On Sunday September 14th I hosted a panel as part of London Fashion Week – almost certainly the only time in my life I’ll be talking to an audience literally from the catwalk. The panel was one of three looking at the impact on technology on the fashion world. Other topics would include the interface of creativity and commercialism (in a session hosted by KTN’s own Laura Scanga), but Sunday’s session was in at the deep end, framing a discussion about how technology has affected the actual craft of clothes-making with the framing question: “Has Technology Changed Pattern, Colour and Cloth in Fashion?”

The British Fashion Council lined up a fascinating panel to engage in the discussion:

Francesca Rosella is the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Director of CuteCircuit, a fashion company based in London and a pioneer in the field of Wearable Technology.

Lauren Bowker is a material alchemist – as I pointed out, surely the best job title ever – and the leader of The Unseen – an exploration house that blends biological and chemical matter into materials and that is focused on seeing the unseen by combining science with art, design and performance.

Nancy Tilbury is a Co Founder and Director of Studio XO – a fashion and technology company based in London whose work sits between the physical-digital, the synthetic and the hyper-real.

Neil Harbisson is a cyborg activist best known for creating the first cyborg antenna and for being the first person in the world to have an antenna implanted in his skull. In 2010, he founded the Cyborg Foundation, an international organisation that helps humans become cyborgs and promotes cyborgism as an art movement.

Cher Potter is a Senior Research Fellow with the London College College of Fashion and the V&A. She’s a Design Futurist, and her practice has a number of applications in forecasting, research, curating and writing.

Before launching in to the session, I talked about my own role with the KTN and pointed out that it’s opened my eyes not only to the much vaunted opportunities at the intersection of creative practice and digital technology, but also to the friction and frustration that can arise when often very different cultures and language collide. I was going to be fascinated to see how these frictions play out at the extreme edges of fashion – and how these frictions might create new creative, social and commercial rewards.

I also led in with a caveat. Over the years I’ve seen the word “technology” as misused as the word “creative”. Having grown up in central Lancashire in the 70s, surrounded by the beautiful if by then crumbling infrastructure of the Victorian cotton industry – and  brought up by a grandmother who’d begun working in a mill at 14 – I’m aware that the coming together of technology and textiles is hardly new. Indeed, cooking and clothing are arguably the world’s oldest technologies. So for the purposes of this discussion I tried to use the word “technology” as a stand in for computing and digital, connected technology. Although I invited the panel to bring it on if they disagreed.

To our opening question, Cher pointed out that pattern, colour, cloth are about aesthetics; she would prefer to talk about function. She pointed to the huge chasm between design & fashion and that if the two were better aligned then there could be a huge impact with “functional fashion”. Think here, for instance, about the coming together of health and tech, and how that’s already playing out in the world of wearables: surely this is just the beginning?

Francesca went on to point out that how you wear your clothes is a means of communication and always has been. Technology should be building on this, and CuteCircuit are doing just this with their “hug shirt” which communicates physical touch between parties separated geographically but brought together by the Web.

Nancy on the other hand wondered how the fashion industry might interface with technology and generate new commercial products in this space. In order to do this new ways of working need to be established, with new kinds of hybrid, multidisciplinary teams. and even new vocabularies. In fact, this new kind of working was a theme we returned to on several occasions; I was particularly struck that an area that seems to me characterised by rock star auterism was moving towards such a collaborative working method.

Lauren illustrated this by talking through a fruitful- collaboration with Swarovski, with whom The Unseen worked on a Conductive Gemstones project. By the end of the project the jewellers had started to see themselves potentially as a smart materials business, which is quite a leap.

I asked Neil to give us a run-through of his rather incredible journey to becoming the world’s first cyborg. I won’t rehearse it here, except to say that it started with a series of experiments to overcome congenital colour blindness and has ended up with a radically new way to think about human-computer interaction (HCI). Certainly Neil is redefining “wearable computing”, with his technology now effectively a body part.

Neil also has a unique position in terms of his understanding of how light and colour might be changing in fashion, not least as his adaptations allown him to “see” (that is, translate into sound) well beyond the visible spectrum. This led the panel into a thought-provoking imagining of potential scenarios in which designers might begin to adopt invisible elements into their work which new forms of HCI might render see-able. If nothing else, this would lead to a vastly wider design palette. As Francesca put it, you might end up with one garment but with unlimited digital patterns.

This was all well and good – and terribly exciting – but surely there were some problematic issues to overcome before this all cutting edge stuff became anything like a mainstream reality?

One challenge everyone agreed on was time. Building collaboration is a long process. Sure, there are some quick win branding relationships (for instance Diane von Furstenberg teaming up with Google Glass) but to work across disciplines and companies meaningfully is hard. Moreover, new revenues need to be made with the existing manufacturing process, whereas new processes can take 10 years to come into being.

That said, Lauren pointed out that “Fashion people love to panic”. Last minute changes are de rigeur, which might be one thing when you’re dealing with traditional fabrics but is another entirely when working with wearable tech. So on one had you have industrial processes that can take a decade to turn round and on the other a designer-led culture in which changes can be requested with hours’ notice. Nice.

I wondered whether wearable tech took being “always on” to worrying levels (regular readers will know that this is an increasing concern of mine – look out for my upcoming piece on our experiments with a Digital Sabbath). Likewise, weren’t there security and privacy concerns?

Interestingly, the panel didn’t have much truck with these concerns, seeing it all as a matter of personal responsibility. As one panellist said “You can turn it off or choose not to wear it.” Neil went further, understandably. He accepts that tech changes us but feels that as we become tech it opens up myriad ways in which we see the world. Effectively, we’re all going to gain new senses. Isn’t this a pretty fabulous prize?

All agreed, nonetheless, that regulation and legislation around areas such as privacy are already becoming part of the wider toolbox needed by wearable tech designers.

Along the way there was a host of other ideas: “digital skin”; clothing that broadcasts emotional state; “Digital haberdashery” (that is a combination of hardware, software, processes and data); new kinds of training; an ongoing feedback loop between the consumer and the designer.

We were left with a final powerful observation from Neil, responding to a question from the audience about environmental sustainability. He pointed out that if we all had night vision, we could save vast amounts of energy just by turning off the lights (not to mention that if we could “see” UV, we might be able to avoid skin cancer). It might seem like a notion straight out of Philip K Dick, but I was left feeling at the end of the discussion that even the most outlandish ideas talked about are just around the corner.

Simon

(Thanks to Sarah for taking such detailed notes during the session.)

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