Recent global fashion summits held in Bangladesh and Denmark have demonstrated critical sustainability shortcomings in business models, design and manufacturing processes in fashion. Legacy systems rooted in the old 6-month fashion cycle driven by brands and retailers are now heaving under the strain of new, monthly small batch production orders driven by consumers; with their ever-changing fashion choices in response to fleeting Instagram trends.
The summits also revealed that the same challenges in the fashion industry are being debated year in, year out (living wages, reducing textile and garment waste, how to use technology in retail experiences, amongst others) with little change from the inside. So where to from here? Inaction spells environmental disaster and failure to keep up with consumers. Who will disrupt an industry in desperate need of radical change in both sustainability and the adoption of new technologies? Why not a group of fashion students?
A collaboration between Microsoft and London College of Fashion has supported six teams of students who co-opted a range of Microsoft hardware, software, artificial intelligence and cloud computing tools to create hugely ambitious (and surprisingly polished) retail-tech and sustainability software and hardware solutions – in just three months. No mean feat for design, marketing and business students at a fashion college that does not have coding on the curriculum.
What London College of Fashion does have is the Fashion Innovation Agency (FIA) – a facet of its Business and Innovation service that brings creatives and technology heavyweights together to hack and hypothesize solutions for fashion creation, promotion, and sales. LCF also has a Digital Learning Lab that lends technical and developer support on such collaborative projects. Crucially, the collaborations that the Innovation Agency orchestrates place creative and disruptive criteria ahead of commercial, providing scope for unbridled ideas that most agencies couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have a stab at. The FIA provided an industry ‘sense-check’ throughout the three-month collaboration in order to shape the students’ ideas into industry-relevant solutions.
The outcomes of the Microsoft X LCF “Accelerating the Future of Fashion” project include SWAPP – an Azure-driven software solution that allows consumers to swap their face into promotional brand content to ‘see themselves’ in ads. From a 20 second video of the user’s face, the SWAPP team are able to generate a high-resolution face swap experience within 20 minutes, thanks to cloud computing power.
Offering another consumer-centric solution, E.M.I. is a collaborative design platform linking 3D garment design software and HoloLens, allowing shoppers to customize garment design in real time by choosing the collar or fabric, for example, and interacting with their design in mixed reality. With mass personalization a key driver for sales in the Gen-Z audience – soon to make up 40% of consumers globally – this solution seems timely.
Rixlea is a system combining mixed reality, wearable devices, and Kinectsensors to assist injury recovery in athletes through movement tracking and virtual instruction. It was inspired by the team’s desire to provide a wearable tech solution to this rehabilitation problem and fuse digital and physical realms.
Brick and Pixel focused on the retail changing room experience by using Kinect sensors and an OLED screen (acting interchangeably as a mirror) to present background information and content on the garment being tried on. They imagine extending this to include user-generated content to enhance the real-world and ‘community’ context of the clothes and inspire style (and sales).
In terms of customer experience, Perfume Experiential Discovery was a hybrid scent and HoloLens experience that presented visual content linking perfumes with the origins of their ingredients. Spice scent top-notes triggered a mixed reality dive into Asian landscapes with a tropical, monsoonal atmosphere. This experience really engaged the senses and it wasn’t difficult to see how it could enhance what is currently a less than multi-sensory experience in many retail spaces (unless you get sprayed by an over-zealous salesperson at one of those crowded department store perfume halls, which strikes me as the polar opposite of this calm and enriching experience).
Tackling sustainability was project Art-Z. Driving to the heart of fashion’s biggest sustainability problem (the environmental impact of materials creation), the concept utilizes Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning via Microsoft Azure cloud computing. The resulting software solution, by fashion design student Ashwini Suhas Deshpande, can reduce fabric offcuts at the pattern cutting stage of garment creation by proposing alternative seam positioning, with the aim of achieving zero-waste.
When asked the significance of this partnership with LCF, Maruschka Loubser, Director of Brand Partnerships and Campaigns at Microsoft, explained that it allows Microsoft “to be authentic in the industry – to enable disruption.” In order to do this, Microsoft need to know “where the opportunities are” and the current “mindset and thought-leadership.” In an industry that is facing unprecedented challenges, she points to the Fashion Innovation Agency as the “leaders” in navigating the cutting-edge fusion of fashion and technology.
She went on to explain that one of the crucial aims of the partnership is to impart a solid skill set in software creation/adaption and hardware use so that the students are able to execute real-life solutions in the fashion industry. Loubser explained that fashion graduates will almost inevitably work in fashion companies that operate within legacy systems that are largely analog and do not necessarily address sustainability issues in the design or manufacturing process, or utilize technology solutions. Junior staff, as these students will initially be, often lack the confidence and experience to offer alternative solutions to industry problems, but in facilitating these projects, Microsoft hopes to enable these creatives to not just propose solutions but design and implement them, adding value to the businesses they join.
To this end, Microsoft identified two projects that they will carry forward with the students to take them to the next stage of development.
Perfume Experiential Discovery will work with the Microsoft UK team when the HoloLens 2 is released in the coming months. It was decided that the mixed reality experience would benefit dramatically from the increased field of view and functionality upgrades of the upcoming second iteration of the headset, so this gives the project a chance to achieve higher levels of immersion.
Art-Z will also receive additional support and begin creating a software prototype during 2 days of engineering, product and AI support in the US. With the support of the Microsoft team, Deshpande will also identify the requirements to scale the software solution. Along with this, she will receive business and marketing advice to help her decide whether she wants to turn her concept into a business. If she does, there are routes into incubation and commercial partnerships via the Microsoft team. Importantly, all students retain the IP and ownership of their creations and are in a position to seek additional support to take their proof-of-concept forward.
This initiative across the six solutions serves as a reminder of what can be achieved in a short period of time with creative freedom, access to technology and support and industry mentorship. If the solutions fashion urgently needs are in the hands of fashion students, the future certainly looks bright.