Is Fashion Ready for a New Aesthetic?

Editorial GIF by Reed + Rader | Source: V Magazine

LONDON, United Kingdom — Instagram, Barbour, vinyl records, artisanal butchers, moustaches, and the biography of your potatoes lovingly detailed on chalkboard signs at Whole Foods. What is wrong with this picture? As London-based writer and entrepreneur Russell M Davies puts it, “most of Shoreditch would be wandering around in a leather apron if it could. With pipe and beard and rickets. Every new coffee shop and organic foodery seems to be the same. Wood, brushed metal, bits of knackered toys on shelves. And blackboards. Everywhere there’s blackboards.”

For the last few years, the stylistic purview of much of the creative class in places like Shoreditch in London, the borough of Brooklyn in New York, and Berlin’s Mitte district has been curiously backward-looking. Perhaps this retreat into retro nostalgia is a reaction to economic uncertainty and technological change. Maybe it’s a craving for what we imagine were simpler times or a search for authenticity in a world that is increasingly artificial. Whatever the reason, the backward-looking trend extends to fashion, as well. In fact, perhaps more than any other design discipline, fashion is engaged in an intense dialogue with the past. “There’s so little innovation in fashion in its current state,” Susanna Lau, widely known as Susie Bubble, told BoF. And indeed, from Belstaff to Moynat to Schiaparelli, reviving dusty heritage brands is undoubtedly the business model du jour.

But over the past year, a loose group of creatives in London’s East End have given birth to a counter-narrative to the growing tide of heritage and nostalgia, examining the reality of our increasingly artificial and technology-mediated world head-on. Known as “The New Aesthetic,” the movement was born last May with a blog post by London-based writer and technologist James Bridle, who began collecting found images at new-aesthetic.tumblr.com that dealt with the “eruption of the digital into the physical world” and the idea of “seeing like a machine” in an attempt to capture and communicate the possibilities for a more contemporary visual culture. Subjects included everything from glitches in Google Maps to photographs from military drones in Afghanistan and the techno-organic forms of contemporary architecture that betray traces of the computer-aided design (CAD) programmes used to create them.

The movement really struck a chord and came to wider attention at this year’s SXSW Interactive conference where Mr Bridle led a panel called “The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices” and futurist Bruce Sterling asked what the New Aesthetic meant for fashion in his highly-anticipated closing address. “Although SXSW people do look chic, it’s a rather retro look,” he challenged the tech-savvy audience in attendance. “They don’t actually look very futuristic. I would suggest, when you come back next year…come back in robotvision glitchcore!”

In fashion, a growing number of designers have embraced the digital prints revolution. But which designers, imagemakers and fashion editorial outlets are actually producing “New Aesthetic” work that actively engages and deals with our digitally-mediated world?

Low-resolution pixilation is a major New Aesthetic theme and was perhaps most elegantly used in Preen’s Spring-Summer 2012 collection, which features romantic floral prints processed by a computer.

Preen Spring/Summer 2012 | Source: Style.com

Both Gareth Pugh and United Nude have borrowed from videogames, producing blocky geometries that reference “voxels,” volumetric pixels once used in constructing videogame environments. And Arnhem-based Dutch designer Iris van Herpen has made what is surely fashion’s most beautiful and radical use of digital imaging technology with her Photoshop-designed, 3D-printed polymer dresses, which play with the tension between digital and organic forms.

The moment when technology reveals itself through digital glitches and errors is another major theme in New Aesthetic imagery and something that has appeared in the work of Australian fashion designer Josh Goot who has made particularly striking use of digital prints that tend towards noise and distortion. While Goot’s process is carefully controlled by the designer, Philip Stearns’ Glitch Textiles project uses short-circuited cameras to auto-generate colour patterns that are then woven into blankets, with hypnotic and beautiful results.

Amongst fashion imagemakers, Brooklyn-based Pamela Reed and Matthew Rader, working under the name Reed + Rader, have worked extensively with animated GIFs, producing fashion stories for magazines including V and are currently working on a project called Pyramid Hill, a 3D world for which the duo leveraged a videogame level-builder called the Unreal Engine to create an immersive, interactive environment.

How to Hide from Machines | Source: CV Dazzle

Perhaps fashion’s most overtly “New Aesthetic” magazine is DIS, edited by Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, Nick Scholl and David Toro. In a landmark example of New Aesthetic work in fashion, the magazine recently collaborated with Adam Harvey to create a radical beauty story based on CV Dazzle — styling techniques that use asymmetric make-up, hair and accessories to disrupt facial recognition algorithms — entitled “How to Hide from Machines: The perilous glamour of life under surveillance.”

“We need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder,” wrote James Bridle in his first essay on the New Aesthetic. Digital methods of image research, image editing and production have quickly become embedded in the fashion industry, but the possibilities for digital creativity have yet to be fully explored. “It’s still not something people are consciously thinking about,” said Ms Lau.

As a term, “The New Aesthetic” may be short-lived. Surprising many, James Bridle shut down the New Aesthetic Tumblr ten days ago, exactly one year after it was launched. But if the “New Aesthetic” movement is already dead, this is surely only the beginning of digital technologies impacting the way fashion creatives think, see and design. Indeed, the generation of students just starting to arrive in fashion schools have only ever known a world that’s mediated by digital technology and learnt to process visual culture through a ceaseless digital stream of appropriated and juxtaposed images.

Long live the New Aesthetic.

Jay Owens is a social media and technology researcher based in London.

Related Articles

Post a Comment

11 comments

  1. Fashion has already began to rebrand, technology in clothing is secondary to traditional, tactile skills and crafts. Textiles is the area of real development, a reconfiguration of a super 120 or a new version of silk. A digital print is surface decoration, a woven digital representation is way more exciting and intrinsically more substantial. Fashion’s innovation is simply suffering from over exposure and plagiarism. Too much available product and accessibility has rendered the discipline a passive and dumbed down obsession. However, fashion will always spurn new movements, designers, directions and sub-groups. There is a school of thought to take fashion ‘offline’, creating an offline network of serious, real life players. This movement would explore tactility, exclusivity, non-mass, 1 of 1 culture and would absorb more experimental creative, business models. The replication of a digital glitch in print is not the future of fashion, merely a moment of observational and current food for consumption. This is not innovation. However, the way fashion will be digitally communicated in the future is a different proposition altogether.

  2. my life my fashion

    ISHAQ RM from Satellite Provider
  3. I agree about the increasing use of technology in the development of textiles, but don’t try and sell this look as something new. The first photo in the article, scary, although perhaps new-ish, but then the second one is a slick woman wearing a blouse and a pencil skirt. Not convincing. This appears to be another tacky trend born on the street of East London, Nu-Rave was the same, and thankfully we grew out of that very quickly. It was an extreme eyesore, as is the top photo in this article.

  4. Not an impressive introduction of the new.
    Suggests a one-time wear and into the closet.
    Men are attracted to design, fabrics and form,
    not glitz.

  5. Absolutely right, fashion is well affected by technology and it evolves as fast as technology too. It’s a never ending circle of fashion some are unique some are not.

  6. Social media is also apart of the New Aesthetic, right? Creating a more interactive collection or editorial is a growing trend. Fashion Film is also a popular medium. Reed and Rader have started to make a living crafting “creepy” gifs for fashion favorites. This year I predict there will be big changes

  7. Christian Dior must have pondered just like this article, when he created the “New Look” post WW2

    I do feel that there isnt one direction to fashion ( and aesthetic in general ) at present – maybe we the people are yearning for that one direction – subconsciously representing stability, guidance – an expression of a sort of anchor that gives me confidence and helps me move ahead

    Dali Agarwal from Sterling Heights, MI, United States
  8. Pursuing for fashion is not a hard but a joyful thing to make our life happy!

  9. The connection of fashion and technology is becoming more and more popular and it is something that cannot be ignored any more. Maybe the consumer is not ready for it yet, but the “New Aesthetic” has been already started a while ago and it is a direction where the fashion is going right now. It is the future of fashion! ps I agree, the main picture for the article is not corresponding well to the content. However, the whole article is very inetersting. Thank you for sharing! Eva / Fashion Studio Magazine