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.

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.