The Dawning of a New Age of Augmented Reality-Led Fashion

If the title of this article has conjured up images of LED light-embedded bags and swathes of technophiles in VR headsets, prepare yourself for an altogether more sophisticated and integrated use of tech hardware and augmented reality where the result isn’t ‘in yer face geekery’, but more tech-enabled emotional brand experiences.  Leading this charge across fashion design and brand experiences is the London College of Fashion-based Fashion Innovation Agency, whose 5th birthday last week acted as a summary of five years of giant leaps in tech and bold experimentation that began with a smart phone dress (seems rudimentary now, right?!) and most recently a live CGI fashion show.  How and why such big leaps, and why does it matter?  Is the fashion industry really ready and open to placing a digital layer over the physical world?  Yes, and here’s why…

Top: Nokia smartphone skirt in collaboration with Fyodor Golan – Image: BT.com  Middle and above: Steven Tai x ILMxLab at London Fashion Week – Images: Techstyler

Backed by recent calamitous downturns by House of Fraser and Topshop, it seems fashion retailers have lost sway with consumers, who are increasingly shopping online, led by Instagram connected e-commerce, that allows single swipe shopping, delivery within hours and outstanding customer service.  Why go to a store?  Stores are impersonal and finding the right style in the right size can be slow and frustrating due to outdated and inaccurate inventory systems.  Zara is a regular disappointment in this area, boasting stock at specified stores when checking Zara.com, which isn’t actually in stock when visiting the store.  On a recent trip to Zara the staff admitted to me that their inventory is wildly inaccurate and the online stock check is not up-to-date.  Wasted trips equal dissatisfied customers and further back the case for shopping online instead.

“Retail on the high street is incredibly boring” were the frank words of Matthew Drinkwater, Head of the FIA during a panel discussion at their 5th birthday event recently.  As the matchmaker and orchestrator of five years of projects spanning the aforementioned smartphone skirt, the Sabinna X Pictofit Hololens mixed reality shopping experience and Steven Tai’s Live CGI presentation transporting the audience to Macau, the FIA are well versed in breaking new ground and facilitating fashion and technology collaborations for the benefit of both industries.

Images: SABINNA x Pictofit

The outcomes and learnings ultimately filter down to London College of Fashion students, arming them with next-generation tech skills in their fashion toolkit, helping them push the boundaries of fashion design and retail and shape the future of the industry.

LCF students have plenty of ideas on how to improve the retail shopping experience.  Most of these hinge on bridging the physical and digital realms, essentially draping a digital layer over physical stores to enhance and personalise them for individual customers.  The fruits of these ideas were presented at the Future of Fashion Incubator launch event, part of an ongoing partnership between Microsoft and the FIA.  LCF students teamed up with Microsoft experts to experiment with new technologies including Hololens, IoT and AI.  The students were mentored by the Microsoft team in their chosen technology in order transform their ambitious ideas into (often mixed) reality, harnessing what Maruschka Loubser, Senior Global Marketing Manager at Microsoft called the ‘inspirational and exciting’ vision of the students.  Their mission was to unlock the students’ innovation and here are the results…

One team of students created Hololux, a shopping platform experienced via the untethered Hololens Mixed Reality headset which presents 3D renders of products in online stores, bridging the 2D e-commerce experience with the 3D physical instore shopping experience.  Hololens headsets can be networked so that groups of people can shop together regardless of their individual locations.  Want your friend abroad’s opinion on an outfit?  Simply link up and shop together.  The team identified airport lounges as an ideal location for this experience, where travellers may want to experience luxury shopping while waiting for their plane, but at the same time avoid the chaos of the crowded and busy airport.  Totally imaginable.

Hololux in creation – behind the scenes  – Image: Microsoft

Augmenta also made use of the mixed reality Hololens, but this time for visual merchandising using holograms to simulate interior store layouts.  Their platform allows visual merchandisers to map the interior space with digital objects (furniture, fittings and clothing) via hand gestures and voice input quickly, cheaply and with less waste.  Colleagues can co-create by networking their Hololens headsets, again, regardless of location.  The team also identified an opportunity to enhance the platform with AI to provide integrated heat mapping to show the flow of people through the store and further refine and target the visual merchandising based on that.  Augmenta present at the Future of Fashion event – Image: Microsoft

Team DiDi created a garment label that allows lifecycle tracking and transparency.  By using RFID and NFC technology the label can be scanned to access details of the materials and manufacturing of the garment, providing a more current and broader version of the FIA’s previous collaboration with Martine Jarlgaard.  What’s exciting about DiDi’s concept is their consideration of brand storytelling as part of their platform, which is tailored to help brands celebrate their back-story and share it with their consumers, really making it part of the overall brand experience rather than a cumbersome ethics and supply chain document delivered up via the CSR section of their website, as with many brands currently.

AI and neural networks are exciting technical tools which allow the training of a piece of software to recognise images and objects, based on processing a huge number of images and developing a visual ‘memory’ based on them.  This is a powerful tool for visually identifying consumers wearing certain brands, styles and silhouettes – for example shoppers in a mall walking past a camera connected to this software, which can then be used to target appropriate advertising to the passing consumer.  This is the principle of Smart Signs, created by another of the LCF team.  This tool also allows trend analysis of passers by, which the creators say could help retailers create more targeted clothing for local markets and reduce mass production waste of low-demand styles.  They say the next step is facial recognition for personalisation of the Smart Signs experience.  You may find it comforting to know that this platform is much like our human brain in that is ‘sees’ passers by, identifies their style and then dumps that data – meaning personal data is not stored.

Smart Signs demo at the Future of Fashion event – Image: Microsoft

‘Janet’ is a smart-phone-based instore shopping buddy that scans your outfit while you are trying it on in the changing room and suggests alternative styles and other garments to style with it.  It can also tell you where to get a similar style for a better price, or your size in an alternative location.  I love Janet’s everyday name, and I guess that suggests the team wants you to think of her as a really helpful and insightful shopping friend – she’s not judging, just helping.  I can imagine Janet being very helpful in a multi-brand or department store, but in a single brand store I guess Janet won’t be so welcome as she’s likely to recommend rival brands for the benefit of the consumer’s choice.

Casting my mind back to the FIA 5th Anniversary event and panel discussion, I remember the input of Mohen Leo of ILMxLab, the team which created the Live CGI for Steven Tai’s London Fashion Week presentation.  “You can achieve ‘stickiness’ in retail by adding a digital layer, providing a different experience each time”, he said.  Clearly this gives shoppers a reason to visit a physical store.  “Shopping is only about emotions and emotional connection”, said Matthew Drinkwater.  He then went on to say that technology affords an opportunity to enhance this connection and emotion.

   Images:  FIA 

For those attending Fashion Week, the all too familiar break-neck speed of the shows and presentations often leaves the audience with a feeling of visual overload.  Each show blends into the next, as there is rarely an experiential layer  – just the immediate visual presentation of the clothes.  This used to be enough, but not anymore.  The success of Steven Tai’s Live CGI show was its engaging combination of digital and physical worlds, that transported the audience to Macau in an ever-changing landscape which drew the audience into its subtle evolution as the models meandered around the stage alongside a digital counterpart.  To quote Vicki Dobbs-Beck of ILMxLab this was “storyliving, not just storytelling”.  In this recent BBC article, the House of Fraser team commented to say it “urgently needs to adapt” to “fundamental changes” in the retail industry.  An emotional and engaging experience is what retailers and brands need to offer, and the tools with which to do this lie in augmented reality and artificial intelligence.

For a snapshot explanation of the difference between VR, AR and MR, click here  Header Image: Microsoft Follow Techstyler on Instagram and Twitter

Sabinna Experiments With Mixed Reality Shopping for Fashion

For Sabinna Rachimova, her ‘brand DNA’ is, actually, familial.  It transcends ethos and aesthetics and runs deep into the past, through two generations of her family.  Her grandmother, a maths and physics professor in her native Russia, who during communist times made clothing on the side for neighbours and friends for extra income, inspired her to pursue a career in art and craft.

Sabinna’s parents were professional athletes, her mother a field hockey player and her father a footballer, which meant the family travelled regularly and she grew up in Russia, Spain and Austria, where her family finally settled.  Describing this experience as unsettling, she created her own fictional world of play to distract herself from being the new kid and not speaking the local language, at least initially.  Craft became Sabinna’s passion, so where communication with others lacked, she filled her time with what interested her – art, craft and languages.

Family photos, Sabinna’s studio, East London

Sabinna’s parents insisted she attend a languages and maths-focused high school, so unable to pursue creative subjects, she completed her studies under duress and then went on to enrol in a Slavic languages degree after a rejection from the University of Applied Arts Vienna, where she had hoped to study fashion design.  Struggling to find a route into a design degree, she sent her CV to every fashion designer in Vienna, asking for a part-time job and hoping to step inside what she described at the time as the ‘secret world of fashion’.

Schella Kann took her on and with a tough love approach, telling her to forget about the rejection from the University of Applied Arts Vienna and to look further afield to pursue her dreams.  By putting together a portfolio based on the way her maths and physics professor grandmother had taught her to present ideas, she applied and was accepted onto a foundation course at Central Saint Martins in London.  Not bad for someone who pulled together a portfolio in twenty four hours, assisted by her boyfriend and now long term partner, David, and sent it simply addressed to the ‘fashion’ department with a request to join a fashion course, of no particular specification.

Following completion of her foundation course, Sabinna went on to study Fashion Marketing and Design at CSM and interned in the knitwear department at Dior, which she describes as ‘the best and worst’ (experience).  She describes spending up to two days pondering yarn colours alongside the knitwear team, and working with Italian factories who would bring cases full of ideas into the ready-to-wear team’s studio for the knitwear team to use as inspiration from which to develop the seasonal designs.  Sabinna describes gaining an insight into the technical aspects of knitwear development and production with the scale of a luxury fashion house and this knowledge has clearly stood her in good stead for developing her own fashion business.

Describing herself as “terrible at maths but very good with numbers”, she explains to me how her business, which she launched eighteen months ago, works on a day-to-day basis, with the SABINNA team, consisting of herself and her partner David, co-founders and leading the design and IT and e-commerce respectively; Zula, Sabinna’s mum, who is head of knitwear, which is made in Vienna, Austria;  Scarlett, a long-term friend of Sabinna and pattern cutter, who develops the designs alongside Sabinna and is based in Hastings;  David’s sister Simone, who is in charge of taxes; Julia, who is based in Vienna and does research and marketing; and Asya, who creates the crochet pieces and assists Sabinna in London.

Sabinna’s studio 

All of Sabinna’s fabrics are from Europe and all the ready-to-wear, custom made pieces for private clients, crochet pieces and bags are made in the UK.  All of the knitwear is made in Austria.

Zula’s knitwear design notes, inspiration and hand-knitted jumper at Sabinna’s studio, East London

Having seen behind the scenes at Sabinna’s studio, I am eager to delve a little deeper into this season’s collection, show and mixed-reality presentation.  Having attended Sabinna’s catwalk show and seen the collection up close, I’m curious to know what prompted Sabinna to delve into using the Hololens and working with a mixed reality platform to present her collection virtually after having just presented it in catwalk reality.  When I ask how the fashion-tech collaboration came about, we spent some time talking about notions of innovation in fashion and the idea of ‘newness’.

Sabinna’s studio 

Fashion is highly resistant to change.  I have mentioned this paradox a number of times in my articles.  Sabinna puts it clearly, “the main problem with fashion is that it doesn’t communicate well with the outside world… Social media has divided fashion along commercial lines”.  She feels there is too much made of creative/experimental fashion versus commercial fashion, especially in London, and that designers are often placed in one box or the other.  Describing her collections as very wearable and leaning towards the commercial side, she sees the opportunity for innovation and creativity in presentation and storytelling, with Microsoft Hololens and collaborator Pictofit being the perfect collaborators for this, facilitated by the FIA and Fashion Scout.

SABINNA SS17, I Still Love You  – Photos and Styling:  Toni Caroline

Sabinna follows what’s widely termed as the ‘see now, buy now’ business model, which means her collections are produced in advance of her show and ready to buy immediately after they are presented, allowing her to capitalise on the buzz of London Fashion Week and engage her clients in a complete presentation and shopping experience.

SABINNA SS17 show, Fashion Scout, London Fashion Week

Setting the tone for seasons to come, where Sabinna plans to continue experimenting with technology to create new experiences rather than attempting to constantly re-invent her products, Sabinna chose to create the world’s first mixed-reality shopping event at the Freemason’s Hall as part of Fashion scout during London Fashion Week, following her catwalk show.


Behind the scenes at SABINNA SS17 show, Fashion Scout, London Fashion Week

Why mixed reality shopping?  With her collection available, she thought it would make sense to give the customer a creative tool to explore styling different pieces of the collection virtually before purchasing.

Top: Image capture by Pictofit in Austria, Bottom:  Sabinna’s mixed-reality shopping experience at Fashion Scout, LFW – Photos by Emmi Hyyppä and Sabinna

There was also an app available to download, allowing shoppers to use the Pictofit virtual fitting room and, instead of looking at virtual mannequins, try on the SABINNA collection, entitled I Still Love You, on images of themselves.  The clothes adapt to the user’s body shape in real time.

With a huge ambition for trying new technologies and exploring the potential of virtual and augmented reality, Sabinna passionately emphasises that designers need to experiment with new technologies in order to discover newness.  Sometimes something new is right in front of you, but you don’t see it because you are striving to re-invent something that may not need re-inventing, she says.  Newness can come in the form of simply working with a new piece of technology, while sticking to the same core aesthetics, materials and designs in terms of product.  For her, technology is the catalyst and an exciting tool for telling new stories in fashion, she states, mentioning the huge leaps in the technology’s image capture and render quality in just the six months since Martine Jarlgaard’s mixed reality fashion presentation at London Fashion Week in September 2016. Let’s see what next season brings.

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