Main Image: Steven Tai with LMxLAB

Tech: Augmenting Runways

In a two-part series, ORDRE looks at how developments in technology will impact on runways and retailers in the coming years.

Chanel’s replica ocean liner, La Pause, almost cruised onto a watery runway this resort season. Instead, it had to make do with forming the backdrop to the megabrand’s latest collection, which was nonetheless an impressive 148 meters in length. Karl Lagerfeld’s plan was to set sail, with 80 outfits and 900 guests in tow, but despite being two years in the planning, the ship failed to make it to sea.

This is where new technologies can fill the gap, according to Matthew Drinkwater, who heads up The Fashion Innovation Agency (FIA) - celebrating its fifth anniversary this month. It also creates a playing-field for brands to complete with the likes of Chanel and other superbrands who stage shows that conjure up fashion fantasies from real-life theatrical sets and experiences.

Drinkwater, who operates at the cusp of fashion, retail and tech, explains that tech is now offering the fashion industry experiences that were, up to now, frankly unimaginable. “We wondered, what if we could drop audiences directly into an environment?” Drinkwater asks. “Have it come to life around an audience, in real time, all around?” That’s exactly what the IFA did for London-based Steven Tai with ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm's immersive entertainment division.

During London Fashion Week, Tai brought Macau to his audience. This, like Chanel’s ship, took time and Tai travelled to Macau with his camera to photograph the region. The results were sent to the technology team at the lab to create the augmented reality environment.

“One way to stand out in a convenience-driven retail culture is to create brand experiences that ‘travel well’ digitally”

“My brand started with presentations and I build each season on a story,” Tai tells ORDRE. “For that season I wanted to capture the surroundings, the streets, the eclectic culture and history of the region. Basically, an immersive experience which brought Macau to the audience.”

“Typically when you arrive you at a show you will have show-notes on your seat explaining the inspiration behind a collection,” Drinkwater explains. Now with immersive technologies, audiences can be transported directly to this inspiration. So while Chanel sets it stalls firmly in the physical, other brands like Tai’s, are using the digital realm to explore their imaginations.

According to Meredith Smith, strategy director at The Future Laboratory, this signals an important shift for both retailers and for fashion runways - one of the only ways to stand out in a convenience-driven retail culture is to create brand experiences that ‘travel well’ digitally. "To continue to carve out passion and aspiration for a luxury brand, fashion houses will need to make runways shows discoverable, interactive, informative and shareable in conversation digitally and in real life, " she adds.

“The second part of the process was a bit more involved,” Tai, a self-confessed tech nerd, suggests. Referring to the clothes themselves, he outlines the process of live-capture used with an off-stage model: “She was wearing the dots like you see in movie effects. I had to create early prototypes so reactions could be programmed to respond in real time.”

London, home to over 50,000 firms in the tech sector and an established movie industry, is where all the effects were created. “The skill set required to create these sorts of experiences are specifically located in London,” Drinkwater points out, adding, “We are incredibly fortunate in this city to have a very established gaming and movie industry. It gets really exciting when the creativity of the design world gets paired with the tech industry.”

“We are fortunate in London to have a very established gaming and movie industry. It gets really exciting when the creativity of the design world gets paired with the tech industry”

London is also home to a huge amount of Government support, specifically focused on the immersive industries, that keeps the sector buoyed. It includes the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund that supports sectors like AI and the data economy - a further £725 million has been announced for the second wave during 2018 and 2019.

But, the use of tech is surprisingly restrained and very few luxury brands are yet to employ it meaningful way on the runway - Burberry being an obvious exception. Alison Cardy, managing director of design consultancy, HMRK, suggests, whether through big production budgets or ambitious, immersive experiences, brands will do whatever they can to stand out on the runway.

“The massive budgets now being spent on cruise collections demonstrate the shift by the big players away from the madness of the fashion week into a more controlled and tailored experience - often lasting a few days,” Cardy says. “They are investing to keep their customers and key influencers energised and excited, building total experiences which drive engagement across all their platforms.”

Engagement was definitely up for Steven Tai. “We weren’t sure how this would translate into sales but Steven’s brand had a fantastic season,” Drinkwater discloses. “That could be down to many reasons, but it seemed to be that the technology created a reason which encouraged audiences to stay longer, look at the clothes longer, and that has to be really powerful for brand imagery and recognition.”

"Most runway shows last about eight minutes, but their impact on the consumer’s fashion conversation should last for months to come, " Smith outlines. According to the Fashion Innovation Agency, audiences can typically spend 10 minutes at a presentation during fashion week, but at Tai’s immersive show, the dwell time was longer - sometimes 20, 30 or 40 minutes - with some guests staying for the entire duration.

Why was this? The longer audiences spent in the presentation, the more it came to life. Digital outfits, all powered in real time, responded to their environment. This live action - as opposed to being created in a controlled post-production facility - was a first in the fashion industry and connected with audiences.

Whether a simulated sea is of interest to Chanel is unknown, but the cork is well and truly out of the genie’s bottle. According to Drinkwater: “You are limited only by your imagination, this means endless creative possibilities for the design community and fashion week.”

“Ultimately, I would expect to see a whole lot more uptake in the coming seasons,” he continues, confident for the future of immersive tech and experiences. “In fact, I think you’ll also see this being deployed everywhere including retail experiences.”

Tune in for part two, where ORDRE looks at the implications of runway experiences on the retail sector.

Steven Tai with ILMxLAB