Cybermodels, home shopping by computer, digitally manipulated photographs: is this the future of fashion? Annalisa Barbieri discovers an industry vainly struggling against the inevitable
"FASHION people haven't got a clue," says Keld van Schreven, managing editor and co-publisher of the electronic culture magazine, G-Spot. "Show them a computer and they run screaming. Electronic culture gives you the ability to produce interesting work - it's nothing to be afraid of." None the less, the fashion world, for a variety of reasons, is scared of technology.

While other industries, such as the advertising world, have readily recognised the importance of technology, the fashion world has obstinately refused to acknowledge the advances that could transform it.

But imperceptibly, technological advances have been made, and ever since the UK launch of the ultra-trendy computer magazine Wired, the people who oil the wheels of the fashion industry have been starting to think again. Predictably, the Internet is the scene of most of the activity. Every week, more fashion-related items go on-line: the Fashion Web has a guide to Paris shopping, a file about supermodels, information about the Shiseido range of make-up - and plenty of spaces for fashion magazines (not yet taken up).

More pragmatically, your vital statistics can be measured up electronically, and, of course, you can spend, spend, spend. In the US, home computer shopping systems have been up and running for 10 years. Now it's a reality here, with CompuServe offering sports and leisure clothes; high street names are expected to join imminently.

Jeff Griffin is the man behind Griffin Laundry, the first British fashion company to go on-line. You can view Griffin's designs, e-mail him and find out where to buy them. With anything from 16-40m potential buyers, Griffin can compete with the big boys and their advertising budgets. And, as he says, "The Internet, coupled with e-mail, allows me direct contact with the customer. For example, I have this work- wear jacket and this guy e-mails me saying, 'I like it but can you do it with a pocket for carrying my laptop in?' "

There are also developments which will transform high-street shopping. Just launched in Nottingham is the "Telmat", a tardis-like measuring booth which, in seconds, provides a person with a 3-D image of his or her vital statistics, at pounds 5 a time. It has been brought to this country from France by Stephen Gray, Professor of Communications and Computer Graphics at Nottingham Trent University.

"This machine will measure every part of you, including the bit we all shy away from when measuring but which is crucial to a good fit - the crotch," Gray explains. In time, these measurements will be stored on a "smart card" which can be plugged into a home computer. "Then," he continues, "you will be able to see, at the touch of a button, which shop sells things that will fit you. Soon there will be no such thing as a size 10 or 12 - it will either be 'my size' or not." In essence, made-to-measure for all. Will the changing-room become a thing of the past? "I'd welcome anything that means avoiding that," says Sarah Walter, Marie Claire's senior fashion editor.

As the head of a project called FINS (Fashion Intelligence Navigation System), also based at the university, Gray is currently cable-deep in his own Frankenstein's monster, the cybermodel. When she materialises (in about two years' time), she will be able to walk, turn and pose - even though she will only exist on the screen.

But it is Gray's ultimate vision that strikes a chilly blow at the heart of fashion - cybermodels in cybershows. If cybershows become a reality, fashion editors will view the collections from the screen at their desk. Gray has already designed a cyber-catwalk that waits for the day that his cybermodels "take" the stage. "Live shows are irreplaceable," says Sarah Walter, "but I wouldn't write these cybershows off."

There are other, less controversial, areas where technology has already made its impression on fashion. Most people know that a model's lips can be made redder, the whites of her eyes whiter. But what used to be known as "touching up" has become big business. In just one laboratory in London, one company's workload in what is now known as "image manipulation" has increased sixfold in the past two years.

A model can be shot in a studio, but, if the background is then digitally manipulated on the computer, she can be made to look as if she's in Barbados. Her clothes can change. She can be thinner or fatter, fairer or darker. Mike Diver, a photographer who has worked for G-Spot and Griffin Laundry, has welcomed new technology. "The advantage is that magazines don't have to send a crew on location," he says. Robin Derrick, art director of Vogue, is less convinced: "Dropping in backgrounds doesn't work; you need interaction between model and background."

Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? Perhaps the fashion world is resistant to technology for one very simple reason: many people could find themselves out of a job if things continue at their current speed. The show producer, the make-up artist, the model - could they be at the wrong end of the revolution? Or will they find the future less threatening than they imagine? "Technology is not a end in itself," reassures Robin Derrick, "it's just a tool." And the essence of fashion is creative and people-oriented - and that's why people love it.

As Stephen Gray plans his cybershow, one thing he doesn't need to worry about is that crucial pecking order - who sits where. For, in virtual reality, everyone gets a front row seat. !

Comments