Even if you walk into the world’s best fashion schools, you are most likely going to experience a time warp. By this, I mean that students are still being taught approaches and the techniques of making a garment that seems post WW2, whilst the industry beyond the classroom is talking all things tech, experimenting and investing in the digital transformation of fashion businesses. The contrast is striking.
Thankfully, forward-leaning schools like London College of Fashion (LCF) are pushing against the academic bureaucracy for more tech integration into education. I experienced that first-hand as an MA student on campus. However, till full-fledged fashion tech modules enter the curriculum, I believe that collaborations with tech companies are crucial to playing catch-up with the pace of disruption.
Fashion Schools and Tech Companies: A Perfect Match
The fashion college is a cohort of creative and fresh minds. Minds that are uncontaminated by market’s challenges, and have a willingness to experiment and problem-solve. On the other hand, the tech company, whether a biggie or a startup, bring the expensive software, hardware and market expertise to the table. Besides, they are likely to have real-time projects, for students to work on. A partnership between the two should spell exciting times for fashion technology.
In practice, it did, when LCF teamed up with Microsoft for a 3-month incubator in the summer of 2018. The programme was a hit, both in terms of learning and project outcomes. A mix of 30 design and fashion business students accessed top-of-line AI, IoT and AI Microsoft tools and received mentoring from Microsoft experts and fashion professionals.
Both, the high-tech hardware and professional guidance are hard to come by and often chased by cash-strapped students through internships and projects. I know a few participants from the project who shared raving reviews. They found the interaction with industry mentors valuable and enjoyed the framework of the workshop, tight enough with stated goals to achieve, yet amply loose to experiment with the generous spread of tech equipment. From a style assistant app that helps with smarter shopping to a mixed reality based virtual store for an online luxury brand, most of these projects were realistic in their approach.
Help Students Develop A Digital Mindset
Head of Fashion Innovation Agency at LCF and a prominent cheerleader of fashion tech education, Matthew Drinkwater was recently quoted saying, “We cannot ignore the way that digital has impacted everyday life and completely changed how designers, brands and retailers engage with consumers. We have to prepare our students for a world that is changing at a faster pace than any point we can remember.”
Those words couldn’t ring truer at a time when the narrative around future of work, automation and reskilling is continuously evolving. That being said, the respect for craft and handmade fashion remains tremendous and its value, perhaps as a niche, will only grow in times to come. However, the future of fashion lies in the birthing of concepts in a digital ecosystem, where the digital aspect is not slapped on as an afterthought.
To that point, there is a small but growing base of fashion students who want to explore the blending of analogue with digital in their practice. But often, they face resistance from academics and peers who continue to operate with an old-school mindset. Tech is viewed with scepticism, as something of another world or unsafe.
As external stakeholders assist with a transformation of that view, more students are likely to partake experimentation at existing research labs at schools. LCF houses two such initiatives, Digital Anthropology Lab and Digital Learning Lab. Fashion Institute of Technology New York (FIT) runs the Infor Design and Tech (Dtech) Lab. The School of Fashion at Parsons, New York housed the Fashionable Technology Lab between 2010 and 2018.
Meanwhile, communication and presentation of fashion have not been left untouched by the force of digital all the way from histrionics at fashion shows (personally not a fan of drones on the catwalk) to virtual try-ons.
If Instagram was a digital platform that delivered exposure for fashion design students at college, emerging solutions could eventually become a cheap yet effective way of presenting their graduate collections. With the use of immersive technology like AR/VR, budding designers might still be able to retain the grandeur of a mystical rose garden or have space rockets, but minus the excesses of a real-world fashion show which only powerhouse brands like Gucci and Chanel can afford. Here again, LCF experimented with interactive media to present an immersive showcase of BA Graduate collections in June 2018.
Open Up Cross-Disciplinary Conversations
It is interesting to observe that the always-glued-to-the-phone fashion design students aka makers remain more far-removed from the tech at school, compared to those pursuing courses in fashion business and communication. Perhaps that explains why the promising world of fashionable wearable tech is still on a slow burn.
A partnership between Stockholm based fashion technology startup Neue Fashion Tech (Neue) and FIT from June 2017 is worth referencing. Neue ran a 3-month workshop on the FIT New York campus for Bachelor and Master students with an aim to translate the concepts of pleasuring self-love and urban safety into garments and accessories. The final creations included app-controlled vibrating underwear and cycling pants that provide screen-free connectivity for the rider, thus delivering on tech-enabled emotional experiences. Opportunities like these seem ideal to foster the cross-disciplinary spirit at the campus, only to be replicated later in real life.
Wearables, for the most part, carry an engineering aura and the way forward is coming together of fashion designers, engineers and software developers to find a common language and working practice. And of course, create a product that is as much desirable as useful to the user.
At the same time, a fashion designer, at least for now, cannot be expected to learn everything from soldering circuits and use of sensors to coding. I recall feeling quite overwhelmed from the few hours of a wearable tech workshop on campus. However, it is essential to be aware of the possibilities and tools on offer, that can be put to use to realise a creative vision.
Cross-disciplinary interactions will aid the introduction of well-defined Fashion Design, Technology and Education modules. Currently, FIT runs a set of 3 fashion tech non-credit courses. Another promising development on this front is coming together of fashion, science and engineering students and faculty from three institutions: LCF, Politecnico di Milano and Sweden-based University of Borås. This collaborative project aims to develop the first-of-its-kind curriculum for a MA fashion designing course in wearable tech, smart textiles and digital manufacturing, slated for a launch in 2021.
Engagement With Sustainability Focused Projects
We are past that point where technology could be used for technology’s sake in the fashion industry. On the contrary, sustainability-driven tech solutions are emerging across the fashion value chain from design to retail. Although, they are mostly run by textile engineers and computer scientists rather than those with a background in fashion. This scenario presents an ideal opportunity to engage design and business students with startups operating at the intersection of sustainability and technology.
One of the student projects emerging from Microsoft x LCF programme, DiDi or Design by Data, explored the possibility of embedding an RFID thread into a garment to track its life cycle. The IOT based concept proposed to collect data and improve product durability.
Connected clothes can also enable increased usage of a garment (for example notifications about clothes usage) and lend themselves to innovative ways of recycling. Energy harvesting garments with rechargeable batteries are another avenue of exploration.
3D solutions, including body scanning and printing, are likely to make the production process more sustainable. Design students are already experimenting with these technologies to create samples and reduce wastage.
While artificial intelligence (AI) is entering fashion design, it can also play a key role in smart and effective production, thus reducing the number of products being manufactured. FIT teamed up with IBM and Tommy Hilfiger in January 2018 to explore the use of AI in the entire value chain in fashion, from trend analysis to product supply.
Bring More Women Into Fashion Tech
If tech literacy on campus goes up, fashion schools have a massive opportunity at hand to break the glass ceiling. That is because most fashion schools have a higher number of women enrolled in courses, their ratio ranging from 50 to 80%. Contrast that stat with that of the industry: a Business of Fashion survey reported that only 14% of major fashion brands are run by a female executive. Let’s hope future female fashion students turned digital natives will be contributing to narrow the gender gap in the workplace.
Making software like CAD and Gerber available on a fashion campus is no longer worth a flaunt. Bringing the likes of Google, Samsung and the energetic startups on board for a considered, hands-on educational experience and building working prototypes has my vote.
Molshree is a fashion consultant and researcher based in London. With a background in fashion retail, she is currently focussing on projects that propel the sustainability agenda into the mainstream.