Fashion In The Age of AI

Alexander McQueen, Rebecca Horn, Shalom Harlow, Automata, Human and Machine, Alexander McQueen S/S 1999

In 1998, British designer Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) presented the grand finale of his thirteenth runway show- No.13 (S/S 1999) with two robot “painters” borrowed from a car manufacturing plant. As model Shalom Harlow stood on a rotating disc, the two automata began to throw yellow and black paints onto her white dress. By the end, these two machines produced a Jackson Pollock-like piece that both amused and shocked the audience as they applauded enthusiastically and  fervently in response to Alexander McQueen’s brilliant showmanship.

According to the designer, he was inspired by an art installation called High Noon (1991) by artist Rebecca Horn that incorporated two hanging automatic guns simultaneously shooting out blood-red paint facing each other. Despite the symbolic references to emotional violence and creative outburst intended by the artist and the designer respectively, the latter’s reiteration can be read partly as a commentary on the absence of the artist’s hand replaced by automata.

CHANEL, Karl Lagerfeld, CHANEL S/S 17 RTW, Robots, Computer Data, Robot Models, Runway fashion, Fashion model robots

More recently, for CHANEL S/S 17 RTW designer Karl Lagerfeld sent his models down the runway wearing head gears, gloves and boots that made them seemed like mechanical robots from popular Sci-fi movies. Against the back drop of rows and rows of computer data servers, Karl Lagerfeld’s presentation reflected the reality of our increased reliance on machines’ algorithms for everything.

Apparently, they are the ones in control, but as they become more and more indispensable to humans, it also becomes apparent that they are both embraced and feared.

Sophia the robot models a designer gown in a fashion magazine shoot
Photo: Matthew Shave for Stylist Magazine

This robot fashion model as seen above is named Sophia, developed by the Hong Kong-based company, Hanson Robotics. Sophia is able to display more than 62 human-like facial expressions. Activated in April of 2015, since then she has been interviewed at conferences, invited to appear on evening TV shows, played a main character in a Taiwanese music video and of course, appeared on fashion magazine covers such as ELLE Brasil and the 400th anniversary issue of Stylist. The review of Sophia has been mixed, while she has amused audiences with her witty answers (likely scripted) about life and being, others have deemed her as inadequate and not exactly worthy of all the attention she’s received so far.

It isn’t my aim to argue robot Sophia’s level of technological sophistication, but I am interested in robots’ ability and potential impact to alter our lives for better or worse.

Sophia the robot shows off her fashion prowess in a stunning blue satin gown

Recently, Sewbo, Inc. announced that it has used an industrial robot to sew together a t-shirt. For it to do so, the t-shirt fabric must to through a stiffening process that allows the robot to assemble the pieces together as if it would with sheetmetal.

So far, the machine’s lack of consciousness and innate creativity limit to assemble only model fabric pieces (like with metal parts). Not only is the prospect of this invention to change the existing garment manufacturing network something to consider, but the question of uniformity versus creativity is also at stake.

Luckily, regarding the latter, no machine has yet the ability to replace human in terms of creativity. Mechanical robot’s inability to think like an individual (for example, intention and conceptual innovation) puts the human mind still yet in a superior position, especially when it comes to the production of high-fashion or Haute Couture.

In October of 2017, Sophia was granted full citizenship of Saudi Arabia, this probes the question to what extent can robots co-exist with humans?

Not too long ago, I read in an article called “For Robots to Work With People, They Must Understand People” in The Economist about Tuthill Plastics Group, an injection-moulding company that implements Sawyer (also see video below), a dexterous robot to work along side the company’s human employees. Rather than replacing human labor, Sawyer assists and collaborates with its human colleagues. At this relatively nascent stage, researchers and scientists are facing the problem of control and safety that would bridge an effective communication pathway between machine and human.

According to a researcher at MIT, in order for robots to work collaborative and efficiently they must understand their human colleagues’ intentions and thus learn to read non-verbal conveyance. As of yet, the question remains how much communication is enough, in other words, there requires a good balance neither over nor under communicate.

As with Karl Lagerfeld’s CHANEL S/S 17 RTW show suggested the over-reliance on computers and algorithms that virtually run everything from global consumerism to organizing ordinary life tasks, Alexander McQueen’s prophetic No.13 S/S 99 grande finale showed us that the future of machine working in fashion was hiding in plain sight. So far, we still have a long way to go before we need to feel threatened by any robots or automata taking over our world, that is, until the future automata learn to read our minds and generate their own thoughts.

Robot Sophia in fashion gown at a photoshoot with drone photographer
Photo: Matthew Shave for Stylist Magazine


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