This is the very first instalment of Fashion Forward, a bi-weekly column focused on the future of fashion. To subscribe to this newsletter, please follow the link. Stay tuned to our YouTube channel for video coverage of this event.
When we think of fashion tech, we don’t immediately think of Russia. The country is much more known for its patriarchal leader, strict border security, and fur hats. But recent developments in virtual and augmented reality, see-now-buy-now, and digital marketing are causing the Russian Fashion Council to sit up and pay attention. Russia is now vying for a leadership position on the global stage when it comes to fashion tech, but they know they can’t get there alone. In order to innovate, the country must experiment and accelerate, and this means establishing good ties with the fashion tech community the world over.
For the past decade, Russia has been in a recession due to an economy that relies too heavily on oil and gas. As the country struggles to transition to an ideas economy, the next generation is seen as a light capable of guiding the nation towards a brighter future. When it comes to fashion, Russians are beginning to regard technology as a tool that has the potential to save an industry that’s ageing fast.
“In Russia, fashion is still considered a craft, but the whole world is changing. Fashion technologies are radically transforming production, retail, and marketing,” says Alexander Shumsky, the Executive President of the Russian Fashion Council and the President of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia. At over six-feet tall, Shumsky is a substantial man with a reputation of someone not to be messed with. He is also largely credited as the person pushing Russia’s fashion scene into the digital age. “Russia has something to say about new innovations like virtual and augmented reality. We want to help define that future, and the Russian Fashion Council wants to encourage young people to be a part of that rush,” he says.
The runway shows for this season’s fashion week took place October 13th thru 17th at Manage, a large oblong building just outside Red Square, Moscow’s historical centre. At any given time, you could find yourself swimming through a sea of more than 350 fashion week attendees, all dressed to impress, evidence that no matter where you go in the world, the see-and-be-seen vibe that pulses through fashion weeks is ubiquitous.
On the catwalk, there was a clear conflict between old and new values. Watching Goga Nikabadze’s show, for example, was more like attending a well-rehearsed Russian ballet than a runway show. Anika Kerimova presented classic cuts along with traditional ideals of femininity; Women walked the catwalk with young children by their sides, which is apparently part of the Russian tradition
In contrast, designers like Yulia Nikolaeva and Lumier Garson aimed for something more modern, edgy, and even rebellious.
When it comes to integrating technology, you won’t find any wearables on the runway like we’ve seen in New York and even Paris recently. Instead, the focus was much more on how technology is transforming the industry as a whole, and how digital can bridge the gap between designers and consumers. The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week app, for example, invited fashion week goers and the general public to view and interact with collections directly after the show in virtual reality. Official cardboard headsets were distributed to attendees and media, but for those at home who didn’t receive a headset, the collections were made available in 360-degree photos that were interactive and responsive. Users could view an entire collection on the runway and click on specific pieces to learn more.
These virtual reality and 360 components were made possible by way of a collaboration with YouVisit, a New York-based company pioneering virtual reality use-cases for businesses outside the gaming industry. YouVisit made a name for itself developing interactive experiences that enable users to enter places they’d normally have limited access to—like the Palace of Versailles, for example. Now, they’re starting to develop a niche within the fashion industry.
“We specialise in creating real-world content, but now we’re focused on making that content interactive,” says Mike
Turino, Director of Sales and Partnerships at YouVisit. “In the near future, you’ll be able to make transactions and purchases inside our virtual content, which has a huge ability to impact the industry,” he says.
YouVisit envisions a world where you can step inside a runway show, watch it from any angle, and decide which pieces from a collection to hone in on, examine in more detail, and possibly even try on and purchase. If fashion weeks were once modelled on exclusivity, VR is turning that model on its head by giving unprecedented access to anyone with a smartphone. This new distribution method confirms what the fashion industry at large already knows—that fashion weeks globally are no longer for buyers and members of the media, but for consumers.
Last year, YouVisit teamed up with digital influencer Craig Arend to produce Mirror to the Soul, a virtual reality film exploring Russia Fashion Week by taking viewers through chief cornerstone fashion week experiences, like backstage hair and makeup, the media pit, the front row, and street style. The film was widely recognised for its innovative approach to storytelling by the likes of Vogue and the Business of Fashion, and even won an award for the best VR travel film.
For this season, Arend and Turino’s team at YouVisit have come together to offer a mixed reality experience—although this time the focus is on creating fashion rather than consuming it.
Using HTC’s Vive headset, fashion week attendees were invited to step inside a green screen-like installation to illustrate their own designs using Google Tilt Brush, a tool that turns your surroundings into a canvas and lets you paint space with virtual reality. Videos of the illustrations coming to life were saved and made available for sharing on social media channels. To demonstrate the potential of this new technology, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia also invited a number of world-renowned illustrators such as JaeSuk Kim to create with Google Tilt Brush. Kim is most known for his illustrations of the Susu Girls, a family of long-legged, short-haired fashionistas.
In line with the virtual reality experiences that experiment with emerging technologies, the Russian Fashion Council has also started a new tech-focused initiative for advancing expertise and accelerating business in areas of fashion tech. Launched in March of this year, the Fashion Futurum is an international conference that took place alongside Russia’s spring fashion week. Invited speakers such as Manufacture New York’s Doctor Amanda Parkes, Eddie Mullon of Fashion GPS, and fashion designer Danit Peleg gave presentations across areas of fashion tech.
This season, the Russian Fashion Council hosted a smaller event on October 17th, the closing day of fashion week. Called the Fashion Futurum Startup Show, the event was more like a pitch contest than a show, as it aimed at giving startups the chance to get fashion tech projects off the ground. Seventy applicants submitted ideas which were vetted and narrowed down to 12 companies. Entrepreneurs had five minutes to sell their business model to a panel of experts, who rated the pitches on a set of criteria, including market research and team members. Startups were competing for a spot in one of two fashion technology accelerators in Helsinki and Milan.
Ideas pitched during the five-hour Fashion Futurum were trying to solve problems on par with international trends, like styling and customization, although many pitches sounded like premature versions of apps and services that already exist elsewhere in the world. Dressbook, for example, pitched a try-it-before-you-buy-it model already popularised by North American subscription services such as Frank + Oak’s Hunt Club. Similarly, Lookbook Official offered a platform where users can discover and create their personal style, not unlike Polyvore. Other trends were more local, like trying to integrate electronics into apparel for heating—a problem many startups in cold climates are trying to solve.
The winners of the Startup Show were Suit App and Metro Masks. Made by Russian developers, SuitApp aspires to be a virtual fitting room that cooperates with retailers to allow customers to try on clothes via an avatar using exact physique parameters. Metro Masks offers patterned face masks embedded with nanosilver to protect wearers from toxins in their environments. Both companies will go on to accelerators in Milan and Helsinki respectively. Two other startups, F.Gene and The Dream Hoodie Project, were selected to participate in Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia next season. F.Gene produces customizable eco-leather laptop bags, while The Dream Hoodie is an experimental tailor shop that allows people to create a personalised hoodie in minutes.
“I think fashion tech in Russia is moving in the right direction, but it’s still in its infancy,” says Sharif Sakr, a UK-based technology journalist-turned business consultant. Sakr was among the experts who helped select the Fashion Futurum winners. “There’s a lot of blue sky ideas here, and attempts at being disruptive and global all at once, which can come across as naive. I’m always for the more realistic ideas, and there were some startups here today focused on solving the biggest problems for the biggest retailers in the industry, which is a good start,” he says.
Since the startup fashion scene in Russia is young, establishing ties to the global fashion tech community is necessary for not only its growth but also its survival. While Russia may not be known for its strong international relations, its fashion industry is finding a new way forward.