Putting the computer on the catwalk

The Guardian (Manchester); 08 October 1992; Claire Neesham; p. 29

Forget pencil and paper - chic designers are turning to technology to create the latest in fast fashion. Claire Neesham reports

AUTUMN has traditionally been a hectic time for the fashion industry. The season begins with the merry-go-round of catwalk shows - Paris, Milan, New York - followed by a frantic round of selling and buying or copying and adapting the designers' ideas to meet the desires of next spring's high street shopper.

But even in this industry, steeped in glamour, elitism and tradition, there are signs of change. The strict demarcation of the four seasons is disintegrating as major outlets plan their ranges a year or more in advance, and designers make subtle changes during the season to follow the trends of the consumer.

This is becoming possible due to advances in technology. Major clothing chains such as Marks & Spencer have been using just-in-time production techniques for some time, and using technology to integrate sales, ordering and manufacturing. More recently the fashion business has seen the computer systems spread from the factory into the hallowed area of fashion design itself.

Stephen Gray, senior research fellow at Nottingham Polytechnic, is the author of a recent Design Council report on computers in fashion design. He points out that although computers are moving into UK fashion design, they are still a novelty. Only 150 of 9,000 fashion companies are using computers in the design process, and none of these are big couture houses. But, he adds, the UK designers who use technology use it more creatively than their counterparts in the US and Japan.

Katie McGuirk is one designer enthusiastic about the benefits of using a computer-aided design (CAD) system. Katie McGuirk Associates designs childrens' clothes ranging from teenagers' T-shirts to babies' bootees for established names such as Joy Time and Padders.

For the last two years she has been creating fabrics and garment shapes on an Ormus system from Concept II Research. The software, which runs on 80386-based PCs, provides full paintbrush facilities, accepts scanned images, and gives a choice of 16 million colours. McGuirk finds the main benefit of the system is being able to change colours and designs quickly on screen.

''The system is great for

colourways [colour combinations]. If I was doing something by hand I might do a navy and a red version, whereas now I can play around with colours and this means I am more adventurous. I think you can be a better designer by using CAD. I'll find a design I like and then play around with it. Previously if I made a decision I was stuck with it because it took too long to change.''

McGuirk is sure that investing in a suitable CAD system has helped her company survive the recession: the fast turnaround times on designs and samples have attracted business, as has her image of being a go-ahead person prepared to invest in the future.

But McGuirk knows of no other independent childrens' wear designers using CAD. In fact, unlike music or graphic design, where small, innovative companies have pioneered the use of computers, in the fashion business it has been big companies such as Courtaulds and Coats Viyella that have introduced them first.

These companies have plumped for high-powered workstations which offer software for everything from concept design to store layout. One of the most popular of these systems is CDI Technologies' Design Concept software for Silicon Graphics workstations. This provides a full paintbox facility so designers can draw their ideas on screen (though many still prefer to use pencil and paper, scanning in their initial ideas) or work from a scanned photograph. The images can then be altered on screen and filled with anything from block colours to original patterns and displayed in photographic quality.

The finished images are then viewed by the clients - high street retailers - who see what the garment looks like in different colours and patterns. Any changes they request can be done in seconds. This means decisions are made faster and the buyer has more choice and influence.

The other benefit of using CAD is that patterns and block colours can be printed directly on to fabrics using a bubble jet printer. This means a sample garment can be turned round in 24 hours, compared with the weeks it took when fabrics were sourced or printed specially.

For most major fashion retailers the use of computers generally goes well beyond the design department to marketing, store design, and manufacturing. The area of pattern-making which lies between design and manufacture also lends itself to computerisation.

Frank Usher, a north London fashion house specialising in upmarket womens' wear, uses the Assyst pattern design software running on a network of Hewlett-Packard workstations. This software is used to modify pattern pieces, grade them for a range of sizes and produce the pattern layout required to get optimum use of fabric. This layout is printed on an A0 size plotter, and sent to manufacturers. Director Robert Bruh says the system's greatest benefit is not the reduction in cloth used but the time saved in pattern making.

The next step in increasing efficiency is to enable the designers to work in 3D, and then automatically generate the pattern outlines. Stephen Gray foresees 3D design and animation becoming increasingly important. He envisages animations being used in multi-media catalogues or exclusive previews for select clients. He also knows one British company that is already developing a

virtual reality fashion design system.

Virtual reality could transform the fashion business. There would be no need for expensive super-models, or for the Grande Dames of the fashion industry to sharpen their elbows for the seasonal fight for the front row. Designers could have the model they wanted parading around their salons, while clients could view whole couture collections in the comfort of their own mansions. Or is that taking the fun out of fashion?

Stephen Gray will be speaking at the Textile Institute Conference at the RCA, London, on December 2, and hopes to be able to demonstrate the principles of the virtual reality catwalk.

<<< back