DEI REFLECTION: SMALL FASHION BRANDS ARE SPEARHEADING UNIQUE TECHNOLOGICAL APPROACHES AMIDST COVID-19
Fashion Week is annually anticipated across the world to see new fashion trends. Events and shows are exclusive, with the public getting their glimpse into the bustling world of fashion week through social media and the surrounding fuss of celebrities and models. When Covid-19 drastically altered life as we knew it, designers had to completely rethink their approach to the most influential week in fashion. While major houses and luxury brands have turned to renting out large, outdoor spaces, small brands have utilized technology in a way that truly sets them apart. That’s not to say that larger brands haven’t also adapted to the challenges; in fact in 2020, Shanghai Fashion Week modeled how global fashion brands could pivot to live-stream shows, as their event reached over 11 million viewers and generated more than $2.82 million in gross merchandise volume. Dior streamed their Spring/Summer 2021 runway show live from Paris on 12 platforms, with TikTok and Douyin totaling 27 million views. The video of the show has been seen over 100 million times and the hashtag #DiorSS21 was used 360 million times on popular Chinese site Weibo.
While many were scrambling for viable solutions, Congolese fashion designer Anifa Mvuemba had originally planned a virtual show for her brand Hanifa prior to Covid-19’s social distancing guidelines. In an interview with Teen Vogue, Mvuemba shares how she had been working to create computer-generated models over a seven-month period. 3D models aren't new to Mvuemba, who has been using them long before the pandemic to share and convey ideas with her team and on her Instagram page of over 300,000 followers. In her words, “Designing content using 3D models and now an entire collection has been a complete game changer for me. It actually requires an even greater amount of attention-to-detail for the clothes to fit and look just right.”
The collection titled “Pink Label Congo” was inspired by her Congolese heritage, and Mvuemba deemed it important to start the show with a short documentary that focused on child labor in cobalt mines in the Congo. In explaining her intentions behind the move she remarked, “I wanted people to feel what people from Congo have been feeling for years: oppressed. Media outlets don’t cover news about the illegal child labor and abuse of power in Congo, and if they do, it’s ‘watered down significantly.’” During the show, the digitally rendered models walked down the runway with the designer's outfits form-fitted to their invisible bodies captivating the audience with realistic folds, movement, and body language. As a 3D model image of a backless mini dress walked across the screen, viewers learned that this dress was made to represent the Congolese flag colors. Zendaya was seen wearing this dress on the September 2020 InStyle cover that was aptly titled “Fashion Is Back,” referring to how Mvuemba brought life to fashion through technology amidst social distancing and a disillusioned pandemic.
During Mvuemba’s fashion show, other pieces were shown on-screen as information was provided on various Congolese inspiration. As a denim jumpsuit moves across the screen, it’s noted that the ruching and ruffling details are commonly used by Congolese seamstresses. An asymmetrical silk dress displays a landscape of the Congo River, blue skies, and grass across the fabric. The collection was streamed live on Instagram with accessibility in mind in order to give everyone a front-row seat to the detail and elegance of the clothes. Per Mvuemba, “We know that some people may never experience a fashion week or Hanifa showcase, so we wanted to show up for our audience where they show up for us on a daily basis. That’s when Instagram became the obvious choice.” Following the show, clips went viral on Twitter for an even larger audience, changing fashion week from VIP only to accessible for all.
In 2020, London-based Israeli fashion designer Ganit Goldstein launched a virtual reality fashion exhibition to introduce her new 3D printed garment collection called “WeAreAble.” Goldstein uses multi-material polyjet technology to develop 3D printed textiles along with embroidery to successfully produce the clothes in her collection. Goldstein’s work was inspired by her time spent in Japan learning ecot weaving and Asian embroidery and textile art. WeAreAble focuses on the process of creating 3D printed clothes based on measurements from a 360 body scanner, which then enables Goldstein to create unique items perfectly tailored to a person’s form. With WeAreAble, Goldstein combines traditional garment-making techniques with cutting-age technology to produce an item like no other. Goldstein strongly believes, “In fashion, it’s important that we continually optimize and evolve to introduce new design forms,” and continues on to remark on how she spent much of her time, “experiment[ing] with numerous different fabrics and technologies to incorporate 3D printing within textiles. Achieving this milestone takes us away from 2D design and opens up a world of wearable 3D garments.” Because she is crafting a uniquely individual piece of clothing, each garment is designed from 3D to 2D CAD manipulations which creates a single, precise piece of fabric for the garment equating to zero waste. Goldstein had planned to launch the collection at Berlin's annual Wear It Innovation Summit, but in light of the pandemic, she invented a new way for audiences to engage with her work. Goldstein and her brother, a senior computer vision and game developer at Intel Corporation, worked for months to engineer a virtual reality experience that creates a realistic 360exhibition to display the collection.
Few of us "real" people will ever see a fashion show held on a runway; that experience is limited to celebrities, the wealthy, and people in the fashion industry. Technology not only opens up the door to a whole new audience, but allows brands to think and evolve outside of tradition. In the case of Anifa Mvuemba, she made $1 million in revenue in 2019 and her designs have been seen on the likes of Kylie Jenner, Beyonce, and Lizzo. In light of post-virality, Hanifa’s growth as a small brand seems inevitable and their innovative digital take on fashion has led them there.