Discussing the Tensions Between Fashion, Technology and Sustainability with Vanessa Friedman

Before meeting Vanessa Friedman, I considered the perspective she could lend on the tension between designers’ ability to create freely and the need to choose sustainable materials.  Is there a conflict?  Does working with sustainable fabrics limit designers?  What new technologies excite her?  What does she think of ‘wearables’?  I posed these questions and more to her, considering her answers in the context of the the wider fashion industry.

When discussing whether she perceives sustainability being at odds with unlimited creativity in fashion design, Vanessa told me “Fashion has always had that tension – sometimes it’s about pricing, sometimes its more practical restrictions, like the need for two armholes and a place for your head… that creates discipline for designers and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.  Sustainability is part of the challenge of design”.  She believes that when you are making something that is functional, which fashion is, you have to wrestle with the egregiousness of the product you are making.  Her standpoint is one of sustainable materials posing a challenge, rather than being a problem.

Vanessa cites the possibility that aesthetics may be shaped by the advance of new materials, smart textiles and new fibre composites – cellulosic and animal fibre blends, for example – as a huge opportunity.  If such advances could result in less seams required and ultra light materials, like those used by Moncler who are “making warm coats that can by smushed into a tiny ball for carry on”, then all these advances are exciting.  “Designers should embrace these challenges and opportunities as a chance for them to think differently – It should be something they look forward to”.

I am curious to know whether (and when) Vanessa sees a future where the discussion on sustainability becomes a part of the high profile seasonal fashion discourse during fashion month, taking place in New York, Paris, London and Milan, where she sits front row in her capacity as the Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic of The New York Times.  “In my dream world, you don’t need a Copenhagen Fashion Summit that’s all about sustainability – this is not a discourse that is combined with a mainstream event because it is a mainstream event and it is part of best practice – period”.  Her take on the sustainability message is “we can talk about it or not talk about it.  You don’t want to be an eco brand, you just want to be a brand that happens to be sustainable.  It shouldn’t be the thing that sets you apart, it should be the thing that makes you part of the general conversation”. 

It’s Vanessa’s opinion that using sustainability as a sales tool and part of the brand message, has an upside and a downside.  The upside is the point of differentiation which can attract consumers, while the downside is that it puts the brand in a different niche for other consumers.  She reflects on Vogue’s former “eco or green design section of the magazine where they would feature a different designer every month… You don’t want to be there – you want to be with Gucci, you want to be with Vuitton”.  Reflecting on her comment, it seems to me that sustainability shouldn’t be a consolation or an optional brand choice – it should be quietly integrated into all fashion brands. 

Moving onto the subject of textiles and manufacturing, I asked Vanessa if she has seen any ‘game-changing’ developments emerging.  She highlights 3D printing and manufacturing to order, thereby eliminating stock and production processes (that have long and complicated supply chains) as the most exciting.  “If you can produce a garment in a very short amount of time to order for someone, you will change everything”.  Vanessa is thinking of the likes of 3D printed shoes and advances in digital knitting.  It is her opinion that the biggest change for fashion as a result of advances in technology is going to be in the production process, rather than “the accessory that tests your heart rate… To me, the really exciting opportunity is in how you manufacture”.  Evidence in the form of the Adidas Speedfactory and the mass customisation by NIKEiD support her comments, as do the advances in digital knitting that have led to a complete transformation of the entire footwear industry through the creation of Flyknit and Adidas Ultra Boost, amongst many other digitally knitted products with simplified supply chains, local manufacturing and short lead times.

Image:  Adidas Ultraboost

When I asked Vanessa which designers or brands that she feels are doing exciting things fusing tech and fashion she is of the leaning that there is a giant gap in this area.  She defines it as “A problem that no-one has quite figured out, between technology companies that can make gadgets, and they are trying to make them ‘fashiony’ – and fashion companies that make fashion and are trying to make them ‘techy’.  You need a third point of the triangle, which is someone who is going to figure out how to meaningfully combine the two”.  Enter a number of innovative cross-disciplinary labs and incubators emerging for the express purpose of making this happen, including Plug and Play and Mira Duma’s Fashion Tech Lab

On the subject of ‘wearables’, Vanessa pulls no punches: “I think ‘wearables’ is the most ridiculous word I have ever heard – everything is a ‘wearable’ – my jacket is a ‘wearable’ and it has no tech in it at all.  I don’t think ‘wearables’ has figured out what it is yet.  It’s a catch all word for techy gadgets you wear, but that’s not really a sector”.  To a degree, we may be talking semantics here, but based on the abandoned Fitbit and Google Glass, amongst others, it’s true that the gaping divide between where tech provides clever capabilities and fashion provides aesthetics and desirability to create life-enhancing products, remains wide.

Image top:  Google Glass       Image bottom: Fitbit

Reflecting further on the state of wearables, Vanessa reminisces about the iPhone and iPod “changing the way that everybody interacted with music”.  She says that in contrast, “there has been nothing like that with fashion – no wearable has achieved that”.  Considering the outcome of our discussion and my questions about sustainability playing a bigger role in fashion, it seems that to Vanessa’s mind, there is a tension between fashion and tech, but not between fashion design and sustainability.

As I wrap up this article, an invitation to the launch of Nadi X by Wearable X – the first Wearable yoga pant to ‘communicate with the user to ‘aid alignment’, hits my inbox.  Perhaps our ‘Wearable’ future is about to take a new life-enhancing turn towards the perfect fusion?  Stay tuned for the verdict.

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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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Louis Vuitton’s LV Series 3: A Carefully Curated but Unrevealing Exhibition

LV Series 3 is a curated, commercial look inside the fashion powerhouse, Louis Vuitton. Sometimes commercial is synonymous with overly accessible and cheap. That’s not the case here. It is the case, however, that this exhibition has been assembled to lead viewers through a carefully crafted experience of digestible soundbites and images of Louis Vuitton’s luxury wares, rather than revealing the inspiration behind Nicholas Ghesquière’s fourth Women’s ready-to-wear show as Artistic Director, which is how the exhibition is billed.

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I should mention at this point that I took a guided tour to have the full LV Series 3 experience and this was probably a mistake. The gentleman taking us on tour certainly looked the part, but was definitely not well-versed in the Louis Vuitton brand or the manufacturing and presentation techniques he was attempting to explain. Beginning with a (somewhat flimsy) explanation of who Louis Vuitton was and how his fashion house came to be (from the humble roots of a travelling case maker in rural France) he went on to point out an imposing metal sculpture suspended from the ceiling of the first room and cited it as Nicholas Ghesquière’s ‘inspiration’ for the collection. Again, flimsy. That said, he was endeavouring to deliver an inspirational glimpse into a world crafted on quality and luxury and that came across.

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The exhibition is constructed across adjoining rooms and draws together the large scale geometric sculpture above, projected graphics of the runway models being interviewed in an interestingly disorientating round room and mounted screens in mirrored galleries.

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There is also a stunning white oasis filled with Plaster of Paris mannequins cast in the silhouettes of the collection, complete with fabric surface details creating a textural foundation from which to mount shiny and tactile bags, shoes, sunglasses and belts.

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IMG_5348autoIn one of the simpler rooms the bag manufacturing process was demonstrated by a skilled craftswoman who usually constructs bags at the Louis Vuitton’s manufacturing hub in France. She assembled the bag amongst a myriad of components on a huge work surface, demonstrating the process from beginning to end.  There is a genuine thrill in seeing this process, and this is where the exhibition gives a behind-the-scenes look inside the creation of the product and starts to feel more substantial. I inspect the bag and jokingly note the “Made in France” label should technically be changed to “Made in England”. Blanks.

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Continuing in the theme of craft and creation the next room is darkly lit and illuminated by a laser beam style animation, mimicking the cutting of leather bag and shoe pattern pieces. The animation seems designed to suggest this process is digital, which is an odd contrast to the hand-craft demonstration of the same product in the previous room. Having experience of digital pattern cutting and laser cutting of materials this animation is not a true representation of either. It does create a palpate impact with viewers though – so the digital presentation value is obvious.

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The message of quality and craft features throughout the exhibition and the runway show played across multiple screens in a mirrored split level gallery showcases the Autumn/Winter 2015 collection, putting the viewer in the front row.

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This exhibition makes me think about the Givenchy show which decamped to NYC this season, offering 900 tickets in a ballot for members of the public to sit alongside members of the fashion industry to experience Riccardo Tisci’s SS16 collection. There has been a noticeable shift of power in the fashion industry towards the public, with mass utilisation of Instagram and the powerful connection the public are making with fashion bloggers and other influencers across social media. Putting the public front row is a brilliant marketing tool, exponentially increasing coverage through sharing of images on social media. The Givenchy show and this LV Series 3 exhibition are signs that luxury brands are taking note of the shift in power in the industry and engaging with consumers on a strongly digital level. Perfect for securing the future of the brand by connecting with Millenials.

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The exhibition stays very ‘top level’ in that there is no revealing information about the creative design process – just the glossy final product itself. There is a final room of garments hanging in a glass cabinet, some of which are accessible to touch and remove, others are not. Overall, the exhibition looks fantastic and bears great photo opportunities throughout. It is completely Instagram friendly and utterly sharable. It’s an fun trip through a set of cool rooms and galleries, but light on deeper concepts and revelation.

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On reflection, having interviewed fashion designers, computer scientists, coders and artists over the past few weeks for this and my Huffinton Post blog, the importance of authenticity and sharing the story of  he work – whether it be robotics, the creation of a coat or the crafting of a sculpture – is what people ultimately connect to. When overly produced, sanitised and ‘slickified’ the story is lost, along with that all important sense of authenticity.  This seems particularly poignant here, given the LV Series 3 exhibition is in London against what has historically been a backdrop of highly creative and at times makeshift fashion design bursting with powerfully honest ideas, uncompromising vision and rampant self-expression – the celebration of the designer’s imagination and dreams. I studied fashion design in London and I believe it’s part of a London designer’s DNA. I now tell my students the same – albeit with a more Industry-focussed tinge given my experience – focus on concept, ideas and process. The slick, professional finish will come.

It’s hard not to appreciate and feel illuminated by the cobbled together proof of concept of a DIY robot or a quick sketch of a character design that will be crafted in cardboard before being shot and rendered digitally for video game. Seeing the process demonstrates authenticity and invites the viewer into the creative mind of the designer. In an age when we’re ‘authenticity’ obsessed it seems the urge to present a curated and careful image for consumption on social media may have bred a desire to hide the process. Fashion should let us in. We might just buy more product.

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