British startups have been exploring the merger of fashion with technology for a while now. Investing more in retail tech than fashion tech, most of the startups are making more money in innovative shopping/styling apps and e-commerce ventures than material exploration, sustainability and 3D printing. Presenting my keynote, ‘UK Startups Disrupting the Fashion Tech Space’ at FashionTech Days to a predominantly French audience, I first started by talking about British pioneers like material explorer Suzanne Lee and fashion innovator Brooke Roberts.
Suzanne Lee is a biofabrication pioneer who has, for some time, been finding new and exciting ways to enable never-seen-before functionality, aesthetics and performance possibilities. The self-defined “bio-dressmaker” has not only grown apparel from bacteria, she has also created her own kombucha-based fabric for her unique designs. She coined the term Biocouture, after experimenting with microbial cellulose to invent new materials for fashion designers.
For a while now, Brooke Roberts has introduced us to all forms of fashion tech and is well known for pioneering digital knitwear. A self-confessed ‘fashion and technology geek’, Brooke is the founder of BRIA (Brooke Roberts Innovation Agency). Currently, her projects are focusing on smart and sustainable fabric development.
Let’s Talk Fashion Tech vs Retail Tech
Moving on, I talked about the fashion tech creatives making waves in the UK tech scene. Introduced Lauren Bowker and Nancy Tilbury. Lauren, the founder of the Unseen, is a material alchemist whose products alter based on user interaction or the environment that they are in. Nancy, of XO, produces fashion tech that speaks to generation Z- an underrepresented group in the fashion tech space. The reason why picked two very different innovators was to show the different types of creative thinkers being born out of the UK fashion tech space.
On the retail tech front, I explored how data has become the new oil. This is a fact that British startups have noticed. One of those is data focused powerhouse EDITED. Tackling the outdated way in which the fashion industry makes critical decisions on what to sell, EDITED currently offers companies real-time retail insights and data. They are doing it by using big data, advanced machine learning and intelligent word recognition technology so that brands can gain real-time insights in pricing, assortments and promotions. This is a process that is helping their clients, Topshop, Net-a-Porter, Ralph Lauren and La Redoute, understand their competitive landscape.
More AI than Big Data is Thread. Their business model relies on online stylists, as well as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, to create a personalised way to shop. The British startup, founded in 2012, is currently helping 480,000 men find a new image, dress well, or merely sort out their clothes buying. With a “the computer will see you now’ approach, Thread is making waves, as one of the few male-targeted retail tech startups around.
Not playing in either fashion tech or retail tech camp, but instead, merging the two is Unmade. Founded by Ben Alun-Jones, Hal Watts and Kirsty Emery, Unmade uses coding to power knitting machines as though they are 3D printers. Working with designers, they want to enable them to take advantage of the new digital developments. They have successfully found a way of creating a direct relationship between designer and customer by manufacturing on demand. Unmade is a great example of how a UK based fashion tech startup is successfully showing the fashion industry how a future where technology is merged with design, manufacturing and retail could look like.
Fashion Tech Projects & Collabs that Put UK on The Map
There are a few UK brands that have managed to blend fashion and technology successfully. One of those is CuteCircuit. Founded by Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz, the interactive fashion brand has been pushing the boundaries of wearable technology since 2004. Their work has led to collaborations with celebrities; the most talked about one being Nicole Scherzinger’s Twitter dress. Embellished with over 2000 triangular Hematite Swarovski Elements, the Twitter Dress was constructed with CuteCircuit’s Magic Fabric that had MicroLEDs that created terrific animations. When worn, the dress received Tweets in real time when people used the #tweetthedress hashtag.
Although the Twitter dress caught the attention of the world, the dress created with a super material, graphene, had the fashion tech world in awe. Working together with National Graphene Institute, CuteCircuit experimented with graphene and pushed the boundaries of the textile and garment industry to its limits. Thinking outside the box, it was a collaboration that gave us a dress lined with graphene-enhanced sensors and inbuilt LED lights spread throughout the garment’s top half of the dress. Going beyond fashion was CuteCircuit’s Sound Shirt. Similar to their Hug Shirt, the sound shirt has been designed to help those who are hard of hearing to ‘feel’ music. Providing deaf people with a whole new way of internalising something they cannot hear, the shirt worked by different notes creating a distinct feeling across areas of the garment.
When it comes to collaborations, Richard Nicol x Studio XO, Topshop x Oculus Rift and Avery Dennison x Sarah Angold are living proof that anything is possible when fashion and technology work together. Richard Nicol x Studio XO ‘jellyfish’ dress was an instant success on the runway of London Fashion Week. The slip dress was made of fibre optic fabric activated by high-intensity LED’s tailored within in it. In February 2014 Topshop became the first high street brand to introduce a virtual-reality tour. Specially commissioned by Oculus Rift, the 3D headsets enabled shoppers to see Topshop’s catwalk show in real-time. When it comes to the partnership between Avery Dennison and British accessory designer Sarah Angold, they showed off embedded technology in jewellery that allowed the wearer to take advantage of interactive experiences in a retail environment.
Although collaborations have played a key role in pushing fashion tech forward, only a small percentage of startup prototypes have actually gone to market. These include UK fashion tech brand Emel and Aris and generation z brand 2415. Emel and Aris have come up with a smart coat that introduces a revolutionary heating technology. Using lightweight inert polymer instead of wires to produce FIR (far infrared) heat energy, the technology embedded in the coat ensures that the heat produced is absorbed by the skin to heat the muscles and increase blood flow. 2415 is a brand that launched during London Fashion Week September 2017. The collection includes an app connected Rucksack that can change colour and animate to music via your smartphone device (£215.00), app connected Logo T-Shirt that can change colour and animate to music via smartphone (£190.00), and the most expensive, an app connected Bomber that can change colour and animate to music via your smartphone device (£770.00).
UK Support of Fashion Tech & Wearable Tech Startups
When you look at the bigger picture, it is easy to see the vital role that UK agencies supporting startup businesses play in the whole scheme of things. There is the Fashion Innovation agency (FIA) which is made up of experts who work with emerging technologies to help designers and brands change the way they make, sell or show their collections. Also worth a mention is Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE) and Innovate UK. The CFE merges innovation across fashion, fashion tech and business by providing help in securing access to funding and collaboration opportunities. Innovate UK, is a Government agency that has supported various fashion tech and retail tech startups. Their support has returned up to £16 billion to the economy, helped 8,000 organisations, generated £7.30 gross value added (GVA) for every £1 invested, created nearly 70,000 jobs and resulted in 8 jobs being created for every business invested in.
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Founding editor-in-chief of FashNerd.com, Muchaneta is currently one of the leading influencers writing about the merger of fashion with technology and wearable technology. She has also given talks at Premiere Vision, Munich Fabric Start and Pure London, to name a few. Besides working as a fashion innovation consultant for various fashion companies like LVMH Atelier, Muchaneta has also contributed to Vogue Business, is a senior contributor at The Interline and an associate lecturer at London College of Fashion, UAL.