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What the future holds for AI in fashion design

The Fashion Institute of Technology explains how it’s preparing the next generation of designers for technological advances

What does the advancement of AI mean for the future of the arts, music, and fashion? Will robots come for our creative industries? Could a machine ever dream like a human can? This week on Dazed, with our new campaign AGE OF AI, we’re aiming to find out.

Seemingly overnight, artificial intelligence has infiltrated the fashion industry – you don’t have to look far to see Shudu (dubbed ‘the world’s first digital supermodel’) fronting Balmain’s AW18 campaign or Sophia the Robot on the cover of Stylist. But when it comes to AI playing a role in fashion design, it’s currently something that has really only been explored by Tommy Hilfiger – a giant brand with the resources to look into future-thinking tech. What about the upcoming generation of designers, though? By the time current students are starting their own labels, there will likely have been giant leaps in the capabilities of artificial intelligence in design that will be hard to ignore.

At New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, this is a question that Michael Ferraro – executive director of the college’s Infor Design and Tech Lab – wants to answer. Separate to the other departments in the school, the Lab is a space specifically created for providing students with access to new and upcoming technologies they can implement in their design process. “The Lab is an important part of one of the key strategic goals for the college – particularly focusing on innovation,” Ferraro tells us. “We wanted to create a neutral territory to encourage collaborations from across the entire school.”

This freedom means that, rather than being bound to the curriculum, the Lab can put on a number of projects over the school year, each time bringing on a different team of students who work alongside scientists and experts for a hands-on approach to the combination of AI and fashion design. AI can be used to process millions of images to help focus the students’ designs, or to predict trends. “It’s remarkable how quickly the students adapt, and how quickly they find ways to innovate their designs to create outstanding results,” Ferraro tells us.

Here, we speak to Ferraro on how AI is being used in design, the importance of it, and how it will continue to evolve in the future.

Did you have any difficult introducing AI to the school?

Michael Ferraro: The students may have heard of artificial intelligence, but none of them had any idea what it meant to fashion. However, they are very eager to find out about it and how to incorporate it into their design thinking and design practice. As for the fashion industry itself, it is only recently embracing technology, and I will say that students are embracing it with equal, if not greater enthusiasm.

Can you tell us more about some of the projects the Lab has run?

Michael Ferraro: We recently finished a project where we were working with Neue who had developed a chip that had all kinds of sensors and processors on it that allowed us to control electro-luminescent fabric. Students broke up into two teams and were driven by creative briefs that were provided by fashion partners in Sweden. They designed two really innovative products a garment and an accessory – and one of them we just showed at the Harper’s Bazaar Icon event on the red carpet there. That was an exciting outcome.

Another project, some students designed a backpack for a high-end bicycle from a company called POC Sports. It was an extensive deep dive into programming and electronics and there was a great moment where all these fashion students who usually spend most of their time at a sewing machine, instead were soldering. It was quite the contrasting experience.

You recently worked on a project with Tommy Hilfiger. How did that come about?

Michael Ferraro: IBM approached us saying that they had explored the use of AI tools in couture and in very specialised fashion design applications, but were looking at an opportunity to develop a project that would explore the whole value chain in fashion. They provided us with 15,000 images from Tommy’s collections over the past three years; in addition to that, the IBM research team in India had collected half a million images from runway shows from social media posts from around the world over a long period of time. We had a vast amount of visual data that we reused and that was how the project came to be.

How did you approach the project?

Michael Ferraro: First, we approached and interviewed students, brought them on to the project, and broke them up into different teams. The first group worked with tools that operated in a way that made it feel like they had a really smart design assistant working with them, who could process far more images than a person can check whether a particular design had been used a lot in the past, and if it was on brand with Tommy Hilfiger’s DNA. They also did some colour trend analysis to predict colours and inform the design process. Other teams focused more on social media trends, voice recognition programmes, and product supply.

“Being agile and able to adapt and integrate change is the single most important skill you need to develop in confronting emerging technology” – Michael Ferraro 

Can you talk us through those other areas?

Michael Ferraro: Some of the students worked on understanding social media trends, and how you can mine social media information to identify where opportunities are to provide products and designs that are responsive to marketplaces – we found that K-pop was influencing a lot of buying in Thailand and China. That meant that they could design retail experiences that were responsive to trends, but also recognise where we could use it to leverage logistics and supply product to areas where needed, rather than the whole range.

They also used a voice recognition conversational agent to create a dialogue that understood what’s happening in social media. For example, we were talking about evolution of smart mirrors and the idea that you could talk to a smart mirror and say: ‘Hey I'm going to a concert tonight, what should I wear?’. Then when you tell it BTS, it knows there’s a connection between Jonghyun who was spotted wearing Gigi’s newest collection for Tommy Hilfiger and can suggest things that are close in the store right now.

What changes in attitudes towards AI have you noticed in the students since the department was founded?

Michael Ferraro: They were all a little apprehensive in the beginning. They were all thinking, ‘oh my God, robots are taking my job!’ That was a natural reaction though, probably one that most people have, but over time they evolved. Especially with their understanding and they started seeing the power of these tools and how to apply them. When they start to see how interconnected everything is they really become excited about the potential.

“It’s all about experiential education and guided learning, because the trends are merging so fast and the technology is emerging so fast” – Michael Ferraro 

What would you say to people rejecting AI in fear of it making creative roles redundant?

Michael Ferraro: Every once in a while I joke with people about there will come a time when we have full unemployment, nobody will be working, and what kind of a world is that? We know advances in AI are going to happen, so it’s best to look at how you can leverage it. It won’t replace work, but will change the way people work. So, traditional modes of work may disappear, but there will be a migration to new ways of working.

Being agile and able to adapt and integrate change is the single most important skill you need to develop in confronting emerging technology. You have to be able to find a way of integrating it into your thought and creative processing so that you continue to add the value as the sense of being that you are and the creative force that you are. It’s all about leverage and making sure that you’re in control of it, rather than being a victim of it.

Why do you think it’s important that AI continues to be integrated in design education?  

Michael Ferraro: Integrating experiential learning into the curriculum is one of the challenges that I think many colleges face, but we've created an environment where suits and faculty can come together. The faculty understand the technology and then plan how how to integrate it into existing courses or what they would need to do to develop new courses.

It’s all about experiential education and guided learning, because the trends are merging so fast and the technology is emerging so fast. The idea of the lab is to create learning opportunities and really put students to work on them. I think this is an important part of supplementing more traditional ways of education.

How do you think AI and fashion technology will continue to evolve in the next five to ten years?

Michael Ferraro: Wow, ten years – who knows! In two years it’s going to be astounding what can be done. There is an emerging trend looking at apparel as a platform, rather than a disposable item, and therefore you have a very different relationship between trends, your environment and fashion in style. So instead of replacing your clothes, having them reprogrammed and looking at them as a way to presenting information – like a social interaction.

These I see as trends that will leverage vast amounts of data in an interesting effect to enhance social interaction and sustainability to some degree. One of my colleagues has said you can't really be serious about sustainability unless you talk about reducing the number of products that are made. In order to have less products being made, you need to make things that will last longer. I see that as being an important development and AI is going to play a big role in how to do that smartly and effectively.