You probably heard that Dior is having a tough time finding a creative director to replace Raf Simmons, who left the French heritage couture house last year after only three years. As designer burnout takes its toll in luxury fashion (last year saw a big shuffle), maybe it’s time to consider the alternative.

Cognitive machine-assisted couture, anyone?

Enter Watson. Yes, that Watson, the IBM cognitive computer genius. A design collaboration between the luxury fashion house Marchesa and IBM Watson, the “cognitive dress” made its red carpet debut at the recent Metropolitan Museum’s annual Costume Institute Gala.

Worn by model Karolina Kurkova, the smart dress was programmed by Watson to analyze the emotions of tweet comments on the Met Gala and cognitive dress and display, through color-changing LED lights, colors attributed by Watson to specific emotions the social media mood on Twitter of user comments.

Perhaps unwittingly themed Manus x Machina (manmade vs machine): Fashion in the Age of Technology, the exhibit celebrates a couture craft seemingly teetering at an inflection point in global luxury fashion. Perhaps a more apt reflection of the state of luxury, the Met Costume Institute exhibit could have been titled machina VS manus to reflect the current state of the industry.

To obtain a more granular picture of how designer traction and key themes played out at the Met Gala, Localspeak analyzed 15 designers in the social intelligence platform NetBase correlated with three key themes in the chart below.



One theme, sustainability/ethical fashion, relates to business practices and models. Another, smart textiles, speaks to technology adoption in creative design, sourcing and manufacture. And a third, crystals/beading, a conspicuous design narrative.

In the smart textiles category, Marchesa earned an overwhelming 65% of the social conversation, followed by Iris van Herpen with 17%, for her artistry and execution of 3D printed wearable luxury and prêt-à-porter. Zac Posen’s fiber-optic embedded gown earned 9% of social mentions.

Another escalating business imperative in fashion is the expectation of sustainability and ethical practices. In a nod to actress Emma Watson’s activism and insistence on Calvin Klein designing an elegant 100% sustainable gown made from recycled bottles and other recyclables, the label pushed the needle to 75% of total social discussion. H&M received 10% in recognition of its sustainable design practices, followed by Marchesa at 7%.

Notably, as shown in Localspeak’s NetBase analysis of Met Gala discussions over the past week, sustainability and ethical fashion earned 25% of the overall conversation. Indicative of the growing significance of smart textiles in luxury fashion, the theme generated 14% of conversations among the three themes analyzed.


A prominently discussed design motif, crystals and beading, was most often mentioned in connection with the intricate Renaissance Chanel gown by Karl Lagerfeld, greeting exhibit attendees.  Chanel garnered 27% of the social conversation on the theme, followed by Calvin Klein at 12% and Burberry at 10%.

Overall, among the designers in Localspeak’s analysis, Zac Posen took top mention with 31% of share, followed by Versace (recognized for innovative use of laser-cutting technology), and Calvin Klein with 8% (evidence of the pointed sustainability discussion within fashion).

While the needle and sewing machine were once revolutionary technological innovations, today’s cooling global luxury fashion market is being squeezed by a technology revolution in fashion where high-street fast fashion satisfies instant gratification where luxury still lags.

As Met Costume Institute head curator Andrew Bolten explained, “…the distinction between the haute couture and prêt-à-porter has become increasingly blurred as both disciplines have embraced the practices and techniques of the other.”

Another factor at play in the relatively flat luxury fashion market is the underbelly of corporatized luxe. Seemingly insatiable, the demands of corporatized luxe today risk undermining the rigueur and very foundation inherent in the legacy manus tradition of couture.

Thus, the initiatives by many labels to buck the hidebound “fashion system” by overhauling their own structure, from supply, production to delivery.

But, whether the solution to luxury fashion’s afflictions and laggard performance lie in leveraging IBM Watson’s cognitive brilliance – which beyond learning Marchesa’s design form, sourced textile and materials fitting Marchesa’s (human) design and technical specifications – the fashion industry is in the midst of a machina vs manus debacle.

While the Met Gala’s “white tie tech” dress code was left to the imagination, there were several on-point red carpet standouts from the potpourri mash-up that celebrated the fusion of fashion and technology in both design and execution.

To wit, the IBM Watson-Marchesa cognitive dress worn by Karolina Kurkova; Zac Posen’s ephemeral fiber optic woven organza Cinderella gown worn by Claire Danes; Iris van Herpen’s laser-cut silver gown worn by Lui Wen; Calvin Klein’s recycled plastic bottle eco-chic dress worn by Emma Watson; and H&M (yes, that H&M), represented by several gowns created with innovative technologies, among a few others.

Designer interpretation of the invitation’s sartorial tone was largely either literal, as in robotic (Zayn Malik’s Terminator arms by Versace;’s Darth face shield). There were also steely metallic liquid silver microchip and circuitry design references (Taylor Swift in Versace; Kim Kardashian in Balmain; Julie Maclowe’s glistening spacesuit). The improbably lizard-like scale motif, though, left a bit to the imagination. Prêt-à-porter space travelers all – if only they could kick the stilettos.

Whether or not intended as an apocalyptic allusion, the red carpet unveiled many armor-like bustiers or entire metallic (non-cognitive) sheaths. And then there were those strange head trappings (Diane von Furstenberg (drone butterflies?), Bette Midler (snake antennae?), Chris Jenner (Disney horns?).

There were also the distinctly off-theme safe haven elegant gowns. A third vein – and what would a Met Costume Institute Gala be without it – Madonna and Lady Gaga’s retrofuture glitz and glam leave nothing to the imagination, body armor or lack thereof. On theme, Versace used laser-cutting technology to produce Lady Gaga’s microchip-esque body armor. Finally, as for style, don’t ask me to comment on Givenchy’s choice of nude latex for Bey…

Jesting aside, Manus x Machina is a stately and elegant exhibit.

The exhibit itself speaks to a century of technological innovation in fashion, effectively blurring notions of value in fashion between manmade and machine made. Even questioning dubious perceptions that dismiss fashion as art.

The industry may now be going through the eye of the needle as labels adapt not only to fickle global consumer tastes, but also to tectonic shifts in business models.

Is the next frontier cognitive fashion design?

Previously appeared on Social Media Today

Image from Steven Pisano

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