Fashion Data: Calculating the Cost of the Fashion Machine

A sister exhibition to Fashion Hacked at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, Fashion Data is a stark reality check about the consumption of clothing and its societal meaning both in the West and East, along with the environmental implications for the planet. 

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Fashion Data incorporates Fashion Machine: an installation by Conny Groenewegen in which she slashes and re-works a typical leftover product of the fast fashion/clothing industry, the fleece sweater.  Conny and her team of students cut up and ‘re-spun’ the fleeces onto giant spools and looped them onto huge looms’ to demonstrate the scale of waste and the banality of the fleece jumper, which is largely undesired as a second-hand product and regularly finds its way into mattresses at the end of its lifecycle, or worse still, landfill.  Conny makes thought-provoking statements about the role of designers in mass manufacturing for fast fashion, summed up in the set of stills below, followed by a film documenting the creation of the Fashion Machine installation. 

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To view Conny Groenewegen’s fashion and knitwear design process in depth, watch this video.

In the film, note the polyethylene (PET) water bottles in the background, from which fleece jumpers have historically been made.  The recycling of PET bottles into polyester fabric to create fleeces is fascinating.  See the full process here.

Balancing Conny’s visual representation of physical waste is Fashion Data – a series of black and white (visually and metaphorically) statistics that give a context to the current European habits of purchasing, wearing and disposing of clothing.  I’ll let the numbers do the talking.

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The exhibition was curated by fashion historian José Teunissen.  Her publication Fashion Data is available to read online and fleshes out the numbers stated above.  It’s essential reading and explains the historic foundation of Fast Fashion, its environmental impact and the emerging slow fashion movement.  It is also a useful visual summary of the Fashion Data exhibition that’s as good as viewing it first hand.  To paraphrase Teunissen, 30% of today’s clothing is sold at the recommended retail price, another 30% disappears in the sales and 40% remains unsold or doesn’t even reach the shops.  This is the deadstock I spoke of in my previous post Fashion Hacked.   Today’s overproduction of Fast Fashion produces an enormous amount of waste with negative social and environmental impacts.  There are solutions being developed to make materials production cleaner and more sustainable, but the business of, and appetite for, Fast Fashion remain strong.

Fashion Data also alerted me to the work of Dutch fashion brand Youasme (womens) Measyou (mens), which launched in 2010 as the world’s first crowdfunded fashion brand creating slow fashion collections of high quality made-to-last knitwear and accessories.

youasme_measyou_pilgrimage_photo_j.w._kaldenbachImage: J.W. Kaldenbach

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.00.23 Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.00.44 Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.01.04An understated androgynous collage – Youasme Measyou AW14 collection.  Images: Blommers/Schumm.  Styling: Maarten Spruyt

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On a stylistic level I was also struck by the natural ease of Youasme/Measyou’s androgyny – it feels tangible and forever.  This is in stark contrast with the overt androgyny expressed by some current fashion designers, including JW Anderson, whose work feels firmly ‘of the moment’ and deliberately provocative – more a scream of gender bending than a quiet dissolving of the aesthetic gender divide.  No doubt both have merit and power for different reasons but it strikes me that Youasme’s expression feels more real; more authentic.  Herein lies the ever fascinating aspect of fashion’s aesthetic debate – its subjectivity.

In addition to Youasme, a host of Dutch designers are utilising sustainable materials and practices, highlighted in conjunction with Fashion Data at Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Temporary Fashion Exhibition.  Here’s a roundup.

paulin1Pauline Van Dongen‘s washable, wearable solar panel knitted shirt.  Image: Liselotte Fleur

The parting insight delivered by Fashion Data comes in the form of award winning film Unravel by Meghna Gupta.  Shot in India, the film illustrates the end point of clothing from the West that is sent for recycling and reveals the gaping divide between East and West and the perceived value of clothing.

The film runs deep into value judgements about society as a whole.  It is shocking and revelatory.  Some Indian factory workers assume that clothes being bought from stores like Primark are very expensive, meaning that Western consumers are very wealthy and can afford to simply give away their clothes for recycling and buy new ones. They also draw the conclusion that Western women are more worthy and beautiful compared to Eastern women because of this excessive consumption.  One female factory worker ponders, while removing decorative crystals from underwear, what the wearer must have done to deserve such a fate – stones on her underwear?!  She concluded the woman must have been forced to wear it as some form of punishment for bad behaviour.  Her comment is a stark reminder of a practical and functional attitude towards clothing, and of patriarchal dominance. 

The full length film can be viewed here. It is a profound and perspective-inducing film that is equally compelling and educational.  Further clothing recycling information is available here.  For information about the sustainable fashion effort in the UK, click here

Header Image: Techstyler

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Is the Fashion Critic Dead?

What is the place of the fashion critic in an increasingly democratic, social media-driven industry?  Are they obsolete?  The conversation between Susie Lau and Alexander Fury at the LV series 3 exhibition on Friday night made me ponder this very question.

IMG_5800Susie Lau in conversation with Alexander Fury at Louis Vuitton’s LV Series 3 Exhibition, London

If fashion is being captured and disseminated by the public, who are shaping their personal style according to online influencers (celebrities/bloggers) rather than looking to fashion critics for direction on what to buy, then what purpose do the critics serve? To propagate the agenda of the publication for which they write?  Do they influence buyers?  Consider a buyer seeing a blogger with half a million followers wearing an item of clothing or a fashion critic writing a favourable review about that item.  Which one would have a greater influence on the buyer, whose main aim is to purchase products and sell them to a social media-obsessed public?  Are they there for industry insiders to read what amount to peer reviews?

Marketing and PR have always been an important support mechanism for selling fashion products – I know this from experience selling my own collections to boutiques – but now online influencers appears to have transcended traditional marketing and PR strategies.  Traditional PR involved stylists and shopping editors calling in items to photograph and publish at the time the product came into store – i.e. six months after the product was initially presented at London Fashion Week, for example.  This has been totally usurped by immediate (and ideally sustained) social media promotion of product, although the lag until the product is available is a problem.  Selling fashion has become more about authentic portrayal/endorsement of products on social media than fashion critics and editors telling the public what to wear each season, months after the products have been shown.

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Poppy Delevingne’s Instagram 

It was interesting to see the level of engagement with Susie Lau after her conversation with Alexander Fury, which was broadcast on Twitter’s real time platform Periscope.  Alexander is a seasoned critic with an encyclopaedic knowledge of fashion history who writes for the well established and respected broadsheet, The Independent. Susie is an indie blogger who covers fashion from a personal perspective and illuminates the work of designers with a refreshingly thoughtful slant.  She is as much a supportive and grass-roots champion for emerging designers as she is a front row stalwart.  While Alexander dismissed ethical fashion as not important to designers because they are too busy and over-worked, Susie is a vocal campaigner for Fashion Revolution Day and has oversight of ethical advances being made within the industry, including supporting the recent launch of Katie Jones sustainable knitwear in Selfridges.

Considering the impact of social media, on Instagram Susie has considerably more followers than Alexander.  Any idea who people were queueing up to chat to afterwards and have a photo taken with?  This is by no means a slight on Alexander, simply a reflection of how the public engages with and consumes fashion in a digital, authenticity-driven age.  In mentioning Alexander and Susie’s position on ethical fashion I hope to illustrate that a fashion commentator with oversight of the industry as a whole and who explores fashion’s wider context is surely better placed to provide critique than one who does not, and perhaps that means the role of the fashion critic in today’s industry needs to expand.

Reading Alexander’s show reviews in the Independent last week I discovered he had written a critique on a show he didn’t attend – he used the online show images from which to form his opinion.  We can all access these images in a matter of minutes and in some cases in real time, so theoretically, any person can form an objective review of a fashion show.  I found this interesting because it throws the purpose of the fashion critic further into question, especially as we’re all increasingly taking on the role of curators of our own (and other people’s) style and members of the public have been invited to industry runway shows for the first time this season at Givenchy.

unnamedMembers of the public at the Givenchy show. Image: Business of Fashion

Conversation amongst my lecturing colleagues includes discussion of critics’ reviews and there’s a definite reverence for critics’ (including Alexander’s) opinion,  but to the fashion consuming public, who brands are putting more and more central to their marketing and PR strategies, is the era of the fashion critic dead?

Perhaps fashion critics need to evolve their reviews to include fashion’s impact and involvement with society, culture, technology and the environment, putting fashion in a broader, more accessible and arguably more interesting (and powerfully relevant) context?

Want to explore the debate further? >> Fashionista: Where Have all the Fashion Critics Gone?

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TECHtoberfest

Plenty of people like beer and plenty of people like tech. It was only a matter of time before the two came together in the form of TECHtoberfest. Held in hipster land’s London Fields Brewery, TECHtoberfest combines the tradition of German Oktoberfest with the next generation of startups and the future of tech. Led by Robert Fenton of HipHacHus, which aims to inspire, educate and support tech startups through a number of events in London, TECHtoberfest had two rooms jammed with tech and entertainment.  The ‘fest was a social gathering with onsite brewed beer and local tech companies demoing their newest apps, games and devices. With a distinctly local vibe it was friendly and inclusive, even if being one of the few girls there meant I had to muscle in to try out the gadgets, apps and games being demoed. I did at times feel invisible and I definitely had to work harder to get to the founders than the boys did. Whatever. I loved it. The tech on show was inspiring, ingenious and fun.

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Standouts included Derrick the Death Fin – a cardboard video game; Amplified Robot’s VR film of a surgical procedure at St Bart’s Hospital, London; Moteefe’s customised clothing website and Unit9 showcasing VR video and Yifei Chai’s UK government-funded, ground-breaking VR sensory experience.

Derrick the Death Fin is the creation of graffiti artist/vandal extraordinaire Ronzo. Ronzo created a video game of cardboard fish travelling around the globe with the aim of sharing environmental messages about saving our planet. He was inspired by the stop motion Wallace and Gromit animations and created Derrick the Death Fin in the same way – making and moving the characters and sets by hand and suspending them with transparent fishing line from DIY rigs. It’s a cute and heart-warming labour of love showcasing the artist’s creative vision and love of craft, even in the final rendered CGI game is resolutely tech. The craft feeling remains in the blocky fold and cut created graphics and the digital cardboard number counter. Derrick the Death Fin website has a host of goodies including downloadable fold and cut characters so you can re-create the cast.

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Amplified Robot are an agency based in Berwick Street, London. I watched a laparoscopy procedure at St Barts Hospital created from a 6 camera Gopro rig worn by one of the surgical team. Using a Samsung Wifi VR headset (with smartphone inserted to play the video) I was transported to the familiar hospital operating theatre environment, having left my career as an NHS radiographer only three weeks ago. Unfortunately the video isn’t on their website but you can see what the BL Surgical team are up to here.

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https://vimeo.com/130458258

Moteefe aim to help online influencers monetise their following on social media. For those with a large or growing fanbase online, monetising their popularity and engagement with their audience can be difficult. Moteefe facilitate the creation of merchandise allowing influencers to turn their popularity into profits. By designing printed t-shirts using Moteefe, English Author and Journalist Danny Bent sold a stack of t-shirts to fans to help promote his recent Ultimate Hell Week on BBC, thereby gaining traction on social media when fans shared pictures of themselves in the t-shirts, generating more engagement and increased followers, significantly growing his online audience. Nifty in terms of capitalising on popularity, but definitely more to do with the marketing message than the clothing products themselves.

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Unit9, a digital agency located in Hoxton, East London, recently created a video for Fashion Revolution Day in conjunction with BBDO Germany to raise awareness of the consequences of fast, disposable fashion and give shoppers a chance to see the effect cheap fast clothing has on humanity. An interactive digital vending machine experience, it led to 90% of users opting to donate 2euros to the Fashion Revolution Day cause and make a stand against the disaster at Rana Plaza, rather than consume and destruct.

Yifei Chai of Unit9 also presented a fascinating, philosophical and conceptual device for his Pretender Project, which is the first tech interface “empathy tool” designed to engage all five senses so that during VR experiences, for example, when we see a virtual object we can actually feel that object by way of resistance applied through a sensory suit that tracks body movement to understand where and when your body makes “contact” with the virtual object.  The sensory suit also allows one wearer to control the movement of another wearer. I experience this with Yifei, who wore a transmitting (controller) sleeve while I wore a receptor (avatar) sleeve. Yifei moved his hand, transmitting electrical impulses to my sleeve and causing my hand to mimic the movement of Yifei’s. It was pretty mind-blowing. I felt my hand wasn’t my own while reacting to the stimulus. The technology Yifei has developed has far reaching possibilities. He tells me the full sensory suit could be used to download and experience a dancer’s training, or Tiger Woods’ golf swing, for example. It could also be programmed with muscle stimulation training regimes for injury rehabilitation.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=manbPYfXkzE

The device I demo with Yifei is over a year old and the second prototype has already been built. I accept an invitation from Yifei to visit his office/lab/haven of amazingness in Hoxton to try it out, along with a bunch of VR experiences that he and his colleague Yannis at Unit9 have developed. Stay tuned for a follow-up blog post.

On the entertainment side of things there’s a DJ on rotation with a traditional Bavarian band drenched in techno lighting who took to the stage to cover 90’s rock hits. I capture a couple of snaps of Bavarian Stylers at the bar and grab my swag on the way out. Prost!

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Header image: Derrick the Deathfin by Ronzo

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