The Zozosuit: A Fashion Revolution

It’s not often that something entirely new happens in the fashion industry – something revolutionary.  The Japanese Zozosuit is just that – a revolution in one of the biggest bugbears consumers have when buying clothing – the fit.  Fit is such a confusing word.  Does it mean skin tight?  Does it mean just the right measurements in the right places?  For the team a Zozosuit it is an altogether more sophisticated notion, condensed into a straightforward suit and a series of photographs that result in individual shoppers globally obtaining custom fit clothing.

The cynic in me wonders immediately how the photos will be taken, how the user will interpret how the suit will be worn and the angle and lighting required for the photos, but this is all dismissed when I see that the Zozosuit App talks the wearer through the process from beginning to end – starting with a tutorial on how to smooth out the suit and ensure it is being worn properly, right through to the slow turn required for the app to acquire the 12 photos that result in the 360 degree ‘body scan’ containing all the measurements needed to create custom made or custom fit clothing (I will explain the difference later in the piece).

https://youtu.be/32rbuLFbVWk

When I tried the suit myself it took me a couple of minutes to run through the tutorial, place the phone correctly on a table on the stand provided (it seems our floor is a little uneven) and stand the correct distance from the phone to have my whole body in the field of view for the 12 photos.  The app told me to move “to the front a bit, back a bit, turn to 1 o’clock” so it was simple enough to follow, and startlingly accurate.  After obtaining my Zozosuit measurements I manually measured my bust, waist, hip and thigh and found that all were within 1cm of the Zozosuit measurements – in the case of the bust, waist and thigh they were identical.  I promptly sent my measurements to the team at Start Today, the ecommerce fashion brand behind the suit, and will report back on how the product fits.

The custom made and custom fit proposition by Start Today is startlingly sophisticated for a company making wardrobe basics at the same sort of price-point as Uniqlo.  This is the first mass customized product available at a high-street price point and available within weeks, sometimes days.  Tech manager Masa Ito confirms that “this is what comes after fast fashion”.  He believes their business model will reshape the industry.

To say this is a fashion company is only half the story.  “We’re as much a fashion company as we are a tech company” explained Masa.  “We have 220 programmers working in-house” on the proprietary pattern-cutting server and software that handles all the incoming 360 degree ‘body scans’ and measurements from customers in 72 countries and interprets them into a bespoke pattern.  Bolted onto this are AI algorithms that mean that with every customer transaction this proprietary system gets smarter – it knows what customers want, both broadly and on an individual level.  This is the holy grail of individual customer service on a global scale, online – such a beautiful paradox of personalization from afar via digital, rather than physical, means.

Discussing the customer experience from beginning to end with Masa I learn that once the customer completes their scan they can shop from the online store, and for each item they wish to purchase their measurements determine a ‘best fit’ which they can then choose to tweak in increments of 2 or 3 cm up or down, depending on their preference for how baggy or slim, or how long or short their garments are.  Cue a wave of Japanese ‘designophiles’ adding a foot to their jean hems and double-cuffing for their own take on how denim should be worn – making this cutomisation of wardrobe staples doubly attractive to a young, directional customer.  I can’t wait to put this to the test myself, being small waisted and rather round in the hip region, jeans shopping is a nightmare for me.  Well, no longer, hopefully.

**add self-styled jeans pics**

Once the products are in the customer’s online shopping bag there are two routes to manufacturing – custom fit (the t-shirt, shirt and jeans products, which are manufactured and in stock based in thousands of variations in measurements, derived from thousands of subjects in their body analysis data).  Custom fit products are available within two weeks.  The other product option is custom made, which is fully bespoke and is currently offered for their tailored suits.  The product offer will expand, though.

All three women above wear their custom fit Start Today straight leg jean

Start Today’s head office, design team and programmers are in Japan and the manufacturing is done in China with Industrial partners.  Digging a little deeper, I ask Masa about how the products are manufactured.  The factory is set up in ‘stations’ to manufacture the different products, which are still made by hand, however there is a huge push towards automation.  This is no surprise, as a business model like this does not survive with a slick tech front end and slow manual (and therefore expensive) backend.  The manufacturing process needs to be fast and accurate, and ideally local.  Once manufacturing is set up along these lines it can be located in the markets it is serving.  For cut and sew garments like jeans and t-shirts this seems a little way off, however for inherently automated systems like 3D knit there is already minimal manual input, so manufacturing of knitted sweaters and the like could feasibly be made local much sooner.

Both women above wear their custom fit skinny jeans.  The men wear (top) slim tapered jean, (above) straight leg jean

Start today are not only creating bespoke clothing, they operate an entirely bespoke design and manufacturing process.  Many fashion companies work with existing software and machinery in a standardised manner in factories manufacturing products for multiple brands.  Not so for Start Today.  They have created proprietary software and systems to drive their technical and manufacturing processes and are working with machine manufacturers to redesign and augment existing machines to function in streamlined and automated ways to support their mass customization.  Their factory setup is unique to them – they could not work in a standard factory that manufactures for other brands.  This is next generation manufacturing and nothing about this business model is ‘off the shelf’.

It’s difficult to sum up just how transformative this business model and philosophy is.  It addresses so many pain points in traditional fashion supply chains and processes and removes sensitivities like body shape, size and race – it does away with all the labels.  In that way, it is entirely liberating and inclusive, blowing traditional fashion retailers out of the water.  It questions fashion’s use of ‘model sizes’ – whatever they are – and a certain portrayal of what fashion is.  According to Start Today we are all fashion.  Individually and as a mass market.

Where next for Start Today?  They gave away 100,000 Zozosuits in July this year with the launch of their ecommerce store to 72 countries.  The measurement data being fed in from the Zozosuit in all the markets around the world is helping Start Today perfect their algorithms and patterns and offer ever better fitting products.  Knitwear launches in a few weeks to add to the custom fit offer and I am delighted to be receiving one of their first knits to test.  Knowing my knitwear background, I warned I would notice even a single dropped stitch, so I’m a tough customer.  What was incredible refreshing was that the Start Today team begged me to feed back to them on all the products and the process of taking my Zozosuit measurements.  A fashion company wanting my personal opinion in order to change their processes?  Can that really work?  When you have complete control over the individual consumer’s clothing offer, fit and service, yes it can.  This is the key.  Traditional fashion brands and retailers can’t reasonably act on such feedback because of the archaic, complex supply chain and the lack of control over product ‘sizing’.  Their best intentions will always fall short in a consumer landscape where we demand products quickly and cheaply that are perfect for us.

Speaking on the founding principles of the company Masa said that the company was determined to address something that was being ignored by their competitors.  Plainly speaking, he said they could not compete on design – there are incredible brands out their winning in this area.  They could not compete on retail stores – there are wonderful shopping experiences already existing.  But what no brand has ever addressed is how horrible it is to spend your life buying clothing off the shelf that is ill-fitting or having to get it altered – making the customer feel self-conscious and short-changed.  Considering the desperate lack of provision for people who fit into what is often termed ‘petite, or ‘plus-size’ or ‘big and tall’ it is incredibly refreshing to realise that the Zozosuit means these categories and labels need never exist again.  Zozo fits you perfectly, whatever dimensions you are.

Fashion Tech Goes Mainstream in Munich

Next week sees Fashion Tech take a step closer to the mainstream with the ‘Wardrobe of the Future’ showcase at the Munich Fabric Start trade show, in collaboration with FashNerd.

Top, Orange Fiber X Salvatore Ferragamo.  Above, Nadi X 

The showcase features a number of existing products, including the citrus waste recycler Orange Fiber’s collaboration with Salvatore Ferragamo, which proved the quality and appeal of their waste to cellulose textile.  Alongside this is Nadi X by Wearable X, the yoga legging that uses sensors and an App to guide your alignment during poses.

Flair Atelier’s mass customisation

Other brands in the showcase include Flair Atelier, which offers shoppers ‘base designs’ that they can customise within a set of design parameters on their website.  With mass customisation a key opportunity for product and brand differentiation, this business model looks to a changing consumer landscape, breaking the usual retail mould.  Their website states that they “create a unique digital pattern with your name on it and send it to our tailors in Italy”, suggesting the use of Gerber or Lectra digital pattern cutting software, which no doubt helps them achieve the 2 week order to delivery time.  It would be interesting to know if there is any other technology employed in the manufacturing process that would allow this business to scale and truly achieve mass customisation, or whether the remainder of the process is essentially manual, as per tradition. 

Thesis Couture heels

Thesis Couture have used technology, broadly speaking, for R&D to design a sole for high heels that redistribute weight more effectively than standard heels, thereby reducing pain under the ball of the foot and shifting some of the weight back to the heel.  Tackling the problem of foot pain by “using structural design and advanced materials” to replace the metal shank and cardboard in standard heels makes Thesis Couture’s development a smart leap in the engineering of a product that has barely changed for a hundred years. 

 

Top, Lorna & Bel.  Above, Emel + Aris 

Lorna & Bel will also feature in the ‘Wardrobe of the Future’, with their bags with built-in phone chargers.  London-based brand Emel + Aris, will also be presenting their heated coats. 

PerFlex 3D printed composite bra.

On the speculative side, the PerFlex project bra is a ‘proof of concept’ that harnesses the customisable sizing and 3D printing of plastics by PerFlex, in collaboration with Brigitte Koch of the Technical University of Eindhoven.

The PerFlex website provides consumers with the option to combine parametric patterns made by designers with their body data to get a personalised 3D printed product at the same unit cost as a mass produced item – truly achieving mass customisation.  This application of 3D printing combined with traditional textiles could be a game-changer. 

The significance of this fashion tech showcase is the placement of products that have arguably been viewed as ‘futuristic’ amongst mainstream textiles at a trade show, throwing them into the commercial spotlight.  

Target Open House Garage

Along with the recent launch of Target’s Open House Garage – a testing ground for new fashion tech products that are not yet ready for widespread industry roll-out – it seems like commercial retailers and the industry at large are showing increasing interest in fashion tech products and innovations and their potential to woo consumers.  

The Wardrobe of the Future runs from 4th-6th September 2018 at Munich Fabric Start’s KEYHOUSE.

Header Image: PerFlex

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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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Fashion Mannequins Transformed Through 3D Printing

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.  

IMG_1749DSC01633Paul’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.  

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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.


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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.

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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.

main_imageSavage Beauty, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

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:

IMG_0999Plato’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

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