Fashion has so far resisted the pull of digital technology, but now architects and designers are joining forces to revolutionise the industry’s way of working, says Debika Ray
In 1893, writer W Cade Gall predicted in The Strand Magazine how fashion would evolve over the next century. The accompanying series of illustrations demonstrated the difficulty of thinking beyond existing norms – while the designs became increasingly whimsical as the decades progressed, they still incorporated familiar tropes, with billowing forms, frills and fripperies reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland. This accidental insight – that mainstream fashion would eventually get trapped in a cycle of historical references – is more accurate than later assumptions that it would continue smashing social barriers and embrace cutting-edge technology.
The reality is that the clothes we wear have changed relatively little since the 1960s. Designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Iris van Herpen are pushing the boundaries, but most big fashion houses – from which trends eventually trickle down to the high street – have resisted the sweep of digital technology. In contrast, architecture has harnessed computational tools to rethink traditional forms, from Zaha Hadid’s mind-bending curves to the algorithmically generated facades seen on even ordinary shopping centres.
‘The use of technology doesn’t seem to have become part of the method of design in fashion like it has with architecture and industrial design,’ says Stefano Paiocchi, a lead architect at Zaha Hadid Architects. Paiocchi has been running a series of independent workshops, Code-Structed Skins, with his colleague Arian Hakimi Nejad that encourage students and designers from various backgrounds to apply computational and algorithmic principles to clothing design. ‘We noticed that fashion students tended to be sceptical about the computational part of the process and instead wanted to work on the actual physicality of the piece, tending to be more about feeling and manual testing – more analogue, you might say.’
RCA student Matija Cop uses 3D software to create clothes that interlock like structural components
For Paoicchi and Nejad, the workshops were an opportunity to experiment with fashion, a discipline with a pivotal role in communicating contemporary culture, but also an ‘excuse’ to conduct research into computational design without the budgetary, scale and time restraints of designing a building. Alongside garments, one outcome of the sessions has been the design for a hyperloop station for the Los Angeles River. The underlying premise is that there is significant overlap between fashion and architecture: both mediate between the body and the environment, use two-dimensional materials to create space and volume, and express the personal, social and cultural identity of their users and the age. ‘The relationship between architecture and fashion is symbiotic and, throughout history, clothing and buildings have echoed each other in appearance,’ Paoicchi says.
Just as architects such as Hadid and Rem Koolhaas have been interested in fashion, fashion designers from Pierre Cardin and Coco Chanel to Raf Simons and Tom Ford have referenced and been inspired by architecture. So why has the industry resisted the lure of algorithmical design tools? In some ways, it’s unsurprising. While architecture concerns itself with large-scale social transformation, engineering and measurable performance, fashion leans more towards the cultural, with both catwalk displays and street fashion offering social commentary or reflecting the zeitgeist in a way more attuned to the immediacy of hand-cutting and draping. The notion of computer-generated design also jars somewhat with the expressive nature of clothing and its intimate relationship with the body – not to mention the fact that fashion is easy to work on at full-scale without digital modelling.
Yet, the rise of digital technology is undoubtedly the cultural phenomenon of our time, which makes the fashion industry’s reluctance to embrace it conspicuous. Paiocchi believes fashion has much to gain from experimenting with digital tools. ‘Computation liberated architects,’ he says, arguing that the convergence of the digital and the physical in fashion could bring about disruption to the industry’s logic of production and its established hierarchies – such as the common separation between design and manufacturing – paving the way for radical innovation. ‘Fashion designers who have fully embraced the digital in their design thinking are showing a completely new set of outcomes and possibilities.’
In the Code-Structed Skins workshops, garments emerged though the design process rather than in response to a tight brief. ‘We don’t talk about designing a skirt, T-shirt or scarf because we want the students to be free from predetermined outcomes – instead, we call it “geometry for the body”,’ Paiocchi says. Participants analyse and experiment with one of a given range of pre-rationalised components. By manipulating its parameters and multiplying the shapes, they learn about specific performative or aesthetic qualities it can generate – for example, natural torsion – going on to create a final product.
So far, the most promising outcome was a clutch bag whose structure, shape and closing mechanism are based on a series of interconnected octagonal stars. Paiocchi presented the latest prototype at June’s Vision 2017 exhibition in London, with a view to taking it forward to production. ‘It’s a bottom-up process,’ he says. ‘Usually in design you think about the concept then develop the details. Here, you don’t think about the idea until the end, when you find it in front of you.’
3D-printed dress for Dita Von Teese by Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitonti
It’s a similar thinking that guides Matija Cop, a master’s fashion student at the Royal College of Art. Turning his back on conventional references, he employs 3D software usually used by architects to develop clothes that resemble built structures more than dresses, with components that interlock without the need for stitching. The RCA is increasingly incorporating digital technology and computational elements into its fashion courses – a move that Cop welcomes: ‘We always want to think that fashion is very progressive and that we are dealing with taboos, but actually fashion is very conservative – especially when it comes to adopting new techniques and tools. In the 21st century, we need to try to understand new tools and incorporate them into our work. It’s something that I think will happen with fashion – I don’t believe we’ll use scissors for the rest of human history.’
The choice to use software more usually associated with architecture is no accident. ‘For me, architecture and fashion are similar – just on a different scale. These computer programmes are powerful tools that can be adapted to many different areas. Fashion can gain a lot from these programmes because it makes production faster, with the same quality.’
It’s this potential for mass-customisation and sustainable production, enabled also by improvements in 3D-printing technology, that makes automating the design process appealing to many – the idea of designers directly creating intricate garments to the exact dimensions of a wearer at a previously inconceivable speed and price. These are the promises that drew New York-based designer Francis Bitonti to experiment with applying algorithmic principles to clothing – most famously on a 3D-printed dress for burlesque performer Dita Von Teese. His studio’s work today goes beyond demonstrating the aesthetic potential of algorithms, focusing on developing tools for automating the design process.
Some of the experiences he describes during his ‘foray into fashion’ highlight the difficulty in disrupting an industry with such an established way of working, but Bitonti is confident that digital design and production will eventually be transformational. ‘A big disappointment was when I spoke to people in the luxury couture world and they saw the organic, beautiful, complicated geometry coming out of this way of thinking as a parallel to what they were doing – in that it was expensive and there was lots of skill and craft going into it,’ he says. ‘I never saw it that way: I was attracted to 3D printing because it looks like all the high-end luxury stuff, but it’s going to be what everyone looks like. It’s expensive now but, as the cost of [materials and technology] comes down, we will start working at scale. In the next five years, it will be on the shelves of Walmart.’
Above: A ‘dress’ and a bag produced during the Code-Structed Skins workshops (image by Amr Ezzeldinn)