Plexal is set to be Europe’s Beating Heart of Health, Sport, Fashion and Tech Innovation

News to lift the Brexit blues.  Plexal, Entiq’s new venture at Here East is a shining beacon of not just the future of tech businesses in London, but a coming together of arts, design, culture, education and technology.  Uniquely positioned in what was the media centre for the London Olympics, Plexal, benefits from an expansive river-side space with access to world-class facilities including the data centre that powered the global broadcasting of the Olympics.   

It’s a bold vision delivered passionately by Claire Cockerton, CEO and Chairwoman of Entiq and serial entrepreneur, a title oft overused, but in Claire’s case describing her immense experience and ability to establish and grow businesses.  She founded Aesthetic Earthworks, a sustainable architecture firm, whilst at University in Toronto, Canada, and grew it into a multimillion dollar company before selling it to a competitor in the industry.  Following a subsequent MBA in Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Design (with a strong focus on accelerators, technology transfer institutions and business incubation) she helped establish Richard Branson’s ‘Centre for Entrepreneurship’ in Johannesburg before co-leading the launch of Level39, Europe’s largest technology accelerator for the fintech and smart cities industries in Canary Wharf.  She also founded Pivotal Innovations, a firm specialising in corporate innovation and accelerator programmes in the fintech sector.

The purity of the vision for Plexal arises from the stunning blank canvas and expansive space occupying the 68000 square feet ground floor of Here East, nestled into a corner of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic park overlooking Hackney Wick and bordering the canal, with impressive terraces looking out across London city. The philosophy at Plexal, and more broadly Here East, is one of work/life.  The Here East plans extend beyond business and education (it will be home to Loughborough University, UCL and London College of Fashion Universities and faculties) to cultural experiences at the soon-to-be-established V&A at E20 and Sadler’s Wells, just across the park.  Artist pods will be housed in the Here East facade, facing the canal.  Boutique bars and restaurants (not a chain in sight) are setting up alongside shopping and civic spaces which conjures up the notion of a dynamic city within a city.  All of this will contribute to a creative and tech-driven Plexal.


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At the heart of Plexal is the aim to bring small business and corporates together for mutual exploration and benefit, on equal terms.   Flexible, adaptable spaces – all with facilitation and dynamic business development in mind.  Plexal presents a striking opportunity to build, found and establish businesses seeking to work across disciplines to truly innovate.  It will provide a wide range of services including practical ‘intrapreneurship’ and entrepreneurship education courses, a state-of-the-art testing and prototyping lab, acceleration and incubation programmes, events, networking opportunities and a range of funding alternatives. With an initial focus on technology innovation applied to sports, wellbeing, fashion and mobility, the centre will have capacity for 800 members, becoming the home for corporates and startups that are designing and creating the connected products that will improve our lives.

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I have been based in neighbouring Bethnal Green for well over a decade and the project at Here East feels like both a solidification of a scene that’s been steadily growing throughout that time, and the recognition that the vibrant art and design community, which I belong to, has a wealth of insight and inspiration to help propel Plexal into a multi-disciplinary, dynamic and exciting future.  Having been on a personal tour of the site with Claire, I can see the potential for a flexible layout incorporating a number of different business sizes and types, at various stages of development.

The choice of the Olympic site, of such ground breaking achievement beyond our imaginations, is a fitting and poetic home for this ambitious space.  Where better to set about tackling some of our trickiest problems in the sectors of health, sports, fashion, IoT, all under one roof?  Tech dreams by way of Olympic ones.  It’s all to strive for.

Plexal launches in May 2017, but an Innovation Forum and soft launch was held on October 27th, for which I curated a fashion tech showcase demonstrating the depth of creativity and talent in the fashion tech sector in London, including Modeclix, Headworks, Skinterface, Vegetarian Mushroom Leather by Kering Award finalist Irene-Marie Seelig, Holition’s virtual makeup app, the Bionic Toolkit by Jason Taylor, Village communications London Fashion Week VR experience and my own label, Brooke Roberts medical scan knitwear.  

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At the Innovation Forum, compered by Oli Barrett, Claire Cockerton delivered Plexal’s vision as discussed above, and Gerard Grech, CEO of Tech City UK, explained that tech business represents 10% of GDP in the UK versus 8% in the US and is the largest single sector, growing at a rate 32% faster than the next fastest growing sector. With GBP 45 billion in exports from the tech sector, we are best positioned to grow our tech and digital economy compared to other industries.  Other speakers, including Liam Maxwell, the self-proclaimed ‘CTO of the UK Government’, were also there to share their belief that this sector really is the economic future of the UK for the coming decades, and panel discussions including industry leaders from Team Sky, Centrica, Autodesk and the Open Data Institute added their voices to this rallying cry.  By the end of the presentation, I was buzzing with the belief that Plexal will be at the heart of this burgeoning growth driving the sector forward, with its vision of co-creation across the creative and technical sectors.

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 In the wake of Brexit, and the election result in the United States, Here East and Plexal provide a positive focal point for how our creative and tech-driven future can grow and propel us forward towards a brave new connected world and I am looking forward to following the journey.

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In Conversation With Hussein Chalayan: Gravity Fatigue, Celebrity “Designers” and Using Technology in Fashion

I have read many an interview with the world’s most credible and era-defining fashion designers and often they’re unrevealing.  Not so with Hussein Chalayan.

Against the backdrop of high-profile industry exits by Alber Elbaz (Lanvin) and Raf Simons (Dior) there is widespread recognition that all is not well in the top tier of the fashion industry. Who knew?  There were shockwaves throughout the press. Cathy Horyn’s interview with Raf Simons weeks before his exit (but published afterwards on Business Of Fashion) in which he confesses there is no time to explore and develop his designs (meaning that creating product quickly was his mandate) was a hint he was strained.  Alber Elbaz’ lamenting that we are not looking and listening with eyes and ears but rather consuming via technology, was also poignant. Hussein and I discuss these exits briefly and he admits he was so swamped working on his contemporary dance piece “Gravity Fatigue” that he had not had a chance to read the press response to the news.  Hussein says he believes Raf will be much happier, that he’ll have a life.  Hussein explains there is a point at which you have to ask yourself how much money do I need and what is it all for?

Hussein’s myriad of professional responsibilities include designing eight collections per year for Chalayan and seasonal collections for Vionnet, and in addition he is Head of Fashion at the University of Applied Arts, Austria.  This year he presented his aforementioned contemporary dance piece (almost two years in the making), opened his flagship store and gave a TED talk. He is full of energy, by his own admission. I realise he speaks with definite authority on the notion of overworking and keeping a balance between earning and living.  He said he sometimes thinks it’s a stupid thing to be busy  – although it’s a choice – and the quality of his life has been terrible this year because of his workload.

chalayan_13423chalayan_133891Chalayan-Exterior-Cropped_2Hussein Chalayan’s flagship is primarily a store, but will also host events, dinners and shows on a yearly calendar

Hussein Chalayan speaks at TED2015 - Truth and Dare, Session 11, March 16-20, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED
Hussein Chalayan speaks at TED2015 – Truth and Dare, Session 11, March 16-20, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED

The reason for my interview with Hussein is to discuss “Gravity Fatigue” and the use of technology in his work.  What unravels is an unexpected discourse on the fashion industry, why there are too many designers, how the fashion and technology landscape has changed over the past 21 years, celebrity “designers” and why fashion has such a problem giving credit to collaborators.

Hussein Chalayan’s latest incredibly ambitious piece is “Gravity Fatigue”.  A feat in movement, sound and costume, it was borne of dormant ideas Hussein has kept in files from the past decade and beyond. This makes complete sense given that the piece plays out as a series of scenes, each with it’s own style and narrative.  Hussein explains that the ideas are a combination of notes, sketches and subjects sparked by his interests. Citation of specific sources is impossible because the organic, evolutionary nature of his work, coupled with his broad interests, leading to an intersection somewhere between sociology, architecture, art and the world’s sciences.   Hussein sums up the collection of proposals for “Gravity Fatigue” as originating from a “World View” collated from his 21 years working in the creative industries.

hussein running orderThe “Gravity Fatigue” running order, from the Sadler’s Wells show program

What’s so ambitious about Gravity Fatigue, beyond the fusion of contemporary dance, costume and fashion design, is that Hussein directed the piece – a completely unorthodox approach in which most choreographers would refuse to partake.  “Usually the choreographer is King” states Hussein.  However choreographer Damien Jalet accepted this role reversal.  The creation of the piece began with four workshops (the exploratory phase) followed by two months of intense rehearsals giving rise to many a creative and technical challenge and many tears.

 

The fact that Hussein’s initial ideas and premises are those expressed in the final piece is testament to the dedication of his collective team, including Jalet and the thirteen dancers, to realise what he had envisaged for up to a decade or more in his thoughts, notes and sketches. Hussein explains the challenge ran so deep and so intense that he and the team are experiencing a severe anticlimax now that it has ended.  I ask if the process was filmed and suggest that it would have made an interesting documentary.  The rehearsals were filmed, says Hussein, so a documentary is still possible.

The collaborative nature of “Gravity Fatigue” required integration of costume design in the Chalayan studio with prototypes built by outside specialists, followed by movement back and forth between teams until the desired aesthetic and function were achieved.  It’s a dizzying thought, considering the number of people and specialisms involved.

There are scenes driven by technology, like “Secret Gliders” where the dancers recoil in response to the sharp movements of their draped dresses careering along the floor, orchestrated by invisible mechanics from below the stage.  This scene makes me think of wireless puppeteering – It’s a struggle and a fight between the movement of the body and the costumes, which are being manipulated by an invisible third object or force.  The piece as a whole is at its most captivating when this tension between the body, its movement and the costumes is ramped up.

 

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I mention the whirling dervish scene, entitled “Body Split”, and Hussein explains that the dervish was not the initial trigger.  They looked at the pattern of movement of a dervish but the final movement was a hybrid of other ideas. It is one of the most impressive and moving scenes and gives rise to multiple silhouettes and epic sustained spinning by the dancers.

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My thoughts jump to the final scene transforming from “Hong Kong Heights” to “Anticipation of Participation” – a group fabric and clothing orgy with dancers dipping their toes into a pool before intertwining and being sucked into a turbulent centre. Grabbing at each other and failing attempts to escape, it was a tense and disturbing close to a show of many ideas and concepts executed as a number of parts on multiple journeys, rather than a narrative whole.  Again, this is in bold contrast to the usual contemporary dance offering and demonstrates how Hussein Chalayan’s work innovates and pushes boundaries.

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On the night, reflecting on the crowd and the lively chatter outside the theatre, it’s clear that “Gravity Fatigue” was a challenging piece.  By breaking free of the usual continual narrative of contemporary dance Hussein created a piece led by diverse and broad ideas, bringing a crowd of people who are appreciators of his fashion design to Sadler’s Wells – perhaps a first for many.  It’s important to reflect on how this can catalyse further cross-disciplinary work and stoke the fire for fashion designers to look beyond fashion, both in terms of inspiration and practice.  Hussein was amongst the crowd outside the theatre afterwards. It didn’t occur to me to tell him during the interview, but it was on seeing him talking with audience members that I understood he is open to sharing the story of his work and realised I had to request this interview.  It occurs to me at this point that Hussein’s work is so influential and important because it invites dialogue. It provokes questions and offers unexpected answers. We can consider the meaning and answer for ourselves.

We talk about the historical use of technology in Hussein’s work and he explains that it has been right for the given project at the time – not simply for technology’s sake.  I ask him about the differences between the industry now and when he began using technology in his garments.  In his opinion, the biggest difference is that when he began working on such collaborative projects, they made prototypes that were essentially proposals that required funding and additional R&D to become wearable clothing.  He feels that now it is easier to realise the final functional product after prototyping. This explanation reminds me of Golan’s Frydman’s comment, in the Fyodor Golan blogpost, that there is a tradeoff between truly innovative Fashion/Tech product creation and the provision of investment and time by technology collaborators.  It seems this is still a sticking point to some degree.

tumblr_mjawygVHp11rra1j7o3_500The technical underpinning of a dress from Hussein Chalayan’s SS07 collection

Hussein says he sometimes feels like a motivator in the field of technology and fashion design.  He believes that he, McQueen and other contemporaries have inspired a whole generation of designers to actually become designers.  When people see what he has done they realise what is possible and this is a catalyst for replication and further experimentation, which he says is a good thing.  It has led him to analyse what he has created, what worked, what didn’t work and what’s redundant.

 

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CHALAYAN AW00  PHOTOS CHRIS MOORE

We talk about collaboration and recognition in the fashion industry and how teams or collaborators are often not recognised or credited for their input. Hussein believes that the image or status of the project can take over due to the popularist energy around fashion.  This means that fashion is experienced as an event in itself and that comes first.  I ask if this is to fashion’s detriment.  He says yes and no.  Collaborators and contributors can publish their involvement on social media, meaning that their participation is recognised more now than it would have been in the past.

On the subject of digital media, Hussein points out that it has allowed us to find out about anything instantly. It’s more democratic, however it makes designers more vulnerable as their work is visible more quickly.  I ask Hussein if he thinks the democratisation of fashion through digital media is a good thing. He says it’s good and bad. It’s good in the sense that anyone can access a breadth of information.  It’s bad in the sense that information becomes disposable, having a cheapening effect.  It also doesn’t allow exploration, says Hussein, “you can just Google anything and you’ll find it, so you don’t research and appreciate it”.  We discuss the process of library-based research taught traditionally in fashion degrees where exploration is done through books in a broad sense before later developing, curating, fusing and refining ideas to bring a unique perspective –  the hallmark of individuality sought by designers aiming to express a personal point of view and grow throughout the design process.

e592b57220502c04dbc54360ea63bf85Sketch by Hussein Chalayan

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Images from Hussein Chalayan’s first print campaigns

I listened to Hussein’s recent interview with Dezeen.  He said there are too many designers, not that he is against the emergence of new designers, he simply states that to launch a brand you should have a point of view.  He feels there are too many designers creating similar fashion.  He also says that designers are entering fashion because of a perception of it being a cool thing to do and that they sometimes the lack dedication and work ethic to meet the demands of the industry.  As a teacher, I believe he has seen this first hand – I know I have.

In continuation, he asks “Why do we need so much product?” I suggest it’s to meet growing consumer appetites.  He points out that the appetite has been stoked by brands to create more and more product to boost sales and therefore fill coffers. In summary, it’s because of financial greed.  I agree that this cheapens the process of design and muddies the industry.

I ask Hussein “Why fashion?” – It’s his love of movement, of clothes and how they can alter and re-appropriate the body.  “I think the body is the ultimate cultural symbol in the world” he says.  It is Hussein’s belief that you can work like an artist when making clothes.  He sees it as a study and although he participates in the fashion discourse, he views fashion as a broader activity.  He does not see fashion as a frivolous thing sometimes brought about by celebrity “nonsense”, by which he means celebrities claiming to be designers overnight and cheapening the industry.  Why doesn’t that happen with other disciplines like architecture, he asks? You can’t become an architect overnight, so why a fashion designer?  Fashion is a hub with many sides, but most people know the tabloid or popularist side and for that reason it’s thought of as frivolous.  He cites fashion academics Caroline Evans and Judith Clark as spokespeople for the credibility of fashion and feels that if more people like Caroline and Judith were involved in the fashion discourse, the collective opinion of fashion may change and it’s view would be held alongside disciplines like architecture.  He believes fashion is as valid as any other discipline in which the discourse is more serious, it’s just that those who cheapen the fashion industry have a loud voice.

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Interviewing Hussein Chalayan is like fashion nourishment.  It’s stimulating, illuminating and enlightening. Off the record we chatted about my recent marriage, work, fusing medical imaging and knitwear, our families and long overdue holidays.  Of course I thought of a dozen more questions I’d like to ask Hussein after I left the Chalayan studio, but will patiently add them to a filed list, neatly in keeping with Hussein’s penchant for filing ideas, notes and sketches for a later date.  But let it not be a decade or more before I have the chance to ask them.

Gravity Fatigue is going on tour.  Keep up to date with news, launches and events here>> Chalayan website Twitter and Instagram.

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