Fashion Tech and Speculative Wearables in Imminent Space Travel

A recent visit to Ravensbourne has catalysed a shift in my opinion of ‘fashion tech’ as a discipline and led to an animated discussion around the reasons for the aesthetic gulf between fashion design and technology.  The reason for my visit was the European Space Agency initiative, ‘Couture in Orbit’ – a fashion show at the Science Museum in May, featuring the work of five fashion colleges in Europe: ESMOD Paris, ESMOD Berlin, Fashion Design Akademiet Copenhagen, Politecnico di Milano and Ravensbourne London, which set about planting creative seeds for what will become a necessity – fashion in space.  The colleges worked to a brief set by the ESA to present ideas and prototypes for fashion and accessories in the coming age of space travel.  In response to a number of nasty and aggressive comments on their YouTube page in response to a video of this initiative, the ESA wrote this:

Couture in Orbit is a student outreach project. The students are using materials and technology in their designs that are a spin-off from the space industry. Each school had a theme linked to an astronaut’s mission, such as environment, health, sustainability, and their final designs had to have practical benefits for life on Earth. No funds were exchanged and material and technical support was provided by Tech startups.

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Yes, the designs could be seen as somewhat ‘amateurish’ and ‘costumey’ in their concept and presentation and describing them as ‘couture’ and ‘fashion’ is not strictly accurate, however the idea here is key.  Fashion’s robust approach to design and creation of cohesive, refined collections does not allow for this kind of playful theatrics, but if fashion and tech are to advance there has to be some latitude where the end result is concerned. It makes no sense to judge this by the same standards as a show at London Fashion Week, for example, which exists for an entirely different purpose and is part of a totally different creative and commercial conversation.  The YouTube comments demonstrate an attitude that demeans the validity and power of fashion that I have seen previously hinder cooperation between fashion, science and tech sectors, but we will forge forward regardless.

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‘Couture in Orbit’ designs

‘It is inevitable’, said Ravensbourne students Farid Bin Karim and Sam Martin-Harper of the fusion of fashion and technology in clothing to come.  Their view was the same of space travel – we know for certain there will be inhabitation of other planets and commercial journeys to space, so we need to design clothing fit for space life.  The brief provided to the students by the ESA included an array of materials for them to use in their garments and accessories, including Sympatex, woven fabrics by Bionic Yarn and 37.5.  Being presented with a fixed set of materials is challenging from a design perspective, as fashion design often begins with selection of a fabrics to complement an aesthetic or theme held by the designer.  Removing this from the designer’s creative point of view throws up further challenges and provides experimental opportunities.  Karim leads me into a discussion about Design Fiction, a framework based on critical design which is the foundation of his speculative design approach on the Wearables MA course at Ravensbourne.  The modelling of future scenarios using design fiction provides a robust outline for predicting what fashion design could be in an age of commercial space travel, for example.  Karim selects three modes of technology – one that exists but he can’t access, one that exists that he can access and one that we can reasonably deduce will exist in the future – with which to begin to form a fashion tech product design scenario.  This Design Fiction framework and critical design, attributed to Julian Bleecker and Dunne and Raby respectively, and adopted widely in London as a modelling tool, begins to give me insight into how design for a future that we can’t yet imagine is conceivable and believable.

Farid explains that his self-closing helmet and kilt are inspired by sojourners travelling to space and creating their own exoplanet.  His concept hinged on the sojourners creating protective barriers around themselves that responded to atmospheric changes to give visual notifications allowing them to react and adapt.  His self-closing helmet is powered by muscle wires and his kilt, printed in collaboration with print designer and MA fashion student Laura Perry, has heat responsive ink which disappears at certain temperatures – a useful visual notification when things are hotting up.  Farid also used a UV responsive pigment – another useful visual alert.  Karim’s work is inspired by an array of creatives including artist Lucy McRae, writer HG Wells and movement artist and coder Nicola Plant.

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Farid Bin Karim’s self-closing helmet and reactive ink kilt, in collaboration with Laura Perry

Sam Martin-Harper presented an altogether more nostalgic proposition in which she expressed her belief (and hope) that we will always remain rooted to earth.  Her love of biology and particular interest in the techniques for growing plants on the International Space Station, including the work of astronaut Tim Peake, drove her to create a 3D printed neck piece containing plant life.  Admitting this is a conceptual piece, Sam explained how she used inspiration from the ingenious folding joint sections of space suits to inform the shapes and details of her design.  Sam is completing her BA and is still exploring career options.  One thing is for sure, she cannot see a future of fashion without the integration of tech.

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A discussion on the future work of Farid centres on his passion for data as a tool for creating responsive and adaptive design.  He has been learning coding and electronics as part of his Wearables MA and sees future fashion as an extension of the individual – as ‘body centric’.  On graduation, Karim is hoping to work with a multi-disciplinary research facility to conduct collaborative research and design.  When I ask if he would consider a traditional design job (he is a fashion graduate, after all) he reflects on how he has had to unlearn and relearn aspects of his design approach through his Wearable MA training in order to realise his part industrial, part fashion creations.  It’s clear he’s happier in unchartered territory.

The discussion turned to couture and obsolescence.  Karim is curious about the possible inclusion of technology in couture techniques in order to aid their survival, but this is completely at odds with the fact that couture means made by hand.  This meaning of couture would therefore need to change for this to happen.  I ponder a possible alternative in the form of technologies so specialised, rare and unique that they create a techno-couture instead.  Here we begin to think about fashion and design being driven by technology, rather than the other way around.

In these discussions, as Alexa Pollmann, Course Leader of the MA Wearable Futures course, points out, it is important to consider the designs of Sam, Farid and the other students from Ravensbourne as proposals and prototypes – not final ‘fashion products’ per se.  Ask any fashion designer working in the industry today their opinion of fashion tech and they will overwhelmingly tell you that it is gimmicky, ugly and not desirable.  Herein lies the chasm between tech and fashion.  Looks really count, and so does magic.  Fashion designers bring an ephemeral quality to their creations, says Alexa.  Fashion designers dream up and articulate experiences better than any other design discipline.  They create magic in a way that is often so difficult to define it just feels ‘right’.  Fashion is entirely subjective and indisputably powerful.  For these reasons, Clive Van Heerden, co-founder of vHM Design Futures studio in London, which develops materials and technologies for a host of Wearable Electronic business propositions in the areas of electronic apparel, conductive textiles, physical gaming, medical monitoring and entertainment, insists on having a fashion designer in his creative team on all projects.

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But why are fashion designers resistant to incorporating tech into their designs and what is slowing down the advancement of the fashion tech fusion?  One factor is that the development of tech-enabled/collaborative products takes considerable research and development, and therefore time.  It requires dedication to solving specific problems related to firstly a single concept or product, which is at odds with designing, sampling and creating whole fashion collections which are visually cohesive within a strict time frame (weeks or months at most), which then have a finite sales period before the next collection is created (making the current one obsolete, for want of a better word) and the cycle continues.  The traditional cycle of two main collections per year for high end fashion labels has switched to four in recent years, meaning there is even less time for research and development.  Knowing this, it is easy to see why the work of fashion designers is at odds with the research and development required to incorporate tech, and vice versa.  In a previous interview with designers Fyodor Golan, they pointed out that fashion tech collaborations often have a required fixed outcome within a tight time frame, limiting the amount of integration possible.  This goes some way to explaining why sometimes fashion tech looks more ‘stuck on’ than cohesively and meaningfully designed and produced.

Read more about the technologies involved in the Couture in Orbit project here

Header image: Farid Bin Karim’s self-closing helmet and adaptable ink kilt at ‘Couture in Orbit’

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London Fashion Week Delivers Elegance and Mathematical Proportions

In continuation of London Fashion Week‘s Films, Fraying and Frizz, the second instalment of my fashion week roundup starts at with Belstaff, in collaboration with (an elusive) Liv Tyler.

The Belstaff presentation could scarcely have been more different from the others I have experienced.  It occurred to me that a show format would have made it easier to see the clothes.  Being a bigger brand with a larger captive audience, it was in a basement sauna of winter woolies and leathers with a biker-lite /polar vibe and a melee of guests enjoying the wares and fizz.  The show notes stated that the collection was inspired by ‘female pioneers venturing into the earth’s most bleak and hard-to-reach locations in the most challenging of conditions’.  Polar pioneer Christina Franco was named as a special guest, which I only discovered after re-reading the show notes for this article.  I can think of at least a dozen questions about protective clothing and design I’d have fired off in her direction.  I bumped into a couple of old friends and had a chat with Jonathan Saunders (whose mate designed the collection) on the way out, so it was suitably fashion-y and fizzy.

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Belstaff AW16 and projected inspiration imagery

Huishan Zhang offered up the most elegant and serene of presentations at The Connaught in what felt like the coming together of two perfect halves – the romantic decadence of the location and the gently elegant and luxuriously refined clothing.  The clothes screamed, or rather elegantly asserted, a grown-up ladylike appeal and I passed Linda Fargo on my way out, further confirming their level on the elegance stakes.  Look out for Huishan Zang in Bergdorf Goodman next season?

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Huishan Zhang AW16 

Production: Rachel Pelly and Pearl Van Den Ende – Stylist: Maya Zepinic @ LGA Management – PR: Saturday Group, Beatrice Savoretti – Music: Leslie Deere – Shoes: Jimmy Choo – Casting: Shelley Durkan – Show Photographer: Piers Cunliffe – Show Videographer: Jacob Fn Photography – Backstage Photographer: Liam Fuller – Hair: Bianca Tuovi @ CLM – Makeup: Mel Arter @ CLM – Head of Nails: Roxanne Campbell

The highlight of the day came in the form of Sid Neigum‘s mathematics-inspired and mostly monochrome collection.  Chatting to Sid I learned that the starting point for silhouette development for the collection was a measurement of a shoulder line, say 30 cm for example, which was then multiplied by Da Vinci’s golden ratio (1.6), applied rigorously by Le Corbusier and a hallmark of his modulor proportions, to determine the opposite shoulder line length, creating a harmonious set of measurements that formed naturally aesthetically pleasing proportions.

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The best way to describe the experience of seeing the collection is to say that it all felt “right”.  It was at ease.  The lengths, the volumes, the textiles.  Not forced, but lovingly calculated and evolved from a series of applied multiplications, which led Sid to his final silhouettes.  Sid is a patter-cutter who designs in 2D by working back from a 3D ‘mental rendering’ of what he’s imagining he will make.  He rarely sketches his designs, but rather sketches pattern piece shapes which he can mentally assemble before doing so physically.  Brilliant.  I plan to talk in more depth with Sid and bring you a more studied summation of his technique, but until then, enjoy the collection images.

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Sid Neigum AW16. Shots of Sid and I by Moin Islam.

Finally, we dashed to the 100 Club on Oxford Street for a slice of Mary Benson magic, only to discover we’d missed the show and caught the party.  Here are the post show leftovers and gif-ified show images thanks to Village PR:

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Mary Benson AW16

Styling: Louby McLoughlin – Hair: Jose Quijano @ D+V Management using Bumble and Bumble – Makeup: Marie Bruce using Urban Decay – Casting: Aamo – Production: Lizzie Cardwell – Press Release: Ione Gamble – Music: Twin//Venus with backing vocals by Kit Brown – Set Design: Dora Miller – Embroidery Collaboration: Aniela Fidler – Millinery Collaboration: Stephen Jones – Crystals: Swarovski – Jewellery: Sarah McCormack – Shoes: Converse – Headphones: Beats by Dre – Film: Trudy Barry – DJs: Emily Rose England, Matthew Johnson, Jon Beagley, Ben Gregory, Joe Skilton, Jamie Shaw.

I’ll be popping in to see Mary and chat about a very special collaboration she did on a Bruise suit  – cue geek-out technical textiles session.  More Techstyling soon.  Stay tuned.

Header Image: Sid Neigum AW16

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McQueen and a Bee Named Beyoncé

Bees have been featuring greatly in my life lately. From blogpost one featuring Bastian Broecker’s robot swarm algorithms based on the behaviour of bees, to a wonderful gift of bee pollen and propolis-laden honey from Pablo Villasenin of Toca honey in Galicia, which threw me back into rude health after a hectic time at London Fashion Week, to a very special Pearly Queen beekeeping session this morning at Stepney City Farm in East London. It was special because I learnt more about how bees communicate via a waggle dance that is fundamentally based on physics and also managed to spot the Queen Bee amongst a hive of around 8,000 bees. Well, she is called Beyoncé so it’s not surprising she was dominating the crowd and making her presence felt. I also got to wear a Beekeeping suit (I am an ardent onesie fan – usually of the pilot suit variety) so stylistically, I felt right at home.

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The Queen bee rules the hive for her lifetime of (up to five years), long outliving the worker bees (other female bees) and drones (male bees) whose lifespan is around 6 weeks. The Queen bee mates once, one mile in the air about the hive (mile high club, anyone?) with up to 20 drones. She stores the semen in her bountiful “hips” for her lifetime, fertilising her eggs according to how/when she wishes to populate the hive. She can lay up to 2000 fertilised eggs per day. Interestingly, John from Pearly Queen tells us that there are a group of French bees located near an M&M factory in Alsace have been making coloured honey after visiting waste sites containing the coloured shells. M&M flavoured honey, anyone?

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The fascinating bee behaviour and the protective suits, mesh hats and long gloves got me thinking about beekeeping-inspired fashion. My research led me to Alexander McQueen SS13 and Jean Paul Gaultier’s SS15 collections.

Understanding the powerful pheromone-driven sexuality of the Queen bee and devastating and sudden demise of all drones who mate with her, the premise for Sarah Burton’s dark sexually charged bee-inspired SS13 collection for Alexander McQueen is clear and potent.  The collection featured a metamorphosing hexagonal digital backdrop, honeycomb jacquards and tortoiseshell accessories and cage-like bodices with ornamental bees, reminding me of the wooden frames of the hive I saw today and adding a rich, glossy, amber quality like the nectar and pollen inside the honeycomb.

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Images: Style.com

If I was developing a collection inspired by beekeeping I’d consider the corruption of honey by artificial colours from the M&M factory and take it to a more techno place. I’d draw influence from beekeeping suits and all-over protective clothing including NASA space suits, as well as functional fastenings, including zips. I’m also a fan of the gauzey drapery around the neck and in the mesh of vintage beekeeping attire. I’d also develop knitted structures to mimic hexagonal shapes and create a honeycomb dimension. Here are my beekeeping/spacesuit/functional outerwear mood boards.mood board 1

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Mood board credits: Givenchy Haute Couture, Toogood Outwear, Noemi Anna Tina Ceresola, Nasa Space Suits.

Header Image: Raquel Zimmerman by David Sims. 

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Fashion’s Robots: McQueen v’s Plein

Just a day after publishing my first blogpost on AI, robotics and fashion came a runway show featuring all three. Designer Philipp Plein showed his SS16 collection at Milan Fashion Week featuring robot band Compressorhead with Courtney Love on vocals and robot arms ‘styling’ the models with sunglasses and bags as they travelled along a conveyor belt. There were also drones flying overhead, the function of which I am not sure.  Robots in fashion suddenly seems topical.

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Header image by NYTimes Image above by Wonderland Magazine

Dazed Digital reported that Philipp Plein’s shows are not normal shows (previous shows have included rappers on jet skis in customised Plein pools) but never had he taken a show this far in terms of concept and techno-grandeur. Each season he aims to outdo himself, apparently leaving the crowd wondering “what next?”  I wasn’t at the show, but watched it in full here

What interested me (beyond the impressive robot theatrics and investment in spectacle) was the reaction. A mixture of wonder, horror, anger and derision. I was lecturing today and played the show video for my fashion students and a handful replied in horror “but they’re just copying McQueen!” “McQueen did it better/first!” The rest were silent/amazed. Instagram is littered with similar comments. Well, McQueen did show industrial robots in his disturbingly beautiful S/S 1999 show, but with a very different theme. His concept was inspired by an installation by artist Rebecca Horn of two machine guns firing blood-red paint at each other.

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Hear model Shalom Harlow speak about her experience being painted by the industrial robots in McQueen’s show.

Philipp Plein’s show was a rock and roll glamour extravaganza in which the robots were a cool addition of props but not apparently integral to the delivery of the clothing and the collection’s narrative. It looked like one hell of a show though, and hugely entertaining. Nothing wrong with that, surely? Ellie Pithers at the Telegraph said “If it was just entertainment – and the clutch of blondes jiggling along next to me in their Plein studded boots and slashed jersey dresses certainly enjoyed themselves – then it was spot on.”

I think the integration of technology, AI, robotics in the fashion product and its delivery is key if such a show is to convince.  At the whiff of gimmickry, maybe the audience recoils a little? Authenticity is paramount in delivering a show that people connect with and truly buy into (on a deeper than commercial level). So, impressive as it is, maybe it’s not entirely convincing? Hashtag showoff?

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Images: Wonderland Magazine

The only connection between the McQueen and Plein shows is robots. The use and motivation behind them as technical tools is entirely different. With McQueen’s use of technology, the story he was telling and the clothes themselves were still always the main event and the driving force. It was reported that the industrial robot arms that painted Shalom Harlow’s dress #13 took a week to program in order to ensure a choreographed connection with Shalom and the expression of McQueen’s vision. In contrast, at the Plein show, Compressorhead were doing what they already do (see them in action below) and the industrial robot arms which are designed to perform the action of moving objects to/from a production line appeared to be doing just that. There’s no apparent integration of the technology and the reason for the show in the first place – the clothes. The show reviews I have read of Plein’s SS 16 collection barely mention the clothes. Indeed, the show began with Courtney Love and Compressorhead rocking out. It seemed to be a declaration of entertainment first, fashion second.

As a (cool, but slightly disturbing) aside, Compressorhead were created by Robocross machines, who have machines for all occasions. Check out Stickboy’s fascinating CV including date of birth (2007), specifics (four arms, two legs and one head) and playlist…

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For those concluding the Plein show was a “ripoff” of McQueen’s, by that definition, any designer using the same machine/object/material as another designer would be copying too. However, it’s apparently fine to use the same materials/colours/silhouettes as other designers (indeed that helps to create a trend, so that’s quite useful for the industry) but it’s less acceptable to use the same technology/theme to present a show. Most designers wouldn’t go anywhere near a show theme utilised by McQueen. Since McQueen used the Pepper’s Ghost technique to project a flutteringly angelic Kate Moss, who’d go there? I’m not suggesting designers shouldn’t go there, I’m merely illustrating the point that they generally don’t. Except Plein.

Fashionista quoted Plein as saying he feels he’s an industry outsider, that he doesn’t have support from the industry and he has a deep rooted fear that people won’t turn up to his shows, as they didn’t in the beginning. He insists that as a self-funded, investor-less concern competing with the likes of Gucci and Chanel, his spectacular shows are par for the course and that he is spending less than his rivals (who aren’t criticised for such excess). There’s a definite tinge of derision in the article as they go on to claim he “rants” about robots taking over. The Elle headline below is also derisory. Fashionista do, however, admit that Milan Fashion Week would be a lot less fun without his spectacular shows.

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About the Plein show, following her comment that the entertainment factor was spot on, Ellie Pithers went on to say “If it was meant to be a parody of the fashion industry – the conveyor belt demands of the schedule, the robotic nature of trends, the deliberate mechanics behind product placement – it was even better.” I’m not convinced there were metaphorical intentions and this, her final statement, seems a fairly cold conclusion. The choice of Kraftwerk’s, “Robots” and “The Model” further support the literal nature of the Plein’s message.

I think there’s a lesson to learn here about future conversations involving those in technology and fashion seeking to fuse disciplines. Integrate or irritate. Apple watch has been met with a tepid response for failing to create a genuine, desirable, aesthetic fusion. “Just because you put a strap on it doesn’t make it a watch”. Watch out Wearables.

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