Why The Fashion World Is Finally Getting Technical?

Essay
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22 November 2016 By Nazrene Hanif

Why the Fashion World Is Finally Getting Technical?


It’s not all about wearable tech—far from it. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, both new and established fashion pioneers are using technology in all its multiplex forms and facets to redefine the future of the industry at large.

Forget Apple watches by Hermès for a moment, and let’s get back to basics. Fashion and technology have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. First consider one of today’s most common fabrics: polyester, created by the American chemical company DuPont in 1951, is a synthetic fibre formed by a reaction between alcohol and carboxylic acid. It might not be the most refined of materials, but its low cost and adaptability has been pivotal in the fashion industry’s development over the last century, helping manufacturers worldwide meet a rapidly growing demand for clothing.

And it’s this very same demand that is driving change not just in the way clothes are made, but also in how the industry operates. Bricks and mortar is no longer enough, instead businesses are turning to new forms of visual communication, ecommerce and social media in the race to engage with their consumer, in particular millennials (that coveted 20-35 age bracket), who spend 41% of their media time on mobile devices. Fashion is now a global, 24-hour conversation – and this trend is in turn challenging the traditional concept of how labels showcase their designs.

Home to Silicon Valley and dubbed the City of the Future, San Francisco is where technology thrives. So it comes as no surprise that its fashion week has become the platform for the fashion/tech discussion, or that the Bay Area destination has birthed a new breed of designer, one that is as technologically savvy as they are creatively conscious.

NJAL’s Nika Tang, who launched her namesake label at New York fashion week in 2014, is a case in point. Her latest collection exemplifies the designer’s experimental eye, reworking basic materials into sculptural and provocatively beautiful shapes. The label even aims to develop some of its samples via digital patterning and eventually virtual 3D simulations – although Tang still prefers to draft the patterns herself.

“Technology is definitely changing the world of fashion and design,” she says, “Being in San Francisco allows you to dream big and also be supported by experts in every field. There are limitations, but you can really create anything you want to right now. There’s definitely a different industry here. We’re more into collaborations and not just for a return of investment. There’s a really great Burning Man community – the best architects, designers, electrical engineers and programmers. If you have an idea, you can find the people to help you and work together.”

Another NJAL designer, Ilan Reuben, founder of ILANIO agrees: “San Francisco has always been a wonderfully creative place. It has exposed me to a fairly unique way of thinking about fashion and allowed me to develop my ideas in a relative vacuum. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with some incredibly talented people, who are accessible and eager to collaborate because they’re doing what they do purely for the love of it.”

Reuben is often recognised for his technical approach, from creating Bubble Shoes via 3D-print moulds to his non-traditional presentations.  And while he admits his background – Reuben studied engineering at Stanford – has been useful for both figuring out the best way to go from sketch to working design and thinking outside the box, he doesn’t believe that new tech is essential to up-and-coming designers. To him, the convergence is simply inevitable as technology becomes more integrated into our lives.

“Fashion depends on technological innovation to advance,” he says. “Likewise, the direction in which technology develops is subject to tastes and trends. Take Apple’s focus on design, branding and lifestyle marketing, which comes right out of the fashion playbook.”

Travel down the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles, and the interaction between fashion, design and technology is just as evident. Much is made of the fact that Hedi Slimane, Rick Owens and Jeremy Scott (designers known for experimenting with traditional techniques) call LA home. Meanwhile Burberry – just one fashion house that has showcased its collections here – notably broadcast its London in Los Angeles show at the Griffith Observatory on live-streaming app Periscope. Another example of how technology is encouraging even the major brands to rethink their strategies.

Los Angeles and San Francisco may be more detached from major design capitals like London, but this is also what gives its creative industries more freedom. “We took a recent trip to UCLA to look at their robotics and architecture IDEAS lab,” says Tang, “There’s a strong directional emphasis on the development of the design process. It’s not just about the product, but how the product is being built – the storyline, the research. I think that this analysis is important in fashion as well. Besides creating really beautiful clothes, I want to create the space, this world, something that really gives meaning and more depth to the clothing – that’s really appealing to me.”

But does the desire to showcase in an all-encompassing way driven by the transparency of the internet? Business of Fashion seems to think so, recently highlighting the transformation of the traditional fashion show into “consumer marketing spectacles, designed to attract Instagrams.” It’s perhaps because Instagram produces 93% consumer engagement in comparison to posts on either Facebook (6%) or Twitter (1%) that it has become such a powerful tool to the fashion industry. Then there’s the ability to pre-order collections as they are live streamed from the catwalk, or join the conversation and shop directly from Twitter – brands are now marketing and selling a concept, rather than a singular piece in a bid to capture a wider, content-driven digital audience.

This new way of thinking reflects the ideology of California’s dot-com businesses – the West Coast is certainly on trend, and the fashion world is finally taking notice. Whether the industry can keep up with the advances driven by the tech companies here is yet to be decided. But for designers Tang and Reuben, this is commerce, and creativity is a different matter. “In the end, vision is key,” Tang concludes, “Everything else is follow-through.”

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