apart, it should be the thing that makes you part of the general conversation”. 

It’s Vanessa’s opinion that using sustainability as a sales tool and part of the brand message, has an upside and a downside.  The upside is the point of differentiation which can attract consumers, while the downside is that it puts the brand in a different niche for other consumers.  She reflects on Vogue’s former “eco or green design section of the magazine where they would feature a different designer every month… You don’t want to be there – you want to be with Gucci, you want to be with Vuitton”.  Reflecting on her comment, it seems to me that sustainability shouldn’t be a consolation or an optional brand choice – it should be quietly integrated into all fashion brands. 

Moving onto the subject of textiles and manufacturing, I asked Vanessa if she has seen any ‘game-changing’ developments emerging.  She highlights 3D printing and manufacturing to order, thereby eliminating stock and production processes (that have long and complicated supply chains) as the most exciting.  “If you can produce a garment in a very short amount of time to order for someone, you will change everything”.  Vanessa is thinking of the likes of 3D printed shoes and advances in digital knitting.  It is her opinion that the biggest change for fashion as a result of advances in technology is going to be in the production process, rather than “the accessory that tests your heart rate… To me, the really exciting opportunity is in how you manufacture”.  Evidence in the form of the Adidas Speedfactory and the mass customisation by NIKEiD support her comments, as do the advances in digital knitting that have led to a complete transformation of the entire footwear industry through the creation of Flyknit and Adidas Ultra Boost, amongst many other digitally knitted products with simplified supply chains, local manufacturing and short lead times.

Image:  Adidas Ultraboost

When I asked Vanessa which designers or brands that she feels are doing exciting things fusing tech and fashion she is of the leaning that there is a giant gap in this area.  She defines it as “A problem that no-one has quite figured out, between technology companies that can make gadgets, and they are trying to make them ‘fashiony’ – and fashion companies that make fashion and are trying to make them ‘techy’.  You need a third point of the triangle, which is someone who is going to figure out how to meaningfully combine the two”.  Enter a number of innovative cross-disciplinary labs and incubators emerging for the express purpose of making this happen, including Plug and Play and Mira Duma’s Fashion Tech Lab

On the subject of ‘wearables’, Vanessa pulls no punches: “I think ‘wearables’ is the most ridiculous word I have ever heard – everything is a ‘wearable’ – my jacket is a ‘wearable’ and it has no tech in it at all.  I don’t think ‘wearables’ has figured out what it is yet.  It’s a catch all word for techy gadgets you wear, but that’s not really a sector”.  To a degree, we may be talking semantics here, but based on the abandoned Fitbit and Google Glass, amongst others, it’s true that the gaping divide between where tech provides clever capabilities and fashion provides aesthetics and desirability to create life-enhancing products, remains wide.

Image top:  Google Glass       Image bottom: Fitbit

Reflecting further on the state of wearables, Vanessa reminisces about the iPhone and iPod “changing the way that everybody interacted with music”.  She says that in contrast, “there has been nothing like that with fashion – no wearable has achieved that”.  Considering the outcome of our discussion and my questions about sustainability playing a bigger role in fashion, it seems that to Vanessa’s mind, there is a tension between fashion and tech, but not between fashion design and sustainability.

As I wrap up this article, an invitation to the launch of Nadi X by Wearable X – the first Wearable yoga pant to ‘communicate with the user to ‘aid alignment’, hits my inbox.  Perhaps our ‘Wearable’ future is about to take a new life-enhancing turn towards the perfect fusion?  Stay tuned for the verdict.

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