/Ground-Breaking Augmented Fashion Experience by Steven Tai and ILMxLAB at London Fashion Week

Ground-Breaking Augmented Fashion Experience by Steven Tai and ILMxLAB at London Fashion Week

It’s no mean feat creating a truly unique Fashion Week experience.  The traditional catwalk and presentation formats are tried (or perhaps tired) and tested and provide what could be considered limited scope for in-depth storytelling and effectively conveying a brand’s message in our tech-engaged world.  Considering the concept of engagement – capturing the attention of an audience and involving them in an experience and “moving” them – how does the traditional fashion show stack up?  Limply, it would seem.  The irresistible pull of digital content and taking part in online conversations on Instagram and other platforms pulls people in the front row of shows into the digital world, as if the physical one around them doesn’t exist.

In this hybrid physical and digital world, what does the fashion show of our (immediate) future look like?  Steven Tai and his collaborators for AW18 say it looks like this: a physical showcase of the collection on live models who intermingle with an augmented digital avatar being generated in real time using CGI, who is also wearing the collection.  It’s a true blurring of physical and digital worlds – a mixed reality.  But why is this important?  Why explore the bringing together of digital and physical realms?

We live in a world where we create constant digital representations of ourselves and share them with the world.  We augment ourselves with filters and we animate our faces to imagine ourselves as different characters – not unlike the way that Steven Tai’s collaborators ILMxLab, a division of Lucas film, tells stories by creating characters in contextual places using CGI.  What does this creation of digital characters in a physical world look like, and how can that be harnessed to present fashion?  What would that look and feel like?

In the case of the Steven Tai presentation, it involved an actor in a “mocap” (or motion capture) suit which tracked her movements while walking and posing in order to render her body movements in real time as an avatar on the stage screen, immediately behind the physical models.  Her avatar therefore appeared as though she was interacting with the live models on the stage, although she was physically not present.  Different garments were rendered onto her body in real time, creating a carousel of changing outfits as she moved through the space, around the physical models.  The presentation proposed the concept of layering a digital world over a physical one, which strikes me as a social commentary on how we live increasingly through our social media personas and online interactions and how we wish to augment how we are perceived in the digital, and perhaps soon physical, world.

Actor in mocap suit creating the digital avatar seen in the video below amongst the physical models

During the presentation, in order for the actor’s avatar to “wear” the Steven Tai garments they had to be digitised in advance and then rendered in real time on her moving avatar body, to demonstrate the realistic and accurate drape and movement of the fabric.  The process of designing and creating the collection was an interesting one from the point of view of designer Steven Tai.  His appetite for technology and experimentation demonstrates a rare trust and brave approach to fashion design, where his desire to use certain textiles and create certain silhouettes gave way to the technological limitations, allowing the rendering and appearance of the garments digitally to inform their creation physically.  It’s tricky to convey just how at odds this is with the way fashion designers have been trained.  I say this as a graduate of London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins, where the teaching emphasises a dogged belief and dedication to achieving your creative and aesthetic goals and striving for your ideals.  Experimenting with new technologies and telling a fashion story that incorporates these new enablers requires a far more dynamic and collaborative attitude.  One that Steven clearly has and that has allowed him an unusual freedom to express himself through the use of the technology.

Another key reason to utilise the LiveCGX technology within the presentation was its capability to create an entire world within the digital and physical space.  Through the imagery on the screen behind the stage, we were transported to Steven’s native Macau by way of a CGI urban landscape, blending a street scene, complete with awnings, flowing gently in the digital breeze, flanked in jungle-like surroundings with softly falling leaves.  Macau was a pivotal inspiration for the collection, which as Matthew Drinkwater of the Fashion Innovation Agency – orchestrators of the collaboration – pointed out after the show, meant that the audience could experience Steven’s inspiration and see how it translated into the collection before them, rather than read about it on a press release.

steventai AW18 collection 

The presentation felt like an invitation to consider the future of fashion.  A chance to ask how fashion should be consumed and sold – and perhaps more importantly, worn.  Will we extend our augmented selves from mobile devices to our physical space through glasses that effectively overlay a digital layer onto our physical world?  Will we chose to change our clothing (or rather how others wearing augmentation glasses perceive our clothing) throughout the day at will?  If so, what is the role of the designer, and indeed of physical clothes?  How would we consume such fashion?  Would we buy renders of clothing?  What impact could that have on the wider industry and what are the potential environmental benefits of reduced physical garment production?  These are all interesting philosophical questions that steer us toward re-imagining the future of fashion.

It is worth noting that the Fashion Innovation Agency, based at London College of Fashion, disseminate the outcomes and discoveries of the experimental fashion presentations they facilitate to cohorts of fashion students whose concept of what fashion can and should be is still in the making.  These students are the future of the industry, so departing university with an affinity for, and understanding of, emerging technologies, suggests that their use will gain prevalence and move towards widespread industry uptake in coming years.

Mohen Leo and Vicki Dobbs-Beck of ILMxLAB, Steven Tai and Matthew Drinkwater of FIA

The question I arrive at after seeing the clear benefits of this mode of storytelling and audience engagement is, “How does this contribute to fashion business commercially?”  Can this content be used for online sales?  It’s likely true that such technologies and methods of presentation will take off when clear financial benefits for brands are proven.  Steven Tai hypothesises that he can reach a global audience by allowing viewers to attend his shows simply by wearing a VR or Mixed reality headset and entering his fashion presentation remotely.  Similarly, their avatars could ‘try on’ the collection using the same the technology and purchase through e-commerce.  Nay-sayers might comment that people would never purchase something they haven’t physically seen or tried on, but then isn’t that exactly what cynics said of Natalie Massenet’s bold concept for a web-based clothing store, which became the industry-changing e-commerce retailer ‘Net-a-porter’?

The team behind the show: steventai, London College of Fashion’s Fashion Innovation Agency, ILMxLAB and The GREAT Britain Campaign