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How Rag & Bone turned science fiction into science reality at New York Fashion Week

By Emma Fraser
Rag & Bone

Fashion and science fiction have a long and storied history as designers dare to dream big, taking inspiration from Metropolis to The Matrix. Launching a new collection isn't just about the garments; music and set design also imbue meaning. These are often audacious, whether it is Chanel's simulated rocket launch or Coach turning to the Blair Witch for decorating tips. Robots walked the runway at London Fashion Week in 2018, but nearly 20 years prior, Alexander McQueen delivered an audacious closing show moment using two car spray-painting machines in a dance of sorts with model and former ballerina Shalom Harlow. 

The line between science fiction and fact blurs as technological advances continue to have a huge impact, shaping not only the design but the way clothes are produced, displayed, marketed and purchased. Traditions and practices of Fashion Week are constantly being challenged as brands attempt to stay relevant by looking to the past, present, and future. Nostalgia is powerful, but so is innovation. Social media platforms have given rise to the Instagram models, in which a high follower count — and often famous parents or friends — can launch a career. Everyone with a computer or a smartphone can watch a live stream of a fashion show. Scoring an invite is still just for some, and yet, technology has made what was once exclusive available to the masses.

PT Anderson, Oscar Isaac, Justin Theroux, Liev Schreiber
Two years ago, Rag & Bone chief executive and creative director Marcus Wainwright announced he would no longer produce a traditional Fashion Week presentation; like many, the 2016 election impacted how he viewed the world and his work. For Wainwright, this meant ditching the runway format, as “It meant absolutely nothing, suddenly. We’ve got people from all walks of life, all with their very strong sense of personal style. That’s really what fashion means to me right now.” Since then, Wainwright has used a variety of creative methods to launch new collections including choreography, unscripted films, and self-portraits with a philanthropic message — participants were paid in a donation to a charity of their choice.

In these recent collaborations, Wainwright drew on a large creative pool including ballet dancer-turned actor Mikhail Baryshnikov, actor Bobby Cannavale, and musician Thom Yorke. Wainwright is also drawn to sci-fi, having produced a Star Wars collab nearly two years ago, as well as turning to the franchise for inspiration in 2009 and 2012.

Andre Holland and Lakeith Stanfield
For the fall 2019 collection, Wainwright is once again trying something that mixes fashion, music, and performance, looking to the future while also indulging in a time-honored tradition that existed long before computers. A Last Supper draws its name from probably the most famous meal in history, adding something new to the mix with the presence of an Artificial Intelligence machine.

This is not an end of days scenario in which robots are set to take over the world, even if the title has an ominous tone to it. Instead, Wainwright wanted to explore the relationship between intelligent machine and man, as this is the way technology is currently evolving.  

Rag & Bone
AI is impacting business practices across the globe; fashion is part of this widespread evolution. One way it is being utilized is to predict trends so a company can produce the items that will sell, therefore reducing waste. However, a style algorithm can only do so much as not everything is quantifiable. For example, AI cannot know when a big-name star will wear something and thus cause it to sell out. In fact, after popular demand, Rag & Bone relaunched a bomber jacket last week after President Barack Obama wore the $600 custom embroidered garment to a basketball game.

On this New York Fashion Week occasion, Rag & Bone wasn’t using this particular AI machine to predict which pieces will be popular, instead, this sensory dinner experience was focused on exploring “the relationship between artificial intelligence and humankind.”

Rag & Bone
On February 8, 50 invited guests all decked out in fall 2019 attire, featuring red and black checks, orange knitwear, tan coats, and green culottes attended the dinner as part of NYFW, hosted at the Weylin in Brooklyn (formerly the Williamsburg Savings Bank). Actors including Oscar Isaac, Justin Theroux, André Holland, Lakeith Stanfield, Evan Peters, Emma Roberts, Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Liev Schreiber, and director P.T. Anderson mingled with each other, but this was not an ordinary dinner party with a roster of human-only attendees; an AI system known as Distinguished Guest was also on the invite list.

A lot of these actors have worked on science fiction projects alongside CGI robots and androids played by people, but this is an actual machine custom made by creative technologist Ross Goodwin. Not only could the system identify objects, but Goodwin had also taught it how to respond in a poetic manner. Rather than destroying all of humanity or attempting to break free of its domain, the Distinguished Guest observed the actions of the other guests, effectively learning from their behavior and repeating this back using deep learning technology (otherwise known as artificial neural networks).

Missing media item.Depth cameras, which generated cloud point data — to capture the three-dimensional space — were used to produce a futuristic video-scape in real time. This was presented in a number of ways, some projected onto the wall, including communication via a vocal avatar (singer Thom Yorke provided the voice) and through a dance performance choreographed by Damien Jalet — who is responsible for the witchy magic dancing of the Suspiria remake. A cast of performers was directed by production designer Christine Jones, whose recent work includes Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Acting as human-machine translators, these creative forms of communication show the human experience via a “computerized vision.”

The Distinguished Guest delivered opening and closing remarks, the latter informed by the information that had been gathered throughout the evening. Conversation at a dinner party is in and of itself a data gathering experience as we learn about the people sitting around us. AI does the same thing in this setting, which might be considered unsettling as we are used to this kind of technology being used for nefarious reasons in science fiction. In this scenario, it was meant to unite, as well as show that ultimately there is a contrast between a human analog experience and the way AI views the world.

Rag & Bone
As AI continues to get more sophisticated, how will this impact our day-to-day lives? One aim behind this unusual presentation is to approach the inevitable evolution of AI with an open mind, “to explore how we will experience fashion in the future as we embrace an exponentially growing machine intelligence,” as per the Rag & Bone press release. “In a version of A Last Supper before the singularity, when machines will exceed our ability, the brand presents a beautiful and twisted vision of how we will maintain our humanity.” Sharing experiences over food is a tradition that continues, no matter how much technology and fashion changes.  

Information that was gathered in real-time makes up the final 8-minute conceptual video, which is self-edited by the AI machine. This is an innovative way to showcase the new collection as the video itself is trippy and hypnotic; the movements of the human guests are looped, the dinner table set up is viewed as a cross-section capturing all angles. We have entered the fashion Matrix and it didn’t require a pill to see it. Oscar Isaac has danced with AI in Ex Machina, but it looked nothing like this. Instead of Oliver Cheatham’s “Get Down Saturday Night,” the soundtrack was provided by Thom Yorke’s “Pyramid.” Yorke was the vocal avatar for the Distinguished Guest on the evening, so he pulled AI double duty.

Keri Russell

The aim of this collection is to be both functional and authentic, producing a fusion of British tailoring, military, American workwear, and sports attire; all traditional aspects that are both at odds while complementing the technological aspect of the AI presentation. Keri Russell in khaki green culottes looked ready to take a role in a WWII movie about Land Girls working on a British farm, meanwhile, Oscar Isaac was ready for a Northern Exposure reboot in Buffalo plaid — both will be seen later this year in Star Wars Episode IX.  

The overall video aesthetic is also part-pixelated Tron, part-digital landscape, marrying different aspects of what computers can do and replicate. It ends with Morse code repetition spelling out “EVERYTHING.” Morse code lay the foundation for computer code; the statement here could mean a number of things, but it strikes me as suggesting that everything is connected. The conversation between humans and conversation between machines are interlinked; the lines continue to blur.      

Aaron Duffy, creative lead and founder of SpecialGuest, worked with the brand on this project and explained the concept behind it, “Something that could be considered science-fiction, but it’s really science-reality.” As AI gets more sophisticated, everything else will adapt. Fashion and how it is presented to the world will continue to evolve, and innovative brands like Rag & Bone will lead the way.  
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