The inclination towards “old meets new” or “blending the traditional with the modern” is mushrooming unwaveringly in the fashion world. We’re not talking about the “looking into archival designs” type of old, but heritage artisanal crafts—some of which dates back to prehistoric eras. No one can pinpoint what exactly about the old that fashion is madly in love with: is it the overall aesthetics, the nostalgia, the demand for sustainable options, or even a resistance to the exponential growth of technology like Midjourney, ChatGPT and Artificial Intelligence (AI)? Whatever the reason, what matters is that the awareness of cultural appreciation is on the rise, and we’re here for it: well-crafted, organic raw materials that have long been the essential and elemental constituent of fashion.
Textile crafts such as knit, crochet, and hand embroidery are no longer associated with just the geriatrics. It’s becoming a hit with the younger generation–just look at Olympic diver Tom Daley casually crocheting while watching a competition–who adopted the craft for various reasons, especially because it feels therapeutic to just work with your hands. It helps that it’s an affordable craft too: beginners’ kits are available online at less than MYR20. People soon found ways to make these hobbies a side hustle, inadvertently expanding the talent pool in the industry. That said, consumers are now more mindful of the garment-making process, and that forces brands to be more conscious of their production—or textile selection, in this case.
The urge to find a sense of belonging and self-identity is also stronger than ever, especially in a world where everything is transitioning into the virtual realm. We’re witnessing an influx of consumers looking for and appreciating traditional costumes. Here in Malaysia, for example, independent brands like Behati, Maarimaia, Tangsi Tujuh, and Anaabu are thriving. But it also presents another question: How far should modernisation go when it comes to working with traditional garments—technologically or creatively? We think tradition and innovation should never have to be in the all or nothing podium in the first place. They can benefit from each other and coexist in harmony.
In textile manufacturing, however, there are always two opposing views. The first suggests that traditional textiles hold significance that reach far beyond being “just another fabric”. Take batik, for example, a traditional textile that carries a sacred tradition of indigenous wisdom and tribal identity. As for the second viewpoint, some people believe that ancient skills can be incorporated and evolved with time. It can be reimagined to cater to different consumers and market trends, with a goal to connect to a broader audience using heritage. Yet, there is no right or wrong. While we respect tradition, we can learn from history to know that there will be more boon than bane in fully utilising the advancement of technology to preserve our culture and–to an extent–generate innovation for both the mechanism and creativity. That is, if it’s treated more as a helping hand than a complete replacement.
FROM A DIFFERENT VIEWPOINT
Creativity-wise, we’ve seen many exemplary brands pioneering the translation of traditional textiles through modern designs. The growth of a culture is, after all, a mirror of its time. Paolina Russo, a brand famous for its knitwear, often weaves prehistoric references from folklore into their knits, creating a design aptly called futuristic folklore. Cult favourite brand Chopova Lowena is another example, creating its instantly-recognisable mesh skirt with old and leftover fabrics from Bulgaria. The colour-blocked carabiner pleated skirt that resembles a traditional Bulgarian garment quickly became a street style favourite, even earning a place in the wardrobes of Hollywood celebutante like Madonna, Dua Lipa, and A$AP Rocky.
The growing appreciation of cultures has also thrust Asian designers–along with their culture–into the fashion scene. Take Yueqi Qi for example, a Chinese designer whose intricate skills in beading are used as the main body of the textile in place of fabric. These dresses, handbags, and handkerchiefs create a pixelated image that whispers her homeland’s past, as viewed through a digital screen. As sustainable as natural dyed fabric may sound, there are limitations to its production. Vu Thao, designer of Kilomet109 made a bold decision to alter the traditional indigo-dyeing method, allowing her more control over the quality and designs. The artisans from the Nung An ethnic group she worked with were sceptical at first, but eventually, they got excited. “They’re seeing their tradition in a totally different way,” Vu Thao shared in an interview with the New York Times.
The invention of 3D printing is another core solution to digital manufacturing. It’s so present in our daily lives, what more in fashion? Deemed the mother of 3D printed fashion, Iris Van Herpen often sends an impressive array of garments down the runway that could easily be fine art pieces in haute couture history. We’ve seen its full potential, and more designers are also eventually entering the crossroads of incorporating traditional textiles into designs created with 3D printing.
One excellent example is the Black Panther movie costumes. Together with artist Julia Koerner, costume designer Ruth E. Carter created otherworldly costumes for the film. Carter later mentioned in an interview that the idea was to “envision a futuristic African alternate reality—made up of diverse tribes and untouched by colonisers.” Lending inspiration from not just the indigenous tribes but also the Afropunk scene, we saw on-screen costumes made with actual tribal fabrics, beads, and many other African elements spiced up with 3D printed crowns as seen on Queen Ramonda. These crowns were, in fact, inspired by the headdress of traditional Zulu married women, creating a unique style now called Afrofuturism.
THE “ARTIFICIAL” MEMBER
Amidst the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is predicted that within the next decade, AI will pave the way for the fashion industry, crowned in data analysis, creativity enhancement, and seamless operations. While that statement is up for debate, its flaws and imperfections must be acknowledged. It will never be a slam dunk solution, although its potential is unfathomable. The now-deleted AI-generated Barbie From Different Countries by Buzzfeed had been making its rounds on the internet. While it sparked a heated conversation on inclusivity, the visuals and incredible attention to detail on the traditional costumes that Barbie wore were stunning enough to garner interest from all over the world. It showed what AI was capable of–if done right–to the fashion industry.
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In textile manufacturing, particularly, AI can be a useful tool to solve existing problems such as generating a wider range of designs. Just look at DiTenun, an app with a machine-learning tool to digitise the pattern-designing process of traditional hand-woven textile in Indonesia. CEO Nancy Margried shared: “During the digitisation process, the app generated a variety of textile patterns based on a single input. It aims to increase working efficiency, build a digital pattern database for each artisan or artisan group for cultural preservation purposes, and serves as a means for digital access for traditional artisans.”
The fascination for the Metaverse and unknown future is ever-growing. However, envisioning a world dominated by AI makes it understandable why some people would raise their eyebrows (and pitchforks) in fear of things turning “artificial” when handling pieces that bear pride and heritage. To answer that, Margried suggests that the approach needs to “complement rather than replace”. The algorithm can remedy the frustrations of documenting processes and allow artisans to spend more time creating instead. “DiTenun, for example, provides agency for the artisans to own the narrative of their own art and input their creations based on cultural identity and community creativity to the app. This will later become training data for the software in the future to produce a pattern based on tradition rather than graphic input,” she explained, highlighting the importance of AI in promoting and passing on culture and skills.
The tradition and philosophy of artisans can sometimes restrict a culture’s development. We’ve seen cultures from remote areas vanish due to a lack of connection to the outside world, especially when they refrain from having technology penetration and knowledge dissemination. It’s undeniable that AI can keep these cultural data, patterns, and significance in place and ensure these precious knowledge are well-preserved—as opposed to written artifacts from our predecessors that are vulnerable to external factors such as weather and political turbulence. For crafts that are heavily dependent on production, AI can assist weavers and pattern designers by generating new ideas such as colour combinations and optimised patterns. “We can use AI to analyse vast datasets of historical textile designs and contemporary fashion trends to generate new and innovative patterns or grant us opportunities to experiment with various design elements, colours, and textures,” Margierd enthused, listing out the pros of AI as a valuable tool in inducing creativity.
However, the bottom line is, we should never turn our back on cultural appreciation and artisanship. “AI is here to enhance human creativity rather than replace it. The human touch and cultural context in textile-making remains to be irreplaceable aspects of this art form,” Margierd declares.
This article was first published in the print edition of Grazia Malaysia October 2023.