Art – Z: Reducing Fabric Waste with AI

Last year, the Mayor’s Entrepreneur Programme asked students and recent graduates from London universities, to submit their smart ideas that tackle big environmental challenges. The initiative is to transform students into entrepreneurs that would also help them take the next step in their careers. Ashwini Deshpande, an honours student of BA Fashion Design and Development at London College of Fashion, UAL took home the Mayor’s Entrepreneur Award 2020. A prize of £20,000 was awarded towards her growing project Art-Z. Art-Z, which stands for ‘artificial intelligence and zero waste’, is a software using machine learning to reduce the amount of fabric wastage during the pattern cutting stage of garment creation.

Following Microsoft x LCF’s accelerator programme’s success, Deshpande received additional support to refine her project and develop her business skills further. The mentorship, alongside the contribution to Art-Z’s development, proves to be bright as it urges fashion solutions for the future through technology.

Below, Deshpande shares more about her initiative, the challenges while creating a positive change in society and a few thoughts on how sustainability will move forward within the industry.

First off congratulations on winning the Mayor’s Entrepreneur Programme, what was the competition like and what does it mean for you to be recognised for your work in sustainability?

Thank you! It was quite competitive with a lot of applicants looking to deliver their ideas that needed solving. It was a really good experience, and I think the competition was organised very well. A huge advantage of being part of a competition like this is how you can expand your network with the number of people you meet, and you can share ideas with the finalists and semi-finalists. To emerge as the winner, it gives you confidence when you realise the judges and applicants have invested their money because they have identified your idea can improve some challenge. I’m excited to move forward now!

Tell us more about Art-Z, where did the idea come from, and how did AI appeal to you?

Art-Z started as a collaboration with LCF and Microsoft about two years ago. It was an open competition/incubation programme where anyone from LCF could apply. I knew the basics of AI, and when I went to the briefing of how it was being used, it seemed to be more of a gimmick that played with the element of fascination that was not necessarily required. I started to think about how AI can be used in the fashion industry or a creative industry in a more useful way. Of course, the first thing that came into my mind was sustainability, because that is the most important thing right now. At that time, I was very interested in pattern cutting and looking at zero waste, so I combined the two and voilà!

What have been some of the biggest challenges for you in doing this?

I think every day in itself is a challenge. I didn’t know very much about technology, and I also wasn’t a zero-waste expert. For presentations, I had to learn about the field, especially the technology side. Also, the terminology used to explain it to different people in different fields using their language. I’ve been through ups and downs for sure, even now after the Mayor’s competition. For example, being a student trying to build the business and taking it forward without actually doing any business activity. These competitions help especially with the funding required, which I am grateful for. So it has definitely been challenging.

‘I started to think about how AI can be used in the fashion industry or a creative industry in a more useful way. Of course, the first thing that came into my mind was sustainability, because that is the most important thing right now.’

Ashwini

What objectives have you set to achieve next for Art-Z and are there other projects you are currently collaborating on to achieve these goals?

I am very close to partnering with a large fashion software company. My developers and I will also work with a fashion brand that works with the software company, so it will be a three-way collaboration. We are waiting for it to come through and hoping for the collaboration to move forward. Next steps would be to develop an entity with these companies.

When do you think your personal journey with sustainability began?

When I first came into fashion, I had no idea about the sustainability problem. I came into thinking it would be fancy, with pretty clothes and backstage fittings at fashion week. When I was in my foundation year, I started learning more about the fashion industry by just being at LCF and in London. I decided that there is no point in doing anything in fashion if I’m not going to take it forward positively, in the way of sustainability. I haven’t been able to separate fashion and sustainability from all of my projects; it has been a part of everything I do ever since.

Now that you are a fashion entrepreneur, what does the future of sustainability look like to you? 

I think it’s exciting! Sustainability and technology are the keywords. We see so much happening with digital fashion; you would never have imagined clothing represented virtually and not physically a couple of years ago. The industry is heading in that direction, and it is for the best because it is more about sustainability than it is about consumption. I think these things, like emerging technology, sustainability and innovation, will be the future.

As you mentioned, fashion is slow to accept change, do you feel that the industry can pivot towards being sustainable or do we need to start over?

I think we are already towards the sustainable side and I don’t see how we would start over. COVID has been a good example of how brands have adapted so quickly, to change digitally regarding supply chains or learn in terms of universities. These changes couldn’t have happened many years ago, and the industry was unwilling to take that risk. Now they have had to do it, and it will accelerate from there.

As you mentioned, fashion is slow to accept change, do you feel that the industry can pivot towards being sustainable or do we need to start over?

I think we are already towards the sustainable side and I don’t see how we would start over. COVID has been a good example of how brands have adapted so quickly, to change digitally regarding supply chains or learn in terms of universities. These changes couldn’t have happened many years ago, and the industry was unwilling to take that risk. Now they have had to do it, and it will accelerate from there.

The pandemic has profoundly affected us all and has been a chance for us all to reflect. Is there anything you would like to see differently in moving forward with sustainable fashion?  

I already see how aware the industry is thinking about what they do to other people; this is a situation that affects everyone. Some vulnerable and less supported people than others, like garment workers, didn’t consume a lot during COVID. The fashion industry is moving forward by being more ethically aware.

And to follow up, what do you hope people take away for the future in fashion?

People have been indoors for so long, and it has made them re-evaluate what is important. I can see they are making conscious efforts and decisions of what they need, then actually what they want and use for a longer time.

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