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Democracy in fashion

Brazilian platform that provides patterns for tailor-made clothing wins Microsoft’s ImagineCup competition

Hanging area with clothing that will be a part of the book on period costumes, produced in raw cotton using patterns produced by using the platform

Eduardo CesarHanging area with clothing that will be a part of the book on period costumes, produced in raw cotton using patterns produced by using the platformEduardo Cesar

The scene took place on the evening of July 31, 2015 in front of an audience of 5,000 people at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, and it lasted only three minutes. Before a trio of judges the eFitFashion team, composed of three researchers and three students from the undergraduate and graduate programs of the School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities (EACH) at the University of São Paulo (USP), presented the coordinates for an on-line platform capable of automatically producing customized dress patterns, requiring only that the client’s measurements be entered to place the order. Since they had so little time, they let the images speak for themselves. One of the students, Juliana Pirani, 26, wore a version of the dress used by the daughter of the Emperor Pedro II, Princess Isabel (1846-1921), the pattern for which was produced by the software developed by the group, christened Clothes for me.

The other members of the team, Professors Luciano Vieira de Araújo, Isabel Italiano and Fausto Viana, and the students Bianca Letti, 21, and Daniel Freire Tsuha, 24, wore light blue shirts also produced by the computer program. The panel of judges consisted of the Swede Jens Bergensten, one of the inventors of the game Minecraft, Brazilian Alex Kipman, creator of Kinect, a movement sensor developed for Xbox consoles by Microsoft, and Thomas Middleditch, star of the HBO series Silicon Valley. The judges asked a few questions, and the EACH group quickly exited the stage, opening the way for presentations by other finalists in the 2015 ImagineCup, a global information technology innovation competition sponsored every year by Microsoft.

Later, the president of Microsoft, Satya Nadella,  announced the winners. The innovative nature and potential social impact of the Brazilian project had prevailed.  It is focused on people who need clothing made-to-measure and has the potential to grow the market for seamstresses and tailors in addition to serving as a platform for designers interested in selling their creations. Clothes for Me enjoyed a unique victory: it won for the Innovation category, for which it was competing, and it also took first place in the general competition, defeating winners in the two other categories: a team from Russia (in the Games category) and a team from Australia (in the World Citizenship category). “You represent the passion to dream the impossible and make it possible. It’s such a pleasure for me to see the passion and the innovation you have demonstrated today,” said Nadella in her announcement. In addition to the trophy, the team won $50,000 and a place in Microsoft Ventures, a bootcamp program for startups that trains young entrepreneurs and will take them back to  Seattle for four weeks in October. They will also have a mentoring session with Nadella. “The purpose of the Microsoft competition is to recognize solutions that have a global impact, and we believed our project aligned with that goal. It was really gratifying to know that we were right,” says Luciano Vieira de Araújo, EACH Professor of Information Systems and a member of the interdisciplinary research group that brings together Professor Isabel Italiano from the area of fashion and Professor Fausto Viana from set design.

The research project that produced the platform got underway in 2010, when students and professors from the school’s fashion and information systems programs began to work together on developing software to produce customized patterns. “Professor Italiano sought me out and then proposed that we create a program that could improve the working conditions for seamstresses by enabling them to easily obtain patterns by simply keying in the client’s measurements,” says Araújo. “A seamstress knows how to take measurements and sew the item, but she usually depends on someone else to make the pattern,” according to Professor Italiano.

A replica of Princess Isabel’s child-sized dress

Eduardo CesarA replica of Princess Isabel’s child-sized dressEduardo Cesar

The group’s first step was to analyze professional software programs used by the fashion industry. “Existing programs required that users get technical training, and the seamstresses and tailors didn’t have access to that training,” says Juliana Pirani, who completed her fashion degree at EACH in 2013 and is enrolled in a master’s program there today. The team from the information systems class took on the task of developing an algorithm that could adapt patterns to a client’s measurements. “The task was not just to create a pattern that could be sized up or down depending on the client’s measurements — we also had to come up with an algorithm for redesigning the pattern in accordance with the measurements obtained,” says master’s candidate Daniel Tsuha. “The creation of a pattern, with its curves and derivations, is a very complex process. We had to consider issues related to anatomy as well as how to produce a two-dimensional pattern using a three-dimensional model,” adds Luciano Araújo. “It wasn’t enough to produce clothing that was the right size. This wasn’t just an academic exercise. We wanted high quality clothing that fit well.”

It took some time to develop the algorithm. The team had to learn to represent a pattern and index its data in such a way that they could be restored and adapted to the user’s measurements. “Patterns are dynamic. Shirts have short sleeves, long sleeves or no sleeves. Each item has a different set of measurements and rules. The challenge was to find the best way to represent this complexity,” explains Araújo.

Another challenge was to create a user-friendly interface. “We began by creating a system in which the designer could easily enter and register the pattern so that a seamstress could obtain a model tailored to the client based on her measurements, and then print it in sections, using even a home printer,” says Bianca Letti, an undergraduate student in the information systems program in charge of creating the virtual environment in which the patterns are marketed and sold. Letti also checked databases for startups.  She did not find any similar initiatives.

The next step was to test the software. Initially,  the program was tested with basic items, like shirts and skirts.  The real test came in 2013. Isabel Italiano spent two days holed up in a room at the Instituto Feminino da Bahia, in Salvador, copying the model of an intricately designed dress used originally by Princess  Isabel stored in the organization’s archives. The dress was recreated in white cotton, a necessary step to troubleshoot the pattern, which is then registered by the software. EACH’s Center for Stage Costumes, Fashion History and Technology, directed by researcher Fausto Viana, then laid down a challenge for fashion and set designers: recreate the princess’ clothing in different sizes, in a color or fabric of their choosing that differed from the original, as long as they used the software to generate the patterns. It was a success, and five dresses based on the original gown, including one made in a doll’s size, were displayed at Senac in São Paulo in early 2015. The winning entry in the competition, created by set designer José Alfredo Beirão, which was a recreation that took the green and yellow model and transformed it into an evening gown of crimson and black, was worn by Juliana Pirani in the finals of the ImagineCup in Seattle. “We asked Beirão what he thought of the software. He told us that it was simple and easy to use, and that the program saved him at least one day of work, which was time he used to make another dress,” says Isabel Italiano.

From left to right, students Bianca, Daniel and Juliana (wearing a version of Princess Isabel’s dress),  Professor Isabel Italiano and, in the back, Professors Viana and Araújo

Eduardo CesarFrom left to right, students Bianca, Daniel and Juliana (wearing a version of Princess Isabel’s dress), Professor Isabel Italiano and, in the back, Professors Viana and AraújoEduardo Cesar

The group also has plans for the software to be used in set design, where it could be involved in recreating period costumes for stage productions, and in museum studies, owing to the popularity of clothing items taken from museum collections and created using patterns available over the Internet. The team of professors spent some time at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the National Costume Museum in Lisbon studying old clothing styles. The outcome of their research will be published in a book that analyzes the history of pattern making in the 19th century, to be released in late 2015. It will have links to the online platform where users can obtain patterns for specific clothing items.

The software has many possible uses. A researcher in India who evaluated Clothes for me in Seattle the week before the prize was awarded suggested that the software could be used in his country to manufacture typical clothing traditionally used during popular festivals. During the validation phase of the program, the EACH group produced patterns for typical costumes, such as dresses for Brazil’s traditional June celebrations and Bahian festivities, which Professor Viana subsequently took to a pattern-making course he was giving in 2014 at a school for theater and fashion in Hong Kong.

During the four weeks in which the group will be participating in the bootcamp in Seattle, their goal will be to come up with a business plan that determines which software applications would be most appropriate for a rapid scaling up of the platform. A successful business plan will help the project in its next decisive step, which is to attract investors for a startup.

There were some risks identified during ImagineCup, such as the danger of the platform’s including pirated patterns, which are copied from couture designs without the authorization of their designers or payment of copyright fees. “Depending on the approach to the issue of intellectual property, the idea may be viable or not in commercial terms,” warned Thomas Middleditch, a panel member.

The group is planning to bring together diverse partners, including dressmaking cooperatives, stylists and even fashion magazines to support the startup project. “Our software has the potential to generate income for different kinds of professionals,” says Luciano Araújo. “A dressmaker who works 10 hours a day to produce multiple items for a manufacturer could use our system to make custom-designed clothing for clients and increase her income just as a stylist could offer her designs and charge royalties each time someone downloads a pattern she created. In the same way, state school uniforms could be manufactured in each city, using the workforce from local cooperatives,” says Juliana Pirani. “The idea is not to exclude anyone from fashion’s production chain — on the contrary, we want to create new opportunities for those already in the chain and anyone who wants to enter it.”