Are bespoke digital design and automated sewing robots the future of fashion?
When it comes to automation, fashion has lagged behind other industries. Are AI designers the next big thing?
If you were to close your eyes and imagine the clothing of the future, you’d likely picture severe, angular cuts in synthetic fabrics, like something out of Blade Runner. Set in 2019, Ridley Scott’s ’80s version of the future still seems very far away. In all likelihood, it was Spike Jonze who got it right with his 2013 movie Her. One of the most-talked-about aspects of the film was the high-waisted pants, worn by Joaquin Pheonix, that were at odds with the high-tech world in which they roamed. “Spike liked to describe them as your pants giving you a hug around your waist,” costume designer Casey Storm told The New York Times. “It’s an emotion that felt nice to us.” This sartorial sentiment is echoed by Ministry of Supply’s Boston-based chief design officer Gihan Amarasiriwardena when he talks about his brand’s 3-D blazer, a seamless garment that is made by a machine in 90 minutes to a customer’s exact specifications for $355. Customers say it feels like “wearing a hug,” says Amarasiriwardena, adding that consumers can now become more invested in what they’re wearing and how it’s made. “It allows us to build a deeper relationship with our products rather than just something that you buy and then throw away.” An MIT-trained chemical engineer, Amarasiriwardena was lured into the apparel business by the prospect of bringing professional workwear into the future. “All of this performance existed in the outdoor space and the athletic space, but so little of that has translated into what we wear every day,” he says. Unlike other industries that have embraced technical manufacturing processes, mass fashion has chased cheap labour around the world, moving factories from North America to Asia, and now parts of Africa, instead of trying to find new, efficient and ethical ways to innovate production. Because of its trendsetting nature, fashion typically focuses its energy on seasonal stylistic changes rather than functional innovation. But the rise of automation and digital production is finally trickling into the fashion world. Last year, Jonathan Zornow created Sewbo, a process that chemically stiffens fabrics to allow automated sewing robots to produce an entire garment. A software engineer, Seattle-based Zornow was inspired by an episode of How It’s Made on jeans. “It seemed strange that we wouldn’t have more automation in that field; I had assumed that robots were making all of our clothes,” he told Fast
Company. With his new invention, this assumption may come to fruition. A 2016 study by The Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship found that 42 per cent of the Canadian labour force is at high risk of being affected by automation over the next decade or two. One component of robotic production is 3-D printing. Typically thought of as architectural objets, clothing produced by 3-D printers first made waves in 2010, when Dutch designer Iris van Herpen sent her award-winning couture down the runway at Amsterdam Fashion Week. Impressive feats of imagination they may be, but wearable they are not. Today, these otherworldly creations are being brought down to earth by Canadian labels like Sid Neigum, who in June won a $50,000 grant to explore 3-D printing. Even he was surprised by the soft, flowing fabrics created by the technology. »