Techstyler X BOTTLETOP: Grown Materials for Fashion – Past, Present and Future

Growing materials to use in fashion products may be new to most, but the panellists of the Techstyler X Bottletop Speaker Series discussion on ‘Biomaterials and Biodesign: The Next Generation of Sustainable Materials’ have been working in this sector for several years and it is bearing interesting fruit.

Carole Collet, Professor in Design for Sustainable Futures and CSM-LVMH Director of Sustainable Innovation at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London has spent a decade researching biomimicry, biofabrication and biodesign.  Her work gave rise to the MA Materials Futures course at CSM and will soon see the launch of the MA Biodesign degree at the same institution.  Education, ethics and robust frameworks for the future industrialisation of materials grown in living systems are what Carole sees as current imperatives for the responsible and safe development of this sector. In addition to her academic research, Professor Collet has recently supervised the PhD work of Amy Congdon, now a member or the Modern Meadow team, founded by biodesign pioneer Suzanne Lee.  

Image: Carole Collet: Biolace

When asked why the past two years have seen an explosion in biodesign and grown materials she stated that accessibility of ‘recipes’ and equipment, which are fairly rudimentary in the initial phases, have given rise to a surge in interest and experimentation by designers, usually with basic kitchen equipment in their own homes.  She goes on to say that designers remain ill equipped, however, to navigate and document their developments due to a biology and scientific process knowledge gap. The MA Biodesign course aims to fill this gap.

Ex-Adidas designer, Jen Keane, just completed her MA Material Futures degree, during which time she grew a nanocellulose trainer upper, using a hybrid of manually warped threads with a weft grown by bacteria.  Essentially, the process of growing a material requires a sterile environment, into which a living organism (bacteria from Kombucha, for example) and a sugar and water solution is introduced.  The organism then creates the material – in the case of Jen’s material, the nanocellulose weft. The resulting material has a papery feel, but once treated with oil it is smooth and flexible with a semi-translucent finish.  Jen spoke about the challenges in interpreting the biological building blocks of her experiments and controlling the easily contaminated environment (sterilised dishes) used to grow her materials. Household mould was her biggest challenge, but she managed to successfully develop samples in her kitchen and bathroom which she presented to the audience.  

Image: Jen Keane

Having recently visited Bolt Threads to see their synthetic spider silk developments and the scale of their operation, and armed with industry standard experience for materials approval at Adidas, she estimates that her material requires five more years of research and development before reaching commercial readiness.

Imparting a scientific voice and reasoning was Tom Meany, CEO of Cell-Free Tech and Director of Open Cell.bio – the new lab and workspace initiative that supports designers and scientists to rapid test and prototype in lab facilities, usually the preserve of industry or established educational institutions.  Tearing down barriers to entry by allowing quick experimentation, Open Cell residents include Chip[s] Board, who are turning potato waste into an MDF-equivalent material that is 100% biodegradable and sustainable from an as yet un-exploited waste stream.  In addition to the bio-lab space, there is a Maker Space and shipping container space available for residents to set up their own dedicated small-scale labs or production facilities – as the Chip[s] Board team (comprised of two designers and a biochemist) have.

Image: Open Cell.bio

Tom warned against hype-driven new or prospective materials which create ‘Instagram attention’ but are founded on shaky or unproven science.  He points to a danger that this can create unrealistic expectations on those trying to genuinely move the industry forward. The discussion turned to fashion’s propensity for storytelling to sell products, which may lead to style over substance where science is concerned.

While materials grown from living systems offer clean and efficient alternatives to currently polluting material production methods, Professor Collet warned that they currently have severe limitations in terms of cost effectiveness, performance and scalability.  She warned against viewing materials grown from living systems as “saviours” for our urgent sustainability and environmental woes. Using newly created Mylo ‘leather’ from mycelium as an example, she said that we do not know how this leather equivalent will look and perform throughout its life – it may not be a durable long-term replacement for existing leathers.  Additional research and development into biodesign and biofabrication and materials from living systems cannot be rushed, she concluded.

To hear the full panel discussion, listen to the podcast here.

The next talk in the Techstyler X Bottletop Speaker Series with be held at the Bottletop store in November, entitled ‘Sustainability Driven by New Technologies: Reducing Waste using 3D Design and Mixed Reality’.

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The Zozosuit: A Fashion Revolution

It’s not often that something entirely new happens in the fashion industry – something revolutionary.  The Japanese Zozosuit is just that – a revolution in one of the biggest bugbears consumers have when buying clothing – the fit.  Fit is such a confusing word.  Does it mean skin tight?  Does it mean just the right measurements in the right places?  For the team a Zozosuit it is an altogether more sophisticated notion, condensed into a straightforward suit and a series of photographs that result in individual shoppers globally obtaining custom fit clothing.

The cynic in me wonders immediately how the photos will be taken, how the user will interpret how the suit will be worn and the angle and lighting required for the photos, but this is all dismissed when I see that the Zozosuit App talks the wearer through the process from beginning to end – starting with a tutorial on how to smooth out the suit and ensure it is being worn properly, right through to the slow turn required for the app to acquire the 12 photos that result in the 360 degree ‘body scan’ containing all the measurements needed to create custom made or custom fit clothing (I will explain the difference later in the piece).

https://youtu.be/32rbuLFbVWk

When I tried the suit myself it took me a couple of minutes to run through the tutorial, place the phone correctly on a table on the stand provided (it seems our floor is a little uneven) and stand the correct distance from the phone to have my whole body in the field of view for the 12 photos.  The app told me to move “to the front a bit, back a bit, turn to 1 o’clock” so it was simple enough to follow, and startlingly accurate.  After obtaining my Zozosuit measurements I manually measured my bust, waist, hip and thigh and found that all were within 1cm of the Zozosuit measurements – in the case of the bust, waist and thigh they were identical.  I promptly sent my measurements to the team at Start Today, the ecommerce fashion brand behind the suit, and will report back on how the product fits.

The custom made and custom fit proposition by Start Today is startlingly sophisticated for a company making wardrobe basics at the same sort of price-point as Uniqlo.  This is the first mass customized product available at a high-street price point and available within weeks, sometimes days.  Tech manager Masa Ito confirms that “this is what comes after fast fashion”.  He believes their business model will reshape the industry.

To say this is a fashion company is only half the story.  “We’re as much a fashion company as we are a tech company” explained Masa.  “We have 220 programmers working in-house” on the proprietary pattern-cutting server and software that handles all the incoming 360 degree ‘body scans’ and measurements from customers in 72 countries and interprets them into a bespoke pattern.  Bolted onto this are AI algorithms that mean that with every customer transaction this proprietary system gets smarter – it knows what customers want, both broadly and on an individual level.  This is the holy grail of individual customer service on a global scale, online – such a beautiful paradox of personalization from afar via digital, rather than physical, means.

Discussing the customer experience from beginning to end with Masa I learn that once the customer completes their scan they can shop from the online store, and for each item they wish to purchase their measurements determine a ‘best fit’ which they can then choose to tweak in increments of 2 or 3 cm up or down, depending on their preference for how baggy or slim, or how long or short their garments are.  Cue a wave of Japanese ‘designophiles’ adding a foot to their jean hems and double-cuffing for their own take on how denim should be worn – making this cutomisation of wardrobe staples doubly attractive to a young, directional customer.  I can’t wait to put this to the test myself, being small waisted and rather round in the hip region, jeans shopping is a nightmare for me.  Well, no longer, hopefully.

**add self-styled jeans pics**

Once the products are in the customer’s online shopping bag there are two routes to manufacturing – custom fit (the t-shirt, shirt and jeans products, which are manufactured and in stock based in thousands of variations in measurements, derived from thousands of subjects in their body analysis data).  Custom fit products are available within two weeks.  The other product option is custom made, which is fully bespoke and is currently offered for their tailored suits.  The product offer will expand, though.

All three women above wear their custom fit Start Today straight leg jean

Start Today’s head office, design team and programmers are in Japan and the manufacturing is done in China with Industrial partners.  Digging a little deeper, I ask Masa about how the products are manufactured.  The factory is set up in ‘stations’ to manufacture the different products, which are still made by hand, however there is a huge push towards automation.  This is no surprise, as a business model like this does not survive with a slick tech front end and slow manual (and therefore expensive) backend.  The manufacturing process needs to be fast and accurate, and ideally local.  Once manufacturing is set up along these lines it can be located in the markets it is serving.  For cut and sew garments like jeans and t-shirts this seems a little way off, however for inherently automated systems like 3D knit there is already minimal manual input, so manufacturing of knitted sweaters and the like could feasibly be made local much sooner.

Both women above wear their custom fit skinny jeans.  The men wear (top) slim tapered jean, (above) straight leg jean

Start today are not only creating bespoke clothing, they operate an entirely bespoke design and manufacturing process.  Many fashion companies work with existing software and machinery in a standardised manner in factories manufacturing products for multiple brands.  Not so for Start Today.  They have created proprietary software and systems to drive their technical and manufacturing processes and are working with machine manufacturers to redesign and augment existing machines to function in streamlined and automated ways to support their mass customization.  Their factory setup is unique to them – they could not work in a standard factory that manufactures for other brands.  This is next generation manufacturing and nothing about this business model is ‘off the shelf’.

It’s difficult to sum up just how transformative this business model and philosophy is.  It addresses so many pain points in traditional fashion supply chains and processes and removes sensitivities like body shape, size and race – it does away with all the labels.  In that way, it is entirely liberating and inclusive, blowing traditional fashion retailers out of the water.  It questions fashion’s use of ‘model sizes’ – whatever they are – and a certain portrayal of what fashion is.  According to Start Today we are all fashion.  Individually and as a mass market.

Where next for Start Today?  They gave away 100,000 Zozosuits in July this year with the launch of their ecommerce store to 72 countries.  The measurement data being fed in from the Zozosuit in all the markets around the world is helping Start Today perfect their algorithms and patterns and offer ever better fitting products.  Knitwear launches in a few weeks to add to the custom fit offer and I am delighted to be receiving one of their first knits to test.  Knowing my knitwear background, I warned I would notice even a single dropped stitch, so I’m a tough customer.  What was incredible refreshing was that the Start Today team begged me to feed back to them on all the products and the process of taking my Zozosuit measurements.  A fashion company wanting my personal opinion in order to change their processes?  Can that really work?  When you have complete control over the individual consumer’s clothing offer, fit and service, yes it can.  This is the key.  Traditional fashion brands and retailers can’t reasonably act on such feedback because of the archaic, complex supply chain and the lack of control over product ‘sizing’.  Their best intentions will always fall short in a consumer landscape where we demand products quickly and cheaply that are perfect for us.

Speaking on the founding principles of the company Masa said that the company was determined to address something that was being ignored by their competitors.  Plainly speaking, he said they could not compete on design – there are incredible brands out their winning in this area.  They could not compete on retail stores – there are wonderful shopping experiences already existing.  But what no brand has ever addressed is how horrible it is to spend your life buying clothing off the shelf that is ill-fitting or having to get it altered – making the customer feel self-conscious and short-changed.  Considering the desperate lack of provision for people who fit into what is often termed ‘petite, or ‘plus-size’ or ‘big and tall’ it is incredibly refreshing to realise that the Zozosuit means these categories and labels need never exist again.  Zozo fits you perfectly, whatever dimensions you are.

Pioneering Collaboration Transforms Garments and Fashion Waste into Recyclable Materials

You would be hard-pressed to find a more frequently used buzz word in fashion than ‘sustainability’, right now.  Following its use, the obvious question is often, “but what do you mean by sustainable”.  Both a problem and a solution, sustainability runs a broad gamut including textile and garment manufacturing practices, to chemistry and materials science, then finally product sales, consumption and usage patterns.  Digging deeper, what underlies this urgent and growing focus on sustainability in the global fashion industry is the fact that is it the second most polluting industry in the world after oil and gas, but you probably know that by now.  Why does that suddenly matter to many fashion brands and companies?  Why are brands adopting “sustainability”.  Broadly speaking, it is because of threats to profit margins (caused by increasing cost of natural resources and materials which are in sharp decline) and potential backlash from consumers who are beginning to understand the fashion industry’s wasteful methods are damaging the planet and its people.

To understand the environmental implications of the current methods used in the fashion industry it is helpful to understand the volume of resources (including energy and water) we use to make our clothes and how much use we get out of those clothes.  Remembering that the planet’s resources are finite – we don’t have an endless supply of fossil fuels to burn to create electrical energy to power manufacturing and we don’t have endless access to clean water for growing cotton and dyeing processes), it follows that a circular way of manufacturing makes more sense than a linear one.   

To differentiate between circular and linear using the example of jeans – If it takes up to 10,000 litres of water to make a pair of jeans and we wear them for a matter of months then throw them in the bin, never to be used again, this linear process depletes resources catastrophically.  However, if those jeans could be turned into new materials (rather than thrown in the bin) that are themselves recyclable, then the resources used to manufacture those jeans provide products for a long and circular life – a perpetual one that is energy efficient and reduces the burden of future manufacturing and reduces the depletion of natural resources significantly.

This circularity was at the heart of the thinking behind the latest EU-funded project by the teams at BRIA and SABINNA, who created a fashion capsule collection of cotton and viscose garments which were then transformed into new, 100% recyclable and biodegradable materials that could be used for packaging and shop interiors.  The materials are circular in that they can then be recycled a large number of times in order to keep the core fibres of the materials ‘alive’ and in use – thereby avoiding landfill. 

BRIA x SABINNA garments, processes and new materials transformed into packaging

New materials in development in lab

New materials as garment swing tags

The processes BRIA x SABINNA used are based on simple organic chemistry – dissolving and reforming the cellulose molecules in the clothing into new 100% cellulose-based materials that were compressed into flexible sheets, in some cases like paper or a film, and in other cases like a thicker MDF-type ‘wood’ material.  The processes vary depending on the new material being created, and the initial experiments were done on a small scale in a London-lab as ‘proof-of-concept’ that it is possible to turn any clothes made of cotton or viscose into new materials using minimal chemicals (and sometimes no chemicals at all) in ways that are sustainable in terms of the amount of natural resources (energy and water) needed to perform the recycling process and also in terms of the material outcome.

BRIA x Sabinna viscose knitted jumper, cotton shirt and denim jeans – later transformed into new materials

Laminate-effect textured card created from BRIA x SABINNA viscose knitted jumper above

Processing of denim into new packaging materials

If we look at other narratives around sustainability in fashion that call for up-cycling and wearing clothes for longer, or buying less, we see a shift of responsibility for sustainability from the industry to the consumer.  Whilst this makes sense in terms of educating and informing consumers, it poses a huge problem in that it does not instigate change in the industry or challenge processes that are destroying the planet and harming people.  This is what is making the shift of focus to circularity and science and technology for the answers to our most burning questions and problems in the industry crucial.

Development of new material from denim

In my design and innovation role at BRIA, I was a member of the team that conducted this project with the support of EU-funding from WEAR Sustain.  The project was instigated following a trip to Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2017, during which my conversations with Marie-Clarie Daveu of Kering, Anna Gedda of H&M and Mira Duma of Future Tech Lab instigated a quest to understand just how big a challenge making sustainable products is for fashion brands, from the initial design process through to the end-of-life of the garment.  Could brands, small and large alike, design and produce collections in a circular manner?  What would it cost?  Would the designs be compromised?  What would the restrictions be?  During a conversation with Vanessa Friedman she told me she thought sustainability was inherent in good fashion design, rather than an ‘add-on’.  But how is it inherent?  Does choosing organic cotton make a garment ‘sustainable’.  Not if we consider circularity as the ultimate solution to the depletion and pollution caused by the fashion industry.  So it has to go further.  It has to be part of the way the collection is conceived, the materials are made, the construction methods used and the strategy for the ‘end-of-life’ of the garment – where does the garment go when it is no longer used?  These were the questions we at BRIA sought to answer along with our collaborator SABINNA. 

The result proves that any designer using 100% cotton and viscose is creating garments that are forever recyclable – any designer can use our processes to recycle their garments.  It also proves that cotton and viscose clothing can even be recovered from landfill and processed using our method in order to keep the fibres in the circular system.  One of the most exciting elements for us was to achieve new materials with garments including hand-knits, denim jeans and multi-yarn jacquard knits – showing that the thickness and form of the textile yields to the process equally well.  The chemistry checks-out, giving clean and biodegradable results every time.

BRIA x SABINNA jeans 

New materials created from 100% cotton jeans above

Bowl from recycled viscose process and swing tag and box from recycled denim process

The next step is to explore brand partnerships to allow companies to clean up their own supply chains – jeans offcuts used to make the shelving and flooring in-store?  There is no reason why not.  Branded silky cellophane-like film packaging made from recycled high-end viscose dresses?  Hell yeah!

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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

Sabinna Experiments With Mixed Reality Shopping for Fashion

For Sabinna Rachimova, her ‘brand DNA’ is, actually, familial.  It transcends ethos and aesthetics and runs deep into the past, through two generations of her family.  Her grandmother, a maths and physics professor in her native Russia, who during communist times made clothing on the side for neighbours and friends for extra income, inspired her to pursue a career in art and craft.

Sabinna’s parents were professional athletes, her mother a field hockey player and her father a footballer, which meant the family travelled regularly and she grew up in Russia, Spain and Austria, where her family finally settled.  Describing this experience as unsettling, she created her own fictional world of play to distract herself from being the new kid and not speaking the local language, at least initially.  Craft became Sabinna’s passion, so where communication with others lacked, she filled her time with what interested her – art, craft and languages.

Family photos, Sabinna’s studio, East London

Sabinna’s parents insisted she attend a languages and maths-focused high school, so unable to pursue creative subjects, she completed her studies under duress and then went on to enrol in a Slavic languages degree after a rejection from the University of Applied Arts Vienna, where she had hoped to study fashion design.  Struggling to find a route into a design degree, she sent her CV to every fashion designer in Vienna, asking for a part-time job and hoping to step inside what she described at the time as the ‘secret world of fashion’.

Schella Kann took her on and with a tough love approach, telling her to forget about the rejection from the University of Applied Arts Vienna and to look further afield to pursue her dreams.  By putting together a portfolio based on the way her maths and physics professor grandmother had taught her to present ideas, she applied and was accepted onto a foundation course at Central Saint Martins in London.  Not bad for someone who pulled together a portfolio in twenty four hours, assisted by her boyfriend and now long term partner, David, and sent it simply addressed to the ‘fashion’ department with a request to join a fashion course, of no particular specification.

Following completion of her foundation course, Sabinna went on to study Fashion Marketing and Design at CSM and interned in the knitwear department at Dior, which she describes as ‘the best and worst’ (experience).  She describes spending up to two days pondering yarn colours alongside the knitwear team, and working with Italian factories who would bring cases full of ideas into the ready-to-wear team’s studio for the knitwear team to use as inspiration from which to develop the seasonal designs.  Sabinna describes gaining an insight into the technical aspects of knitwear development and production with the scale of a luxury fashion house and this knowledge has clearly stood her in good stead for developing her own fashion business.

Describing herself as “terrible at maths but very good with numbers”, she explains to me how her business, which she launched eighteen months ago, works on a day-to-day basis, with the SABINNA team, consisting of herself and her partner David, co-founders and leading the design and IT and e-commerce respectively; Zula, Sabinna’s mum, who is head of knitwear, which is made in Vienna, Austria;  Scarlett, a long-term friend of Sabinna and pattern cutter, who develops the designs alongside Sabinna and is based in Hastings;  David’s sister Simone, who is in charge of taxes; Julia, who is based in Vienna and does research and marketing; and Asya, who creates the crochet pieces and assists Sabinna in London.

Sabinna’s studio 

All of Sabinna’s fabrics are from Europe and all the ready-to-wear, custom made pieces for private clients, crochet pieces and bags are made in the UK.  All of the knitwear is made in Austria.

Zula’s knitwear design notes, inspiration and hand-knitted jumper at Sabinna’s studio, East London

Having seen behind the scenes at Sabinna’s studio, I am eager to delve a little deeper into this season’s collection, show and mixed-reality presentation.  Having attended Sabinna’s catwalk show and seen the collection up close, I’m curious to know what prompted Sabinna to delve into using the Hololens and working with a mixed reality platform to present her collection virtually after having just presented it in catwalk reality.  When I ask how the fashion-tech collaboration came about, we spent some time talking about notions of innovation in fashion and the idea of ‘newness’.

Sabinna’s studio 

Fashion is highly resistant to change.  I have mentioned this paradox a number of times in my articles.  Sabinna puts it clearly, “the main problem with fashion is that it doesn’t communicate well with the outside world… Social media has divided fashion along commercial lines”.  She feels there is too much made of creative/experimental fashion versus commercial fashion, especially in London, and that designers are often placed in one box or the other.  Describing her collections as very wearable and leaning towards the commercial side, she sees the opportunity for innovation and creativity in presentation and storytelling, with Microsoft Hololens and collaborator Pictofit being the perfect collaborators for this, facilitated by the FIA and Fashion Scout.

SABINNA SS17, I Still Love You  – Photos and Styling:  Toni Caroline

Sabinna follows what’s widely termed as the ‘see now, buy now’ business model, which means her collections are produced in advance of her show and ready to buy immediately after they are presented, allowing her to capitalise on the buzz of London Fashion Week and engage her clients in a complete presentation and shopping experience.

SABINNA SS17 show, Fashion Scout, London Fashion Week

Setting the tone for seasons to come, where Sabinna plans to continue experimenting with technology to create new experiences rather than attempting to constantly re-invent her products, Sabinna chose to create the world’s first mixed-reality shopping event at the Freemason’s Hall as part of Fashion scout during London Fashion Week, following her catwalk show.


Behind the scenes at SABINNA SS17 show, Fashion Scout, London Fashion Week

Why mixed reality shopping?  With her collection available, she thought it would make sense to give the customer a creative tool to explore styling different pieces of the collection virtually before purchasing.

Top: Image capture by Pictofit in Austria, Bottom:  Sabinna’s mixed-reality shopping experience at Fashion Scout, LFW – Photos by Emmi Hyyppä and Sabinna

There was also an app available to download, allowing shoppers to use the Pictofit virtual fitting room and, instead of looking at virtual mannequins, try on the SABINNA collection, entitled I Still Love You, on images of themselves.  The clothes adapt to the user’s body shape in real time.

With a huge ambition for trying new technologies and exploring the potential of virtual and augmented reality, Sabinna passionately emphasises that designers need to experiment with new technologies in order to discover newness.  Sometimes something new is right in front of you, but you don’t see it because you are striving to re-invent something that may not need re-inventing, she says.  Newness can come in the form of simply working with a new piece of technology, while sticking to the same core aesthetics, materials and designs in terms of product.  For her, technology is the catalyst and an exciting tool for telling new stories in fashion, she states, mentioning the huge leaps in the technology’s image capture and render quality in just the six months since Martine Jarlgaard’s mixed reality fashion presentation at London Fashion Week in September 2016. Let’s see what next season brings.

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Ravensbourne Incubation – A New Age of Fashion and Technology Dawns

Our wearable tech, fashion tech (including smart textiles, wearables and soft robotics) and smart cities future is something I spend a great deal of time thinking about.  How will fashion designers influence the wearable tech sector?  How will they transition from traditional practice to technology-driven practice?  How will fashion design students enter into fashion tech without the facilitation of dual science/tech and fashion training? Do fashion designers (apart from my peers and I) have a belief and genuine interest in this field?  How do we close the gap between fashion and technology?  How will we begin the speak the same ‘language’?

The questions above were answered at least in part by Farid Akmal when I interviewed him at the Ravensbourne Incubation space at the end of last year.  The first ever graduate of the MA Wearable Futures course at Ravensbourne he explained to me his involvement in devising the first ‘wearable tech’ unit to be taught as part of the Ravensbourne Foundation course commencing in January this year.  The significance of this can’t be underestimated.  To introduce a core six weeks of training spanning basic circuitry and electronics, integration of electronics into textiles, sensors and their use in capturing data and actuators as a tool for expressing this data is a leap not only in the skill-set being disseminated, but in opening up future pathways in training across disciplines and cultivating designers (accessories, fashion and product) who seamlessly integrate electronics and textiles to shape our fashion tech future.

Images from a Farid Kamal’s Couturier’s and the Art of Survival – A Technologist’s Guide

I posed to Farid that his students will have one key advantage over us (designers currently working in this space), and that is their ‘naive’ blank slate and lack of assumptions over fashion and what it means to be a fashion designer.  When we studied fashion we were trained to admire and seek to understand the work of other designers and shape ourselves as designers, accordingly.  A healthy respect for the practice and aesthetic of fashion designers underpinned our contextual fashion studies.  But if we don’t look beyond what has been done before and introduce truly new practices, where can fashion go? 

                                                  Images from a Farid Kamal’s Couturier’s and the Art of Survival – A Technologist’s Guide

One of the projects the foundation students will undertake as part of this new wearable tech unit is sourcing charity shop garments and embedding them with technology to enhance their design and functionality.  Whilst Farid (and I) are reticent about LED lights on clothing, for example, the students don’t hold the preconceptions we do given our prior fashion training and may develop a beautifully refined and symbiotic use of them in clothing – who knows? Farid’s initial feedback from the students is overwhelmingly encouraging with many of them expressing a desire to know how fashion tech garments work and how to make their own ‘wearables” – some inspired by costumes they’d seen at Burning Man.  Whilst this sounds a little ‘costumey’ rather than fashion-led, it’s important to recognise these things are subjective and take time to evolve.

Following the launch of this unit the aim is to extend this core ‘wearables’ training to a short course for students and staff at Ravensbourne, which is an exciting and visionary step in furthering the field of fashion tech and its applications across industries.

Carl Bresnahan is as inspiring as he is energetic.  Also an incubee at Ravensbourne, he introduces me to a world of haptic holograms and the future of holographic purchasing. His company Intaglow was borne out of a live brief for Paul Smith during which he created a holographic window display that transformed the Paul Smith store windows into a digital event space.

A graduate of Chelsea College of Arts and Central Saint Martins, armed with graphic design and communication credentials he teamed up with Product design graduate Harry Hope-Morley and they now create bespoke hardware, software and digital design for their clients, who range from Swarovski to Zaha Hadid.

Intaglow at Wired2016

A chance meeting with Ultrahaptics at Wired2016 posed the idea of enabling their holographic creations with haptic feedback to enable a fuller user experience by integrating touch with holographic visuals and sound.  Carl sees what he and the team at Intaglow do as storytelling, both as a form of entertainment and a way of engaging consumers.  They are resolutely focussed on the aesthetics and the experience they deliver and pride themselves on their ability to create bespoke products exactly according to their vision for their clients.  The collaborative nature of their work is evident in that they create a number of stories to present to brands to consider and refine.  They have up to ten designers and developers on hand to realise ambitious projects on lead times as short as four weeks.  Enough text.  Here are some of the results.

Top: Intaglow for Zaha Hadid, Above: Intaglow for Swarovski, Images: Carl Bresnahan

Our discussion segues into fashion tech and wearables, of which Carl is a big fan, and we muse over projects we are currently working on and potential future collaborations.  Carl benefits hugely from an infectious and open-minded design approach and confesses to loving the process of coming up with ideas and telling beautiful, holographic stories.  The future looks seriously luminous.

Further to my earlier explorations of the Hololens by Microsoft, DoubleMe, also incubees at Ravensboure alongside Karim and Carl, are pushing hard to explore fashion applications with their astonishingly good image capture technology ‘Holoportal’ combining camera capture and their proprietary algorithm devised by founder Albert Kim, that can create 3D renders for avatars, holograms or use with any other 3D design software in record time.  This gives DoubleMe the ability to capture 3D content from subjects in the Holoportal (I gave it a go – see below) and then process it with said algorithm before uploading it to the web or sharing it to any design platform or Hololens in seconds.  Here I’m holographically dancing (low resolution to allow quick image processing).

The Holoportal for 3D image capture at Ravensbourne 

The DoubleMe team are currently developing a 4K version which will render the kind of degree of detail that could benefit the fashion industry. 

But what are the applications of this technology?  Where can we expect it to be used?  We saw the early explorations of a foray into fashion presentations via Martine Jarlgaard’s SS17 collection at London Fashion Week last September.

Martine Jargaard London SS17 Mixed reality fashion show, London Fashion Week

Beyond this, Albert Kim, Founder and James E. Marks, Head of Sales, are creating holographic guided tour content that can be projected into museum and gallery spaces.  They hope that fashion design students at Ravensbourne will experiment with the technology to use it for styling and photoshoots which they can then share digitally in 3D.  They also see it as a potential sales tool for the fashion industry. 

As I wrapped these interviews I headed back east for the Ravensbourne X VF exhibition, which I have featured on the blog here.  Stay tuned for more news of fashion tech developments at Ravensbourne and beyond by subscribing to Techstyler.fashion

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London College of Fashion and Kering – Fashion Sustainability and Education in Focus

Professor Frances Corner, Head of London College of Fashion opened the 3rd annual Kering Talk with the comment that when LCF moves to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2020, all the faculties and facilities will be under one roof, giving the students and teaching staff “literally the space to think”.  There was a lot of thinking going on last night at this LCFxKering event and Professor Dilys Williams, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at LCF, bookended Frances Corner’s comment when she later closed the event by saying she likes to think of fashion by flipping a Zadie Smith’s quote to arrive at “what is the point of making beautiful clothes if they don’t make you think?” 

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 14: Frances Corner (L), Head of London College of Fashion, and Dilys Williams, Director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, attend the 2016 Kering Talk at the London College of Fashion on November 14, 2016 in London, England. Pic Credit: Dave Benett
Frances Corner (L) and Dilys Williams – Photo: Dave Benett

To that end, this Kering talk was a platform to showcase the sustainable principles and practice of Stella McCartney, the designer and the brand.  Not the only designer and brand focussing on sustainability, but certainly the most well known, Stella attended the talk to perform a Q&A with a fashion journalist.  It was enlightening in so much as Stella candidly described the fashion industry as a whole as “old fashioned”, “getting away with murder” and in dire need of a new approach to materials and production methods.


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I was hoping to ask Stella about her desire or success to date in introducing sustainable practices and materials into her Adidas collaboration, but alas, question time was short.  She did mention that Adidas made her the first ever pair of vegetarian leather Stan Smiths and she then pleaded with them to make all of their Stan Smiths with this material and see if anyone notices the difference.  Consumers might not, but given that the vegetarian version costs up to 70% more to produce than animal leathers, and Stan Smiths are sold at an accessible price point rather than the luxury price points of Stella’s brand, the financial team at Adidas definitely would.  That’s not to say this shouldn’t happen, it’s just clear that for mainstream sports and leisure wear brands there is less pricing leeway than for luxury brands.  

On to the presentation of the 2016 Kering Awards for Sustainable Fashion, which followed Stella’s Q&A.  Awards were issued on behalf of Stella McCartney and Brioni, both members of the Kering stable, to a number of LCF students who had designed and created products, materials and digital platforms in line with the brands’ sustainability initiatives.  

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LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 14: (L to R) Dilys Williams, Director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, award winners Elise Comrie and Agraj Jain, and Beatrice Lazat, Human Resources Director at Kering,attend the 2016 Kering Talk at the London College of Fashion on November 14, 2016 in London, England. Pic Credit: Dave Benett
Dilys Williams, Elise Comrie, Agraj Jain, and Beatrice Lazat – Photo: Dave Benett
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 14: Stella McCartney (2R) poses with award winners Iciar Bravo, Anna Pasalic, and Irene-Marie Seeling at the 2016 Kering Talk at the London College of Fashion on November 14, 2016 in London, England. Pic Credit: Dave Benett
Iciar Bravo, Anna Pasalic, Stella McCartney and Irene-Marie Seeling – Photo: Dave Benett

It was difficult on the night to get to grips with the projects and research the students undertook as they were only explained in 30-second summaries during the talk.  I’ve dug a little deeper to get the inside track on the work of Innovation award winner Irene-Marie Seelig, who developed Amadou mushroom skin and proved its properties were workable in accessories, offering an alternative to animal suede and leather.

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Irene’s journey began with a focus elsewhere, on health and the medicinal benefits of mushrooms in treating disease, which led her to research the usability of a particular Transylvanian mushroom material as a leather alternative, supported by Jess Lertvilai.  Her focus was to improve the textile’s aesthetic, durability, circular supply chain and business model.  

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The vegetarian mushroom leather textile is a 100 percent renewable, biodegradable and compostable material.  Products that are made with this material decompose at the end of their lifecycle and enrich soil, supporting plant growth and feeding back into the ecosystem.  

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Irene called upon the expertise of SATRA to test the material with a multitude of finishes and experimented with varying treatments and worked the leather into various thicknesses, eventually using the optimal material to create a prototype shoe in collaboration with LCF Footwear and materials PhD student, Liz Ciokajlo.  She is now looking to develop the Amadou mushroom skin further and work with NGO’s to create a reliable and sustainable supply chain for this material. 

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The CSF website explains that the awards take place after the students receive three months of intensive mentoring from sustainability experts from Stella McCartney, CSF and LCF.  “Two prizes will be awarded for each brand: a monetary prize of ten thousand Euros to the project that displayed the most innovation and a three month internship with one of the brands to the student who demonstrated collaboration and rigorous research”. 

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Professor Dilys Williams engaged the audience with her closing speech, urging the crowd to consider the role education has in creating a more sustainable, responsible fashion industry.  “Changing education is the biggest change we can make…practices will then change and so will our culture and society”.  

The finalists of the 2016 Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion were: Irene-Marie Seelig, Iciar Bravo Tomboly, and Ana Pasalic for Stella McCartney; and students Agraj Jain and Elise Comrie for Brioni.

For an overview of the finalists’ work see the CSF blog : http://sustainable-fashion.com/tag/kering-award-for-sustainable-fashion/

For more information about the work of Professor Dilys Williams and the CSF click here: http://sustainable-fashion.com/

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