Julien FourniÉ Sees the Future in 3D

The marriage of art and technology has never been easy, but recently the two parties took a giant step toward a happier future with the launch of a footwear collection that was conceived, designed, prototyped, and displayed using advanced 3D technology.

In 2010, Dassault SystÈmes, the French software giant whose 3D Experience platform is used to design everything from airplanes to oil drilling rigs, began reaching out to fashion designers to explore how 3D design might be used in fashion. The following year it set up an incubator, FashionLab, and announced collaborations with Julien FourniÉ, an haute couture designer, and FranÇois Quentin, a watch designer. FashionLab is also holding discussions with a number of other designers.

FourniÉ, though still under 40, is a veteran of Christian Dior, Givenchy and other well-known couture houses, and he formed his own company (which bears his name) in 2009. It specializes in made-to-order clothing for what Jean Paul Cauvin, the company’s COO, calls “exceptional women,” and recently it expanded into ready-to-wear. Though relatively small, the company is already included in the official haute couture calendar, which entitles it to participate in Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week.

FourniÉ was a natural choice for Dassault SystÈmes. Its goal in starting FashionLab, according to Lauriane Favre, FashionLab’s communications manager, was “not to erase what the designer is doing but to offer a tool when needed.” To do that, Dassault SystÈmes needed to understand exactly what fashion designers did and how they could leverage technology in the service of the highest levels of craftsmanship. And FourniÉ, as a young, tech-savvy designer, was well equipped to bridge the two worlds. “He’s very familiar with Photoshop — he’s been using it for years,” Cauvin says. “The computer does not repel him.” In addition, Cauvin says, FourniÉ instinctively thinks in three dimensions even though, until now, he has had to represent his designs in two-dimensional drawings — “constricting  his mind to 2D,” as Cauvin puts it.

In a series of meetings with Monica Menghini, executive vice president of Dassault SystÈmes, and JÉrÔme Bergeret, director of FashionLab, FourniÉ explained his vision of technology-assisted fashion design, and Dassault SystÈmes listened. Cauvin says, “We could see from the start that [it] was not only a question of 3D prototyping, but of finding a 3D solution from end to end — design, prototype, production and retail. A big goal for us and for FashionLab was to restore the relationship between the designer and the consumer … to try and give back the helm to the couturier so the relationship between the designer and the customer could be more personal. That’s a dream we’re still trying to achieve.”
Starting off on the right foot
By spring 2014, FashionLab had developed 3D software for shoe design and invited FourniÉ to test it. Shoes hadn’t been part of his company’s business plan for 2014, but the opportunity was too good to pass up, and FourniÉ took the challenge. With FashionLab’s help, he quickly designed his first footwear collection — a sneaker, a derby, a ballerina and a luxury sandal — and prototyped the shoes, using a 3D printer, in time for the runway models to wear them at his July fashion show. The company plans to have the shoes commercially manufactured in 2015, handing off the 3D designs to the manufacturer to be loaded directly into their equipment. If there is sufficient demand outside Europe, the shoes could easily be manufactured in other locations and not have to be shipped halfway around the world.

FourniÉ and FashionLabs expect the future of fashion to include radical changes in merchandising as well as in design. To test the retail environment of the future, they opened a digital pop-up store in Los Angeles in May 2014, inviting retailers, consultants, members of the press and fashionistas. On one side of the room, visitors interacted with the shoe designs on computers, altering the designs to suit their own tastes. On the other side, they viewed prototype shoes as well as projections of them shown on large augmented-reality screens. “The screens were more appealing than the real shoes,” Cauvin says. “They were bigger, they were moving, and they looked like they were sticking out of the screen.”

Retailers were wowed by both the shoes and the displays. Parisian retailers will have an opportunity to see a similar demo in February at AnaLuizaFashionOffice, a multilabel showroom.  

The soul of the fashion house
Julien FourniÉ’s initial experiments with 3D design suggest that this new technology will have many advantages, including faster time to market, reduced production costs, more efficient model casting, expanded design possibilities, and better fit for ready-to-wear clothes. But Cauvin feels that its greatest benefit — somewhat paradoxically — will be to restore the place of the artist as the “soul of the fashion house.”

Because designers must be mindful of production costs, their most ambitious designs today are often shot down by production and marketing executives. “People tell you, ‘No, this is not possible,’” Cauvin says. But 3D design tools do more than just design — they calculate costs as well. Using this technology, a designer can experiment with multiple colors, fabrics and shapes to arrive at a design that realizes his artistic vision while meeting cost imperatives. With augmented-reality screens, such experimentation becomes cheap and easy — prototyping is unnecessary at early stages because the image is “more real than life.”

Cauvin is satisfied that 3D design is now usable for shoes, jewelry, handbags and various accessories. The biggest remaining hurdle, he says, is to adapt it for garments. Shoes were a good starting point for fashion because their materials were relatively easy to characterize, as they are in the other industries for which Dassault SystÈmes has developed solutions. Fabric is another story altogether. “We don’t want to make solid clothes,” he says, “Fabric has to be fluid.”

Different materials, and different combinations of materials, move differently and have different resistances. “It’s absolutely essential to know the way a dress reacts to the breeze,” Cauvin explains.

Julien FourniÉ is helping to advance 3D clothing design by building a digital library of fabrics so that their motion can be represented accurately in models. Cauvin expects the process to be a long one, but he’s excited about it.
“We’re really trying to change fashion from the inside,” he says. “We’re exploring new tools and opening up perspectives that are endless.” 

Masha Zager is a New York-based Apparel contributing writer specializing in business and retail technology.
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