The future of fashion may jut be in virtual technologies. In conversation with designer Mathilde Rougier on upcycling vintage through modular augmented reality
Mathilde Rougier is a modular augmented reality (AR) designer starting out of London’s Central Saint Martins. Spurred by the lockdown and her face filters for Chalayan Studios, she has evolved her upcycling through augmented reality plane tracking that gives outfits virtual combinations through Louis Vuitton leather off-cuts
Zofia Zwieglinska: How did you first get into augmented reality design?
I started to integrate it into fashion during the lockdown. I also got into it more because of necessity — there were certain things that I could not do, either because I did not have the materials or access to machinery. All of my materials are upcycled so I cannot replace them. Now it seems appropriate given that the showcase was digital.
ZZ: More designers are getting involved with filters through Instagram to showcase the style of their collections like Chalayan and Harris Reed. Do you think they help keep fashion alive during the pandemic?
Visual media has been around for a while, just that the virtual clothing was not there yet. It is a connection to sustainability problems, such as with influencers who wear a garment for the photo and then will not wear it again. Instagram relies on this feed of information. You have a conflict between the idea and the end result. There is this garment that will be only worn in one photo, but it also has a footprint. Digital clothing answers this conflict. It is a sustainable solution to the fast-pace of information that Instagram encourages.
ZZ: Moving from physical design to digital during lockdown must have come with a learning curve.
For the software that I am using, I do not need to be programming myself. I developed my 3D modeling skills to be able to import them into the augmented reality software. I use Spark AR, which is used for the Instagram filters I designed for Chalayan.
ZZ: How do you think the modularity of your collection influences that?
The collection is partly physical and part augmented. The transition between the two comes through plane tracking. All the garments are from recycled materials and are plane tracked, with the software recognising the pattern on the surface in its system. When you scan over it, it adds on a layer of augmented reality imaging. It alters the shape onto the virtual plane.
I did my internship last year at Louis Vuitton — it was my first glimpse of the produced waste that could not be put back into the system. One of those were the sample books — these A5 sized sheets of leather used by designers as prototypes or reference. I collected them throughout my internship on top of scraps and bits of the damaged hide. I laser cut them down to those square modules that slot together. I made piles of all of the colors and it allows me to work with them like a pixel grid.
ZZ: You mentioned that it works like LEGOS.
They function like Legos, because you can take them apart and reassemble them with the same materials. With upcycling, you are limited, like with me — by the colors. It is upcycled, but the goal is to be as circular as possible. I had a pile of blue and a pile of white squares. That was when I used an AI. I did not build it, I repurposed it into a neural network which allows me to estimate the amount of material that I have. The AI is used as design assistance to improve on efficiency. It allows you to deal with the problem of the type of material that you have and to accommodate for that.
ZZ: Do you function as a zero waste label?
If the piece of leather is uneven when I use the laser cutter, it allows me to maximize the amount that is used. I have kept those bits and ideally, it would have to be no waste. At the moment, that is something that is unresolved.
ZZ: What do you see as the next step for your brand?
At the moment, I am trying to digitize the garments. I cannot release the AR for people to use because it relies on the physical garment. If it is not plane tracked, then nothing appears, so I am starting to experiment with other programs.
ZZ: Traditionally, you would only be getting materials from one place. How do you circumvent that supply chain?
There is no factory production. There is a footprint of digital production through servers — it is not completely neutral, nor is it a solution either. With digital garments, there are issues with the server farm that hosts the data. There is a misconception that digital is a carbon-neutral production system. It is important to remain aware as consumers because you imagine it being outside of that standard fashion supply chain.
ZZ: How do you see digital fashion changing that supply chain? The AI program you use measuring the scraps for a garment could have applicability to combat the waste and by-products of production.
AI relies on banks of data and databases, so you need original data. The problem with the fashion industry is the obscurity and whether fashion houses would be interested in giving it away. It is in favor of their efficiency. The AI I am working on is tailored to those squares. I worked with squares because you get a grid structure that automates the process. There is progress on that front — Afora Shwini is working on a plugin for cloth 3D to help design using no-waste cutting.
ZZ: Do you believe that open data in fashion can work? Many fashion houses open up their archives for students, but don’t want to collaborate.
The fashion industry is secretive, while the tech community is all for skill-sharing. Through the Digitgals collective we exchange tips and tricks and how-to’s, helping each other and sharing files.
ZZ: In your physical collection, you have three different materials — the LDPE plastic packaging, the hotel sheets that you were gifted and the leather straps. What is their significance in showing the industry’s waste?
All of those fabric rolls are packaged in that same type of plastic and covered in shipping tags that you have to clean it before you can reuse it. You can re-melt LDPE several times and there are no fumes. There is no waste in prototyping my collection.
ZZ: What are the steps from that source material into the physical piece?
What makes waste what it is that it is unsorted and with no value. As soon as you start organizing those things, the value changes — that is what recycling plants are doing dividing those things into categories. For the plastic, there was some experimentation. In the beginning, it is plastic bags, then I cut them up and mix them together to build up the material, getting the swirling marble patterns to make it look luxurious.
Then you have a bit of finishing process. I want the material unity to be conserved. I re-melt it on silicon cooking sheets to make it smooth and glossy. I was obsessed with making it look luxurious because it cannot look like waste. If you did not know, you would not be able to tell.