If fashion is a language, Ashish’s Spring Summer 17 collection at London Fashion Week spoke of multi-cultural defiance in reaction to the post-Brexit toxic anti-immigrant sentiment and violence reverberating throughout Britain and more broadly, much of the western world. In this collection Ashish celebrated his Indian heritage and proudly declared immigrant status in Great Britain.
#LondonIsOpen was the closing mood, following a luscious procession of adorned Hindu-god-like models, men and women, swept along by an elegantly ambiguous sexuality, at least in this western context.
It was a celebration of craft and colour and a reminder that fashion is most powerful when it has something to say. In the spirit of that, I’ll let Ashish’s SS17 collection do the talking.
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’
“I wasn’t exactly top of my class, my techniques were a bit out there.” Edda Gimnes confirmed what I feared when lecturing recently – that in some institutions, students were being moulded, polished and judged according to a narrow set of guidelines where a certain ‘aesthetic’ prevails and is thought of as ‘good design’ and all else is less than acceptable. Want to design shiny ballgowns? Tacky! Want to scribble on blank canvases then slash and top-stitch them together a la’ paper doll dress? No way! Fashion design is almost entirely subjective, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you listen to some schools of thought in fashion education (no pun intended).
What makes a good design? What makes a great designer? Does it have anything to do with taste? Does it matter? The question I prefer to ask is how does the designer’s work make me feel? What does it inspire in me? If the answer is nothing, then subjectively, it’s not for me. In the case of Edda Gimnes collection it filled me with happiness, excitement and wonder. I think fashion is largely about magic… and clothes. Edda’s clothes are sprinkled with a childlike fun that came from her abandon and wit in scrawling across vast sections of cloth with her non-dominant hand in an effort to return to a time when she was learning to draw – to return to being a kid. The charming naivety leaps off the fabrics which are stiff cotton ‘canvases’ that showcase her monochrome illustrations to great effect. The jagged seams and raw edges suggest an immediacy of design realisation – it’s like she created the pieces with fervour before their essence could be lost. She admits to struggling with pattern cutting and finding a way around that limitation by creating cutouts roughly in the shape of a dress sketched flat on a piece of paper. Rather than being held back by her limitation, it fed into the quick, naive mood of the illustrations and brought them to life in an honest and ‘fitting’ way.
The slow and at times laborious nature of refinement and re-working in clothing design and creation can mean that all that is human about the design is smoothed away, leaving a perfect but impersonal result. The ‘hand’ in the creation – the personality – is lost. Edda’s clothes are theatrical and honest – not unlike her. Edda’s personality shines boldly throughout the collection and I want to wear it all. I was in and out of tops and skirts and shoes and lived for a little while in her world. It was fun, personal and compelling.
To hear Edda talk about receiving a warm and positive response to her work was a joy. She was still beaming from meeting Jimmy Choo earlier that day. He took a huge shine to her and her collection. He adored her mis-matched and customised high street shoes. I can’t help but think of Quentin Blake‘s illustrations when I look at her black scribbles atop the pointy toed shoes. She beams with the recollection of reading Roald Dahl‘s books as a child and initially couldn’t remember where her inspiration for this illustration style came from, until she dug deep into her memories and saw the connection.
I’m delighted to bring the passion and energy of Edda’s designs to the ‘pages’ of Techstyler. Her garments are digitally printed and cut and sewn in London and when I spoke to her at Fashion Scout during London Fashion Week she was taking private orders. Sara Maino from Vogue Italia stopped by and Edda had interest from boutiques in Japan while I was chatting to her, so get your orders in fast, before everyone’s chasing a piece of Edda Gimnes magic.
Edda Gimnes AW16 Lookbook
When rounding off this post I read a completely unrelated (but brilliant) article and realised that the success of Edda’s collection lies in its authenticity. It offered this:
“When you’re not trying to hide away the real version of yourself, people will respond’. When you’re demonstrating authenticity, not some contrived personality, that’s when you find a way to reach out and connect with other human beings”
It’s an insightful and warm conversation that plays out in the depths of Somerset House where Fyodor Podgorny and Golan Frydman, the designers behind fashion label Fyodor Golan, invite me into their temporary studio while their usual one is undergoes renovation. Golan tells me they’re arranging pre-collection production now, then beginning their main line production before moving onto designing the AW16 collection, which launches at London Fashion Week in February. Phew! The fashion wheel keeps on turning…
Production at the Fyodor Golan studio
Fyodor points out very early in the conversation that the fashion industry has changed dramatically since their Fashion Fringe launch seven seasons ago. Their evolution as designers and as business owners has been just as dramatic. They began by making restrictive, complex couture and changed direction when they gained global attention and realised that one Fyodor Golan woman did not exist – there are many. She comes in all shapes, sizes and ages and she doesn’t want to wear a corset. The philosophy of making their clothing lighter and easier sits well alongside two designers who are natural, pragmatic and thoughtful. Their customers speak, they listen.
Fyodor explains that the internet explosion and uptake of social media means that the old system of designers dictating whole customer ‘looks’ died with Instagram’s birth and has fertilised the Fyodor Golan brand’s growth. It’s safe to say they are happy with fashion’s democratisation and credit fashion bloggers and clients styling their own looks on social media as sources of inspiration, revealing their fashion personalities and breaking down the ‘whole designer look’ phenomenon.
They gain new clients across the globe who contact them directly for special one-off pieces or to purchase garments directly on the strength of an Instagram image. This is a powerful tool and leads us to contemplate whether the relentless pre-prescribed fashion industry collection schedule makes sense. Do they need it? As a small label they are still responsive and in touch with their clients and that is a strength and competitive advantage. Fyodor explains that he would love to make mini collections every three months, freeing them from the restrictive shackles of fashion’s seasonal calendar. I notice from images and seeing first-hand the constructed textiles of their pre-collection that they are no less ambitious in terms of materials and concepts when creating their pre-collections, in contrast to some designers who approach these as “mainline lite” collections in terms of design and realisation. It’s clear Fyodor Golan don’t take short cuts and invest their energy into realising ideas, not churning out product. I admire them and I admire their ease and resolve. They know exactly why they are creating their collections, and it’s not just for the sake of it or because the fashion calendar says it’s time to churn another one out. They have recently launched resort S/S16, deciding to create one pre-collection per year instead of the standard two, in addition to their two mainline collections (Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter) so that they can maintain some balance and not stretch themselves too thinly.
Fyodor Golan Resort S/S16 postcards
This leads us to a discussion about the recent exit of Raf Simons and Alber Elbaz from their fashion design and creative directorships of Dior and Lanvin respectively. As admirers of both designers, Fyodor and Golan discuss the unrealistic expectations on such designers to conceive and oversee the execution of upwards of eight collections a year, plus accessories, fragrances and in some cases retail spaces. Being spread too thinly kills creativity. We know it and have experienced it. Golan wrestles with it when having to abandon concepts for collections part way through the development phase because he does not have the time and means to see them through. He talks of being forced to wade through admin work and arrange business transactions in order to meet responsibilities to staff and suppliers – people have to be paid on time – leaving his unrealised ideas lingering. It’s a tough and bitter pill that leaves doubt in the mind of a designer as to whether they have accomplished what they set out to and whether their vision has evolved into full bloom. The idea of the creative exploration being curbed too soon is a brutal one, especially considering a collection takes up to six months to create and is presented in around 6 minutes on the runway. If you don’t get to finish your sartorial sentence it’s an all too abrupt ending.
Fyodor Golan have embraced technology and the changing fashion landscape more than most. By launching a smart phone skirt collaboration with Nokia Lumia and a Microsoft-powered runway show with an impressive pyramid installation displaying projections from Nokia Lumia cameras in the front row, they have been at the frontier of experimenting with how tech gadgets can interact with fashion. Their forays into combining fashion and technology have been facilitated by the Fashion Innovation Agency, spearheaded by FashionTech stalwart Matt Drinkwater.
Fyodor Golan x Nokia Lumia smart phone skirt in collaboration with research and design studio Kin
SS15 FG x Microsoft + Nokia Lumia
Both designers are at ease combining fashion and technology, but also recognise its current limitations. The limitations they cite come as a shock. Where previously I believed the lack of collaboration between technology and fashion designers lay with the designers’ lack of affinity for tech or a mismatch between the tech and the textiles or aesthetics, what it truly comes down to (at least in part) is the insistence on a new product outcome within a very short and strict timeframe. One year to innovate and create a whole new fashion tech product? “How is that possible?” asks Golan. The expectation of technology companies during pre-collaboration discussions with Fyodor Golan has been to create a new tech-driven product to sell within 12 months. There appears to be a lack of appetite for experimentation for its own sake and for exploring long-term, ambitious and integrated fashion tech innovations in this collaborative environment. Maybe that’s why fashion and technology aren’t integrating seamlessly and desirably yet – at least in the wearables space.
Fyodor and Golan are experimenters with spirit. They have a penchant for grabbing familiar references and layering textiles in a way that captures the imagination. Their clothes are bright, bold, fun and attractive. They’re highly tactile and attention grabbing. It’s hard to imagine not feeling happy and celebratory wearing their printed, vinyl, ruffled neoprene shift dress with neon trims. It’s a recognisable silhouette, making it firmly wearable, but it’s shaken off any shift-dress dowdiness by way of neon trims and chunky metal zips and the unexpectedly successful pairing of roses, ruffles and neoprene. SOLD!
Their latest SS16 collection, which launched at London Fashion Week, evolved out of an existing collaboration with toy maker Hasbro. The designers used My Little Pony as inspiration for their A/W15 ‘Rainbow Wheels’ collection and when offered the chance to delve into the Hasbro Transformer archives for S/S16 they grabbed it.
Unfortunately I’m not able to view and publish those original images, suffice to say that the bright colours and bold transformative nature of Transformers comes through at least in the spirit of the collection, and through the Transformer-inspired prints on sweatshirts. Being in the priviledged position of seeing never before published Transformer sketches the collection spontaneously erupted into a cacophony of colour and graphics.
Golan and the ‘front row’ Transformer
FG x Kat Maconie S/S 16
A smattering of Geisha-inspired silhouettes and accessories (the shoes were a collaboration with Kat Maconie) give gravity to the playful colours and prints. The indigo pieces are a personal favourite and appear to ground the collection amongst the flurry of digital prints, vinyl and colour.
S/S 16 London Fashion Week Show
Fyodor Golan is the unexpected. The designers themselves define it as ‘a spirit’. I define it as a breath of fresh air. They’re as candid as their clothes. And that’s rare.