Fashion Innovation Agency on their mission and emerging job roles in digital fashion
Following Fashion Innovation Agency’s (FIA) presentation at Big Welcome and their “Pose XR” activation at V&A as part of Digital Design Weekend, we caught up with FIA to hear more about what their mission is, future of digital fashion and what’s next.
Let’s start with who you both are, what do you do and how did you get into what you do?
Moin: I'm Moin Roberts-Islam. I'm the Technology Development Manager at FIA. My role is to go out and explore new technologies, find ones that are interesting to fashion, and then find ways to apply them to the fashion industry, showcasing the benefits of taking on these technologies. I got into fashion tech through a bit of a long-winded route. I've had a very varied career in a few different areas - finance, education, art, and technology as well. I've known FIA for a long time, seen them at a number of events and then when the posting came up for the role I jumped at it.
Costas: I am Costas Kazantzis, I am the Creative Technologist working in-house at FIA. My background merges computer science with fashion media production and fashion communication. My role at FIA mainly involves experimenting with any kind of new tools and technologies that we are observing. Usually, I work a lot with game engine technologies – online, VR, AR. I also work a lot with 3D design software. So how I got into fashion tech? My first degree was in Computer Engineering, and it was very conservative, hardcore engineering so I started photography in parallel. I was always trying to bridge the gap between the two. After introducing myself to the 3D realm and immersive technologies, I figured out that the image can be so much more - it can be distorted, augmented, virtualized, which basically allows it to lose its original purity with reality. It gives you the power to create very diverse experiences and this is something that fascinates me. I also used to work a lot with digital marketing and fashion communication for fashion stores and brands and gradually moved on into fashion tech.
Let’s talk about FIA – what do you do and what is your mission?
Costas: We have a really exciting remit from the college - to go out there and disrupt the fashion industry by exploring new technology and finding applications for it within the industry. We are mostly looking at technologies that are three to five years from the implementation - not something that is already available and distributed, but something that will be available within three to five years from now. When working on our projects, we usually will look through three pillars Making, Showing and Retailing. Showing is about making collections and we do a lot of work around smart materials, smart processes. Then - how designers showcase their collection. We have done a lot of digital experiences, digital fashion shows, immersive experiences – essentially merging traditional and emerging practices and creating new ways of collaboration within the field. And finally, we investigate how designers retail and sell their collections. For example, moving away from the traditional 2D scrolling, which is something that we see a lot in e-commerce, and going into the immersive. There is a physical element to it too - in-store activations, merging the physical with the digital and seamless ways. Through all our projects, we're bringing together fashion brands and technology partners creating this proof of concepts, prototypes, and then we bring them back into the university as a part of Knowledge Exchange. We also have a presence inside the fashion tech space by having public panel discussions and presenting the projects to the wider public.
I’ve seen that you recently did “Pose XR” activation as a part of V&A Digital Design Weekend. Can you tell me more about it?
Costas: It was an exhibition type of activation - you could go inside the museum, scan a QR and have the experience. In Pose XR, we experimented a lot with volumetric capture, which is a technology that allows you to capture a real person and real garments and then to import that into a digital environment. With this project, we wanted to change the position that the audience takes in the generation of fashion experiences. In Pose XR, the audience is able to access the experience and be able to art direct their own fashion shoot. Through Unity, which is a game engine, we were able to program and the user who enters the experience has control over different aspects of the digital environment from the lighting, the props, they can change different scenes, angles and locations of the camera and through that they can create photos and videos and take on art director’s role.
Moin: The volumetric capture that Costas is mentioned, capturing a model moving and the garment moving was all done at London College of Fashion, UAL. Ordinarily, volumetric capture, externally, costs extreme amounts of money so you know, we being able to do it in house at the college, using the hardware and the expertise within LCF alongside our collaborators was amazing. We do a lot of things at LCF with the college's equipment, we're really trying to push those frontiers and make it as accessible to students as we can.
What was the most exciting project that you have worked on?
Moin: It is a project Costas knows very well - Microsoft Accelerator. We collaborated with Microsoft over a number of years, but I really enjoyed this project in particular. Microsoft gave us some of their latest technologies - HoloLens headset, cloud computing and sensors for body tracking. We had six teams of students who came up with ideas for how to utilise those technologies and we picked the strongest six student teams. Over the course of four months students who worked on these projects and developed their ideas. All within LCF, it was all done within the capabilities we have. And the results at the end were just amazing. They were absolutely amazing! All six teams did an outstanding job. We had a kind of big exhibit in Spitalfields market, we had members of the public, local businesses and press coming down and everyone was wowed by it. It was a real eye-opener to see the talent that we have within the college. You know, a lot of our work is outward-facing and industry-facing, and we work with very talented people and that's a given, because we seek them out. But to know that there's that talent within the College coming through… it was awesome. Seeing the ideas that they came up with, the projects they created, the level of technical ability that came out at the end was just absolutely awe-inspiring. And the cherry on top is that we found Costas through that project. And now he's part of our team!
I feel like there is this idea that digital fashion is mostly relevant to designers and makers, and it sometimes can be a bit intimidating to practitioners who work on communication, marketing and business side. What is the importance of tapping into and adopting new technologies and digital fashion and possibilities it provides for communications and marketing practitioners?
Costas: Digital fashion is going to influence all pillars of fashion industry - from making to selling to communicating. And I like to consider the fact that in the future our younger generations won't be able to understand the fact that we had the screen as a dimension to interact with the digital world, because we're getting to a point where these two realms are going to be seamlessly brought together, so it will be very difficult to have a distinction between what's real and what's not. In this context, I think it's extremely important to think of ways in which the dissemination of content is going to change within that realm, because everything is going to be happening there - advertising, communicating content. The way we disseminate and articulate content outside is changing - there's a blending of digital and physical
Moin: Going back to the three main areas that we work on, Make-Show-Sell, like the technology really does apply across that whole fashion chain. Of course, people's mind can more readily go to the make side of things but show and sell are huge and they're really important and to be honest, they're probably the bits we get more excited about. Because there is more opportunity there. And, as Costas said, the industry is changing - there's a blending of digital and physical, and we have got this industry 4.0 coming. It's not only the 'make' side of things that is changing - it is the whole industry that's changing, there a whole new set of job roles coming out. You know, if you've got a digital model, you can retail a product before it's even been made, gauge interest and when people place orders and then you ho and put it into production. Likewise, you can showcase goods without shipping them across the world, so you remove that carbon footprint, all the kind of off-cuts, the sampling, the shipping back and forth.
Costas: And it's extremely relevant from a perspective as well, because it's been proven that for the audience these kinds of technologies create more meaningful experiences, and then conversion rates are increased.
What is a key perception that you notice people have about digital fashion that you would like to change?
Moin: Personally, I'd say that the level of quality that you can produce is a lot better than people think. Sometimes when people think of digital fashion, they think of Sims or Snapchat filters. I think that it is because that's what's most readily available to people and that's what's most obviously described as digital fashion. That's what people's perception is. Whereas if you look at some of our projects, even some of our projects from a few years ago, the level of realism you can get from a garment is astonishing. The technologies are getting to the point where they are photo-real, I mean, it is just there's no more uncanny valley, you look at it and it's real, it's beautiful. So that's probably for me, the biggest misconception is that everyone thinks digital fashion is kind of not quite there, a low-grade glitchy thing. Whereas it's not.
Costas: I would say is that sometimes within the fashion industry, people are very negative about digital fashion. And their argument is that fashion is about tangibility, physicality, which is something that I personally I agree with. Digital fashion cannot replace physical fashion 100%. But I think that the fashion industry needs to be more open-minded and start questioning the way they have been doing things and how the digital can become a very important tool in the pipeline of creating garments, showcasing them and retailing them. Yeah, I think about ways through which the blending of the digital and the physical could create an industry that is much more sustainable and inclusive like we have - we have seen the benefits of digital fashion in terms of sustainability.
What are you working on next? Any exciting collabs they can share with us now?
Moin: We can give you hints! It is blending physical and digital - bringing digital assets into the physical world or potentially taking physical assets into a digital world. Or both at the same time! And then likewise, just that those areas that are always being pursued and improving the overlay of digital onto the physical world.
Costas: I think that this year will be a lot around doing all that experimenting as Moin said. Digital trial and immersive experiences, but also bringing a physical element into it. Because we have been a bit tired with everything needing to be purely digital due to COVID. So now we are exploring ways of how to seamlessly merge the two.
Do you work on student-facing projects? How can students get involved in FIA projects?
- See more projects from FIA at www.fialondon.com