The augmented reality dress: Looking at Sarah Trotman’s party frock in a new way

What do you do with an awards dinner dress after the party's over?

If you are Sarah Trotman, director of business relations at AUT, you recycle it for next year’s bash. No, not just wash it, wear it next year, and hope no one notices. Really recycle it.

When Trotman, also founder of the AUT Excellence Support Awards, wanted a dress for the 2014 awards, she didn’t choose an off-the-shelf garment. Instead she commissioned Colab PhD student Donna Cleveland to make her a dress combining fashion and technology.

The result was little merino and silk number with skin sensors linked to LED lights in the collar of the dress. The lights changed colour from deep purples to aqua blues, according to Trotman’s mood on the night.

Donna Cleveland (left), with Sarah Trotman, and AUT colleagues Amit Gupta and Kim Newell

But interest in Trotman’s dress didn’t stop the night Trotman walked on stage. Fast forward a few months and Cleveland, a fashion designer by trade, wanted to see how she could re-work the same dress into something new for this year’s award.

Cleveland’s PhD involves exploring ways to reduce the vast quantities of fashion and textile industry waste in the world. Internationally, we produce 30 million tonnes of fashion-related waste a year; in New Zealand alone, we send 0.1 tonnes of textile waste to landfill each year.

So her challenge was to how to recycle the 2014 dress for the 2015 event. And not just sew some extra sequins on – Cleveland wanted to destroy it and build something new. The added challenge was to also give the garment an interesting technological twist, as a way of getting people talking.

Recycling fabric isn’t new – or particularly tricky, Cleveland says. But recycling an individual garment is unusual. Undaunted, Cleveland shredded the old dress and set about putting it back together using different techniques, including spinning and felting. Then, working with Kim Newell, a creative technologist, and students Michele Peddie and Leona Wang, she inserted diamond-shaped panels on the shoulder of the dress, panels which could be read by an app and turned into augmented reality 3D shapes via a smartphone or iPad.

Imagine a selection of icebergs emerging from Trotman’s left shoulder.

OK. But wearable 3D icebergs are saving the planet how?

“The intention is to engage people in a conversation around recycled fashions,” Cleveland says. “By using technology I wanted to tell a story that’s positive. Recycled clothing traditionally can have stigma – sometimes people have an impression of hippy, mung-bean-y stuff.

“My research explores the potential of replacing at least some of the negative narrative about sustainability with positive stories that empower consumers as heroes and inspire action.”

Making the AR technology work was also a good challenge – the sort of quirky project that might appeal to Cleveland. (Another of her schemes involves working out how to recycle old academic regalia – the silly hats and gowns students wear for graduation.)

The augmented reality panels on Trotman's dress weren’t high tech themselves, Cleveland says; the idea was to programme the app to pick up a code or picture from the fabric itself. But finding a recycled fabric/pattern the app could read took time. Embroidery, for example, didn’t work. Nor did some of the recycled fabrics they tried.

Overall, the whole process of designing and making the final dress took almost six months, Cleveland says, and they finally found a felted material that worked.

The next step is to present the dress and the “making of” video overseas as a way to continue the conversation around sustainable fashion design. While augmented reality is increasingly common on paper, it’s less well-used for fabric, Cleveland says.

“And I’d like to do further research around combining textiles and augmented reality – it’s a good platform for storytelling sustainable design.”

Slightly relevant Idealog aside: For everything you’ve ever wanted to know about garment recycling in an easy-to-listen form, check out The afterlife of a t-shirt, from NPR’s Planet Money podcast (#502).