Talking Technology with Matthew Drinkwater
As the head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion, Matthew Drinkwater has played a tremendous role in the experimentation, innovation, and utilization of technology in fashion, working to alter the way in which the industry is making and showcasing products.
Some of his work includes the world’s first digital skirt for Nokia, wireless charging clothing for Microsoft, a 3D-printed bionic arm for Star Wars: The Force Awakens—and that’s just naming a few. We recently spoke with the technology pioneer himself to get more insight into the ever-changing world of technology and how it will inevitably change the entire fashion industry.
For emerging designers specifically, are there any tech innovations they should and could be utilizing?
There’s a fairly unique situation specifically in London now where emerging designers are located in the east of the city. They’re in very close proximity to the Silicon Roundabout, which is a conglomerate of technology businesses. It’s an unusual proximity, which results in this environment where both young technology sector businesses and young creatives that are also interacting with interesting fashion businesses come together. This cultivation of community fosters an ecosystem where a form of osmosis happens—one that is ripe with collaborations. And that is something I think every designer should have in mind, this idea of collaboration.
Co-creation is absolutely vital for young designer businesses. You have to try and test constantly. That sense of experimentation is always in London, and it also extends into the use of technology. I'm much more likely to gain favorable responses from younger businesses than with a more established house—but that has changed much more in last 12-18 months. Acting like a start-up is what’s required to engage with these emerging technologies—and the customers who are actively using and wanting to interact with them.
On a much broader level, the traditional model for design is being questioned daily. Uncertainty is swirling around the industry; and it’s an uncertainty that I find really encouraging—yet for some businesses it feels a bit destabilizing.
How have you seen technology change the fashion industry in the past 12-18 months?
Technology is shifting the fashion industry. When you look at big technology companies such as Google, Apple, and Facebook—they all have these larger R&D budgets.
This is not a commonplace in fashion. Those bigger companies have the technology turnover rate of a place like H&M. Right now, some of the most interesting innovations are not coming from the fashion industry, which is in part due to the fact that the skill sets are not there either—yet. Because that will change over time. It has to.
There has already been so much change in the way that fashion brands are creating content, even down to the product they make. It’s changing how they’re showcasing work, leading to more elaborate shows, too. Social media is a huge tool that has been used to push out to a gigantic audience. Younger designers are much more into the presentation format, which offers up an unique immersive experience for consumers.
Utilizing a tool that is as simple as social media enables designers to showcase almost every element of how the industry works. Even if you look at the Balenciaga, the madness surrounding the menswear shirt than cost upwards of $1,200 was a method to generate engagement. So now we have brands going as far as creating individual products purely for social content, which is certainly interesting, especially as we see it evolve over time.
What excites you the most in terms of the future of technology and fashion?
There are so many emerging technologies that will impact the industry entirely. What’s exciting is that it’s challenging for any one brand to get hold on it all, which opens up a wealth of opportunity for any and all designers. There are huge opportunities for new and younger brands to explore these avenues and find a place in the market—a place that is fresh and largely untapped.
The use of immersive technology and virtual reality is an interesting path for designers. Immersive technology has the power to impact the process across creation, opening up ways for designers to create virtual products, design in 3D, and so much more. These technologies can also have a major impact in sustainability and smarter design processes in general. Prototyping can be dramatically changed through the use of 3D tools and 3D assets can be used across digital platforms. Rather than crafting an entire garment that will go to waste, these virtual methods enable creation without the environmental cost.
And consumer engagement has the power to increase with these methods. Research has found a 40% higher click-through rate online when crafted in 3D. Consumers want to interact with a product. They want to pinch and zoom, look closer and get a full understanding for what they may or may not purchase.
Once you have a 3D asset, you can begin to deploy it in augmented and mixed reality. I truly believe it to be so important for designers to be thinking about virtual product. New business models are going to emerge to support this emerging technology, and it’s going to continue to shift the industry.
From CGI models to interactive experiences with product, there’s so much in the works within this new acceptance of virtual content.
Adding visual effects to garments, utilizing body and facial tracking, incorporating digital components to designs: these modes add value and enable possibilities that physically would be impossible. This is a time where experimentation and creation are reshaping everything we know about fashion—it’s totally changing the landscape both for consumers and designers.
If we continue to move towards these digital-centric landscapes where virtual and digital creation is central, then will the definitions and modes of communicating change? Will colors and mechanisms change? How so?
The Paul Smith x Google Art Palette is an interesting representation of what color can mean as time goes on. The designer and the technology giant teamed up to create a program that uses machine learning to provide inspiration through color. Art Palette enables users to scan through art by color. Users either pick a color or upload a photograph and an algorithm works to find various art that share the same color palette. Something as simple as snapping a photograph will open up a world of color.
A tool like this brings out an entirely new point of inspiration. And this technology and use is uncharted territory. It has yet to be fully explored, which means we have no idea how it will impact the modes of creation.
Designing in a virtual space will also reconfigure older forms of creation since it takes away these steps and interactions between the designer and consumer, as well as the designer and the tools they use. For more bespoke brands or couture houses, this space will most certainly take an element of experimentation.
An intrinsic component of fashion has always been the physical interaction. When you put something on virtually, does it still do the same thing? With some of this technology, it does, which opens to the door to incredible possibility. We had this woman virtually try on clothing using body tracking technology, and when she virtually put the dress on, she actually stood up straighter. She felt it—it was incredible.
With something like that, you begin to think about all the ways in which the force of fashion can be incredibly powerful and used for good. It has the ability to change the way we feel about ourselves.
So what’s an emerging designer to do? Embrace technology.