Ravensbourne Students X VF Corporation Collaboration – A Show of Fashion Integrity

Who doesn’t want to be spoilt?  Drawing on inspiration from Traveller culture and a fascination with DIY objects and applications, the Spoilt team crafted an illustrated story of colourful and textured characters.  The collection included a pink paint print oversized duvet coat and and over dyed geometric printed puffa jacket.  The accessories included lace-up denim cuffs embellished with dangling multi-coloured acrylic nails.  Total embellishment abandon and a whole lot of fun.

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-13-03-55screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-13-02-25screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-13-02-01dsc04317The Spoilt team:  Including Jodi Feddon (far right) illustrator and designer

Spoilt were one of a number of teams of Ravensbourne students working on a live brief for VF Corporation, owner of a number of lifestyle brands including Lee, Vans and Wrangler.  The teams, comprising of BA (Hons) Fashion, BA (Hons) Fashion Buying and Brand Management and BA (Hons) Fashion Accessory Design and Prototyping students working in collaboration, were charged with interpreting a design brief set around the concept of the Lee ‘BODY OPTIX’ range which “combines visual science and design to enhance certain body shapes”.  

In pulling together this article, I researched the BODY OPTIX range on the Lee website and was horrified to find this borderline racist, body shaming language used:

“Scientifically designed by vision scientists and Denim designers, BODY OPTIXTMcombines the power of VISUAL SCIENCE and design to create jeans that flatters, enhances and shapes the Asian body. The application of geodesic shaping and precise laser anatomy warping gives you perkier backside and strikingly long legs, granting you a more feminine figure that is ideally proportional and attractive.”

This branding language, product and imagery (which I will not include here, but is on their website) merits a far deeper discussion around western influence on fashion and feminism, but in the scope of this article, I really want to keep the focus on what the Ravensbourne students created and how they succeeded in reinterpreting the brief towards utilising graphics, embellishments and downright visual distractions (acrylic nail fringing) whilst developing the textural interest and surface effects of the denim to elevate the humble jean –  none of which were fitted or body contoured.  In fact many were oversized and unisex.  The Ravensbourne students showed incredible creativity and design integrity, which makes the Lee branding and campaign seem even more dated and uninspired.

Foe took a darker stance than Spoilt, looking to Japanese Samurai and armoury to incorporate rivets and other hardware to hinge together accessories and clothing.  In their brand literature they state that Foe aims to attract a different type of consumer to the VF corporation by taking the female physique and using different silhouettes and style to bring diversity to the company.

dsc04337dsc04341dsc04339dsc04342The Foe Team:  Zahra Khan, Katy Andoh, Polly Tamalia and Mary-Louise Fischer

Oneness lashed at their denim with latex and paint and created clothing and accessories with a craft/skate/patchwork theme.  

dsc04320 dsc04322 dsc04325 dsc04327Bag (and hand) by Toya Mehmet accessories design student

Deflect played with organdie and denim, creating illusionary false and hidden pockets with contrasting bleached denim. 

dsc04285 dsc04287dsc04302Team Deflect are: Ciara Kelly and Holly Lovey (Fashion Buying and Branding), Denisa Mehmeti and Kyra Chang (Fashion Design) and Anna Sabe (Fashion Accessory Design) 

Uniq 2 was represented firstly by a Korean duo who described soju (a kind of ‘Korean Sake’) as a cultural slang term meaning the desire to go wild and rebel as the starting point for the collection.  The design picked up on the current Korean trend for wearing oversized wind-proof protective layers and used the silhouette and seaming details of a traditional denim jacket in the windproof material, adding their own logo branding – quite a literal and believable interpretation not far removed from the way designs are translated quickly on the high street, albeit with less fun and flavour.

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Gyal Dem looked to Grime, the music sub-genre drawing on multiple influences including drum and bass and UK Garage, made famous by Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, for stylistic and brand references, adopting a unisex sportswear aesthetic to appeal to their target audience.  A specific target market and design point-of-view led to on-point branding and a strong website including the brand story, look book and a behind the scenes look at how the products were designed and made.  

dsc04268dsc04271dsc04276The Gyal Dem team are:  Celine Polidori and Alexia Amaning (Fashion Design), Raji Bagary, Laura Holloway and Katie Vincent (Fashion Buying and Brand Management)

Analogy created the first luxury brand to utilise biodegradable materials throughout the collection.  They used Algix, an algae and PLA composite 3D printing filament that biodegrades after 50 years, replacing the 100% PLA and ABS alternatives which biodegrade after several hundred years, not unlike the pleather and plastic-based fabrics made as leather alternatives, raising questions over the true sustainability and environmental impact of these alternative materials.  Analogy are posing interesting questions by using this composite filament and replaced a full collection of sample garments with a mixture of life-size printed garment cut-outs alongside denim samples.  Their resin and denim swatches and experimentation with subtracting warp threads leaving weft ‘floats’ as a denim detail added interest to the denim.  With impressive branding and use of Algix sourced (and physically collected) from the US, these students could pass for a professional outfit, pardon the pun.

dsc04260dsc04245dsc04246 dsc04257dsc04249The Analogy team: India Martin (Accessories Design), Eleanor Maylin (Fashion Design) and Elle Morlang and Nicole Keitch (Fashion Buying and Branding)

SoNNE presented an altogether different proposition to all the other teams, using subtle variations in sublimation print to create painterly designs on denim canvases, exploring the colours and textures conjured up by varying their printing technique.  The colours brought a sophisticated palette and softened the denim foundation, until they were subverted again into big, bold, unisex boiler suits.  I’ve got my eye on one and am ready place an order.  I’m not alone, so it looks like fashion design students Isabel Hibbert and Grace Flood have a busy Christmas ahead.

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The exhibition serves as a reminder of the diversity and cultural richness design, buying and branding students in London have.  They are tapping a broad range of cultures, languages, subcultures, art movements and belief systems.  Sadly I couldn’t cover the work of all of the teams in this article, but the integrity and creativity of the students featured spanned the other teams too, leaving no doubt in my mind that the ‘Rave’ students have enriched and enlightened the VF Corporation teams they worked with on this collaboration.

Header Image featuring swatches by Oneness

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London College of Fashion Sustainability Initiatives “Fired Up” by Professor Sandy Black

Fashion’s future is about looking forward, however looking back with Sandy Black, Professor of Fashion and Textile Design and Technology at London College of Fashion, serves up a timely lesson for right now on running a fashion business and sustainability.

Professor Black provides the privilege of reflection – of pausing and drawing on decades of analysis of craft and technology and designer fashion businesses through her academic research and practice and asking the question ‘why has so little changed for fashion designers in terms of barriers to growing a successful business’?  Many of the difficulties Professor Black, a maths graduate from UCL (more on that later), faced when running her knitwear business in the 70’s and 80’s still exist today, especially in terms of financing production whilst investing in new collections and finding manufacturers willing to work with emerging brands in a dynamic and affordable way.  The conversation and landscape is changing, though.

Professor Black completed a maths degree at UCL whilst exploring, informally, her interest in craft and knitting.  Upon graduation she became involved in an artistic knitting movement that saw an explosion of her knitwear across the globe.  Sandy Black Fashion knitwear was stocked in boutiques in the US, Japan, Australia and Europe.  Her hand and domestic machine knitted pieces were intricate and painterly, reflecting a new creative and artistic approach to knitwear that thrust itself into the fashion realm, beyond its reputation as a domestic craft.

img_2117Coat by Sandy Black  Photo: David McIntyre

“Digital knitting began in the 70’s” states Professor Black.  The current knitting technology is an extension of, rather than a re-invention of, that knitting technology.  She forged links with Stoll, a world-leading industrial knitting machine manufacturer to have a machine installed at London College of Fashion, enabling students to immerse themselves in industry techniques and adopt new technology in their practice.

The excitement in knitting arguably lies in its fusion of craft and technology and Professor Black’s publications, including Interrogating Fashion, Eco-Chic: The Fashion Paradox and The Sustainable Fashion Handbook explore the impact of this fusion on fashion, in terms of manufacturing, sustainability and aesthetics.  Her recent work, in collaboration with a number of London College of Fashion-based academics, is an online platform allowing the exchange of information between fashion academics and the designer fashion industry to promote insightful, sustainable and collaborative practice for better business and environmental outcomes.

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The platform, FIREup, has fuelled debate around changing business models for sustainability.  It intends to unlock the potential of industry and academic collaboration, and is designed to help designer-fashion businesses in London access knowledge based in the university’s research centres and academic staff across three prestigious colleges: Central Saint Martins, London College of Fashion and Chelsea College of Arts.  The FIREup initiative is now expanding across the UK. 

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Professor Sandy Black in discussion with Michelle Lowe-Holder, Martine Jarlgaard, Kiwy Huang and Ben Alun-Jones at the Creativeworks Festival, King’s College London – Photo: CSF

As part of the FIREup initiative, four projects were undertaken to allow designers to conduct research to inform their business decisions.  This research involved a sort of ‘forced reflection’ and contemplation.  Recent exits of high-profile designers from global fashion businesses (Raf Simons from Dior and Alber Elbaz from Lanvin) were allegedly, at least partly, the result of frustration at a lack of time and space to pause and reflect because of the relentless cycle of punishing product deadlines with no time for contemplation and development.  Although running a smaller business with fewer product categories is arguably less time-pressured, it is absolutely true that the pressures Professor Black faced whilst running her business and that often lead to added strain on small businesses have not yet been resolved.  It is the mandate of FIREup to allow designers space, time, academic support and funding to conduct reflective research and steer their business forward in a more successful and thoughtful way.  Christopher Raeburn is one such designer involved in the FireUp Catalyst Project.

Raeburn’s ‘REMADE’ products are crafted from re-appropriated military fabrics.  The jacket below was remade by deconstructing and shredding original German snow ponchos, the Schneetarn (German for ‘snow camouflage’) Parka.  A limited edition garment, it is one of a maximum of 50, proudly remade in Raeburn’s London studio.

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The women’s Ceremonial Biker Jacket is reworked from original British military ceremonial garments, traditional British military wear that have held the same design for the last century.  The jacket, typical of British cavalry, artillery and infantry, is also a limited edition piece (a maximum of 50) also remade in the Christopher Raeburn Studio.  Shop Christopher Raeburn here.

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Currently promoted on the FIREup platform, and being hosted by Professor Rebecca Earley and Dr. Kate Goldsworthy is the Mistra Fashion Future Conference on textile design and the circular economy which is part of their research aimed at creating the vision of designing for a circular future where materials are designed, produced, used and disposed of in radical new ways. “Circular Transitions will be the first global event to bring together academic and industry research concerned with designing fashion textiles for the circular economy.  The themes will explore the design of new materials for fashion with approaches ranging from emerging technology and social innovation to systems design and tools.”  For more information about the conference in London this November visit FIREup or Mistra Future Fashion.

It’s clear that Professor Black’s research and industry involvement, along with the work of her fellow academics at London College of Fashion, is helping shape the discourse around designer businesses and sustainability.  The broader discussion, encompassing the impact of our lifestyle choices (including fashion) on the environment has been explored by Professor Helen Storey in her recent Dress For Our Time project.  Developed in partnership with Holition, the dress digitally displayed data – extracted from a major study of the global risks of future shifts in ecosystems due to climate, which showed the impact of climate change on our physical world. It showed the planet as it will be, if we don’t do enough.  The film below demonstrates the shocking and compelling figures related to the refugee crises and displacement across across the globe projected onto the Dress For Our Time:

Professor Black and Professor Storey are both also instrumental team members at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF) at the London College of Fashion – a Research Centre of the University of the Arts London based at London College of Fashion. Our work explores vital elements of Better Lives London College of Fashion’s commitment to using fashion to drive change, build a sustainable future and improve the way we live.  In 2014 the CSF announced a five-year partnership to work closely with Kering to support sustainable practices in education for the fashion industry. The partnership is a three-way approach to ensure new ways of thinking about sustainability in fashion: The Kering Talks, The Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion and The Empowering Imagination module for MA students at LCF.  This year’s Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion will be announced on November 14th and I will be attending and writing about the finalists, so stay tuned!

To learn more about CSF initiatives, click here

To find out more about FIREup and see current opportunities here

Header Image:  Christopher Raeburn, who uses re-appropriated military materials in his collections

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Fyodor Golan’s Pre-SS17 Collection Brings Grown-up fun and a catalyst for post-Brexit change

Fyodor Golan are somewhat of a paradox –  at once intellectual and playful, they traverse the fringe of a fashion industry in a state of flux.  Whilst contemplating the structure and aim of their fashion business, they are questioning the importance of individualism in a sea of rampantly ‘cohesive’ and highly refined fashion.  The designers open the interview with the revelation that they delayed their seasonal trip to their Paris showroom in order to vote in the referendum.  The fallout from the vote in favour of ‘Brexit’ has left them with a sense of resilience in the face of potential EU funding losses.  Many of the projects and initiatives they have undertaken whilst establishing and growing their business have been supported by EU funding and they predict a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ situation will ensue amongst young independent fashion designers in London who are struggling to create seasonal collections and remain solvent.   

Where this dramatic and uncertain political climate could potentially trigger cautious conservatism, Fyodor and Golan are intellectually and pragmatically assessing all areas of their business and considering the needs of their customers and the best platforms with which to engage them.  They resolve to stay ‘individual’ and adopt an ever more digital and tech-driven approach to their seasonal collections.  Why do a show at London Fashion Week that draws vast energy and finance away from the business and requires the creation of some garments that they know will not be good sellers, but that are necessary in order to create requisite looks simply for the purposes of the show?  If the show is to the clear detriment of their product offering and bottom line, what is the point?  The vast press generated by a fashion show is well documented and, as any fashion designer involved in London, New York, Paris and Milan fashion weeks will tell you, the credibility gained from showing on-schedule during fashion week is immense and affirming – at least ostensibly.  But the rise of social media has taken fashion out of the hands of the few and placed it in the hands of the many global consumers.  Digital platforms have a life beyond a seven-odd minute fashion show during which time it is ‘impossible to see the clothes properly’ as noted by Fyodor.  In summary, fashion shows aren’t fit for purpose and the stigma attached to designers who decide to no longer ‘show’ is waning.

With new presentation platforms comes new opportunities for self-expression and consumer interaction.  Golan explains how insightful and inspiring the dialogue from client to designer is on Instagram.  Their clients post images of their self-styled ‘FG’ looks, thereby contextualising Fyodor and Golan’s seasonal work –  a dialogue that never occurred pre-social media when the only route to market was through wholesale accounts – meaning no direct contact between the designer and the consumer.  That’s all different now and brings me back to questioning the point of ‘cohesiveness’ of a fashion collection.

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The generally accepted framework for the study and application of fashion design that I, and many other designers have experienced at London/UK-based fashion design institutions, hinges on a refined, highly focused – ‘cohesive’ – presentation of a design concept/concepts in order to ensure that a specifiable ‘aesthetic’ is presented.  This occurs to me to be a useful tool for categorisation and identification of a designer or brand for the purposes of critique, but may be at odds with the way fashion is best presented, experienced and consumed in a digital age.

Burberry-Prorsum-Spring-Summer-2013-DECORCohesive uniformity – Burberry Prorsum SS13

Sure, brands like Burberry are built on a largely singular aesthetic/design language and their merchandising depends on a sort of ‘cohesion’, but what of the explosion of Vetements against the backdrop of such ‘cohesiveness’ and singularly focused vision – and what of the conversation about this collaborative, multi-faceted and un-cohesive aesthetic that is starting on social media (of course)?  Will cohesiveness and a singular aesthetic vision be relevant to millennials and Generation Z’ers?   If they’re shopping online and creating individual looks according to their own vision, and Instagram and Snapchat are ultimately more influential and engaging and more readily consumed than fashion shows, what is the point of cohesiveness at the expense of alienating consumers?  And again, if fashion shows continue to lose favour as the predominant presentation format, individuality becomes an even more powerful element of fashion’s presentation.  Fyodor Golan question this uniformity and go on to state that they have never sought ‘cohesiveness’ in their collections, but rather the creation of clothing as a vehicle for self expression and fun for their broad customer base, whose age group spans four decades and is global.  It could be argued that cohesiveness can kill creativity by stamping out individual expression, spontaneity and the charm of the unexpected – a fate unlikely to befall Fyodor Golan.

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On the subject of individualism in an increasingly ‘global’ market the duo explain, ‘Our clients come to us to express a different side of themselves… they have serious, professional jobs and wear Fyodor Golan as a way of tapping into their personality and as a visual representation of that (fun) side of themselves’. 


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Fyodor Golan’s creations are seriously fun.  Frothy?  Yes.  Flimsy?  Definitely not.  The products are underpinned by solid, quality-driven construction techniques employed since the launch of their label (which drew heavily on couture techniques initially) in 2011, and have evolved to express a sense of confidence through playfulness.

tumblr_mjul0m2iXs1s4mpljo3_1280Fyodor Golan SS2012

A further discussion that touches on current challenges in the area of fashion tech centres on product design versus fashion design.  Golan expresses the frustration at being restricted to short development times due to the seasonal nature of the fashion industry and longs to be able to explore design concepts in greater depth – as a product designer would, for example.  The approach through product design of creating a perfectly formed, functional and beautiful object is a luxury that just may be possible once Fyodor Golan have broken free of the restrictive cycle and demands that come with staging a fashion show each season.  Fyodor and Golan lament the unresolved design ideas that ping into their minds at that last evolutionary design stage – often the week before their London fashion week show – leaving them no time to see these ideas through to fruition because of limitations caused by show preparation and the restrictive need to create ‘looks’ for the show, rather than individually strong and exciting garments.  Due to the seasonal nature of fashion, the scope to pick up and continue such ideas in following seasons does not always present itself.  There is a serendipitous aspect to such ideas and sometimes, when the moment has passed, the opportunity and magic passes too. Essentially, dropping the traditional fashion show format allows the freedom and time to be more innovative.  It’s during this stage of the interview that Golan mentions the Makerversity, which is situated near their studio in Somerset House, which has clearly provided a point of reflection for the designers where the process of product design and development is concerned, versus that of fashion.

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 18.34.49 Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 18.34.23Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 18.33.54 Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 18.34.05Fyodor Golan Pre-SS17

In their Pre-SS17 collection, Fyodor Golan have furthered explored a number of concepts initiated in their AW16 collection, including hybrid sportswear with strapping and bows that are silhouette-changing, rather than simply surface details.  This plays into their desire for individuality within the collection – so one garment has many guises depending on the wearer’s styling preferences.  The collection, entitled “Sakura Kawaii’ was inspired by Hatsune Miku – a hologram-generated pop star – resulting in a collection that expresses “romance through plastification”.  It’s surreal to see real live fans at the concert of a holographic pop star screaming and waving glow sticks, but it perfectly illustrates the blurring of lines between reality and artificiality that Fyodor Golan have distilled into this collection.

The animated look book is the perfect expression of this darkly psychedelic-samurai mood, in collaboration with digital artist and animator, Ignasi Monreal.   Part of the joy of Fyodor Golan’s look books is that they seek to excite the imagination, rather than simply sell, and it expresses an aesthetic that the designers describe as resolutely ‘digital’.

Fyodor Golan Pre-SS17

The digitally driven playfulness in the presentation of their Pre-SS17 collection causes me to speculate as to the format of their next fashion presentation for London Fashion Week in September.  ‘We’re still exploring options’ and ‘we’re looking at integrating the process of creation into the presentation’ were the official standpoints at the time of our interview – suffice to say it will be an exciting, experimental and likely experiential offering that will gloriously break with tradition in yet another refreshing Fyodor Golan chapter.  It’s an exciting time in an evolving industry where as many lessons come from Darwinian truth as they do from social media metrics.  If fashion’s future is about creative adaptation, dynamism, freedom of thought and individuality, Fyodor Golan are surging ahead.

Header image:  Fyodor Golan

Fyodor Golan lookbook credits:  Mark Rabadan (Photography), Tati Cotliar (Stylist), Ignasi Monreal (Animation), Michelle Webb (Make up), Johanna Cree Brown (Hair)

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Fashion Tech and Speculative Wearables in Imminent Space Travel

A recent visit to Ravensbourne has catalysed a shift in my opinion of ‘fashion tech’ as a discipline and led to an animated discussion around the reasons for the aesthetic gulf between fashion design and technology.  The reason for my visit was the European Space Agency initiative, ‘Couture in Orbit’ – a fashion show at the Science Museum in May, featuring the work of five fashion colleges in Europe: ESMOD Paris, ESMOD Berlin, Fashion Design Akademiet Copenhagen, Politecnico di Milano and Ravensbourne London, which set about planting creative seeds for what will become a necessity – fashion in space.  The colleges worked to a brief set by the ESA to present ideas and prototypes for fashion and accessories in the coming age of space travel.  In response to a number of nasty and aggressive comments on their YouTube page in response to a video of this initiative, the ESA wrote this:

Couture in Orbit is a student outreach project. The students are using materials and technology in their designs that are a spin-off from the space industry. Each school had a theme linked to an astronaut’s mission, such as environment, health, sustainability, and their final designs had to have practical benefits for life on Earth. No funds were exchanged and material and technical support was provided by Tech startups.

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Yes, the designs could be seen as somewhat ‘amateurish’ and ‘costumey’ in their concept and presentation and describing them as ‘couture’ and ‘fashion’ is not strictly accurate, however the idea here is key.  Fashion’s robust approach to design and creation of cohesive, refined collections does not allow for this kind of playful theatrics, but if fashion and tech are to advance there has to be some latitude where the end result is concerned. It makes no sense to judge this by the same standards as a show at London Fashion Week, for example, which exists for an entirely different purpose and is part of a totally different creative and commercial conversation.  The YouTube comments demonstrate an attitude that demeans the validity and power of fashion that I have seen previously hinder cooperation between fashion, science and tech sectors, but we will forge forward regardless.

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‘Couture in Orbit’ designs

‘It is inevitable’, said Ravensbourne students Farid Bin Karim and Sam Martin-Harper of the fusion of fashion and technology in clothing to come.  Their view was the same of space travel – we know for certain there will be inhabitation of other planets and commercial journeys to space, so we need to design clothing fit for space life.  The brief provided to the students by the ESA included an array of materials for them to use in their garments and accessories, including Sympatex, woven fabrics by Bionic Yarn and 37.5.  Being presented with a fixed set of materials is challenging from a design perspective, as fashion design often begins with selection of a fabrics to complement an aesthetic or theme held by the designer.  Removing this from the designer’s creative point of view throws up further challenges and provides experimental opportunities.  Karim leads me into a discussion about Design Fiction, a framework based on critical design which is the foundation of his speculative design approach on the Wearables MA course at Ravensbourne.  The modelling of future scenarios using design fiction provides a robust outline for predicting what fashion design could be in an age of commercial space travel, for example.  Karim selects three modes of technology – one that exists but he can’t access, one that exists that he can access and one that we can reasonably deduce will exist in the future – with which to begin to form a fashion tech product design scenario.  This Design Fiction framework and critical design, attributed to Julian Bleecker and Dunne and Raby respectively, and adopted widely in London as a modelling tool, begins to give me insight into how design for a future that we can’t yet imagine is conceivable and believable.

Farid explains that his self-closing helmet and kilt are inspired by sojourners travelling to space and creating their own exoplanet.  His concept hinged on the sojourners creating protective barriers around themselves that responded to atmospheric changes to give visual notifications allowing them to react and adapt.  His self-closing helmet is powered by muscle wires and his kilt, printed in collaboration with print designer and MA fashion student Laura Perry, has heat responsive ink which disappears at certain temperatures – a useful visual notification when things are hotting up.  Farid also used a UV responsive pigment – another useful visual alert.  Karim’s work is inspired by an array of creatives including artist Lucy McRae, writer HG Wells and movement artist and coder Nicola Plant.

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Farid Bin Karim’s self-closing helmet and reactive ink kilt, in collaboration with Laura Perry

Sam Martin-Harper presented an altogether more nostalgic proposition in which she expressed her belief (and hope) that we will always remain rooted to earth.  Her love of biology and particular interest in the techniques for growing plants on the International Space Station, including the work of astronaut Tim Peake, drove her to create a 3D printed neck piece containing plant life.  Admitting this is a conceptual piece, Sam explained how she used inspiration from the ingenious folding joint sections of space suits to inform the shapes and details of her design.  Sam is completing her BA and is still exploring career options.  One thing is for sure, she cannot see a future of fashion without the integration of tech.

IMG_1283DSC01973Sam Martin-Harper’s 3D printed plant-filled neckpiece at ‘Couture in Orbit”

A discussion on the future work of Farid centres on his passion for data as a tool for creating responsive and adaptive design.  He has been learning coding and electronics as part of his Wearables MA and sees future fashion as an extension of the individual – as ‘body centric’.  On graduation, Karim is hoping to work with a multi-disciplinary research facility to conduct collaborative research and design.  When I ask if he would consider a traditional design job (he is a fashion graduate, after all) he reflects on how he has had to unlearn and relearn aspects of his design approach through his Wearable MA training in order to realise his part industrial, part fashion creations.  It’s clear he’s happier in unchartered territory.

The discussion turned to couture and obsolescence.  Karim is curious about the possible inclusion of technology in couture techniques in order to aid their survival, but this is completely at odds with the fact that couture means made by hand.  This meaning of couture would therefore need to change for this to happen.  I ponder a possible alternative in the form of technologies so specialised, rare and unique that they create a techno-couture instead.  Here we begin to think about fashion and design being driven by technology, rather than the other way around.

In these discussions, as Alexa Pollmann, Course Leader of the MA Wearable Futures course, points out, it is important to consider the designs of Sam, Farid and the other students from Ravensbourne as proposals and prototypes – not final ‘fashion products’ per se.  Ask any fashion designer working in the industry today their opinion of fashion tech and they will overwhelmingly tell you that it is gimmicky, ugly and not desirable.  Herein lies the chasm between tech and fashion.  Looks really count, and so does magic.  Fashion designers bring an ephemeral quality to their creations, says Alexa.  Fashion designers dream up and articulate experiences better than any other design discipline.  They create magic in a way that is often so difficult to define it just feels ‘right’.  Fashion is entirely subjective and indisputably powerful.  For these reasons, Clive Van Heerden, co-founder of vHM Design Futures studio in London, which develops materials and technologies for a host of Wearable Electronic business propositions in the areas of electronic apparel, conductive textiles, physical gaming, medical monitoring and entertainment, insists on having a fashion designer in his creative team on all projects.

DSC02070DSC02181Designs by students from Politecnico di Milano

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But why are fashion designers resistant to incorporating tech into their designs and what is slowing down the advancement of the fashion tech fusion?  One factor is that the development of tech-enabled/collaborative products takes considerable research and development, and therefore time.  It requires dedication to solving specific problems related to firstly a single concept or product, which is at odds with designing, sampling and creating whole fashion collections which are visually cohesive within a strict time frame (weeks or months at most), which then have a finite sales period before the next collection is created (making the current one obsolete, for want of a better word) and the cycle continues.  The traditional cycle of two main collections per year for high end fashion labels has switched to four in recent years, meaning there is even less time for research and development.  Knowing this, it is easy to see why the work of fashion designers is at odds with the research and development required to incorporate tech, and vice versa.  In a previous interview with designers Fyodor Golan, they pointed out that fashion tech collaborations often have a required fixed outcome within a tight time frame, limiting the amount of integration possible.  This goes some way to explaining why sometimes fashion tech looks more ‘stuck on’ than cohesively and meaningfully designed and produced.

Read more about the technologies involved in the Couture in Orbit project here

Header image: Farid Bin Karim’s self-closing helmet and adaptable ink kilt at ‘Couture in Orbit’

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WGSN Futures – VR at Home and Fashion in Space

I love to talk, so it was fortuitous that the WGSN Futures event unravelled like a long and broad conversation spanning fashion, millennials, shopping on and off-line, social media influencers, artificial intelligence, robotics and big data.  I could only have been more comfortable if in an armchair.

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Vanessa Belleau talks to Rita Konig of the New York Times T Magazine about the future of our homes in a tech-driven world

Day one was a warm-up in the form of visualising 2030 via the rock star delivery of Nils Müller, Founder of TrendOne. When was the last time an artificial intelligence-enabled Barbie was whipped out at a conference you attended?  Barbie muffed up – so far, so 2016 – but Nils did successfully take us to the future and beyond via the Bjorn Borg fashion game ‘First Person Lover’ and Amazon Echo, where the human-tech conversation is firmly two way.  Nils set the tone for our digital lives in 2030, describing digital interfaces that overlay the physical landscape like a fog, where technology is seamlessly integrated and communicates with us intelligently and conversationally.  There won’t be a distinction between what is online and offline in this seamlessly connected, Internet of Things world.  

A point made very strongly that is resonating long after the closure of Day one is Marc Schumacher of Liganova’s assertion that luxury fashion brands must collaborate with outside creatives to enrich their in-store experiences and remain relevant, or they’ll die.  His response to a question to this effect from a Richemont employee was ‘adapt and become more transparent – luxury brands should no longer operate with a ‘closed shop’ approach.’  Another surprising snippet: 66% of brands are currently stagnant or in decline.  Yikes!

Peter Jeun Ho Tsang’s Dandy Lab tackles integration of tech into physical stores with NFC scanning to find out product and brand information and a downloadable app for purchasing clothes without staff intervention, allowing customers to pay without visiting the tills.  He mentions the phenomenon of Innovation Fear Factor, which describes the reluctance to integrate tech that has a proven positive impact on customer satisfaction and business success purely because of fear of change.  The message I’m hearing is ‘You snooze you loose’.


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Peter Jeun Ho Tsang of Dandy Lab

Day two provided hugely inspiring talks in the form of cognitive computing insights by Justin Norwood of IBM, whose described the process behind the making of the Marchesa X IBM Watson dress for the Met Gala’s Manus and Machina theme this year.  

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Marchesa X IBM Watson, worn by Karolina Kurkova

Add to this conquering the final frontier – outer space – mentioned in a handful of talks throughout the two days and by the close of day two it was easy to see how artificial intelligence and an automated, digital and seamlessly connected world is forming quickly around us. We know how quickly the technology for powering space travel is developing through the space programs of Google, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic so it’s perfectly realistic to predict holidays in space in 2030.  Ibiza?! Pfft.  That then poses the question, what will we wear?  Enter a new market for fashion/tech/performance clothing in space.  This ties in nicely with my concurrent post ‘Couture in Orbit’, demonstrating the ESA, Science Museum and European fashion Institutions’ commitment to fostering conversation and experimentation with concepts of fashion in space, but more on that later. 

Back to WGSN Futures.  Also inspiring was Blingby – a platform that offers up the online purchase of products and services seen in music videos.  Love the Taylor Swift ‘Wildest Dreams’ video shot in Botswana?  Book the same resort she filmed the video in (whilst watching it) on Blingby.  The evangelical founder, Marcia Favale, was captivating and savvy, deftly batting away my probing question about whether they use cognitive algorithms in their platform.

One of the interesting revelations of the day was the heavy-weight fashion panel diverting away from what they deem to be an irrelevant discussion about whether brands show their collections on the mens or womens’ fashion schedule, or together, or at all, in fact.  The ‘see now, buy now’ model mooted as revolutionary when Burberry announced it several months ago was dismissed by the panel as unlikely to make great shakes in the way buyers place orders and the product life cycle.  A greater problem, according to Erin Mullaney (who incidentally was the first buyer to stock Brooke Roberts knitwear, at Browns) is that the timing of product is wrong for the seasons.  The product life cycle is too short, with summer clothes arriving in store during the coldest months and vice versa.  Menswear designer Lou Dalton explained that her collections have become transitional and the seasonal difference in fabric weight is no longer relevant in a global market. 

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The Fashion Panel led by Carla Busazi of WGSN; Clara Mercer of the BFC; Erin Mullaney of EMC Consulting, Lou Dalton and Alexandra Fullerton of Stylist Magazine

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 Lou Dalton AW16 via dazeddigital.com

I posed the panel a question asking their opinion of the current wave of Fashion Tech and whether they think it offers great opportunities and exciting products or just gimmicks.  Clara Mercer’s take was that digital had enabled new presentation platforms, but that streaming may not be the show format saviour it was originally thought to be.  Erin Mullaney mentions product and cites Unmade’s customisable knitwear as an example of great Fashion Tech, which plays into consumer desire for personalised product.  The appetite for such product is expected to increase as consumers seek to differentiate themselves from an increasingly homogenised product (and content) offering.

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Vanessa Belleau of WGSN interviews Annabel Rivkin of Midult, Sam Baker of The Pool, Daniel Murray of Grabble and Sarah Raphael of Refinery 29 UK

As a fashion designer, reflecting on these upcoming changes there’s a definite air of disruption on the horizon.  We’re seeing the greatest shift our industry has ever seen, said Simon Chambers of model agency Storm, which now has a social media influencers division ‘Storm Vision‘ to reflect the demand for curated and personal content spurred by the digital revolution. 

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Lauretta Roberts of WGSN interviews Lucy Williams, Influencer; Jade Parfitt, Model;  Andreja Pejic, Model and Influencer, Soraya Bakhtiar, Style Blogger and Influencer and Simon Chambers, Owner, Storm Model Management

In a number of talks, predictions were made (but not qualified with data) that the human life span will reach 100-140 years by 2030.  In the spirit of WGSN Futures, bring on the next 15 years!

Header Image: Lauretta Roberts, Director, WGSN Futures

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The Athletic-Tech Garment Making the Virtual Real : Introducing Skinterface

We are fully versed in the realm of our physical world and increasingly dipping into the virtual world through virtual reality experiences, but what of the space in between?  What of the transition realm – a corridor, if you like, that lies next to the real world in which we transition through before arriving at a state of VR immersion?  Think about the experience of entering the virtual world and the need for all of our senses to be stimulated in order for the virtual experience to feel real.  Drill down even further to consider the organ through which we physically feel – the skin.  Herein lies the connection and transition area of real to virtual.


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The Matrix corridor – a representation of the space between the real and virtual worlds

Skin is a powerful tool that allows us to communicate on a highly intricate level.  It also communicates who we our biologically and culturally, making it a potent social and physical organ.  What happens when a team of curious minds consider the meaning of skin and how skin can transition us from a physical to virtual experience?  Skinterface is born.

Skinterface is the work of RCA students Andre McQueen (Footwear designer and trend forecaster) , George Wright (Engineer), Ka Hei Suen (Kitchen Product Designer) and Charlotte Furet (Architect) who embarked on their MSc / MA Innovation Engineering Design course out of curiosity and a desire for collaboration outside of their immediate professional realms.  An admiration for each other’s individual project work led them to work together as a team of ‘sensory architects’.  The initial exploration for the Skinterface project was broad and posed months of questions about the sensory experience and perception of touch, but began with a very simple test.  The test was wearing a plastic bag on the hand and immersing it in water and noting the sensory experience.  Although the water doesn’t touch the skin it is still felt – the sensation of water on the hand is experienced.  This underpins the working nature of the very human and very wearable piece of tech that is Skinterface.

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Mood board images and the initial plastic bag test

The first question posed at the beginning of project related not to creating a defined product, but how to create something that was very human, integrated with technology.  Touch is a powerful human tool and to relay this using technology seems a powerful new dimension in communication in a digital age.  Skinterface is a one way communication tool – the sensory experience is delivered according to the location of the skinterface garment within a 3D mapped space by tracking its coloured surface details and delivering the sensory experience accordingly.  An extension of this is a dual tool using the same tech, but allowing pressure on one part of the tool to effect the sensation delivered by the other. The implications of this are potentially to touch someone in another location, even in another country. 

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Skinterface at Milan Design Week, 2016

The set of garments created by the team deliver sensory pressure by essentially using a speaker in reverse, so that sounds create a varying electromagnetic field, which in turn is calibrated to produce varying sensations on the skin.  These sensations are delivered via a coil and magnets encased in 3D printed caps, created at Imperial College London and adhered to the garments, which require close skin contact to accurately deliver the sensation.

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Imagine the sound of a bird flying past you and the sensory experience induced by the change in air pressure caused by the bird’s movement – that’s what Skinterface delivers.  In a virtual world, the sound of all manner of objects can be programmed and delivered via the coil and magnet-driven modules that apply just the right amount of pressure to mimic that same sensory experience as though it had happened in the real world. This skin beyond skin is poetically demonstrated in the video below, from beginning to end.

When asked about the aesthetic component of the design, Andre cited the current athletic lifestyle (or athleisure) sportswear evolution and brainstorming about what clothing will look like 40 years from now.  Andre is a Cordwainers graduate who launched a streetwear fashion label then moved on to fashion forecasting, working extensively with global brands to evolve their trend-driven products.  His curiosity for exploring the technical side of fashion and design led him to the Innovation Engineering Design Masters at the RCA, but he still has a firm grip on where the fashion market is headed.

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A selection of Andre McQueen‘s design work

When I ask the team about their view of this exciting innovation could be used they mention the sex industry, gaming, entertainment and fashion.  The sex industry is an obvious one, as is gaming and entertainment, but fashion?  Andre sees an opportunity to translate the sensation of wearing a multitude of different fabrics into a sensory ‘digital library’ that can be felt by wearing Skinterface.  Wonder what your cotton trench coat would feel like in felted wool?  Skinterface can give you that sensation.  There is as much scope here for customer-led retail experiences as for fashion designers considering the weight and drape of various fabrics when designing garments.    

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A library of sounds could be created to induce all manner of sensory experiences through the Skinterface suit.  The team talks about a dream open source library of thousands of compositions, and even whole scores for feature films that could be felt while they are watched.  Theoretically, the score for each character could be written according to what they experience in the film and as a Skinterface-wearing viewer you could experience it too.  The thought of experiencing a film dozens times from a different character’s point of view is mind-blowing. 

I leave the team with just five weeks remaining before they complete their studies and exhibit the work arising from two intense years of exploration, research and experimentation.  On my way out of the Darwin Building at the RCA, Andre and I muse about a common paradox in fashion design – final design decisions are often made at the beginning of the design process, leaving little room for curiosity, exploration and design evolution.  Educational institutions including the RCA are a unique breeding ground for such curiosity and I look forward to seeing where this has taken the IED students, both physically and virtually.

The RCA MA/MSc Innovation Engineering Design exhibition is in June at the Royal College of Art

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CitizenM: The Hotels Inspired by ‘Global Citizen’ Fashion Designers

CitizenM was founded by the ex-owner/CEO of fashion company MEXX, Rattan Chadha.  Mr Chadha was struck by the uninspiring nature of hotel accommodation for his 150-strong design team as they travelled around the world researching fashion trends and visiting suppliers.  His young dynamic design team were travelling on strict budgets and staying in traditional hotels that left them out of budget and uninspired.  That’s when the concept of citizenM was born.  Robin Chadha explains the light bulb moment that led his father Rattan to ask himself why the hotel industry hadn’t been reinvented.  Why didn’t it reflect global citizens who lead dynamic lives? Further inspiration for the concept of providing affordable luxury for global citizens was in the form of H&M’s collaborations with luxury designers like Karl Lagerfeld.  The founder and his team came up with a list of frustrations around the hotel experience (pre 2008, when the first citizenM hotel launched in Amsterdam) which included queuing for check in and check out, filling in the same paperwork every stay, the impersonal nature of a big check-in desk, the restricted restaurant hours … the list went on.  Why wasn’t the hotel experience more customer driven?

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Enter CitizenM, where technology and design have facilitated a 5 star hotel model in terms of comfort (the bed and shower are second-to-none) with pruning of unnecessary costs (a streamlined 24 hour canteen in favour of a heavily staffed restaurant) and self check-in.  The practical rooms, as mentioned below, are clever pods that were built modular and off-site, meaning a cost effective build and efficient use of hotel space.  The pods are complimented brilliantly by the enormous and welcoming social hubs for drinking, reading, watching TV, sitting by the fire or catching up with friends.

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Arriving at CitizenM Rotterdam feels like embarking on an adventure.  The wooden spiral staircase feels like a modern day entrance to the coolest cubby house  you’ve never seen.  We checked ourselves in at the landing level which welcomes in the harbour via vast glass panels.  Glance left and there’s a sofa-surrounded fire place. Glance right and there’s a buzzing bar. 

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In between are some cool shelves, a red ceramic glazed gnome and few other oddities and trinkets.  There’s no fuss here.  We’re greeted in a non-pretentious and fun way – it’s more of a chat than a check-in.  The room’s no fuss too.  Our harbour view suits us just fine.  Welcome Citizen Roberts indeed!

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The accommodations are like a pod.  The fun cubby house vibe continues and I unpack in an instant so I can check out the tech.  The blazing sun across the sofas makes breakfast a two hour affair.  Yep, there’s loads to see in Rotterdam.  My list of must-sees is long. I’m just too relaxed to move.  Faced with a book shelf full of interesting reads it’s not until hours later that I venture back to my pod – where I make the mistake of launching on to the way too comfortable bed and indulging in the hundreds of channels on TV.  Maybe I should watch a film?  Trapped again,  I’m typing away here at long after 2pm and feeling plenty chilled and comfy.  Everything’s at the touch of an iPad.  The LED mood-coded lights, the room temperature, the curtains and blinds.  It’s all touch screen simple and feels like a home away from home. It suits me.  It’s my ideal hotel, because it feels nothing like one.

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The bed dominates the room, which is a haven for intense chilling out.  The button operated curtain and blind mean barely moving to get just the right amount of light and let the view in from the harbour side courtyard.  

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Delving a little deeper into the tech and design behind Citizen M, Robin explains that the hotels, which are all identical in terms of IT infrastructure, have a central Dashboard at the HQ near Amsterdam powered by a piece of proprietary software collating data from all the hotels.  If the lights aren’t working in room 303 at the Rotterdam hotel, they – and the smartphone-enabled staff – know about it.  Faults are coded according to importance.  If there’s a problem with a shower the hotel staff (aka Ambassadors) know about it and are probably actioning a fix before it’s even registered with the guest.  The iPad that is the central control panel for the room is out of battery? It’s flagged on the dashboard, but not urgent – in all likelihood the guest is happy to sort this one out, but if they can’t, CitizenM is informed and ready to respond.  CitizenM’s hotels that are customer driven and responsive and I find myself asking the same question as Rattan Chadha pre-2008 – Why hadn’t the hotel industry been reinvented?

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The team behind the CitizenM hotels includes Robin Chadha, Michael Levie (COO), Nick Price (IT) and Concrete Architects, whose modular room design is shown above. 

My discussion with Robin rounds off with a view into what’s on the horizon.  A bulging list of new CitizenM Hotel locations over the coming years includes the Tower of London (July 2016), Shoreditch (September 2016) and London St Pauls (2019).  Other locations include The Bowery, New York (2017) and Taipei and Shanghai through their joint venture with Shuntak. 

The fact that we citizens of the world are increasingly global is undisputed.  The centrality of customers to product and service industries and their increasingly consumer-led business models is also irrefutable.  CitizenM fits perfectly, as you would expect from any fashion entrepreneur worth his (sartorial) salt.

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