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Visual and Creative Arts Research: Intelligent fashion

New software that could revolutionise the high-end clothing and footwear industries has made its Fashion Week debut in London. Eva Johansson speaks to its inventor, UCL researcher Siavash Mahdavi, about the work involved

When models stepped out on the catwalk at designer Manish Arora’s show during London Fashion Week back in February, they were showing off the results of a new, cutting-edge design technology. Buttons and bows on many of the garments had been made using a software program that allows objects to be designed in 3D and then ‘printed out’ from a special printer using resin, plastic or metal.

By using this technology for his autumn/winter 2006/07 collection, Arora became the first fashion designer to benefit from this invention. The software involved in the process uses artificial intelligence to create the most appropriate material and design for a product, according to each client’s requirements.

The technology is the brainchild of Siavash Mahdavi, a researcher in the Department of Computer Science at University College London (UCL). Together with UCL and individual backers, he has set up a company called Complex Matters. Their aim is to use this new technology to create virtually any kind of item.

The company motto is ‘creating objects from the inside out’. ‘I call it microstructure optimisation. Basically, what you’re doing is building a new material from scratch, using our artificial intelligence program to optimise the microstructure at different points,’ explains Mahdavi.

The software uses a genetic algorithm, which creates thousands of possible designs and fights them off against each other until the most efficient ones remain. These are then combined to create even better hybrids and the process is repeated, with an end result being a super-efficient solution.

The idea for the program came after Mahdavi and a friend found out about the 3D printers, known as rapid prototyping machines. Apart from the fact that these £500,000 machines can make a finished product in less than an hour, their resolution is an impressive half a micron (half a millionth of a metre).

Cheaper prototyping machines are available at some universities around the UK, but they are not yet widely used. There is only one in London, at London Metropolitan University, and a few others in places around the UK. So far they have been used, as the name suggests, mainly to make prototypes of some description.

The starting point

Who is Manish Arora?

Indian fashion designer Manish Arora made his first appearance at London Fashion Week in September 2005, with an eclectic collection incorporating bright colours, extravagant prints and intricate embroidery. His style mixes modern fabrics and cuts with ethnic influences and craft-inspired detailing.

Arora graduated from the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi in 1995 and went on to win the Young Asian Designer Competition in Indonesia the following year.

In 1997, he launched his own label in India. Since then he has created costumes for Bollywood films, dressed Bianca Jagger and designed an outfit for Anoushka Shankar to wear to the Grammy Awards. ‘I don’t have a specific customer,’ says Arora. ‘My designs are young, though anyone who is bold enough can carry my designs with a good attitude.’

With his diffusion line, Fish Fry, he has collaborated with Reebok on innovative high-fashion footwear, incorporating strong colours, metallic hues and Swarovski crystals.

He has three flagship shops in India and is stocked in 95 stores, including Harrods in London, Galleries Lafayette in Paris and Bloomingdales in New York. Arora’s spring/summer 2007 collection was shown at London Fashion Week in September.

Mahdavi’s idea was to use the machine to make finished products rather than prototypes, and to create software to design customised materials for them. His work on the software started about four years ago during his engineering doctorate in Evolutionary Robotics at UCL, where he got involved with material properties through the robots he was working on. Although the software program was not a university project per se, Mahdavi was able to draw on the resources available to him at UCL to develop it. His background is a degree in Electromechanical Engineering at King’s College in London followed by an MSc in Intelligent Systems at UCL.

The team at Complex Matters is now working on improving the program to make it faster and possibly to create a web interface through which it can be accessed. One of the many benefits that the technology can offer is that small runs or limited editions can be made cheaply, making it ideal for customised products or companies that want to create items to order.

Another advantage is that it can solve the problem of finding the right material for a job by creating a specially made one. In addition, it’s possible to make products with much more intricate designs than through conventional injection moulding. And the process is quick, which is a huge advantage for anyone requiring a fast turnaround.

‘Because we manufacture everything one at a time, there’s no cost for doing small runs,’ explains Mahdavi. ‘This is something that is useful for people who are very creative and want to have every single part of their product or garment, every accessory, exactly how they want it to be.’

Over the past year, Complex Matters has targeted key industries and companies that could find this technology useful – ones that use high-end design and would have a lot to gain from improved material properties. Motorcycle helmets, medical implants and aerospace equipment are just some of the potential applications. Work on customised prosthetic limbs is already underway.

Working with high fashion

Mahdavi came in contact with fashion designer Manish Arora through a mutual friend in India, and after an initial chat and brainstorming session, they decided to do a trial run for Arora’s catwalk show in London. They ended up focusing on two small items that were used to embellish the clothing.

The first was a transparent bow, which was later sprayed with gold colour before being attached to garments. The second were buttons, specially designed by Arora. Both items worked perfectly with the many patterns, vibrant colours and interesting details that were part of the collection.

‘My first thoughts were that, if something like this is actually possible, it can sure create wonders,’ says Arora. ‘Though the technology sounds complex, it’s easy to work with it. You just have to give them your 3D designs and you get the product easily. It’s really great because it’s fast and it really leaves no scope for errors. What you design in 3D is what you get as a final product.’

With Arora being very happy and surprised about the quality of the end result, his work with Mahdavi and his team is set to continue for the foreseeable future. If things work out well, Arora could even consider a long-term relationship with Complex Matters.
‘We are in the process of collaborating with a major shoe brand on this technology, and I hope it works out well,’ Arora says. This project would involve creating shoes that have gorgeous upper parts and also soles with interesting designs such as intricate detailing and patterns, something that is not possible to create through standard injection moulding.

Arora’s next collection, for spring/summer 2007, will be on the catwalk in London in September. It too will involve using the technology, this time for a wider range of items. There are plans to create a corset, which could potentially be made of a material that would be supportive but comfortable at the same time.

‘To work out the optimum internal structure of an object is not something an engineer could do,’ says Mahdavi. ‘When it comes to the corset, you can’t just give that job to anyone and have them design it, because the person wearing it may breathe and it will break, or it won’t expand enough. To get exact material properties really does take something like the artificial intelligence technology that we’ve created.’

Another possibility that has been discussed is to create bag handles. It seems like while the initial trial run stayed within very safe parameters, this time Arora is being more adventurous and creative with the possibilities on offer. ‘Since we didn’t have much time on our hands last time, before Fashion Week, we could not use this technology to the maximum and hence it was not a prominent part of our collection,’ Arora explains.

Mahdavi agrees: ‘The designs that he brought for the buttons and bows are very nice but they haven’t yet exploited the benefits that this manufacturing process has. So if he had made something very intricate with lots of butterflies and crazy things coming out, 3D objects and intricate weaving, that would have been manufactured using all our resources. The stuff we did could potentially have been built using injection moulding, but because of the small runs you still have the benefits.’

He adds: ‘But I think that when you’ve been brought up thinking that things should look a certain way, that everything has right angles and is solid, it’s very hard to open your mind to think that it doesn’t have to be like that – it can be like this, and it can still work.’

For Arora, working with this microstructure optimisation has fitted in well with his overall aims and interests as a fashion designer. ‘I have always been keen to incorporate new materials and methods into my designs and I also love experimenting within certain parameters. Of course this technology was interesting enough for me to use for my creativity,’ he says.

‘The idea is for me to convince Manish that he can make whatever he wants. Just give the design to me and I’ll do whatever it takes to make it work,’ says Mahdavi. ‘All he needs to know is that he now has the freedom to design whatever he wants, in the smallest batch, maybe even just one or two items, it doesn’t have to be 100.’

‘We just make sure it comes out okay, works well, doesn’t break, has the material characteristics he wants and looks right. That’s how the process works. We don’t sit down together with me talking about microstructures, he’s not interested in that.’

Sports and footwear markets

Another client that Mahdavi has recently started collaborating with is Prior2Lever. The company already makes bespoke football boots, which are customised to each individual by having their feet scanned by a podiatrist and then using 3D printing to make the soles.

With a price tag of £7,000, this subscription service is primarily used by professional football players. Mahdavi and Prior2Lever are now looking to develop a new generation of football boots using his artificial intelligence software. Ultimately, cutting-edge footwear could become much more affordable and readily available to a wider range of consumers.
‘Maybe in a year or two you could go into your average shoe shop and stand on a very cheap scanner. You could almost imagine that there’s a printer there as well. So you could scan your feet, go and have lunch and come back and your shoes are printed, and you can go home with your own customised pair. That is a futuristic image of what could potentially happen,’ Mahdavi says. ‘I think shoes are definitely something that is very interesting, because the benefits of having that customised interaction with the human body is very important, and there are a lot of benefits from having it.

‘One thing that I think will be very big, maybe even bigger than with the football boots, will be working with women’s shoes, like stilettos for example,’ he explains. ‘They don’t have to be customised to you, because not everyone is going to go into a shoe shop and have their feet scanned. That’s not going to happen, they’re just going to go into a shop and pick the ones that look the best.

‘But if you can actually get the heel and the internal structure to have more cushioning for example, without causing instability, designers could then take that general design and do the aesthetics themselves, and you’d end up with more comfortable stilettos.’

The main limitations of the technology at the moment is linked to the printing machine. Its size, 30 x 30 x 60cms, means that Mahdavi is confined to making objects that big or smaller. Another drawback is that, while the machine can use several different materials and a range of different colours, it can only print in one colour at a time.

Complex Matters would like to get around these problems, and has already applied for funding to build its own larger 3D printer. If they get the green light, the only limits to this technology in the future would be the imagination of the people using it.

Eva Johansson is a freelance journalist who specialises in education and fashion.

Read other Visual & Creative Arts Research, including 2007 research on Animation & Computer Games and research from 2008 about the Creativity of the UK.