• Brooke Roberts-Islam

Fashion's robots: McQueen vs Plein

Just a day after publishing my first blogpost on AI, robotics and fashion came a runway show featuring all three. Designer Philipp Plein showed his SS16 collection at Milan Fashion Week featuring robot band Compressorhead with Courtney Love on vocals and robot arms ‘styling’ the models with sunglasses and bags as they travelled along a conveyor belt. There were also drones flying overhead, the function of which I am not sure. Robots in fashion suddenly seems topical.

Image above by Wonderland Magazine

Dazed Digital reported that Philipp Plein’s shows are not normal shows (previous shows have included rappers on jet skis in customised Plein pools) but never had he taken a show this far in terms of concept and techno-grandeur. Each season he aims to outdo himself, apparently leaving the crowd wondering “what next?” I wasn’t at the show, but watched it in full here

What interested me (beyond the impressive robot theatrics and investment in spectacle) was the reaction. A mixture of wonder, horror, anger and derision. I was lecturing today and played the show video for my fashion students and a handful replied in horror “but they’re just copying McQueen!” “McQueen did it better/first!” The rest were silent/amazed. Instagram is littered with similar comments. Well, McQueen did show industrial robots in his disturbingly beautiful S/S 1999 show, but with a very different theme. His concept was inspired by an installation by artist Rebecca Horn of two machine guns firing blood-red paint at each other.

Hear model Shalom Harlow speak about her experience being painted by the industrial robots in McQueen’s show.

Philipp Plein’s show was a rock and roll glamour extravaganza in which the robots were a cool addition of props but not apparently integral to the delivery of the clothing and the collection’s narrative. It looked like one hell of a show though, and hugely entertaining. Nothing wrong with that, surely? Ellie Pithers at the Telegraph said “If it was just entertainment – and the clutch of blondes jiggling along next to me in their Plein studded boots and slashed jersey dresses certainly enjoyed themselves – then it was spot on.”

I think the integration of technology, AI, robotics in the fashion product and its delivery is key if such a show is to convince. At the whiff of gimmickry, maybe the audience recoils a little? Authenticity is paramount in delivering a show that people connect with and truly buy into (on a deeper than commercial level). So, impressive as it is, maybe it’s not entirely convincing? Hashtag showoff?

Images: Wonderland Magazine

The only connection between the McQueen and Plein shows is robots. The use and motivation behind them as technical tools is entirely different. With McQueen’s use of technology, the story he was telling and the clothes themselves were still always the main event and the driving force. It was reported that the industrial robot arms that painted Shalom Harlow’s dress #13 took a week to program in order to ensure a choreographed connection with Shalom and the expression of McQueen’s vision. In contrast, at the Plein show, Compressorhead were doing what they already do (see them in action below) and the industrial robot arms which are designed to perform the action of moving objects to/from a production line appeared to be doing just that. There’s no apparent integration of the technology and the reason for the show in the first place – the clothes. The show reviews I have read of Plein’s SS 16 collection barely mention the clothes. Indeed, the show began with Courtney Love and Compressorhead rocking out. It seemed to be a declaration of entertainment first, fashion second.

As a (cool, but slightly disturbing) aside, Compressorhead were created by Robocross machines, who have machines for all occasions. Check out Stickboy’s fascinating CV including date of birth (2007), specifics (four arms, two legs and one head) and playlist…

For those concluding the Plein show was a “ripoff” of McQueen’s, by that definition, any designer using the same machine/object/material as another designer would be copying too. However, it’s apparently fine to use the same materials/colours/silhouettes as other designers (indeed that helps to create a trend, so that’s quite useful for the industry) but it’s less acceptable to use the same technology/theme to present a show. Most designers wouldn’t go anywhere near a show theme utilised by McQueen. Since McQueen used the Pepper’s Ghost technique to project a flutteringly angelic Kate Moss, who’d go there? I’m not suggesting designers shouldn’t go there, I’m merely illustrating the point that they generally don’t. Except Plein.


Fashionista quoted Plein as saying he feels he’s an industry outsider, that he doesn’t have support from the industry and he has a deep rooted fear that people won’t turn up to his shows, as they didn’t in the beginning. He insists that as a self-funded, investor-less concern competing with the likes of Gucci and Chanel, his spectacular shows are par for the course and that he is spending less than his rivals (who aren’t criticised for such excess). There’s a definite tinge of derision in the article as they go on to claim he “rants” about robots taking over. The Elle headline below is also derisory. Fashionista do, however, admit that Milan Fashion Week would be a lot less fun without his spectacular shows.

About the Plein show, following her comment that the entertainment factor was spot on, Ellie Pithers went on to say “If it was meant to be a parody of the fashion industry – the conveyor belt demands of the schedule, the robotic nature of trends, the deliberate mechanics behind product placement – it was even better.” I’m not convinced there were metaphorical intentions and this, her final statement, seems a fairly cold conclusion. The choice of Kraftwerk’s, “Robots” and “The Model” further support the literal nature of the Plein’s message.

I think there’s a lesson to learn here about future conversations involving those in technology and fashion seeking to fuse disciplines. Integrate or irritate. Apple watch has been met with a tepid response for failing to create a genuine, desirable, aesthetic fusion. “Just because you put a strap on it doesn’t make it a watch”. Watch out Wearables.

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