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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.