There is no doubt that the fashion industry constantly thinks ahead, always planning at least six months in advance for its latest designs and innovations. COVID-19 has sped up this progress, with digital fashion weeks featuring avatar models and virtual shows as the new norm. As fashion learns how to operate from a distance, designers must consider all the channels to do so, whether that means having a remote runway or substituting models for animatronic alternatives. While designers avoided the latter for this summer’s Haute Couture, Cruise, and men’s collections, the intersection between fashion and technology found its footing on the catwalk long before the pandemic hit. From robotic fixtures to futuristic collections, the history of robots on the runway reveals the possibilities of creative expression in fashion, and the anxiety that comes with a technological takeover.
Technology has aided the fashion industry behind the scenes since the Industrial Revolution, but it wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that machinery took the spotlight. In one of the most famous shows in history, British designer Alexander McQueen presented his 13th collection (aptly titled No. 13) for Spring/Summer 1999 at a Chelsea warehouse in London. The set was visually minimalist albeit two massive robotic arms placed downstage, which left the crowd confused until the very end of the show, when model Shalom Harlow entered wearing a strapless white gown. Harlow stepped onto a rotating turntable as both robots seemingly came to life, spraying her with yellow and black paint. Amidst gasps of horror, the spraying at first seemed like an attack on the model, but after her dress had been coated with paint, she emerged as if in command of the whole performance.
McQueen’s show changed the game for the fusion of technology and fashion. His presentation was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, and commented on the technological developments typical at the turn of the century. The top of his show also featured hand-carved prosthetic limbs modeled by paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins, another example of the power of technology. Later that year, McQueen notably created a Tron-inspired Fall/Winter 1999 collection at Givenchy, playing on the unease surrounding Y2K with circuit board prints and LED-illuminated fashion, and in 2006, presented a holographic display of Kate Moss for his namesake label. The designer’s fearlessness in the face of tech paved the way for experimentation that has continued into 2020.
British designer Hussein Chalayan took it one step further for his Spring/Summer 2000 show as the first to incorporate robotics into the designs themselves. Chalayan sent a hard plastic “airplane dress” down the catwalk, which featured wings made moveable by remote control. A few years later, for his Spring/Summer 2007 collection, Chalayan’s designs looked back on fashion’s metamorphosis throughout the 20th century. His pieces displayed sartorial transformations in fluid movements by twitching, gathering or unravelling, zipping up, or splitting open made possible by servo-driven motors, pulleys, and wires fed through hollow tubes sewn into the dresses. Chalayan’s innovations proved that technology, fashion, and history go hand-in-hand when it comes to storytelling.
Telling the stories of collections has been made easier by the presence of robots on the runway, particularly in the form of drones. The Fendi Fall/Winter 2014 show literally took flight with the help of three aeronautical drones that circled above the heads of guests, filming the designs and streaming them live for viewers at home, providing a real-time, 360-degree experience. With over 50 million social impacts, the idea was a hit and inspired other brands to do the same.
One such designer is Philipp Plein, whose boundary-defying Spring/Summer 2016 presentation set up models in an assembly line, finished off by robotic arms that dressed them in accessories, from bags to jewelry. In 2017, the designer turned the Brooklyn Navy Yard into makeshift ski slopes, where a surprise appearance from supermodel Irina Shayk left audiences agape as she walked beside an oversized robot bearing Plein’s logo, an ironic pairing suggestive of the symbiotic relationship between humans and technology.
Karl Lagerfeld also tested out this relationship with his intergalactic designs for Chanel Spring/Summer 2017, proving the influence of runway robots even in fashion’s most elite circles. “The robot–that is my idea of the most iconic jacket of the show on a creature of an unknown future that means Chanel is timeless,” Lagerfeld said, who sent a pair of tweed-clad models down the runway masked as robots. “Even if you don’t like the idea: Technology rules the world because it changed the world. It made many things easier.”
Dior Men’s Kim Jones also wanted to look ahead while paying homage to the past with his Pre-Fall 2019 collection. The focal point of the men’s runway in Tokyo was an 11-meter tall sculpture of a female cyborg created by Japanese artist Hajime Sorayama. With its chrome-like exterior, the figure represented the legacy of Christian Dior as a fashion house rooted in honoring the feminine form. Jones also took inspiration from the 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis, and wanted to translate the futuristic themes through his collection centered around Japanese innovation. Among the tailored suits and men’s streetwear were spacesuit-inspired ensembles and accessories to match.
According to writer Greg Nichols, “as tech companies seek to colonize the body via wearables and fashion designers simultaneously try to outpace the competition…the walls between Paris and Silicon Valley are bound to fall.” This has proven true, evidenced by the growing relationships between fashion houses and tech firms. Last year, Rag and Bone partnered with Microsoft to fasten a Universal Robots UR10 eSeries mechanical arm equipped with cameras on the runway to create an immersive experience. Prior to that, LA-based designer Honee’s Spring/Summer 2018 collection at London Fashion Week starred a jewel-encrusted robot similar to an iPad on wheels, which was provided by the tech company OhmniLabs.
Robotic models or fixtures give designers options for a safe physical display in the age of social distancing. While replacing models altogether isn’t preferred, it’s a route that’s already been explored by Maria Grazia Chiuri for Christian Dior’s Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2020 presentation, as well as Jonathan Anderson for Loewe’s Spring/Summer 2021 men’s display. Chiuri created doll-sized models of the couture dresses, while Anderson dressed mannequins and constructed a miniature show-in-a-box. Robots would offer a futuristic alternative to these approaches, allowing designers to hold in-person runways without as many people present. Mechanical elements could also be utilized as a supplement in traditional shows, similar to Plein’s use of robots to dress models, simply providing a resource that would lessen person-to-person contact. Satoshi Kondo’s Issey Miyake Spring/Summer 2020 show provided another example of this, with drones that flew overhead to dress models in colorful ensembles.
While only time will tell the future of robots on the runway, critics like Dutch trendwatcher Christine Boland see no sign of stopping. “Human and machine are not opposites anymore,” Boland said. “Instead, they grow closer and closer to each other. In this grey area where technology, artificial intelligence, fantasy and creativity meet, a new design language will develop, with its own vocabulary.”END
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createdAt:Fri, 24 Jul 2020 18:23:51 +0000