Hi-tech is becoming fashionable

The fashion industry has been slow to join the information revolution. But now designers like Wayne Hemingway and Paul Smith are leading the way into cyberspace. Andy Zneimer reports.
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The Independent Culture
The fashion establishment continues to fight its corner proudly, but it seems the battle is all but lost. The IT revolution is finally making in-roads into this most technophobic of industries. As London Fashion Week kicked off on Saturday and the models began to pout and pose for the world press, it quickly became evident that some things would never be the same again.

Wayne Hemingway, co-founder of hip British street label Red or Dead, joined forces with video games colossus Nintendo to stage the catwalk show of the week to date. Harnessing the interactive entertainment technology of Nintendo 64 - a machine claimed by Nintendo to be "more powerful than the computers used to put man on the moon" - Red or Dead models strutted their stuff against a backdrop of a wacky virtual trip around the US.

"The Autumn/Winter 98 collection is based on the theme of a road movie ... travelling through America," Hemingway explained. "We needed state-of- the-art technology to create the effect of the girls stepping out from a computer game. I've always enjoyed playing video games and loved the idea of transferring the experience from the living-room to the catwalk."

Red or Dead has also led the way in pioneering the use of the Internet as a way of promoting brand awareness, providing interactive entertainment and virtual shopping facilities for global Web surfers. The Read or Dead site, designed by James Ghani of Wax New Media, has been continually updated with digital photographic images from London Fashion Week. Indeed, anybody browsing the site on Saturday would have been able to view stills from the Red or Dead show practically "as live" and certainly far in advance of any photographs appearing in the fashion pages of the national press.

"It's a really democratic medium and it allows us to give something back to people," Hemingway said. "We have a no-advertising policy and so the Internet gives us as much `free' space as we need to put across what we're about.

"We considered relaying the show live to our site - the digital cameras exist to do it - but most home-users' PCs can't take live video. The technology beat us this time, but it won't next time around."

Paul Smith, who unveils his eagerly anticipated Paul Smith Women collection today, is set to relaunch his highly acclaimed Web site on 25 March. This bastion of British fashion, with an annual turnover of some pounds 171m, will become the first fashion designer to employ the Flash technology from Macromedia.

Bronwen Da Costa, creative producer at Foresight New Media and designer of the site, says: "Flash allows animation, sound and user interactivity to create a fast, fun and stylish approach to Web design. New users will be required to download a small plug-in, which will introduce a far more visually exciting experience."

The Paul Smith catwalk show will be shot on video, digitised, compressed and uploaded to the site, allowing users download it at leisure or, alternatively, users will be able to witness the whole extravaganza in real-time video on the new-look site. Real-time viewing allows video to be streamed directly off the server, thus eliminating the necessity to download.

"By using new technology, we hope to keep the site fresh and entertaining," Paul Smith said. "As a company, we are very close to young designers, so we also wanted to use the Internet to keep students and colleagues up-to-date. We get many requests for information and the site provides a humorous and informative source."

Paul Smith and Wayne Hemingway may be blazing the trail in countering the fashion establishment's often irrational anxiety over all things technological, but they are not alone. Clone, a London-based Web consultancy, is to bring the reigning queen of Brit fashion, Vivienne Westwood, into the Net-wise fraternity later in the year. Notably, Jasper Conran and Michiko Koshino also have cool Web sites up and running, and John Rocha, the critically acclaimed designer from Hong Kong, now resident in Ireland, has been working closely with Fariba Farshad, head of the IT Research and Development Unit at the London Institute, to produce a prototype multimedia CD-Rom for the fashion industry.

"I hope it will encourage others to embrace the technology," Farshad says. "I believe it will serve as a potent showcase to illustrate how to use multimedia both as a public relations tool and as an extremely effective and interactive means of communication."

John Rocha collections from as far back as 1994 - and including the one shown yesterday at the Natural History Museum headquarters of London Fashion Week - will be incorporated on to the CD-Rom and distributed to the press, buyers and hangers-on at his July show in Paris. "I believe that IT is the way forward," Rocha said. "Every other industry utilises IT and I feel that fashion needs to use it more extensively to move forward." Amen to that.

A number of Britain's premier fashion photographers, currently atop a ladder somewhere waiting to get the picture that will feature on fashion pages around the world tomorrow, are gearing up for an inevitable development that signals the end of a glorious era. Ken Turner, staff photographer at the London Evening Standard, told me: "I believe this is the beginning of the end of the use of film stock. There is a digital camera due out in a month or so from Kodak/Cannon that will revolutionise the coverage of fashion shows both for the consumer and the industry.

"Currently, mixed tungsten and natural lighting makes it hard for picture desks to identify colours accurately when images are downloaded from the end of the catwalk using very expensive digital cameras," Turner said. "Digital cards are costly and you have to download them all the time to free space. But all that is about to change once and for all.

"During this week I will be using my laptop to download stills from the day's earlier shows for inclusion in the last edition of the paper."

Turner's view is backed up by other shooting stars such as Niall McInerney, of Harpers & Queen, and Chris Moore, whose work is well-known to readers of The Independent's fashion pages.

"I use technology a lot to send pictures from the catwalk to publications like Senken Shimbum in Japan," Moore said. "Believe it or not, I will be using an ISDN connection to send images to Drapers Record and the Guardian, which is practically next door! The future is certainly in digital photography."

David Galbraith of RTA, electronic commerce specialists, elaborates: "Ultimately, sending images via a cellular network - or in other words directly from a camera with a built-in cellular modem - will allow photographers to transfer stills from a remote location to a publisher. At the moment this technology is unfeasibly slow, but enhanced compression and modifications to the GSM standard will increase speeds beyond current restrictions in the not-too-distant future. This development will allow time, date, location and authorship to be authenticated."

But it isn't just the designers and traditional press that are making the most of London Fashion Week. FashionUK, a cutting-edge fashion webzine, has been publishing daily show reports, interviews and images from London Fashion Week for the past four seasons.

"To date, our coverage has been very successful. We focus on the younger and more funky designers like Owen Gastor," said FashionUK editor, Marian Buckley. "Last season, the British Fashion Council (BFC) announced that Internet mags would not be granted photographic passes. We simply continued to offer regular updates by approaching individual designers and getting their co-operation.

"Designers worried about the copying of their creations should bear in mind that low-resolution Internet pictures are relatively useless," Buckley said. "Newspapers are a much more useful medium for would-be copyists."

Abigail Chisman, editor of Conde Nast's Vogue Online fashion site, has also encountered a similar reluctance from many designers to recognise the Internet as a medium to be embraced and not feared. Vogue Online dedicates a lot of resources to its coverage of London Fashion Week and has recently announced that a Vogue Collection site will go live early next month.

The new searchable catalogue of catwalk pictures is as notable for those designers who refuse to be included - such as Antonio Berardi - as it is for those who wish to be - such as Alexander McQueen. "The site is free advertising for them," said Chisman. "No criticism. Just information about price, stockists and availability.

"All of us at Vogue Online simply hope that in the future we will receive a more positive reception from those who haven't quite grasped the nettle as yet," she said.

The BFC has its own Internet site which is, to state it kindly, not terribly impressive. Hardly an enticing advert for London Fashion Week. However, John Wilson, chief executive of the BFC, promises improvements: "We will react. We are open to change. We've started discussions about technological development but the enthusiasm from the designers isn't that great.

"Wayne Hemingway has more of a mass market appeal than most," Wilson continued. "The PR angle is different to the selling angle. Fashion at the designer end is a highly personalised business."

Red or Dead

http://www.redordead.co.uk/ Paul Smith

http://www.paulsmith.co.uk/ Vogue Online

http://www.vogue.co.uk

FashionUK

http://www.widemedia.com/ fashionuk/

British Fashion Council

http://www.fashionweb.co.uk/LFW/

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