Digital Fashion Case Study

Photos case study Digital Fashion

The Fashion Digital Studio (FDS), at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, is a multi-disciplinary center for technology and innovation in fashion. The studio has a history of experimentation and critique of fashion, innovative use of digital technologies, and a variety of work that engages with the body. Students from a range of LCF courses who are motivated to work with digital technologies for a range of reasons engage with FDS. Student work is guided by project briefs combined with ideas generated by the students themselves. The studio provides access to a range of digital tools that link physical and digital interaction, facilitated by specialist technicians/tutors to support student exploration of the body, materiality and garments.

Key case study participants included: an MA student, two Lecturers, and a studio associate/alumni.

Research and Methods in Digital Fashion

Research observed at FDS comprises a design process centered on practices of making and the production of artefacts. There is a strong focus on exploration and innovation, and research is seen as an essential part of an iterative process moving between theory, concept development, and making.

‘I balance between trying to contextualize what it is I am doing by going back to theory, trying to find reference points, then going back to the practical things, just merging different techniques, physical things, bringing them together says something.’ (MA Student, Field-note.)

The intention is through this process, in the words of a lecturer, to ‘add to the argument or for you to end up in a different place’ (field-note). The methods that are used across the site, outlined in Table 1, draw on a stable and established range of methods mainly from design (fashion and HCI). The theoretical base for the work is, however, drawn from a wider range of disciplines working on the body as summarized in Table 1. The combination of focused methods and open theories creates a fashion related space for methodological innovation.

Case Study Theory Method
Fashion Interdisciplinary
Broad range: Fashion, Cultural & Media, Psychology, Feminist, Gender and Queer theory, Critical theory,
Sociology, Philosophy, Performance, Bio- Science, Material Anthropology
Fashion focused
Design methods – Critical design, Speculative design, Rapid prototyping, User Centered design, Participatory design
Table 1: Summary of the main theories and methods observed in the Digital Fashion case study

Freedom for individual experimentation and creativity is explicitly foregrounded within FDS, students are situated as artists and research is talked of as an individual process, open and un-boundaried. Serendipity and spontaneity are talked about as especially significant in fashion design as they move beyond theory driven methods and generate new research ideas: a lecturer went so far as to say ‘[a] Lack of serendipity can restrict designs’ (field-note). Serendipity was a key aspect of one of the MA student participant’s work with the FDS body scanner in which the randomness of the digital scanning process – the blips and holes created were treated as ‘translations’ of the body and incorporated into the design process.

Fashion remains, nonetheless, a product led discipline, in which many of the practices we observed, as well as the objects that mediate these, are traditional with strong historical roots, including the use of advanced technologies (e.g. a body scanner is designed to mimic the practice of bespoke measurement for tailoring). The use of exemplars is central across the site, indicating a context in which the ‘new’ is located in the ‘past’ practice and experience. This is illustrated in the following fieldwork excerpt on observing an MA student’s making process:

‘She is talking about and working with classic concepts from fashion, for instance the ‘silhouette’, as well as traditional body measurements. These provide her starting point in moving from a digital scan, made of her wearing a garment using the body scanner, to the making of a physical garment. She said, ‘I took the shapes, and worked with the avatar [a product of the body scanner software] as a visual reference, and used the measurements [outputted by the body scanner] as a data set, and I picked measurements from the data set and applied these to the fabric [she is looking at the garment that she has made using a zero waste pattern cutting technique]. They look quite random, but the cuts I made in the garment relate to the measurements of the avatar – the under-arm measurement, the pattern piece was printed as a visual reference with the measurement. The measurements were what the machine saw.’

While FDS engages with a wide range of research methods, making is central to the research process at FDS, particularly in relation to student work. In the context of making, the iteration across the above phases moves across the digital and the physical and is strongly related to the body, indeed to the body of the researcher/maker, and to the generation of ideas/designs. Methods are not talked of in generalized or explicit terms: rather they are articulated as individual narratives embedded in the processes of making, involving sketching, mood boards, and prototyping with regular ‘crits’/tutorials/meetings to share and progress the idea. This is illustrated in the following field note excerpt of a visit to the footwear alumni’s workspace:

She works with an open brief, and sees the constraints of the physical and the digital as ‘something to work with’, ‘when I get stuck I go to the woods and walk…when I think about shoes I walk and look at my feet…I think about the materiality of the floor – the sound of walking’. She takes out a series of shoe lasts, some casts, and recent shoes that she is working on. She opens up the images on her laptop. She gives us some shoes to touch and encourages me to wear a pair – I walk around and we talk about how they feel. Shape is key, she says. She works with a last maker and the lasts are handmade, with a lathe, and you are working with the constraints of shoe sizes. She makes a 3D print of the last, makes molds of them with bio resin, and she then builds the shoe around that. She talks about the need to balance engineering and design in footwear. She wraps things around the foot, and experiments with materials. In a current project she is working with a company which means that she makes the designs using Adobe Illustrator software but that they render the design in CAD to put surface and texture etc. on. She says that she ‘finds it difficult not doing the CAD with them’ and that the best way is to work direct with the engineers sending them illustrations, discussing by email. She then gives the engineers instructions, they render them in 3D CAD, giving them material effects through lighting etc., then she annotates them or sends them sketches to define her idea more, or sends photographs of particular aspects and influences. She shows us some digital designs and rotates them on the PDF as she talks, to show different views of the shoes. She gets one of her shoes (physical) to show us again what is important. It is a very iterative process.

A lecturer commented that in fashion, ‘The process itself falls away, often to become invisible with the output as a tangible artefact’ (field note). The fieldwork enabled patterns in the research structure and process to be observed, and pointed to a coherent shared process of ‘making as research’: 1) the conceptualization of idea, research question or hypothesis through engagement with a theory or a type of object; 2) initiating the making of an artefact – a prototype or sketches; 3) an exploration of technologies, types of material, fabric, etc.; 4) the refinement of the idea through the process of making; 5) the production of a prototype object of some kind; 6) review and refine the prototype; 7) repeat all stages until final artefact is achieved. While the pace and cyclical pattern of fashion is generally fast, the process of research for students as outlined above is described by case study participants as ‘slow and unfolding’ as they are given a longer time period and encouraged to be more thoughtful about their work than an industry context affords.

There are, as this outline suggests, some tensions between the explicit discourse of the process as artistic and the implicit discourses of product led design: a tension that is productive within FDS. We witnessed an anxiety about reducing student freedom to ‘play’ and innovate, by referral to methodological structures and processes, and acknowledgement that ‘their play will probably follow this pathway’. The sense of exploration this creates, affords an interesting tension between the final product/garment and the process: with a preference for DIY experimentation and not always knowing what the outcome will be. While this lack of explicitness has benefits, it also has limitations, notably that the research processes is less visible to the participants. We observed some ambivalence and differing levels of certainty about what counts as research and what it means to be a researcher. One participant (an experience design practitioner and teacher) said, ‘I don’t do research’, while a participating MA student defined herself as a researcher, and saw herself as ‘putting theories into practice’ (Field-note). This reflects a narrow understanding of the role of research, which a participating lecturer reflected on as surprising, ‘given how many informed choices and explorations designers make’. It also relates to the subjective and experiential researcher position within fashion, notable in the involvement of the researcher’s body: wearing and movement is a key aspect of the process of making and research.

Digital Body in Fashion

‘The body as an object is a really interesting field, perception of the body is amazingly translated by the digital or machines because you can’t really control it, as little as you control other peoples perception of the body so its almost like a mind – it gives you a kind of representation of how it sees and understands your body, and I think that is fascinating.’(MA student, field-note).

Case Study Digital Body
Fashion Digital highly visible during making
Focus on innovation
Technical – Pragmatic
Digital ‘compensating’ craft-skills
CAD, 3D printers, Body, Foot, Hand Scanners, Virtual Garment/ Pattern cutting and Garment Prototyping Software, Virtual Environments
Physicality, shape, form and materiality
Corporeal senses and sensations
Virtual body
Metaphors, body as: Modular, zoned, a material, mannequin, a number/set of measurements
Table 2: Summary of key digital technologies and concepts of body observed in Digital Fashion case study

The digital is key and highly visible in this site. Specialist technicians introduce students to the available technologies (Table 2); demonstrate their use; discuss technical issues, related to time, quality, materiality, scale and cost; and demonstrate their potentials for fashion using examples of previous student work.

The digital is positioned as secondary to the fashion idea/concept, it is even seen by some Tutors as a compensatory technology for those who have limited craft skills. This highlights a point of tension between perception of the digital as a creative tool or as a support tool. However it is also viewed as having the potential to innovate fashion processes, products, and conceptual experimentation and understanding. The technician is integral to this positioning of the digital, as shown in the excerpt from a field note – introductory session in the digital studio with contour (Lingerie) students:

The students don’t talk, they all look, touch objects, take photos and short videos on phone, lots of handling of objects, flexing, touching. The technician also ‘hints’ at other possibilities of use, she gets a student to volunteer to put hand in the hand scanner, and says ‘move your fingers around’ and then shows how the scanner can capture real-time hand movement. She tells them about Boudicca’s ‘Body Scan Striptease’. She is getting them to think about their ideas in relation to the process of making and offering them a broad idea of digital fashion.

This serves to integrate the digital into the iterative research process. The digital is approached as needing to be managed, translated and sometimes ‘tricked’ to make it realize an idea.

Using the body scanner, the student scans herself four times, each time wearing or holding a different garment. The scans do not generate any measurements or avatars – the scan is not successful. Instead a series of pixelated-textured images is produced. The technician suggests the student takes screen shots of these. They try to make sense of what went wrong. Student: ‘its a translation of your cloth-body, I quite like that, to explore different volumes and different parts of the body and see how it creates this kind of avatars.’ The technician suggests some solutions to the problem: ‘although you are a human, this [points to the skirt] is making you into an object, so that could be a way for you to generate a 3D file…it could be that you create a panel like that [points to a panel on another garment], and then wrap it round [your body] in such a way, that you can drape it in such a way, that you can get a scan of it? Put some slits in it, more trouser-like, and things like that’. Together they think about alternative technologies to create a 3D model using the same garments. (Field-note excerpt)

There is much challenging of the limits of the digital, e.g. the material possibilities of 3D printing, toward remaking what it is possible to do with it ‘tinkering with [it] to get it to do what artists need it to do’. Finding ways to work around its limits. For instance, the student above re-designed a garment based on what had worked with the scanner in previous sessions, to make the body more visible and the garment more fragmented, to enable the scanner to ‘read’ it and generate an avatar and measurements. The software is seen as giving approval of a normative body: the digital is seen as agentive interlocutor and contributive to the production process. It is seen as implicated in how we perceive the body.

‘Once you start using technology in a way that it wasn’t meant to be used, there is something to play with and discover. The machine ‘couldn’t read me as a body…the machine has got an expectation and if you don’t match that it cant come up with anything…I wanted to work with what the machine sees. So I had to learn what the machine liked and what it doesn’t.’ As a result she made adaptions in her garment pattern design to accommodate the machine so that it could read it and she says that she started to think of her garments as kind of ‘body extensions that the machine could then cover with a new body’ [through the creation of a new avatar]’ (MA student, Field-note)

The digital is conceived of as intimately connected to practices with the body: carving the body up into zones (foot, torso, hand) highly ideological, agentive, speaking a different language, constrained, sometimes immature and disappointing.

FDS does not create boundaries between the mind and the body and offers a holistic view of the body as ‘self’ at that level, however it is strongly focused on the physical body which is highly zoned and fragmented by discipline (e.g. footwear, accessories, millinery) and by cardinal measurements which are embedded in digital technologies (e.g. scanners) built as surrogates for physical tools (e.g. zoning off areas and perpetuating norms in the fashion avatar). The digital body is also embedded in discourses of identities, critiques of body norms and the fashion industry. Terminologies related to the body are embedded in ideas of the body as a physical ‘organic interface’ with the environment, the materiality of the body and ‘rethinking the body as material’, the body as identity, and ideas of ‘En-clothed cognition’. Metaphors used in the work seek to: play with the idea of ‘classic’ body silhouettes and measurements; distort and re-imagine the body through avatars and ‘cloth bodies’. The relationship between the body, the physical and materiality extend to ‘rethinking the body as material’. The physical and the virtual are in tension in FDS though considered the same by some. The digital, notably the virtual is used to de-zone or re-zone the body (e.g. negate gender, challenging the boundaries of the body) or de-stabilize measurement reference points, ‘distorting’, manipulating and ‘inventing the body’.

The sensory character of the body, materials, and the digital is in focus in FDS: the texture and tactile features of materials against the body and the characteristics of their sound and movement. The multisensory dimensions of making are considered central to thinking and re-imagining the body its boundaries and potentials. There is a balancing of the visual and touch-based sensing of the body, to foreground the sensory aspects of the body, with a focus on the sensory experience of the wearer of the garment or artefact, their sensory emotions and memory, rather than the visual experience of the viewer or the wearer. Working with the limited materials of the digital foregrounds these and prompts exploratory work, e.g. to make the sensory aspects of touch differently available (e.g. in virtual retail environments or via new materials for 3D printing).

Contribution to Researching Embodiment

The ideas and findings discussed above informed MIDAS’s generation of exploratory themes for researching embodiment across the arts and social sciences. These are briefly discussed here, and developed more fully through cross-case study analysis.

The Digital Fashion case study points to the need for interdisciplinary research on the digital body to take account of the extent to which the body is situated in a disciplinary history and ecology of practices. This lead MIDAS to examine how the disciplinary practices of fashion etc. shape digital technologies, and the role that a technician plays in this process. As well as to consider similarities and differences in how the digital body is fragmented and zoned by practices and technologies across the sites, which appears to be central to how the body is conceptualized across the arts and social sciences. Understanding the purpose of conceptualizing the digital body is significant for interdisciplinary working: while social science research tends to represent embodied practices, the arts may work to represent, challenge, ‘distort’, manipulate, and ‘re-invent’ the body.

The extent to which researchers integrate or incorporate the digital technologies they use in their research process differs across the arts and social sciences in ways that are significant for conceptualizing the digital body and research. This includes the degree of power and agency attributed to the digital and/or the researcher, the amount of control that the researcher is trying to exert over the technology (control, adapt or redesign), and whether or not they use the technology ‘off-the-shelf’, employ a bespoke external designer, or are able (via programing, tinkering, etc.) to extend/amend the technology themselves.

How the body is worked with as a metaphor, the terminologies related to the body, and the discourses that the digital body is embedded in, as described above in the context of Digital Fashion, proved to be a productive point of connection for MIDAS to look across the arts and social sciences. Notably the arts makes extensive use of metaphors as research tools, and while both the arts and social sciences make use of descriptive terminologies the technicality of these is more strongly articulated within the latter.

Placing the practices of making and production at the center of research on embodiment, as Digital Fashion does, positions theory, method, and materiality in an iterative relationship. Investigating this relationship, notably the level of stability across method, theories, and materiality, and the ways in which these are balanced differently across the arts and social sciences, provides a way to understand how arts and social science achieve disciplinary relevance and innovation differently. ‘Where’ innovation is located within a disciplinary context is a key question raised for MIDAS, and understanding this can support interdisciplinary work across the arts and social sciences. For instance, there is, as noted above, intensive theoretical and material innovation in digital fashion while many of the methods remain stable. How innovation is conceptualized, valued and thought to be achieved in different contexts is significant: this may be via re-appropriation, adaptation, re-mixing and mashing of ideas, methods of theories within a discipline, across a theoretical landscape, or across the arts and social sciences.

Making as a research process is itself strongly related to the body, and this case study suggests that interdisciplinary working needs to understand and work with the position of the maker’s body, their subjectivity/objectivity, bodily practices, and how these are made present or absented in the research process across arts and social sciences. The place of making, as well as materiality, the senses, and bodily sensation in this process are key aspects of this process that differ greatly across arts and social science methods. When working across the arts and social sciences the gains and losses of different engagements with these aspects of making need to be considered.

The values and assumptions underlying how embodiment is researched in a particular context need to be excavated. In Digital Fashion, a high value was placed on the individual, serendipity and randomness as driving forces for innovative design. Understanding what is valued in an arts site and its compatibility or complementarity with the social sciences is vital to working productively with the challenges and tensions that combining them will throw up within and across sites. There are also a variety of tensions within a disciplinary context. When researching the digital body in Digital Fashion, tensions emerged between the collective and the individual, the old and the new, tradition and innovation, the physical and the digital: tensions which can be productive or not depending on how they are put into conversation. The anxieties that are expressed in a site are especially useful to help get a grip on these assumptions and rules, and can be, MIDAS argues, necessary to engage with in the process of interdisciplinary working across the arts and social sciences.

Finally, this case study points to the need for clarity of how research is understood, as well as the extent to which methods are articulated and remain present in the research output/product (a garment, or a journal paper). This differs markedly across the arts and social sciences as we discuss in the cross-case analysis and is a significant challenge for interdisciplinary research across the arts and social sciences.

Recommended Readings

Atkinson, D., Watkins, P., Padilla, S., Chantler, M. J., & Baurley, S. (2011). Synthesising design methodologies for the transmission of tactile qualities in digital media. In Digital Engagement ’11, 651–652. Newcastle: IEEE.

Barker, C. (2011). Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage.

Curedale, R. A. (2013). Design Thinking Pocket Guide. Design Community College Inc.

Dunne, A. (2006). Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design. The MIT Press.

Gaimster, J. (2011). Visual Research Methods in Fashion. London: Routledge.

Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage Publications.

Haraway, D. J. (1990). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Routledge.

Jenkins, H. (2008). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2nd ed.). New York: University Press.

Kress, G., & Leeuwen, T. van. (2001). Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. New York: Oxford University Press.

Malpass, M. (2013). Between wit and reason: Defining associative, speculative, and critical design in practice. Design and Culture, 5(3), 333–356(24).

Sorger, R., & Udale, J. (2006). The Fundamentals of Fashion Design. London: Thames & Hudson.