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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International Fashion Showcase Takes London Fashion Week Global

There’s a huge amount to see at London Fashion Week every season, but pausing and pondering regional design talent and forces in countries around the world that shape its designers was a hugely rewarding and enriching experience at this year’s International Fashion Showcase.  IFS was housed in Somerset House, a stone’s throw from the main LFW venue and encompassing the work of over 80 designers from 26 countries, with the theme Local/Global.

The showcase blurb poetically states that “Fashion finds its origins in many places – the agricultural, the provincial, the industrial, the urban – these places deeply influence materials, techniques and the creative process.”  This exhibition’s beauty lies in the fertile ideas and context in which the work is presented and how the local culture and influence is maintained in the presentations of the work.  Once fashion is taken out of its original context and is placed on a generic runway, for example, such a context is lost, so this is a wonderful opportunity to view the work of the designers with their heritage being showcased too.  This exhibition served as a strong reminder of the power of being immersed in the whole story of the work and the designer and understanding how the work had been shaped by its geography and culture.

At the top of my agenda for this blog is finding and unearthing new developments in fashion and technology and exploring materials technology in a fashion context.  This exhibition presented a plethora of stunning design, impossible to cover within the scope of this article, but visible here.

Delving into materials, the Polish designer cohort adopted the theme ‘Waste Not Want Not’, mixing local traditional Polish crafts with global trends such as up-cycling and slow-living.  With Poland being one of the largest European markets for the trade of second-hand clothes (largely sold by the kilo – not the curated Vintage fare Londoners are used to) these designers from Poznan’s School of Form found resourceful ways to re-appropriate second hand materials and garments, aiming to find a balance between contemporary luxe and the communist kitsch rejected by their parents.

Designs by Kasia Kwiatkowska, Natasza Rogozinska, Anna Kujawska, Agniesta Tomczak

Jagoda Fryca is a graduate of Poznan’s School of Form and a current MA Contextual Design student at Design Academy Eindhoven.  She states “I am a designer and a qualified musician.  Often I don’t design, but rather observe the world of objects and the world itself.  I work in between the fields of textile, fashion, scenography and performance’.  To that end, Fryca created up-cycled shoes under her open source DIY initiative named PRYMITWY.

The Polish IFS presentation was supported by the Polish Institute London and coincided with the launch of Chrysalis, An Anthology of Polish Fashion, from the 1930’s to the present day.  Beautifully collaged pages by artist and graphic designer Tymek Borovski fill the book, which charts 90 years of designs, including those of Lola Prusac, who designed for Hermes in Paris between the wars and infused the fashion house with traditional Polish folk designs and created Modrian-inspired prints ’30 years before Yves Saint Lauren’.

Chrysalis

Post-communist fashion is experiencing a renaissance on a global stage, the most famous expressions of this currently being Demna Gvasalia and Lotta Volkova via Balenciaga and Vetements, and Chrysalis offers a view into the origins of these designs and the social and political climate in which they were created.  This newly launched Polish Fashion Stories website accompanies Chrysalis, presenting current and past Polish fashion creatives, including stylist and costume designer Hanka Podraza.

Styling by Hanka Podraza – more on her Facebook fanpage

Transfashional Lab is an exhibition including the work of Polish artists and fashion designers, in collaboration with the Austrian Cultural Forum London, running until 4th April.  More info here.

Chilean architect and designer Elisa Rodriquez created a seaweed textile entitled ‘experimental skin’, which was handmade from seaweed typically found along the coast of Chile: Cochayuyo.  Elisa and her co-founders of brand Sisa seek to utilise natural materials and develop them in an intuitive way: “We believe that this seaweed, which grows along the Chilean coast, exposes the value of our territory, and has an aesthetic potential which we find really inspiring… Collections are born out of concepts that in turn are born from investigations which don’t necessarily have to do with fashion. That’s why we believe SISA does not follow trends. We believe in designing from within, and not in response to what is imposed by the world”.

Chilean Fine Artist Jon Jacobsen, currently an artist in residence at ShowStudio, was a collaborator on the Chile presentation at IFS and introduced me to Elisa, who explained the process involved in creating the seaweed pieces.  The seaweed was collected from the shores of Santiago then thinly sliced and laid in strips alongside each other, placing them on a form to create the final shape before the seaweed dries and hardens.  This process results in a solid final structure which Elisa believes in its current form is most suitable for accessories.  There is potential to develop it into a softer composite material which she is interested in exploring.

Cochayuyo on the beach, collected and sliced cochayuyo, Sisa’s cochayuyo cape

Jon Jacobsen’s arresting fashion film provides an organic and colourful compliment to Elisa’s cultivated and organically shaped seaweed pieces.

Stay tuned for part 2 of my IFS coverage on Techstyler.fashion

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