Something Completely Visionary: Fashion, Tech, Innovation, Part 6

Armed with our initial vision of a base garment that could essentially play videos or images on its surface, let’s explore some of the challenges that need to be addressed before this could become reality.

Last time we talked some of the safety considerations of such a garment.  This time, let’s discuss some additional safety considerations, namely the circuitry for such a garment.

A ‘video garment’ such as we’re discussing is nothing more than a large play-back device.  But in order for it to actually work, it needs to both receive data to actually play back on its surface, and it needs power to perform the playback.  So the garment needs to be able to conduct two things in its circuitry: data, which must be uninterrupted, and power, which must be controllable for both on and off states, as well as possible rates of change.

Any circuitry which is used for playback must be uninterrupted, and must not lose connection when the body moves and changes under it.  As the garment follows the body contour and movements, the circuitry cannot be disrupted or the entire image will be disrupted, often in strange ways.

What sort of materials might be used to ensure that dataflow remains persistent? There are currently a range of materials which are used to conduct power/data, including fiber optics, thin metal threads (usually copper), and of course, metallic, printable inks.

Each of these materials has advantages and drawbacks: fiber optics are relatively inexpensive, being an ‘older technology’, and can be easily handled just like any other thread and woven into a garment.  It is already used to carry optical data and lighting, and lovely textiles have been created using fiber optics.  Some drawbacks to fiber optic textiles are that they are itchy for a wearer; if an optical thread is bent, it loses signal; and there is now easy way to connect up optical threads from different pieces of the garment (such a thread would need to be knitted into a one-piece tubular garment, which would change the addressing properties of the garment to playback imagery or video).  Fiber optics are largely inert, so a wearer wouldn’t need to be concerned about the material having any dangerous chemicals being off gassed onto their skin. Safety considerations would be relatively minor other than the possibility of the fiber optics bending and breaking and perhaps scratching the wearer.  Seams would need to be sealed carefully to prevent wearers from being hurt by the sharp cut ends of the optics.

Thin metal threads have also been used to carry data and power.  Very fine threads of copper metal are created, and simply woven into the textile just like any thread.  Like the fiber optic thread, it too shares some of the same issues of not being able to readily connect the threads between two pieces of the garment, and while the copper thread would be softer and not prone to shattering, it might still be a scratchy experience for the wearer.  Moreover, such a garment would need to be cleaned very carefully, as copper is reactive to many substances, and over time, it can oxidize, which reduces its effectiveness as a conductor.  Lastly, it would need to be sealed in some way to prevent any voltage leaks or verdigris stains from the copper oxidizing.

The third sort of circuitry would be the use of metallic inks.  This is currently being used effectively in the toy and home furnishings industries, and can be easily printed onto a textile base.  Unlike the woven in fiber optics or metallic threads, metallic inks can be printed on a garment after it has been largely constructed. This means that there is a complete circuit, without gaps at the seams which need to be connected.  Moreover, the metallic inks can be overprinted by an impermeable, protective layer of polyvinyl chloride or polyurethane, which prevents seals the printed circuitry behind a protective layer that prevents leakage of voltage, data, or harmful chemicals from the ink itself.  While this may sound great, there are still safety considerations, as printing metal-based ink often produces toxic fumes which need to be handled carefully.  Metallic inks haven’t been in use long enough to know how they respond to laundering, and they have not been extensively used on a range of product classes, so it is unclear how they will wear or respond to cleaning considerations.

It is possible, that with something like a flexible OLED for the base material, that the circuits could be designed to be embedded into the base material, which would remove many of the safety considerations and health hazards that a woven or printed circuit would have.

Next time: powering up the garment.

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White Paper Available: Leveraging the Power of Virtual Worlds for Collaboration

New York, NY March 24, 2011 – Fashion Research Institute Publishes Latest Thought Piece: Leveraging the Power of Virtual Worlds for Collaboration by CEO Shenlei Winkler.

Fashion Research Institute CEO, Shenlei Winkler, announces that FRI’s latest publication, Leveraging the Power of Virtual Worlds for Collaboration, has been published.

Based on a presentation initially made in January 2008 to IBM Research North America, this whitepaper incorporates case studies drawn from FRI’s well-publicized collaborations in business, education and fashion, and focuses on some additional use cases.

Leveraging the Power of Virtual Worlds for Collaboration may be downloaded from the Fashion Research Institute web site.

About Fashion Research Institute, Inc.: The Fashion Research Institute is at the forefront of developing innovative design & merchandising solutions for the apparel industry.  They research and develop products and systems for the fashion industry that sweepingly address wasteful business and production practices. Shenlei Winkler’s work spans both couture and mass-market design and development for the real life apparel industry. A successful designer, her lifetime sales of her real life apparel designs have now reached more than $70 million USD, with more than 25 million-dollar styles in her portfolio. Her couture work has appeared extensively on stage and movie screen.

Plus-Sized Fashion and the Apparel Industry

A response from decades of fitting women and making them look like princesses…for a pricetag well beyond ready-to-wear.

A recent NY Times article about the burgeoning plus-sized market touched only lightly on some of the issues that the designers and manufacturers of plus-sized apparel confront in the process of developing product for this marketplace. While the  reporter pointed out some of the business reasons that many clothing labels don’t pursue this increasingly lucrative marketplace, including some of the basics such as increased cost of manufacturing and increased cost of materials, she actually missed what we think are the most the critical points about developing for the plus-sized woman.

The first is a point that any fashion designer or couteriere will recognize right away: the size 8 pattern block is the ‘standard sized’ block, and as you get closer to the outer ranges  of the  ‘standard sizing’ (size 0, size 14) the size/shape challenges become, well, challenging.  Women carry their extra weight differently that men do.  When men get plus-sized, most of the time they just add it in their abdomen.  Compared to women, men  are relatively ‘boxy.’ This makes grading ‘big and tall’ garments for men easier to design the style and to grade the manufacturing patterns than it is for women with their curvier figures.  This means men’s garments in the ‘big and tall’ styles are more likely to  fit correctly and look good.

When women gain weight, they may add additional flesh anywhere on the body, which can range from fleshy upper arms, to a big bust line, wide hips and even plump ankles and feet.  The woman’s underlying frame won’t change, but where and how she carries the extra weight does.  In dealing with plus-sized women, there isn’t an easy algorithmic predictor of where this extra flesh will be located on the body, precisely because of the variety of body types that a plus-size may have.

This means that plus-sized patterns don’t grade equally or evenly from the standard block.  You can’t just incrementally grade up from a standard block and hope the fit pattern will be correct.  What that means to the consumer is that fitting a plus-sized gal is much harder than a ‘standard-size’ woman and quite often design houses will default to some version of the muu-muu in an effort to have some sort of offering in this marketplace.

Add in the fact that you can’t just pull a design out of the collection and think that all of the design elements will translate – you usually have to do  major reworking of the design to move seams and darts as well as resizing other elements such as buttons.  At a certain point the design becomes a completely different design. Everything about the plus-sized garment costs more because you need bigger buttons, more yardage for the garment (which doesn’t nest as tightly on the yard goods, which adds even more yardage to the overall yardage length), you have more or longer seams to stitch, more thread, the finished garment weighs more so costs more to ship than the standard garment, and so on.   Just one garment with these additional costs could be absorbed (maybe), but do even a moderate run of 10,000 pieces and suddenly your margin is gone.

The same printed designs that look adorable on the smaller framed wearer will look juvenile and lost on the bigger wearer, so that means that either the print needs to be scaled-up to complement the wearer’s additional volume (adding additional expense across the supply chain since you’ve added a ‘new’ print to your collection) or more likely, the garment is produced in a plain (less expensive) fabric.

The apparel industry is not willfully ignoring plus-sized women.  We can’t afford to miss any revenue stream out there.  It’s just a lot harder to deliver a product that fits any given plus-sized woman well, AND looks good on her  then it is to design a standard size garment where there’s a much greater likelihood of the wearer being happy with both the fit and styling.   A standard size run  for the 8-14 market  gets hairy when you move to the 16+ market.  Remember how we said women carry their extra weight differently? Well,  if you pick out any five plus-sized women, odds are you’ll have at least three fitting challenges, and possibly five: pear with big hips & thighs;  pear, with big fanny;  big tummy and no fanny; round all over;  classic hourglass; T-shape with big bust and arms and no fanny; T-shape with big back, smaller bust, heavy arms…the list of fitting challenges goes on, but apparel manufacturers are constrained to produce one design standard per size.  How do you fit all of these women, each of whom need more fabric in a given area, and have the garment look and hang correctly?

To illustrate the issue, let me share this true story about fitting plus-girls: I spent a couple decades doing couture. At one point, I had to fit two brides maids for the same wedding, both size 26.  Theoretically, I should have been able to use the same pattern for both since they both had the ‘same’ RTW size and they both weighed the same within a couple of pounds.  However, when I measured them, it turned out one girl carried her weight in her tummy, with no fanny to mention; the other girl was closer to a classic hourglass with big hips and chest.  The hourglass was straight forward to fit; the other one gave me many gray hairs.  Try hanging one of those big old pseudo southern belle dresses with acres of skirt off a girl with no fanny…it’s hard enough with a littler woman, but when you have a bigger woman with yards of fabric in the skirt dragging it off the waist down the rear, and no waist worth mentioning, it’s a problem that requires some heroic fit efforts which aren’t possible in ready-to-wear.  And you can’t charge more for the woman with whose fitting issue who gave you more gray hairs because she’s not going to understand the pricing differential, even though her fitting issues were much time consuming than the hourglass girl.

We did get the flat-bottomed girl fit, and she looked lovely in her bouffant ersatz southern belle frock, which had some serious power rigging under it to keep it where it was supposed to be. (And she got a waistline for the first time in her life, which thrilled her to no end. Woot! the power of couture and proper foundations!)

After that experience I swore off doing plus-sized.  I found it far more time-consuming, expensive, and just too hard, even in a couture setting, to address all of the challenges that the plus-sized market offers.  In a production setting, it’s very difficult to produce a garment that any given plus-sized wearer is going to agree fits correctly and looks good on her.  If the wearer is one of the lucky ones, whose body shape/form/mass aligns with the fit model used by the design house, then she’ll be fine. But what about all the other women whose body don’t match? And how do you tell what body type the design house used in the first place?  Most design houses aren’t posting pictures of their fit models (although maybe they should).

Another thing I found after decades of couture is that women have a really poor vision of what their body is really like. I have had clients swear up and down they took a “size 16 religiously”, but that’s not what the tape showed.  Couture is vanity-driven, but it does not buy into ‘vanity sizing’, because the only standard is the one the client’s body presents.  The tape measure doesn’t lie even if the client does.  And just to clarify, clients lie for a lot of reasons, including the fact they’ve never been accurately measured, or they are honestly confused about their size because there’s no accurate size standard in the apparel industry, not because they are willfully trying to deceive the couteriere that she’s ‘really’ an 18 when the tape says something different.  In one case, I had a client who had a size 18 bottom and a size 14 top, and she wondered why dresses never fit her correctly.  She was ‘averaging’ and buying a size 16.  Her bodices were always baggy and her bottoms were always too tight.  We were able to fit her and even visually slenderize her through clever placement of trim and seams, but this is not something that is currently an option with modern production capabilities.  Couture like this is expensive — so expensive it is outside the budget of most women except for special occasions such as weddings or proms.  This means most women who are buying ready-to-wear are limited to what the industry can do.

This is one of the reasons we’re so excited to see all of the new technologies entering the marketplace that use avatars.  Woman can finally have their bodies scanned and get a true representation of their bodies.  We’re still a way off from enabling the customer to develop garments that fit her uniquely and are custom fabricated just for her unique figure, body shape and measurements, but we think that one of the things which will drive the whole field of custom fabrication will be this issue of women not being able to find clothing that fits them well and makes them feel like a million bucks.  And we know that  Fashion Research Institute will be leading the way to helping both designers and consumers get a better fit and production from their design concepts, all the way from conception to manufacture.

Applications Open for Summer 2010 Internship Program

Once again the Fashion Research Institute is pleased to announce 5 avatar apparel design internships to be conducted wholly in the immersive workspaces it maintains in OpenSim and Second Life.

The focus of the internship is to develop skills for virtual goods development, specifically apparel with a lesser focus on accessories and footwear.  The intent of the internship is to assist interns to develop private design practices where they can create and sell their virtual goods. Interns are provided with classroom space and creation space in FRI’s OpenSim regions, and store front space on the heavily trafficked Shengri La regions in Second Life.  Interns are taught using the patent-pending design methodology created by Fashion Research Institute, which is applicable to both avatar apparel and to their work developing physical apparel.

This course follows a collection-oriented design sequence, in which the class is expected to develop a mood board, color story, and concept boards for 6 outfits which will be developed for inclusion in a virtual fashion show, which will be designed as a group project. The course includes class work and home work and follows an aggressive schedule successfully piloted with real life fashion design students.  Students have full creation privileges in the online classroom as well as an assigned space for use for the duration of the class.  Students receive virtual tool kit resources as part of their internship.

All texture work is expected to be accomplished off line as part of the homework assignments.  Extensive resources and documentation are provided in the classroom, and students have full access to the classroom during their course.  All work is graded and receives feedback from the instructor. Students will complete 3 outfits, develop an initial label concept, and complete an initial showroom/store design. They will show their work on a runway at the final class, using their avatars as models.

Students must provide their own computer, internet connection, scanner, and image editing program(s) as well as have Second Life and Skype accounts.

Recommended text book: Designing Dreams, Shenlei E. Winkler, available on Amazon.com

At the end of their internships, Interns’ work will be presented in a virtual fashion runway show, with avatar models which the interns will style from hair to shoes.  All interns will complete their internship with Fashion Research Institute with a completed collection of avatar apparel including concept boards to product ads, which may be added to their portfolio. A final presentation of their work will be created.  Our Summer 2009  interns’ runway show can be viewed here.

Requirements:

Interns must provide their own Internet access and computer hardware and software sufficient to allow them access to the Institute’s classroom and facilities in the immersive OpenSim and Second Life regions of Shengri La.  Interns must have experience with and access to Photoshop (not provided). Interns must have a Second Life avatar account (available free), and are solely responsible for any fees related to their Second Life account.  Interns must also have a Skype account (free) with access to it during training periods.

Interns who successfully complete the 12-week long program will receive a certificate of completion and may be eligible for admission into the Fashion Research Institute incubation program.

Applicants may be currently enrolled in design school or recent graduates. Some design experience and background is required; these internships are not suitable for freshmen.

To apply, send your resume with 1-2 fashion images you have sketched or illustrated along with contact information to admin @ fashionresearchinstitute.com.

Introducing the Fashion Research Institute Campus on ScienceSim

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We are pleased to introduce the Fashion Research Institute campus for fashion design education on the ScienceSim.  The campus spreads across 9 regions, including the original historical build Shengri La™ Spirit.  Fashion Research Institute’s “3-D website” is located at Shengri La Spirit 01, and incorporates a welcome center with an avatar customization salon and information about the Fashion Research Institute and its activities.  We are particularly pleased with our ‘3D Website’ which has now been instantiated into two grids, IBM’s vBusiness grid and now the ScienceSim grid, both installations were performed flawlessly.   Maintaining these two grid installations is remarkably easy, since the original region file is maintained on our private Fashionable Grid™.  Changes to the region are seamless, with the region’s OAR file being uploaded to the various grids where it is present.

Fashion Research Institute has also incorporated its Library of content creation tutorials and references into the campus.  The Library is contained on its own region, Shengri La Spirit 02, and is currently hosting a fashion exhibit about Edwardian men’s neckwear.  An array of art and design examples using virtual worlds are included in several other regions, which may be freely visited.

An additional two regions are reserved for the upcoming Threading the Needle conference for fashion design students.  Threading the Needle is the first ever virtual worlds-based fashion design conference, which is being presented for fashion design students to attend free of charge.  Such notables as Fiona Jenvey, (CEO, Mudpie), Beth Harris (Director of Digital Learning, MOMA NYC), and Kerry Bannigan (CEO, Nolcha Fashion Week) will be presenting to students logging in from around the world.

Fashion Research Institute’s campus for fashion design education may be freely visited in the ScienceSim grid, where all regions are publicly accessible.  Simply log in and locate the Shengri La Spirit regions in the world map. Please note the spelling “Shengri La”, which is our trademarked region name which labels all of our regions in all grids.

We would like to thank the Intel Corporation for hosting and hardware provided to Fashion Research Institute as part of our research collaboration with Intel Labs.  We would also like to thank Mic Bowman and coworkers for their efforts in managing our OpenSim-based regions on the ScienceSim grid.  We are pleased to continue our research into innovative methods for educating fashion designers for both the $1.7 trillion apparel industry and the emerging niche market of virtua designers.

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Fashion Research Institute Fall 2009 Internships in Avatar Apparel Design

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Virtual apparel is a burgeoning market.  In 2008, more than $2.6 billion dollars of virtual goods were sold in virtual worlds, games, and immersive spaces.  This figure is expected to double in 2009. Avatar apparel – clothing, accessories, and footwear worn by avatars – is a huge part of these sales.  Until now, there have been no programs specifically intended to help new designers become established in this area.

After more than 3 years of development, the Fashion Research Institute is pleased to announce 5 avatar apparel design internships to be conducted wholly in the immersive workspaces it maintains in OpenSim and Second Life.

The focus of the internship is to develop skills for virtual goods development, specifically apparel with a lesser focus on accessories and footwear.  The intent of the internship is to assist interns to develop private design practices where they can create and sell their virtual goods. Interns are provided with classroom space and creation space in FRI’s OpenSim regions, and store front space on the heavily trafficked Shengri La regions in Second Life.  Interns are taught using the patent=pending design methodology created by Fashion Research Institute, which is applicable to both avatar apparel and to their work developing physical apparel.

These internships will begin October 5 and run until December 14.  Interns are expected to commit a minimum of 6-8 hours a week to the internship, with formal training sessions provided on Monday evenings from 6-9 pm ET.  Interns must commit to being present at these training sessions.  Instruction is provided only in English.

At the end of their internships, Interns’ work will be presented in a virtual fashion runway show, with live models which the interns will style from hair to shoes.  All interns will complete their internship with Fashion Research Institute with a completed collection of avatar apparel including concept boards to product ads, which may be added to their portfolio. A final presentation of their work will be created.  Our Summer interns’ runway show can be viewed here.

Requirements:

Interns must provide their own Internet access and computer hardware and software sufficient to allow them access to the Institute’s classroom and facilities in the immersive OpenSim and Second Life regions of Shengri La.  Interns must have experience with and access to Photoshop (not provided). Interns must have a Second Life avatar account (available free), and are solely responsible for any fees related to their Second Life account.   Interns must also have a Skype account (free) with access to it during training periods.

Interns who successfully complete the 12 week long program will receive a certificate of completion and may be eligible for admission into the Fashion Research Institute incubation program.

Applicants may be currently enrolled in design school or recent graduates. Some design experience and background is required; these internships are not suitable for freshmen.  Internships begin October 5th.

To apply, send your resume with 1-2 fashion images you have sketched or illustrated along with contact information to admin @ fashionresearchinstitute.com.

Avatar Apparel vs. the Real Apparel Industry

In my various talks, I am often asked by members of the audience ‘what’s the difference between ‘virtual fashion’ (which we at FRI refer to as avatar apparel) and ‘real fashion’.  It’s pretty clear from this question that people who aren’t apparel industry practitioners really aren’t aware that there’s actually huge, disparate differences between the $1.7 trillion USD global apparel industry, and developing digital fashions worn by avatars and gaming characters.  Let me point out here that I do not regard apparel industry fashion as the only ‘real’ fashion, but I also recognize that there is a substantial monetary divide between not just avatar fashion and apparel industry fashion, but between the avatar apparel content providers and apparel industry fashion designers. 

Let’s start with the similarities because they’re easy: both avatar fashion, and apparel industry fashion, must appeal to the emotions of the purchaser.  Both kinds are developed out of the imagination and creativity of the practitioners.  And both are currently initially created, to some extent, using 2-D design tools such as Illustrator and Photoshop.  But it is at this point where things diverge.

Avatar apparel creators can simply stop at the point where they’ve developed 2-D images.  This type of fashion is only instantiated within a virtual world.  It is not subject to the laws of physics, because it is never manufactured. Avatar apparel creators do not need to worry about considerations such as manufacturability, fit, function, sizing standards, supply chain considerations, factory capabilities, labor requirements, first cost, patterns or pattern making, marketability, trends, trend stories, timing, seasonality, collection function, development and production.  In short, everything that goes into actually manufacturing a tangible product is missing from the avatar apparel production pipeline. 

And the pipeline itself is quite different.  The apparel industry, as I mentioned before, generates a global and whopping $1,700 billion US dollars a year in revenue.  The entire global gaming industry, in comparison, is expected to generate only $66 billion in 2011 for hardware, software, services, and content, according to ABI Research.   Content revenues were about $275 million for 2007, according to IDC Research.  Avatar apparel isn’t broken out as a separate component of content, so it is difficult to compare avatar fashion revenue dollars in a direct one-to-one comparison to apparel industry fashion revenue dollars, but I do think anyone can see that revenues generated by avatar apparel are a tiny fraction of apparel industry revenues.

Developing tangible apparel for real people to wear in the real world takes real capital inputs. It takes a deep understanding of global markets, trends, material science, textiles, construction techniques, costing, and a deep creative accumen.  It also requires a lot of specialized training: a fashion designer can expect to spend at least four grueling years learning specific development systems on top of the basics of color, fit, form, draping, pattern making, textile science, selected manufacturing techniques, and if she chooses to specialize, all of the mandatory requirements she must have to enter that field.  An apparel industry designer needs all that education when the time comes for her to move her finished fashion design out of the concept phase and into the production pipeline. 

At that point, she has to develop a factory-ready technical specification, which fully details every seam, every thread, every exact qualification and specification of every input into the garment she’s created, right down to the specific color numbers called out by her design director.  One might think she’d be done there.  But actually, that’s just the start of a long process of getting her vision instantiated in the physical world. 

She will also call on her entire team of production specialists, from the manager whose role is to see that single design through the manufacturing process, to the trim specialists, costing agents, customs agents, lawyers (in many cases), technical specialists, merchandisers, and a range of other specialists.  She has to take that design, and iterate on it until it is correct.  She’ll look at innumerable iterations, check the sizing and fit, examine the quality of the textiles, stitching, linings, and other inputs, and she’ll receive as many physical samples as it takes, and do that working under some intense time deadlines and cost requirements, to help her team bring that final rack-ready garment to your local apparel store. 

An avatar apparel creator needs simply to create images that map correctly to whatever mesh-based system that is used in their chosen revenue arena. It’s a quick process in comparison to real world apparel development and avatar apparel creators can ignore almost all of the requirements an apparel industry fashion designer must consider. Anyone with a good eye for color and moderate to excellent pixel editing skills can jump in and learn quickly to develop avatar fashion. These garments will never need to be put through the manufacturing process; the realities of manufacturability and the wearer’s comfort aren’t even a consideration.

Clearly, the differences between avatar apparel, and the apparel you will wear tomorrow are manifold.  And it is those very differences that the Fashion Research Institute was formed to address.  Our work with IBM has resulted in an entirely new way of designing and developing apparel industry product.  We are not focused on avatar apparel or its development, which will proceed quite nicely on its own path.  We are focused on helping the apparel industry to cut its time to market, slash its development costs, reduce its carbon footprint, and enhance its profitability and revenue opportunities.  We are using virtual worlds to insulate designers from technology and to enable them to focus on design. 

This ultimately allows everyone to do what they do best: People to create, computers to work.