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.AI and Sustainability Push Fashion Forward

A look at trends in self-expression, technology and secondhand clothing

music in the park san jose

FASHION’S FUTURE

Fashion is the art medium with the biggest worldwide participation. The clothes a person wears reflect their character, even when unintentional. Someone’s favorite band can be displayed on the front of a sweatshirt, or the boots on their feet can suggest a hiking hobby. 

True style is not only status-defining luxury; it’s a symbol of who someone is and what they love. 

Future trends have been infamously gatekept. Speculations constantly circulate regarding the next aesthetic that will take over social media timelines and runways—guesses about the future of fashion range from a virtual fashion takeover to scrapping trends and emphasizing individuality.

 It’s a burning question with no clear answer. What does the future of fashion look like?

SELF-EXPRESSION

Society makes assumptions about a person based on their clothing choices, so self-expression can lead people in the right (or wrong) direction of who they are. Even the morals someone believes can be displayed in clothing.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no right or wrong formula or rules to be considered genuinely fashionable. Genuine fashion goes beyond conformity, finding its essence in individuality and the exclusive expression of personal style. One-of-one purses and limited edition designer drops are some of the most sought-after pieces. So what makes a hand-sewn top or DIY-ed jeans any less valuable?

Zuberi Studios, owned by SFSU student Sarah Zuberi, understands the allure of exclusivity. This small brand values not only the environmental impact of slow fashion—a form of sustainable fashion that takes into consideration manufacturing garments with people, animals and the environment in mind—but also the consumer’s attraction to one-of-a-kind pieces.

“Everything is ‘one of none’ in my brand; there are no restocks of any pieces and only one of each size,” says Zuberi. “It is to eliminate overconsumption and to promote uniqueness so that only a few people will have those pieces.” 

Relying solely on trends can undermine the purpose of fashion as a form of individual expression. 

True innovation and self-representation emerge when people break away from trends, celebrate their uniqueness and contribute to fashion’s diverse and inclusive nature. “I don’t follow the trends. I do what I feel in my heart,” says Sonia Le, a Santa Cruz-based designer and owner of Cosmo Chic with many San Jose-based clients. 

Le has seen all types of fashion in her years of sewing. From creating outfits for her Barbie dolls to opening up a design studio to bring creative visions to life, Le knows the value of self-expression in fashion. She’s currently the costume designer for the weekly drag bingo that takes place weekly at the Pruneyard’s Cedar Room.

“I don’t like to have the same thing as someone else,” says Le. “I’ll even get something from the thrift store and change it to make it unique.”

Tasha Giouri, a San Francisco designer who owns and operates TASH, feels that the whole idea of fashion relies on the opportunity to step out of comfort zones. “That’s what’s cool… it makes you different and sets you apart,” she says. “Even if it’s out of the ordinary, a cool outfit is what people will remember, and it may inspire them.”

Being authentic is the most essential accessory. Authenticity is translated in high-fashion houses when they make statements about the world’s social standing or introduce a historic cultural fashion that would otherwise go unseen in modern society. 

Pharrell Williams’ newest Louis Vuitton show is a shining example of forgotten fashion history represented by new collections. “We are here to appreciate where we go and what we learn, and come back and share those stories in the way we do when I express myself through the clothes and the show,” Williams told GQ Magazine earlier this year.

Williams identified the misappropriation of Native American cowboy culture in the media, prompting him to collaborate with artists from the Dakota and Lakota tribes. This partnership aimed to offer an authentic representation of history, challenging existing narratives. 

By utilizing their creative platforms, designers address cultural appropriation and contribute to a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of history. They showcase the transformative power of fashion as a medium for social commentary and change. 

Designers’ use of art—and even literature—to articulate their beliefs and the sources of inspiration behind their intricate collections underscores fashion’s social significance. Just last fall Elle magazine published an article highlighting the cross-over between fashion and literary characters. “Fashion’s literary renaissance seems to be a counterbalance to screen time,” wrote the article after listing off major designer after major designer who showcased some type of literary pieces at a variety of spring 2024 fashion shows. “All this bookishness serves as a sentimental reminder of what we had before social media—and taps into the power of great storytelling.”

DUALITY: TECHNOLOGY IN FASHION

The horizons of fashion are evolving with technology infiltrating the industry. 

Technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI), can help consumers become more informed shoppers, allowing them to visualize how a garment would fit them.

AI virtual fitting rooms from Amazon have changed the online shopping game by utilizing advanced technology to create a realistic representation of shoppers based on body measurements and proportions. 

Shoppers upload a full-body image or employ a digital avatar resembling themselves, and the AI analyzes critical data points to generate an accurate representation. The virtual fitting room allows the shopper to select clothing items from Amazon’s catalog, with the AI considering garment characteristics like fabric and cut. The AI may suggest adjustments based on shopper preferences or past purchase history, providing a personalized touch to the virtual shopping journey. 

“We will continue to leverage AI to personalize the shopping experience further, making it easier and more enjoyable for our customers,” Jenny Freshwater, the VP of Amazon Fashion and Fitness, told Vogue Business earlier this year.

AI design tools also give designers a larger realm of possibility. There’s even an AI Fashion Week that just wrapped its second season at the end of 2023. “Building on the foundation of last year, we’ve ramped up the excitement,” wrote FashionWeek.ai. “Expect to see avant-garde AI-generated collections, new collaborations and a deeper dive into the intersection of fashion and tech.”

Designing an item of clothing and the construction involved takes work. Hours of drafting, sewing and trial-and-error can go into making just one piece. But in the digital realm, AI can help. 

Cosmo Chic’s Sonia Le shares how she uses AI to simplify the design and construction process. “I’m self-taught, so these programs that help you create a design and translate it to a pattern make it possible for me to learn,” she says.

These tools leverage algorithms to create precise and tailored patterns, saving designers time and effort in manual calculations. Small designers, often working with limited resources, can benefit from the efficiency and accuracy of AI-generated patterns, allowing them to focus more on creative aspects of design.

Le uses technology not only as a tool but as a component of her artistry. “My passion is wearable art pieces,” she says. “I love using lights and integrating technology into my pieces… I was the second person to use fiber optics in my pieces.”

Nooworks is a small women-owned and operated clothing brand based in the Bay Area. Founder Jennifer D’Angelo explains how AI assistance in photoshoots and small technology tasks can aid a team of about 18 people to run a company smoothly.

“AI assistants and AI Midjourney can be helpful,” says D’Angelo. “Like, if you can’t afford to do a massive photoshoot, I find AI is helpful in creating these fantastical worlds that small businesses do not have the budget to create on their own.”

It will be interesting to witness the intersection and co-existence between tech tools in fashion and personal expression. There are still designers out there who believe that AI designs are not sustainable or morally sound.

“It takes away from people like me who do one-of-one and cut and sew… you lose the personability,” says Zuberi Studios’ founder, Sarah Zuberi.

Some think AI can only go so far in fashion until it impedes the moral basis of the craft. AI operates based on patterns and data analysis, potentially leading to a limited range of design choices. Creativity often stems from breaking established norms and pushing boundaries, something that AI may only achieve with pre-existing patterns to draw upon. 

“Maybe with AI, it’s a gray area because it uses somebody else’s design or many people’s designs to create ‘your’ design,” says Le.

D’Angelo of Nooworks adds that people “don’t get to see behind the scenes for AI. [People] don’t know the steps it took to get there.” 

The risk with AI creating fashion is that fashion could become formulaic and predictable, needing more bold experimentation and emotional depth that human designers bring.

“I just hope it doesn’t affect artists… I love having art school employees. They are so good at making what they can with limited resources,” says D’Angelo. She points out how AI lacks the charming quality the human mind brings to the table.

If AI is trusted to predict future trends and tell people what to wear, the fashion world may turn into a money game, and the lack of sustainability in garment production may worsen. As AI algorithms analyze vast amounts of consumer data to forecast trends, there’s a risk of prioritizing profit over sustainability. 

“I get the money game… I really do,” says Le. “As a designer, I want to come up with something nobody else has come up with.”

With the adoption of AI, the fashion industry may become more profit-driven with brands producing trendy but disposable items to keep up with rapidly changing AI-predicted trends. This “money game” approach could increase consumption and encourage a throwaway culture that contributes to environmental degradation.

“We have been programmed to buy the quick trends and what’s ‘in,’ but we are not realizing what it does to the environment,” says Le.

STRIVE FOR SUSTAINABILITY

The pressure to constantly innovate and churn out new styles could compromise ethical and sustainable practices in garment production, as manufacturers may prioritize speed and cost-effectiveness over environmentally conscious choices. 

“The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters,” says Le.

According to Earth.Org, “The extremely detrimental impact of fast fashion waste on the environment is no news. Besides being responsible for nearly 10% of global carbon emissions, the industry is also infamously known for the amount of resources it wastes and the millions of clothes ending up in landfills every day.”

The site goes on to list 10 statistical grievances about how “fast fashion” negatively impacts the environment, including 92 million tons of textile waste being produced per year, an expected 50% growth of global emissions by 2030 and attributing 20% of global wastewater to the fashion industry, to name a few.

“According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, emissions from textile manufacturing alone are projected to skyrocket by 60% by 2030,” writes a different article from earlier this year on Earth.org.

The push for sustainability as a fashion baseline is a growing movement that may become more popular as a response to fast fashion’s environmental impacts. Shifting the mindset around the urgency to consume rapidly is vital to curbing unethical consumption practices.

There doesn’t have to be a big fuss about being sustainable as a brand. “We actually don’t like to talk about our sustainability too much because then it feels like a gimmick,” says D’Angelo. “We just want it to be the norm.”

Embracing a more conscious approach that values longevity over immediacy can lead to a reduction in wasteful and environmentally damaging behaviors. 

Le reveals how challenging it is to encourage consumers to prioritize quality over quantity and invest in timeless pieces. Fashion brands are challenging the throwaway culture, but the consumer must still be fully on board. 

“That’s one of the biggest struggles I have… People come in and say, ‘I can get that on Amazon for cheaper and faster,’” says Le. “Yes, but you’re losing the quality of the work and what I put into it.”

Brands that promote durability, ethical manufacturing and timeless designs influence consumers to reconsider their approach to clothing consumption. 

For Nooworks, the conscious effort to reduce overconsumption means shrinking production sizes. A business model of ‘not too much’ sets Nooworks apart. “I’m all about ethically manufacturing limited edition garments to as wide a group of people as possible,” D’Angelo says.

Transparency throughout the supply chain is a defining characteristic of the future of sustainable fashion. Consumers demand greater visibility into the origins of materials, ethical manufacturing processes and fair labor practices.

But making new clothes more environmentally conscious isn’t the only way to curb the effects of mass production. One answer could be in the past. More specifically, the clothes of the past.

“Consumers are getting smarter and less afraid of buying used,” says D’Angelo.

Secondhand fashion is pivotal in advancing sustainability within the industry by leading fashion into a circular economy and minimizing the environmental impact of clothing production. The essence of secondhand lies in reusing and repurposing pre-owned garments, breathing new life into fashion pieces that might otherwise contribute to clothing waste.

“We have a third-party website—for Nooworks—where people can log on and sell their sold-out Nooworks items,” says D’Angelo. “Since we do limited editions, people look for certain prints, which makes them valuable.”

By opting for secondhand clothing, consumers actively participate in reducing the demand for new production, conserving resources and mitigating the carbon footprint associated with manufacturing processes. 

Vintage clothing is garments from a previous era, as recent as the 1990s. Vintage is not only famous for sustainability but also because manufacturing and production were arguably of better quality during previous fashion eras.

With this love for vintage, thrift and vintage stores have been popping up at a rapid rate, especially in the Bay Area. There are over a dozen of these second-hand stores within a few miles of each other in San Jose alone. These stores are a magnet for the most fashionable environmental activists, showcasing small artists and older brands. 

The popularity of vintage fashion encourages a shift away from the fast fashion model, promoting a more mindful and enduring approach to style. Embracing vintage pieces adds a unique and timeless charm to the wardrobe as well. It aligns with the ethical aspects of sustainable fashion, fostering a culture of reuse and longevity in the ever-evolving clothing world.

“It’s really cool to see that ‘good’ fashion doesn’t have to be brand new or expensive brands,” TASH owner Tasha Giouri says. “It’s whatever you can make out of whatever you have and whatever is out there already.”

Jeanette Prather contributed to this article.

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