From Alexa to avatars, artificial intelligence is infiltrating our lives one futuristic step at a time, and now fashion designers and brands are beginning to realise the power that this new tool holds. But what does it mean for the future of fashion – an industry built on creativity and imagination – and how will it affect us as consumers? SÍOMHA CONNOLLY reports
Artificial Intelligence, or AI, describes computer systems that are able to perform tasks that would normally require human intelligence. A number of fashion brands have embraced this new technology which allows them to get closer to their customers, understanding their wants and needs and improving the customer experience. Take for example Amazon’s Echo Look, a “style assistant” designed to analyse and rate users’ outfits using data-driven algorithms; or Stitch Fix, a mail-order personal styling service that currently has three million users in the US and has just launched in the UK; and look ahead to matchesfashion.com, who are reportedly working on an algorithm that will introduce 3D avatars that will be able to “try on” clothing so that you can see how the fit will work for your exact body shape and size. And now, artificial intelligence has been used to design an entire clothing collection – the first of its kind using smartphone software.
Fashion Flair, the new custom-built app by Huawei was developed to aid designers throughout their creative design process. The software, which has been taught how to think by consuming tens of thousands of images from the most iconic fashion collections over the past 100 years, has the ability to produce infinite new outfit designs. By extracting the characteristics that make up a garment – colour, shape, length and pattern – the dual neuro processor unit is then able to identify these elements and pull together a brand new design.
For the launch of Fashion Flair, Huawei worked with just one designer to bring the app to life. Choosing the right designer to initiate this process was vital – it had to be someone open to technology and its ever-evolving ways, who is deeply familiar with and comfortable using technological advances from the outset and who would not be afraid of the software or what it would produce. Essentially, someone for whom technology and new devices are ingrained in their culture and way of life. Which is why Isabella Lazzini, Marketing and Retail Director Huawei CBG Italia, and the mastermind behind the Fashion Flair project, knew she had struck gold when she discovered Anna Yang, the young designer who would become the first to create an entire fashion collection using smartphone software. “The reason why we chose Anna for this project is because she perfectly represents the ‘Make it Possible’ story of Huawei, she’s been able, with her style, to go beyond the borders of China. She comes from China, where today technology is truly embedded into everyday life. The use of a smartphone is much deeper there than in any other country and we wanted to approach a designer that would be really close to technology. It’s amazing to see how technology is used in every corner of China: you go into the countryside, into the middle-of-nowhere and you will see everyone playing with their smartphones which is kind of amazing. So to find Anna was the best thing as she is used to this kind of technology penetration.”
Yang, who cites Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto as influences, was born into a family of tailors. By the age of eight she was able to produce her own clothing. It’s no surprise then that her fashion brand, Annakiki, was a success from its initial launch in 2013. Since then it has graced the catwalks of Paris, Milan and London Fashion Weeks and has been worn by celebrities including Lady Gaga and even young fan Blue Ivy, daughter of Beyoncé and Jay Z. A number of collaborations have followed, including with Disney and Amazon.com, but none possibly as creative or forward-thinking as her latest project with Huawei and Fashion Flair.
But what could Fashion Flair bring to the design process that Yang could not? According to Lazzini, it was designed to aid the creative process and spark ideas that would never usually come about. Yang says that as well as this, it also saved her some valuable time. Stripping away the more mundane and time-consuming processes of design, Yang was freed up to spend her time more efficiently and creatively, focusing on the higher value decision-making that makes the final designs what they are.
Ultimately, the final collection is a co-creation between Yang and Fashion Flair. As well as the archive images of fashion collections the app was fed images from Yang’s previous collections to teach it to produce designs that fit with her brand. Lazzini says that admittedly, “at the beginning the output of the app was not very precise – but as time went by, the AI kept learning, and now, the output is more impressive, realistic and in-line with Yang’s taste.” The designer describes the process as 50/50; while the app produced all of the initial designs, Yang then made tweaks – to hem lengths, shape, details, to make the pieces sit closer to her own design style – and added colour and fabric. Production was completed by Yang and her team with many of the garments hand-finished with beading and embellishment.
The final result is exactly what you would imagine when you hear “AI fashion” – it’s futuristic, with metallic finishes, colour-changing fabrics, vinyl and LED lighting, but it’s also very “now”, presumably down to Yang’s input. The 20-piece collection features everything from the high to the low with streetwear-inspired hoodies and slogan T-shirts with neon accents and more tailored Vetements-esque oversized blazers, as well as hand-studded jackets and jeans, right up to ethereal evening gowns with star-printed tulle. It’s a forward-thinking collection that ultimately has its roots in the history of fashion.
In the future, Huawei plan to introduce Fashion Flair to a design institute in Milan, allowing young designers to produce collections using the app. Will it become commonplace for designers to rely on AI for ideas and collections? It’s possible, but as Lazzini reiterates the app was never designed to take the place of fashion designers. “We don’t foresee a world where AI is substituting the job of a designer, absolutely not, we want AI to be an additional source of inspiration. We believe in technology and using technology for reaching something greater, and also to contaminate, to stimulate the designer in doing something different.” So while artificial intelligence may be leading the future of fashion there will always be space for us humans behind it, giving AI the gentle nudge in the right direction that only the empathetic, intuitive hands of a human can.