Bethany Williams’s London Fashion Week Mens presentation was set in the Charing Cross Library, forming the foundation of her brand’s seasonal message in the community mainstay of the local library. Free to all for intellectual enrichment regardless of background or beliefs, the library set the perfect tone for the presentation of the SS19 collection entitled “No Address Needed to Join”.
The presentation unravelled as stories within stories to a soundtrack of The Gingerbread man audiobook. The brand’s social and sustainability story was visually expressed through garments that appeared to have been crafted from sheets of compressed book pulp, cut into strips then hand-woven. Comprising of half a dozen looks representative of a materials re-appropriation design language, the textile-led designs mixed materials rich in text, texture and colour – exuberant and bold – as you would expect from a collection with such a strong social message.
A true team effort, Bethany’s collections rely upon co-operation and collaboration, which must involve vast planning, negotiations and partnership agreements. Her business model goes way beyond simply ordering fabrics from suppliers and working with garment manufacturers to sample and produce her collections. This season Bethany and her team worked with The Quaker Mobile Library, which makes literature available for borrowing to marginalised members of society who have no fixed abode (who are unable to register for public library services) and British publishing house Hachette UK. She obtained waste materials from Clay’s book manufacturing facility in Suffolk and took it to San Patrignano in Italy and worked alongside the community there to weave fabrics mixed from the book waste, waste from San Patrignano itself and donated pre-production waste from textile mills in Italy.
On the garment construction side, Bethany has continued the previous season’s partnership with the London College of Fashion’s ‘Making for Change’ programme, which supports the training of women in Downview Prison. Women on the programme will be constructing the jersey pieces for production orders of the collection. The production focuses on working closely with innovative rehabilitation programmes including San Patrignano, Making For Change at HMP Downview and Manx Workshop for the disabled (button production), providing skills and meaningful employment.
Making up a considerable portion of the collection were oversized hand-knitted jumpsuits, sweaters and trousers created in collaboration with Wool and Gang’s Heal the Wool yarn (made from 100% recycled Peruvian wool fibre with 30% of the yarn price donated to Friends of the Earth. Recycled wool was sourced from Kent for the hand embroidery on the knitwear pieces. All the sampling was hand-knitted by Bethany’s mother on the Isle of Man where she grew up. Yarns were also sourced from Chris Carney Collections, a recycling and sorting facility, where knitwear is washed and unravelled before being hand-knitting into pieces for the collection. The denim elements within the collection were also sourced in the same manner and unpicked before being reconstituted and hand-printed into new garments.
What transpires from this overview of the extensive collaborations and partnerships Bethany Williams forges is that sustainability is impressively integrated and fundamental to her brand, not a token afterthought or a simple matter of ordering organic or recycled materials for use in the collection – it is the very foundation of her creativity and modus operandi while celebrating inclusion, social mobility and community.
Here, fashion is a vehicle for good with her inspiring roster of collaborators for the creation of her collections and their delivery, which was achieved through a presentation in collaboration with social and environmental activists and TIH Models, a niche, socially engaged modelling agency exclusively featuring individuals in unique living conditions.
Of course working at a ‘grass-roots’ level reclaiming and re-appropriating materials from waste can make for difficulties in ensuring required quantities for production and potentially in consistency of material quality. The manual nature of many of the processes may also be challenging to scale up for larger production quantities. Both these factors mean this is not a business model that can scale easily, but maybe that’s not the point here. Speaking of fashion as a vehicle for positivity and change, Bethany Williams states “we provide an alternative system for fashion production, as we believe fashion’s reflection upon the world can create positive change.” Job done.
As part of this season’s community commitment, Bethany is donating 20% of the profits from this collection to The Quaker Mobile Library. Bethany Williams is available now at 50m, Ecclestone Yard, London.
Peter Jensen opened my London Fashion Week round of presentations, events and shows a day before the schedule kicks off in earnest in a behind-the-scenes invitation to see his lookbook being shot, which culminates the creation of the AW1 7 collection and opens the wholesale business selling season. Peter told me that this open presentation style takes him back to the birth of his label, mirroring his first ever presentation back in 2000. Peter set up at the Shacklewell Lane studios, just down the road from where today’s shoot took place and was the first of a number of designers to move in ‘when it still had a Vietnamese sweatshop in the basement’ and ‘you had to step over drug addicts to enter the building’. Long gone are those days, but it’s surely a business that has solid foundations that is still based in the same studio post- East London gentrification, sixteen years down the line.
Illustrations: Peter Jensen
Peter talks me through the collection, including a hand-illustrated female muses print, including Jodie Foster, Nina Simone and Shirley Kurata by Julie Verhoeven that adorns shirts and dresses, alongside his favourite corduroy, which he just can’t depart from due to his Scandinavian roots and the nostalgic memories the fabric conjures up. His strong grasp on the commercial silhouettes that work for his brand, and explanations of the fabric compositions and weights that sell well demonstrate the maturity that comes with sixteen years in the business. Hence this collection being entitled “Greatest Hits”.
Photos: Amy Gwatkin
This collection marks the Peter Jensen brand‘s sixteenth, and he’s not showing any signs of giving up the playful thread that has run through his collections to date. I ask if adulthood in two years time will spell a grown-up direction, to which he laughs before introducing me to these pieces designed in collaboration with Nickelodeon to mark another birthday – SpongeBob SquarePants eighteenth. Peter Jensen’s signature rabbit logo takes centre stage, alongside SpongeBob and his pet Gary. Nickelodeon collaborated with a number of designers, including Jensen, for the 27 piece range which is part of the SpongeBob Gold brand, launching commercially in May.
The chance to see the team working on the shoot, the mood-boards informing the styling and photography and the collection details and textiles up close, as explained by Peter, helps to understand the entire commercial and creative aspects of the fashion business. Fashion week often serves up one without the other, which isn’t bad, it just isn’t whole either.
Happy sweet sixteen Peter, and many happy returns.
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.
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.
‘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.
Heat applied by the palm of the hand causes the ink to temporarily disappear
UV source applied to printed fabric
Visual alert to excessive UV rays
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.
Sam 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.
Designs by students from Politecnico di Milano
Designs by students from Ravensbourne
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’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s a refreshing start to the day to chat to an entrepreneur with two startups on the go just six months after graduating from an MA in Global Innovation Design at the Royal College of Art. Dan Garrett is a do-er – and a resolutely practical one at that. His recent collaboration with fashion designer Mary Benson is testament to his dynamic and collaborative approach to design. ‘Fashion design is magical’ he says, reminiscing about his job as a bike courier ferrying Louboutins to devotees in London. He recalls seeing women trying on the shoes in the store and paying handsome sums for what he describes as an uncomfortable and impractical object that paradoxically is utterly desirable. Yep, that’s fashion! Magical, sometimes confusing and utterly spellbinding.
We talk a little more about the magic of fashion and why Dan and his collaborators Elena Dieckmann, Ming Kong and Lucy Jong worked with Mary on their fascinating piece of wearable tech – the Bruise Suit.
Mary Benson’s graduate collection, University of Westminster, 2014
The bruise suit was borne out of a collaborative project at the RCA which saw Dan and his team find a problem that needed to be solved and then design and make the solution. The project, supported by Rio Tinto, had an open brief. The team decided to design a piece for use at the Sochi winter olympics and interviewed disabled athletes with the hope of devising a solution to a problem. Paralympic sit-skiier Talan Skeels-Piggins complained of being injured but unaware of his injuries due to his disability and that’s when (after rejection of a number of wearables related concepts) the ‘bruise suit’ concept was borne. The concept was that on sufficient impact likely to result in an injury, the suit would respond with a visual notification for the athlete. Weeks of R & D in conjunction with a specialist research team at Imperial College London and collaboration with pattern cutter Raj Mistry resulted in a suit with removable sections of a polyurethane coated textile containing microcapsules of dye that shattered on sufficient impact, therefore signalling a chance of injury. It’s best demonstrated by the video and images below.
The design won additional funding from Rio Tinto and the James Dyson Foundation, leading to a second phase which saw the team collaborate with fashion designer Mary Benson whose work incorporates vinyl applications on a multitude of textiles. Dan explained to me that having researched (and launched a startup in product manufacturing for the healthcare market) he remains frustrated by the ugliness and lack of design in healthcare equipment. There is little if any consideration for aesthetics in the creation of products for those with disabilities and the complicated process of procurement for such devices (usually by councils on behalf of those with disabilities and without their direct input) means those using the products aren’t choosing them. The cold, beige hallmarks of medical devices and institutions carry through, he says. Why? He asks. Having worked in the NHS for over a decade and being a designer myself I have asked this question (in my own head and audibly) countless times. Dan is determined to do something about it. I sense this comes from a fascination for design, in particular fashion, having completed a stint at the Pratt Institute alongside studying at the RCA, however Dan confirms that his practical problem-solving brain’s hard wiring prevents him from moments of Mary Benson-like magic. He delights in seeing designers, like Mary, create imaginative aesthetics but remains focussed on primarily solving problems with his design and engineering projects.
Mary Benson’s AW14 Cruise collection
Mary, Dan and I live a stone’s throw from each other in Bethnal Green, East London, but it proved impossible to get together due to scheduling conflicts, s0 Dan explains to me that Mary devised the surface design for the Bruise suit by exploiting her much used technique of vinyl applications, which takes the suit into a different (multi-coloured) realm. Mary’s surface design turns the suit into a fashion object in addition to a piece of technical clothing with a serious purpose. The process of creating the microcapsule filled polyurethane strips that slide into discrete pockets strategically placed on the most at risk areas of the body (the long bones and knees, for example) was complex. It utilised newspaper print press roller technology to ensure the two layers of film with the microcapsules were correctly structured to function on sufficient (injury causing) impact. What Dan worked on specifically with Mary was creating pockets with teflon in between the vinyl and the film which could then be filled with the microcapsules. Dan explains the satisfaction in developing design that serves the body and cites biomimicry as a motivator for his particular approach to such design projects. Mirroring the structure of the body and supporting human anatomy is at the core of another of Dan’s projects, for which currently has an advisory role – Aergo, the pioneering modular disability support system.
The Bruise Suit in collaboration with Mary Benson
Dan’s other projects have included TasteWorks, a VR sensory study focussing on appetite and dementia at Keio University and his most current undertaking, Farewill, which launches in earnest soon. For now, I leave Dan with a buzz and heightened curiosity over what problems he might propose to solve through design next and hope they incorporate the magic of fashion.