If the title of this article has conjured up images of LED light-embedded bags and swathes of technophiles in VR headsets, prepare yourself for an altogether more sophisticated and integrated use of tech hardware and augmented reality where the result isn’t ‘in yer face geekery’, but more tech-enabled emotional brand experiences. Leading this charge across fashion design and brand experiences is the London College of Fashion-based Fashion Innovation Agency, whose 5th birthday last week acted as a summary of five years of giant leaps in tech and bold experimentation that began with a smart phone dress (seems rudimentary now, right?!) and most recently a live CGI fashion show. How and why such big leaps, and why does it matter? Is the fashion industry really ready and open to placing a digital layer over the physical world? Yes, and here’s why…
Top: Nokia smartphone skirt in collaboration with Fyodor Golan – Image: BT.com Middle and above: Steven Tai x ILMxLab at London Fashion Week – Images: Techstyler
Backed by recent calamitous downturns by House of Fraser and Topshop, it seems fashion retailers have lost sway with consumers, who are increasingly shopping online, led by Instagram connected e-commerce, that allows single swipe shopping, delivery within hours and outstanding customer service. Why go to a store? Stores are impersonal and finding the right style in the right size can be slow and frustrating due to outdated and inaccurate inventory systems. Zara is a regular disappointment in this area, boasting stock at specified stores when checking Zara.com, which isn’t actually in stock when visiting the store. On a recent trip to Zara the staff admitted to me that their inventory is wildly inaccurate and the online stock check is not up-to-date. Wasted trips equal dissatisfied customers and further back the case for shopping online instead.
“Retail on the high street is incredibly boring” were the frank words of Matthew Drinkwater, Head of the FIA during a panel discussion at their 5th birthday event recently. As the matchmaker and orchestrator of five years of projects spanning the aforementioned smartphone skirt, the Sabinna X Pictofit Hololens mixed reality shopping experience and Steven Tai’s Live CGI presentation transporting the audience to Macau, the FIA are well versed in breaking new ground and facilitating fashion and technology collaborations for the benefit of both industries.
Images: SABINNA x Pictofit
The outcomes and learnings ultimately filter down to London College of Fashion students, arming them with next-generation tech skills in their fashion toolkit, helping them push the boundaries of fashion design and retail and shape the future of the industry.
LCF students have plenty of ideas on how to improve the retail shopping experience. Most of these hinge on bridging the physical and digital realms, essentially draping a digital layer over physical stores to enhance and personalise them for individual customers. The fruits of these ideas were presented at the Future of Fashion Incubator launch event, part of an ongoing partnership between Microsoft and the FIA. LCF students teamed up with Microsoft experts to experiment with new technologies including Hololens, IoT and AI. The students were mentored by the Microsoft team in their chosen technology in order transform their ambitious ideas into (often mixed) reality, harnessing what Maruschka Loubser, Senior Global Marketing Manager at Microsoft called the ‘inspirational and exciting’ vision of the students. Their mission was to unlock the students’ innovation and here are the results…
One team of students created Hololux, a shopping platform experienced via the untethered Hololens Mixed Reality headset which presents 3D renders of products in online stores, bridging the 2D e-commerce experience with the 3D physical instore shopping experience. Hololens headsets can be networked so that groups of people can shop together regardless of their individual locations. Want your friend abroad’s opinion on an outfit? Simply link up and shop together. The team identified airport lounges as an ideal location for this experience, where travellers may want to experience luxury shopping while waiting for their plane, but at the same time avoid the chaos of the crowded and busy airport. Totally imaginable.
Hololux in creation – behind the scenes – Image: Microsoft
Augmenta also made use of the mixed reality Hololens, but this time for visual merchandising using holograms to simulate interior store layouts. Their platform allows visual merchandisers to map the interior space with digital objects (furniture, fittings and clothing) via hand gestures and voice input quickly, cheaply and with less waste. Colleagues can co-create by networking their Hololens headsets, again, regardless of location. The team also identified an opportunity to enhance the platform with AI to provide integrated heat mapping to show the flow of people through the store and further refine and target the visual merchandising based on that. Augmenta present at the Future of Fashion event – Image: Microsoft
Team DiDi created a garment label that allows lifecycle tracking and transparency. By using RFID and NFC technology the label can be scanned to access details of the materials and manufacturing of the garment, providing a more current and broader version of the FIA’s previous collaboration with Martine Jarlgaard. What’s exciting about DiDi’s concept is their consideration of brand storytelling as part of their platform, which is tailored to help brands celebrate their back-story and share it with their consumers, really making it part of the overall brand experience rather than a cumbersome ethics and supply chain document delivered up via the CSR section of their website, as with many brands currently.
AI and neural networks are exciting technical tools which allow the training of a piece of software to recognise images and objects, based on processing a huge number of images and developing a visual ‘memory’ based on them. This is a powerful tool for visually identifying consumers wearing certain brands, styles and silhouettes – for example shoppers in a mall walking past a camera connected to this software, which can then be used to target appropriate advertising to the passing consumer. This is the principle of Smart Signs, created by another of the LCF team. This tool also allows trend analysis of passers by, which the creators say could help retailers create more targeted clothing for local markets and reduce mass production waste of low-demand styles. They say the next step is facial recognition for personalisation of the Smart Signs experience. You may find it comforting to know that this platform is much like our human brain in that is ‘sees’ passers by, identifies their style and then dumps that data – meaning personal data is not stored.
Smart Signs demo at the Future of Fashion event – Image: Microsoft
‘Janet’ is a smart-phone-based instore shopping buddy that scans your outfit while you are trying it on in the changing room and suggests alternative styles and other garments to style with it. It can also tell you where to get a similar style for a better price, or your size in an alternative location. I love Janet’s everyday name, and I guess that suggests the team wants you to think of her as a really helpful and insightful shopping friend – she’s not judging, just helping. I can imagine Janet being very helpful in a multi-brand or department store, but in a single brand store I guess Janet won’t be so welcome as she’s likely to recommend rival brands for the benefit of the consumer’s choice.
Casting my mind back to the FIA 5th Anniversary event and panel discussion, I remember the input of Mohen Leo of ILMxLab, the team which created the Live CGI for Steven Tai’s London Fashion Week presentation. “You can achieve ‘stickiness’ in retail by adding a digital layer, providing a different experience each time”, he said. Clearly this gives shoppers a reason to visit a physical store. “Shopping is only about emotions and emotional connection”, said Matthew Drinkwater. He then went on to say that technology affords an opportunity to enhance this connection and emotion.
For those attending Fashion Week, the all too familiar break-neck speed of the shows and presentations often leaves the audience with a feeling of visual overload. Each show blends into the next, as there is rarely an experiential layer – just the immediate visual presentation of the clothes. This used to be enough, but not anymore. The success of Steven Tai’s Live CGI show was its engaging combination of digital and physical worlds, that transported the audience to Macau in an ever-changing landscape which drew the audience into its subtle evolution as the models meandered around the stage alongside a digital counterpart. To quote Vicki Dobbs-Beck of ILMxLab this was “storyliving, not just storytelling”. In this recent BBC article, the House of Fraser team commented to say it “urgently needs to adapt” to “fundamental changes” in the retail industry. An emotional and engaging experience is what retailers and brands need to offer, and the tools with which to do this lie in augmented reality and artificial intelligence.