Ground-Breaking Augmented Fashion Experience by Steven Tai and ILMxLAB at London Fashion Week

It’s no mean feat creating a truly unique Fashion Week experience.  The traditional catwalk and presentation formats are tried (or perhaps tired) and tested and provide what could be considered limited scope for in-depth storytelling and effectively conveying a brand’s message in our tech-engaged world.  Considering the concept of engagement – capturing the attention of an audience and involving them in an experience and “moving” them – how does the traditional fashion show stack up?  Limply, it would seem.  The irresistible pull of digital content and taking part in online conversations on Instagram and other platforms pulls people in the front row of shows into the digital world, as if the physical one around them doesn’t exist.

In this hybrid physical and digital world, what does the fashion show of our (immediate) future look like?  Steven Tai and his collaborators for AW18 say it looks like this: a physical showcase of the collection on live models who intermingle with an augmented digital avatar being generated in real time using CGI, who is also wearing the collection.  It’s a true blurring of physical and digital worlds – a mixed reality.  But why is this important?  Why explore the bringing together of digital and physical realms?

We live in a world where we create constant digital representations of ourselves and share them with the world.  We augment ourselves with filters and we animate our faces to imagine ourselves as different characters – not unlike the way that Steven Tai’s collaborators ILMxLab, a division of Lucas film, tells stories by creating characters in contextual places using CGI.  What does this creation of digital characters in a physical world look like, and how can that be harnessed to present fashion?  What would that look and feel like?

In the case of the Steven Tai presentation, it involved an actor in a “mocap” (or motion capture) suit which tracked her movements while walking and posing in order to render her body movements in real time as an avatar on the stage screen, immediately behind the physical models.  Her avatar therefore appeared as though she was interacting with the live models on the stage, although she was physically not present.  Different garments were rendered onto her body in real time, creating a carousel of changing outfits as she moved through the space, around the physical models.  The presentation proposed the concept of layering a digital world over a physical one, which strikes me as a social commentary on how we live increasingly through our social media personas and online interactions and how we wish to augment how we are perceived in the digital, and perhaps soon physical, world.

Actor in mocap suit creating the digital avatar seen in the video below amongst the physical models

During the presentation, in order for the actor’s avatar to “wear” the Steven Tai garments they had to be digitised in advance and then rendered in real time on her moving avatar body, to demonstrate the realistic and accurate drape and movement of the fabric.  The process of designing and creating the collection was an interesting one from the point of view of designer Steven Tai.  His appetite for technology and experimentation demonstrates a rare trust and brave approach to fashion design, where his desire to use certain textiles and create certain silhouettes gave way to the technological limitations, allowing the rendering and appearance of the garments digitally to inform their creation physically.  It’s tricky to convey just how at odds this is with the way fashion designers have been trained.  I say this as a graduate of London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins, where the teaching emphasises a dogged belief and dedication to achieving your creative and aesthetic goals and striving for your ideals.  Experimenting with new technologies and telling a fashion story that incorporates these new enablers requires a far more dynamic and collaborative attitude.  One that Steven clearly has and that has allowed him an unusual freedom to express himself through the use of the technology.

Another key reason to utilise the LiveCGX technology within the presentation was its capability to create an entire world within the digital and physical space.  Through the imagery on the screen behind the stage, we were transported to Steven’s native Macau by way of a CGI urban landscape, blending a street scene, complete with awnings, flowing gently in the digital breeze, flanked in jungle-like surroundings with softly falling leaves.  Macau was a pivotal inspiration for the collection, which as Matthew Drinkwater of the Fashion Innovation Agency – orchestrators of the collaboration – pointed out after the show, meant that the audience could experience Steven’s inspiration and see how it translated into the collection before them, rather than read about it on a press release.

steventai AW18 collection 

The presentation felt like an invitation to consider the future of fashion.  A chance to ask how fashion should be consumed and sold – and perhaps more importantly, worn.  Will we extend our augmented selves from mobile devices to our physical space through glasses that effectively overlay a digital layer onto our physical world?  Will we chose to change our clothing (or rather how others wearing augmentation glasses perceive our clothing) throughout the day at will?  If so, what is the role of the designer, and indeed of physical clothes?  How would we consume such fashion?  Would we buy renders of clothing?  What impact could that have on the wider industry and what are the potential environmental benefits of reduced physical garment production?  These are all interesting philosophical questions that steer us toward re-imagining the future of fashion.

It is worth noting that the Fashion Innovation Agency, based at London College of Fashion, disseminate the outcomes and discoveries of the experimental fashion presentations they facilitate to cohorts of fashion students whose concept of what fashion can and should be is still in the making.  These students are the future of the industry, so departing university with an affinity for, and understanding of, emerging technologies, suggests that their use will gain prevalence and move towards widespread industry uptake in coming years.

Mohen Leo and Vicki Dobbs-Beck of ILMxLAB, Steven Tai and Matthew Drinkwater of FIA

The question I arrive at after seeing the clear benefits of this mode of storytelling and audience engagement is, “How does this contribute to fashion business commercially?”  Can this content be used for online sales?  It’s likely true that such technologies and methods of presentation will take off when clear financial benefits for brands are proven.  Steven Tai hypothesises that he can reach a global audience by allowing viewers to attend his shows simply by wearing a VR or Mixed reality headset and entering his fashion presentation remotely.  Similarly, their avatars could ‘try on’ the collection using the same the technology and purchase through e-commerce.  Nay-sayers might comment that people would never purchase something they haven’t physically seen or tried on, but then isn’t that exactly what cynics said of Natalie Massenet’s bold concept for a web-based clothing store, which became the industry-changing e-commerce retailer ‘Net-a-porter’?

The team behind the show: steventai, London College of Fashion’s Fashion Innovation Agency, ILMxLAB and The GREAT Britain Campaign

Sabinna’s Pioneering “See Now Buy Now” Via Instagram Stories at Fashion Week

Fashion month has rolled around again, as it does every February/September, and once again I am contemplating the upcoming shows and presentations and how brands will navigate the month of Insta-frenzied reporting of the latest shows, street style and celebrity spotting.

Emails start hitting my inbox about upcoming shows and presentations, lookbook shoots where you can get behind the scenes access to and teasers of digital experiences that are set to break the traditional fashion presentation mould.  There was a time when if you were a fashion designer, you had to have the means and industry contacts to have a traditional catwalk show, and the tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds to finance it, or else present your collection behind closed doors in a showroom to industry insiders.  No longer.  With each season comes a new array of approaches to presenting and selling fashion, and these new ideas and business models are emerging from, well, emerging designers.  Those nimble and small enough to adapt quickly and harness the power of technology are bringing together the presentation and immediate sale of their collection during the buzz of fashion month.  

Sabinna s006 collection (AW18) is being presented digitally and sold immediately via Instastories during fashion month

What am I excited about as London Fashion Week approaches?  What’s new?  What will I remember from it as March rolls around?  Some stand-out looks, sure, but fashion month is so noisy, with hundreds of shows, thousands of brands and millions of Insta-likes.  How do designers differentiate themselves and make themselves heard, let alone remembered, once the product they sweated so hard to create and invested so much in, personally and financially, is available to buy (six months later)?  This is the burning question – the answer to which stands between surviving and shutting up shop.  You only need to look at the roster of emerging fashion talent that has been financially supported, promoted and awarded by the British Fashion Council over the past two decades under the NEWGEN scheme to see that only a handful of the hundreds supported are still in business today.  Fashion is broken, but frustratingly, it still works (sort of). 

I have spent the past hour talking to designer Sabinna Rachimova of womenswear fashion label Sabinna about her radical new approach to presenting and selling her fashion collections during New York and London Fashion Week.  The London-based designer has tried the traditional options – catwalks, presentations – and a less traditional VR see now/buy now fashion presentation in conjunction with the Fashion Innovation Agency and Pictofit – which won her and the team a Decoded Fashion Futures ‘Beyond the Runway’ Award, acknowledging their initiative to think outside the confines of the traditional catwalk format.  But how does an emerging designer, three years and in the business – at that critical point where many designers can no longer sustain their business and close down – achieve commercial success following the traditional business model?  Well, it appears they don’t. 

Reflecting on my own experience of running my label and presenting at London Fashion Week and selling at Paris Fashion Week I know the tens (or hundreds) of thousands of pounds of financial risk attached to following the traditional business model that most young designers follow.   Like Sabinna, I chose non-traditional methods, but Sabinna has developed a completely unique approach this season, by launching a presentation and sales campaign on Instagram for the duration of New York and London Fashion Week.   On the face of it, it sounds an obvious thing to do, but Sabinna has opted to work with 14 “influencers”, spanning the US and UK, and created 24 “looks” in her collection this season, giving all 14 the choice of look to reflect their personal style.  Sabinna has struck a deal to pay each of them for delivering one post to their feed and one Instagram story on their designated day, in their chosen “look”.  The styling and photography lies with the influencer and is a key element of them presenting the outfit in a way that resonates with their followers and presents Sabinna’s collection in a way that makes it easy to relate to and to imagine wearing.  These are real girls of all shapes and sizes – so the context is commercial.  Which is handy, because the looks are instantly shoppable, direct from their Insta-stories.  Herein lies the clever aspect of this strategy. 

Fashion Influencers @camillasentuti, @_jemmawade and @mimosasmanhattan

Sabinna can see the engagement generated from each influencer, view feedback from their followers, collect data on which outfits and garments generated the most interest and a range of other indicators that add up to powerful insights from which she can shape her future collections.  Of course this strategy requires investment upfront in production so that there is stock available to buy immediately, but Sabinna explains that this is simply redirected from budget otherwise spent on a traditional presentation format, which has no guarantee of generating sales and provides very little tangible feedback.  As the campaign continues throughout New York Fashion Week Sabinna alerts me to a similar strategy being adopted by New York -based brand Mansur Gavriel, who are selling their previous collection (just delivered in store) via Insta Stories, whilst launching their new collection at NY Fashion Week – capitalising on the collective “Insta-buzz”.  Their savvy approach to Instagram curation and marketing is well reported and has led to in-excess of 500,00o followers. 

Fashion Influencers @asliceopi, @saratoufali and @malloryonthemoon

It is absolutely true that everyone at Fashion Week is living their experience through Instagram, even if they are sitting in the front row.  Sabinna is smart enough to know that you can’t get people to put their phones away and stop staring at their screens, so why not present your collection directly, and make it instantly shoppable, on Instagram?  You could scarcely find a bigger fashion-obsessed and hungry audience, and the power of working with influencers in two of the largest markets – the US and UK – makes total sense.   

Emerging designers have traditionally struggled to expand their businesses on a global scale, but it’s easy to see that changing with e-commerce linked to social media.  The best bit?  It doesn’t cost a thing.  To use Insta-stories with the swipe-up function, taking the swiper straight to the brand’s e-commerce site, is free – you just need 10,000 followers to access this function.  And capturing and analysing the data generated?  That’s free too, with the help of Google Analytics. 

The key point to Sabinna’s adoption of this strategy is the vastly increased likelihood of her achieving profitability with this direct-to-consumer approach, both in terms of saving on inflated presentation costs and selling to customers without losing the retail margin of wholesaling.   Instead of following the traditional business and presentation model, where her success would rely on her PR agency and her contacts being able to bring the ‘right people’ to her show or presentation and create the right buzz, her success lies firmly within her own hands and is limited only by her creativity and commercial strategy.

What of the notion of exclusivity?  How do industry insiders – usually the first to see and critique the new season’s collections – view these non-traditional strategies that bypass them and deliver straight to the consumer?  Will they partake?  Early indications are that engaging press and buyers in this democratic manner is tough.  Those familiar with the Bloggers vs Vogue Editors furore, which I was also asked to wade into here , will know that the fashion industry is reluctant to embrace bloggers and influencers, despite the fact that their relevance to consumers and power to sell product is undeniable and trumps that of the established glossy editors – circulation figures prove this. 

Fashion Influencers Diipa Khosla and Dalal AlDoub and Blogger/Brand Ambassador Susie Lau

So does the fact that industry insiders are not giving focus to collections presented in this non-traditional matter even matter?  Materially, probably not.  But psychologically, probably.  Fashion Week has always been about who’s hot and who’s not – who is the next big thing – who is the one to watch?  Who is considered credible?  Who is intensely talented and creative and exciting?  Who is everyone talking about?  If by everyone you mean the consumer beyond the industry confines, it’s whoever wins the social media engagement race.  And that race is happening on Instagram.  

I am looking forward to the upcoming Steven Tai presentation which promises to deliver an immersive fashion showcase with LiveCGX Technology, in conjunction with ILMxLAB and the Fashion Innovation Agency, on 18th February.  Stand by for news of how that is set to shape fashion presentations and the use of new technology as a presentation and sales tool.