Robots, Holograms and Wearables: A Tech History Of Fashion Week

With more designers using tech to set their runway shows apart from the pack, we took a look back at the biggest digital experiences of years past.
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Rachel Arthur
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With more designers using tech to set their runway shows apart from the pack, we took a look back at the biggest digital experiences of years past.
Diane von Furstenberg. Photo: Diane von Furstenberg spring/summer 2013

Diane von Furstenberg. Photo: Diane von Furstenberg spring/summer 2013

Memorable moments during fashion month used to surround incidents like Anna Wintour being splattered with paint by anti-fur protesters, or Naomi Campbell taking a tumble in those sky-high Vivienne Westwood shoes. There have been incredible sets – Fendi on the Great Wall of China, everything from an airplane to a supermarket at Chanel and a giant steam train when Marc Jacobs was at Louis Vuitton.

Today, however, technology is becoming the new differentiator and the main means of grabbing attention — not to mention press headlines — during the shows. Thus far this season, Ralph Lauren has streamed his runway show on billboards in London's Piccadilly Circus via Periscope, Zac Posen partnered with Google to reveal a dress coded with moving LED lights and Intel introduced drones to fly overhead at numerous shows.

"Technology can be a point of differentiation and a source of competitive advantage in a crowded fashion marketplace," says Karinna Nobbs, program director and senior lecturer of digital fashion strategy at the British School of Fashion. "If you do something well you can really get good PR coverage and be seen as a first mover/innovator, which should translate to sales and loyalty."

Even if it doesn't add to the user experience, nor directly impact a brand's bottom line, technology integrated into a fashion show is often about a designer exercising his or her creative freedom, in a similar way to theatrical extravagances of the past. That said, some of the most elaborate tech ideas showcased during fashion weeks past actually took place well before you could Instagram them. Here's our history of technology and the designers who have embraced it since 1999.

ROBOTS

Photo: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

Photo: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

There might be hot debate in current times about where artificial intelligence is likely to lead us, but robots in some form or another have long appeared at fashion week. For spring/summer 1999, Alexander McQueen presented one of the most famous moments of his career when two robots spray-painted a dress worn by model Shalom Harlow in shades of black and yellow as she spun on a revolving platform.

In 2007, Hussein Chalayan showcased a vision of our future wardrobes based on garments that changed shape. A Victorian dress unfurled to reveal a flapper style and a tiered design shortened into a mini, all thanks to microchips and animatronics. This was wearable tech before wearable tech. 

Photo: Fendi drones fall/winter 2014 

Photo: Fendi drones fall/winter 2014 

Jump to fall 2014, and drones hit the runway at Fendi, circling above the heads of show-goers to live stream content back to viewers at home. The resulting experience was terrible, but it grabbed headlines for Fendi all over the world.

WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY

Speaking of wearable technology, it goes without saying that designers today are increasingly experimenting with how to embed things like electronics and connected devices into their collections. To highlight that fact, Diane von Furstenberg provided a particularly noteworthy story when she sent Google Glass down her runway in September 2012. Models wore the augmented reality eyewear as they paraded the designer's spring/summer 2013 looks, capturing the scene around them for a video released at a later date. The finale saw DVF herself dragging Google co-founder Sergey Brin, along with her then-Creative Director Yvan Mispelaere, down the runway to take a bow with her.

Photo: Richard Nicoll spring/summer 2015

Photo: Richard Nicoll spring/summer 2015

Last year we also saw the likes of Rebecca Minkoff and Diesel Black Gold featuring wearable tech accessories in their shows — and let's not forget the work Dutch designer Iris van Herpen has been doing for a long time in 3D printing. Richard Nicoll, meanwhile, unveiled a slip dress made from a fiber-optic fabric activated by high intensity LED lights for spring/summer 2015 in partnership with Disney and Studio XO. The question remains, however, as to when the wearables trend will become more widespread.

VIRTUAL REALITY

Photo: Topshop

Photo: Topshop

If you're into gaming, you're probably all over virtual reality (VR). Maybe you've already got your own headset. Fashion brands have been experimenting with those, too. Topshop first offered up such an opportunity when it provided customers with a VR experience in its London flagship store for fall 2014. Specially commissioned Oculus Rift-based headsets enabled shoppers to see its catwalk show in real-time through a 3D virtual world. The aim was to make them feel as though the models were walking in front of their eyes and the celebrities were sitting right beside them.

Photo: DiorEyes virtual reality headset

Photo: DiorEyes virtual reality headset

Dior captured in 3D a backstage view of its show earlier this year, and proceeded to offer up that experience in select stores through its own VR headset, called DiorEyes. Users were able to explore the full 360 degrees of the backstage space, seeing the models during their final prep for the show surrounded by makeup artists, photographers and designer Raf Simons.

Photo: Rebecca Minkoff Google cardboard headset

Photo: Rebecca Minkoff Google cardboard headset

Rebecca Minkoff filmed her February 2015 show for VR viewing, too. The process reportedly required two cameras with three dozen separate lenses to create footage that has just this week been released on a specially designed Google cardboard headset, into which you stick your smartphone. Democratizing fashion week indeed.

HOLOGRAMS

If you weren't already convinced Alexander McQueen was an innovator, then consider his fall 2006 collection, which featured a hologram of Kate Moss in the finale. The projection appeared within a glass pyramid surrounded by billows of white smoke. It was deemed fashion magic.

Holograms were also central to Polo Ralph Lauren's spring/summer 2015 show. In what the brand referred to as a 4D holographic water projection, it showed models wearing the new collection against a 60-foot high fountain in Manhattan's Central Park. The images were pretty blurry, making it hard to decipher much about the new collection, but like many other tech experiences, it grabbed headlines around the world.

LIVE ACTION

With all these innovative ideas in mind, hearing that a brand is merely live streaming its show doesn't really do it for us anymore. But once upon a time, this alone was big news. When Alexander McQueen streamed his spring/summer 2010 show — yes, it really is only that old — the event drew in so many fans, it crashed SHOWstudio's website. While the fact that Lady Gaga was performing was arguably the biggest contributing factor there, it was also an early sign of just how much interest there was in fashion week happenings from fans around the world, especially when mixed with a little extra entertainment.

As the late designer said at the time: "I wanted to create a sense of inclusion for all those in the world who are interested in my work and the world of fashion. This is just the first step towards revolutionizing the 'show system' as we know it." While he personally never did do another live stream — that collection was to be the last before his death — the concept rapidly spread.

Photo: Burberry Tweetwalk spring/summer 2012

Photo: Burberry Tweetwalk spring/summer 2012

Designers providing ever-greater access through digital means has grown season after season. Burberry has been the pioneer in this sense. Its now iconic campaigns have included everything from a "Tweetwalk" that showcased images of the new line on Twitter before those sitting in the front row saw them, to its "Runway to Reality" (later "Runway Made to Order") concept that offered consumers the ability to instantly purchase specific items from the new collection for delivery within seven weeks, instead of several months. There have also been personalized GIFs, digital kisses and the ability to buy nail polish via Twitter.

Bring on spring/summer 2016, we say.