Techstyler’s Take: In answering this question we need to look at how prepared the global governments and organisations were. The daily changes in government guidelines across Europe, Asia and the US and changing responses to the growth of the pandemic indicate that the scale of the challenge is unprecedented, making it difficult to prepare for. BBC news is doing a thorough job of releasing up-to-the-minute news on the pandemic as it unfolds around the globe.
Photo by Flaunter.com
In terms of the creative industries’ preparation, this is difficult to gather data and insights on at this very moment, as much of the information is subjective and anecdotal. However, it is clear that the creative industries operate on a largely freelance ‘gig economy’ basis in the UK, making creative industry workers particularly vulnerable to loss of income. Today, the UK government announced that financial support for the self-employed is coming in a matter of days. In his address, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, went on to say that the issue was “incredibly complicated” and admitted that it was “proving problematic”, causing our optimism at this promise to dwindle. Additionally, creative industries rely on events, retail spaces, museums, galleries and other gig and social venues to function, and these are being shut down in many countries in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus.
Focusing on the fashion industry specifically, it is being hit at both the retail end (with store closures and a downturn in desire to shop for non-essential items) and the supply chain (where garment factories are already suffering cancelled orders, with workers facing a sudden and total loss of income with no safety net).
Photo by Carl Nenzen Loven
What this highlights is the areas of the fashion system that are most vulnerable and most in need of radical change – the seasonal, speculative orders being one (as they are now being cancelled or suspended and are crippling factories), and the need for digital solutions to reduce risk and the vulnerability of suppliers, compared to the brands that order from them. Digital solutions allow real time manufacturing based on demand, so that risky speculative orders are avoided.
Details of government support in the UK can be found here: BBC and Gov
Details of leading medical advice can be found here: WHO
H&M made a bold statement at the beginning of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, declaring their aim to become fully circular (which means moving towards using only recyclable materials and renewable energy sources) by 2030. I spoke with Anna Gedda, their Head of Sustainability to find out how.
Opening our discussion, I asked how H&M will become a fully circular company, with a particular emphasis on materials, which are a key challenge in terms of natural resource consumption and the challenges in recycling textiles containing multiple fibre types – cotton and elastane, for example. Here is Anna’s response:
“We have looked into different parts of a circular system and identified areas to focus on. We use 20% recyclable or recycled materials. We need to develop our current materials so that we can achieve 100%, and also replace some of the currently used materials with new ones”.
Anna then mentions the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award, which looks for early stage sustainable materials via their annual global competition. This competition is a key source of inspiration and initial ideas for the development of new materials for H&M. She outlines some of the recent winning entries, including a textile that acts as a solar panel, a leather made of grape waste, and previously a citrus waste textile. She explains that it is not only new materials being proposed, but new processes for manufacturing textiles are also being devised. The winners may develop materials for H&M, Anna explains, but the competition has an altruistic outlook, which I interpret as meaning it aims to unearth great ideas and developments for their own sake, aligned with the company’s CSR mandate. Anna goes on to to say that whilst H&M aim to identify innovation and scale it, she concedes that many ideas that work in the lab are not scalable, and therefore not feasible for H&M’s products.
Grape Leather Innovation
Anna segues into the H&M sustainable Conscious Exclusive collection, which is in store all year round and uses innovative recycled and organic materials, including Bionic yarn created from recycled ocean plastic. H&M uses this collection as a testing ground for sustainable fabrics with the aim of increasing demand for, and awareness of, sustainable products amongst consumers; ultimately bringing the prices down. This ‘dipping the toe in’ approach is a safe way for H&M to experiment with introducing new technology and textiles into their supply chain without significantly impacting their bottom line, and without taking big risks.
Linking back to the Global Change Award, Anna explains that in addition to receiving prize money, the winners take part in a year long accelerator, which gives them access to the H&M supply chain to work in their suppliers’ factories. During this time they are able to test their materials and innovations within a live supply chain context, revealing whether they have the potential to meet the demands of cutting, sewing and finishing in the garment making process – a useful learning experience for the competition winners.
Drilling down in to the materials innovation effort at H&M, I ask about the level of involvement of materials scientists in the development process and ask “who is driving materials innovation?” Anna explains that scientific input is key to achieving the 2030 circularity goal. The development of materials depends upon working with academics to understand planetary boundaries and new technologies for agriculture – cotton growing alternatives, for example. Academia, innovators, and suppliers – the actual producers – are key in driving materials innovation. She added that suppliers see that the fashion industry is changing and they want to create new materials to better meet sustainability demands.
My next question for Anna, aimed at digging into the issue of fair wages and exploitation in the garment industry, is: “What would you say to consumers who are concerned about the transparency, or a lack of transparency in manufacturing. How can consumers feel comfortable about H&M and about going into H&M and buying something off the shelf and knowing that nobody has been harmed in that process and that a fair wage has been paid, especially as your prices are so competitive. What would you say to the consumer who is concerned about that?”
Anna’s response was as follows: “I would say that they can be confident going into an H&M store and buy things that they love, I mean, we really have high ambitions and we have a long term perspective and want to be part of this industry not just for the next three years, but the next thirty years – we are doing what we can to ‘future-proof’ the company, as well as the industry.” In an age when transparency is increasingly important, H&M have engaged with the SAC (Sustainable Apparel Coalition) and are using the Higg Index, which they hope will go a long way to achieving transparency. Anna sees third party verification as an essential part in increasing transparency. Anna mentions the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report (summarised here) which uses the Higg Index, an open source supply chain and transparency assessment tool, stating that she believes this demonstrates how third party verification (from SAC) can lend credibility to the fashion industry’s sustainability efforts.
Wrapping up the interview, I ask Anna what she considers to be the most exciting and game changing technology in the industry’s efforts to become sustainable. “Finding ways to recycle from textile to textile – today you are not able to do this in a scalable and efficient way, because you don’t have the technology.” The aim is to be able to place any garment/textile in a solvent, recover the fibres and use them to make new textiles. “This will be a game changer for a circular system, and I think we will see such technologies within the next five years.” She tells me she has seen technologies approaching this capability already. Textile recycling is already possible in this manner, but there are limitations as to the fibres that can be recovered, and some blended textiles (woven cotton and elastane, for example) can not be fully recycled using current technology.
Content Thread for textile recycling
In closing, Anna makes a key point in terms of this recyclability versus design philosophy at H&M – designers being restricted to using one type of fibre or material can significantly restrict their creativity and, ultimately, the aesthetics of the garment. She suggests that single fibre designs may not satisfy customer demand for interesting products, so full recyclability of all textile blends in order to achieve circularity without a compromise on design appears to be the answer.
To chat to Paul Sohi is to geek out over all things 3D printed. He takes me on a journey from 3D printed mannequins (the subject of his PhD) to a new polycarbonate composite prosthetic leg he is developing with a team spanning half a dozen countries but centred at Autodesk in San Francisco, for an Olympic cyclist bound for Rio later this year. It’s a helluva ride, so buckle up!
What initially prompted me to get in contact with Paul was a question I’ve been pondering whilst working at the fringe of fashion and technology for some time. Why aren’t there robot models? And why don’t I create the first robot modelling agency? It makes sense for so many reasons, but more on that in a later post.
Paul’s research and development at the Royal College of Art in conjunction with the Makerversity at Somerset House centres on solving an immense problem in mannequin manufacturing. Mannequins are currently sculpted by hand before being moulded and cast – a time consuming process which imposes mass standardisation. As someone who has hired mannequins for London fashion week I can attest to the limited offer currently on the market. Consider a museum requiring a custom-sized mannequin to display historic clothing, and then consider a new technology allowing such a mannequin to be 3D printed in days rather than laboriously hand made in months. Then consider that currently, the best way of creating mannequins to display such costumes is to 3D scan the clothing to determine the volume inside of them when worn on which to then base a mannequin shape – requiring reverse-engineering of the mannequin to mimic someone that did actually live and wear those clothes at a point in historical time. It’s on consideration of these weird truths it’s possible to begin seeing the benefit of Paul’s creation of an algorithm designed to transform actual body (or garment) measurements into 3D printed mannequins, rather than relying on artistic creations inspired by – but anatomically untrue to – the human body. The key here is that measurements entered into Paul’s program are manipulated and represented visually in line with actual metamorphic landmarks. For example, height has an impact on body proportions. It is incorrect to simply scale a mannequin up or down directly proportionately – there are intricacies in height ratios that Paul’s rigorous algorithm takes into account so that the mannequins he 3D prints are true to the human form, rather than a sculpted representation of an imagined ideal. Shorter people’s legs are proportionately longer than their torso compared to taller people, for example, but you would not detect this by looking at them – both body proportions simply look ‘right’. Herein lies the difficulty in artistically interpreting the human form where size and fit are concerned.
Paul’s 3D printed scale mannequins being printed in parts for later assembly
The motivation behind Paul’s PhD was to find out if he could create a 3D printed mannequin using mass customisation algorithms built upon an immense amount of research underpinned by the International Standards. These standards provided all the necessary body measurements to create a digital mannequin which can then be 3D printed.
An important point made by Paul during our conversation is that mass customisation via 3D printing is now possible on a production scale – it has evolved beyond prototyping. This means that standardisation of mannequins is no longer necessary and the skilled work required for each fashion retail market does not have to be localised. Since a ‘standard’ size small in Asia is nothing like a ‘standard’ size small in Europe, mass customisation shatters geographical boundaries and means standardisation – at best badly sized and limited in terms of body shape and at worst pushing damagingly unrealistic body ideals – is no longer necessary. The mannequins Paul is developing can be tailored according to cultural specificity. Regional cuisine radically effects body shape, size and proportion and genetics also has a considerable impact. These factors can be taken into account in Paul’s algorithm.
A complete 3D printed scale mannequin
From an aesthetic point of view, every fashion brand has its own ideal mannequin which in some cases may be seasonal. These are made from master moulds and if done by hand using current methods, take months. 3D printing takes a fraction of the time, allowing greater flexibility and mannequin diversity.
Components of a scale model printing whilst Paul and I chatted at the Makerversity
Paul describes his work as creating avatars and body forms. He is currently working with the Victoria & Albert Museum, London to find rapid solutions for mannequin making for display of historic costumes. As an extension of this revolutionary development for display mannequins, Paul is looking at how the current mass standardisation of garment making mannequins relates to sizing within the fashion industry. There is no datum on mannequins – no system for sizing and no standard approach to it across the industry. When creating clothing, we have anatomical landmarks (nape to waist, for example) but the way this is measured is still variable. Paul is determined to standardise measurement taking and sizing to put an end to what is a slow, laborious and repetitive process. He makes the point that, for example, three people in the fashion industry will measure the same dress and get three completely different sets of measurements . Compare that to Architecture – or any other creative industry – and you would be laughed at for not having and applying a set of standards. He makes a strong point and I have personally dealt with this often painful aspect of sampling and production in the fashion industry. Paul is confident that a set of standards can be extrapolated from the points mapped in his algorithm.
Interestingly, Paul tells me that the standard nape to waist measurement of garment making blocks used routinely in the fashion industry came from 1920’s military uniforms. Today’s approach to garment sizing and pattern proportions has only marginally evolved since then. ‘Standard sizes’ are in truth specific to each individual fashion house and are not related to any actual standard, which to me makes sense because each fashion house/brand has it’s own silhouettes and ‘fit’ which are part of its aesthetic, but I can see how this isn’t customer friendly and how in an increasingly e-commerce driven industry sizing standardisation would reduce returns and help consumers make better style choices.
Returning to museum mannequins, the Alexander McQueen exhibition Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was one of the most successful exhibitions of all time but despite this, when it ended it was not picked up immediately by another institution. The hand-sculpted mannequins, made specifically for the garments they displayed were destroyed. Shortly after, the V&A took on the exhibition, and set about hand-making the mannequins all over again. Almost a year later they were complete. If these had been created using Paul’s 3D printing method this would have been simpler, quicker and less expensive.
The exception within the Savage Beauty exhibition was the Plato’s Atlantis 3D printed mannequins which closed the exhibition. See the 3D rendering by Asylums FX and a photo I took at the exhibition below:
Plato’s Atlantis, Savage Beauty, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
When I ask Paul about the response so far to his work he says it has been met with distrust and caution from a number of museum curators and fashion designers who feel things are working just fine as they. The fashion industry is famously and paradoxically resistant to change (the out-of-synch seasonal cycles and some luxury brands still refusing to sell online are just two examples) but why isn’t the way things are done being challenged? Why can’t we do things better? Why can’t we explore technology to do things in a better way? As long as we pose the questions, it appears technology will provide the answers.
Paul and I leave the Makerversity disagreeing over the recent Batman V’s Superman film (he’s a fan, I’m not) and agreeing on the amazingness of The Hulk. I wish him well on his bumpy but worthwhile journey to fashion mannequin disruption.
Header image: Paul Sohi
For more about Paul’s work, click here and follow him on Twitter
There are constant rumblings throughout the fashion industry about copyright, Fast Fashion and IP ownership. Add to this debates about the impact of Fast Fashion outlets copying designer fashion and you have to wonder; how will small independent designer brands survive in an industry that is getting faster and cheaper by the day? Independent designers can’t compete with the likes of Zara, the mega-brand owned by Inditex fashion magnate Amancio Ortega who was for a time last year the richest man in the world ahead of Bill Gates and is currently the second richest.
Zara can copy a design developed and crafted by an independent designer or more established fashion house – check out this example of Zara copying Celine – that may have taken months to create and have a cheaper version for sale in their stores within weeks of that design being presented (and snatched). How should independent designers confront this? If they claim infringement of their design rights can they afford to pursue legal action against the likes of Zara? Doubtful.
Images: Johannes Schwartz
Dutch designers Alexander van Slobbe and Francisco van Benthum took the bold and unexpected approach of hacking Zara and other retailers guilty of copying theirs and their contemporaries designs – they’re playing them at their own game. They’ve added another phase to the clothing lifecycle by purchasing a huge quantity of dead-stock (unsold and out of season clothing that often goes to landfill) from clothing retailers selling garments ‘inspired by’ or derived directly from the work of other designers and re-engineered it to make it new. Some garments had pockets added. Others were slashed and had sections of fabric inserted into them to create new silhouettes. In summary, the duo have created a new collection from a number of unsold ones – hacking the hackers.
It’s ingenious and inspiring. It’s green and creative. The exhibition staff were on hand to explain the designers’ motivation and inspiration, and what was initially a statement about industry ethics and environmental awareness has now grown into a brand. Pieces from the collection are currently exhibited and for sale at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam and the statement has been so popular and garnered such demand that the designers are setting up an online store too. Their stockists include Margreet Holsthoorn, an expansive gallery-like boutique I visited en route to the ‘Hacked exhibition’.
Margreet Holsthoorn Boutique, Rotterdam
The exhibition ‘Hacked’ features their ‘re-made’ collection and the work of fashion students from the Willem De Kooning Academie invited to re-engineer clothing and consider the lifespan of a garment following a week long masterclass with van Slobbe and van Benthum. The thinking here is that if a garment is altered it becomes new and therefore at least equally, if not more, valuable.
Workshops are also being held at the Instituut for school children to learn how to customise clothing to renew its appeal – even taking it as far as turning stains on t-shirts into decorative embroidered sections to make them wearable again.
This exhibition compliments the Instituut’s third floor gallery presentation ‘Fashion Data’, a stark reality check about the Western consumption of clothing and its societal meaning, along with the implications for the planet. I’ll be expanding on this in an upcoming post.
Right now, fashion is ripe for disruption – hackers welcome!