The "tech white tie" dress code for this year's Met Gala was pretty open-ended (and, perhaps, a bit confusing) and has some pretty high expectations, given the kind of incredible ways technology has historically been utilized in fashion. While we've had to wait until the red carpet to see what designers dreamed up to fit the exhibit's theme, Marchesa teased its contribution to the grand affair last week: a couture-level gown, designed by a cognitive computer system. Tonight, it was unveiled on supermodel Karolina Kurkova. To make this happen, Marchesa worked with IBM and its Jeopardy-winning supercomputer, Watson. Samantha Klein, a Next-Gen Intrapreneur at IBM, tells Refinery29 that the project came about after learning of this year's Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology exhibit theme. "My thought was that Watson and a renowned fashion designer would work together to create a dress that no human or computer could design on its own, for a celebrity to wear on the Met Gala red carpet," Klein said. IBM then conducted a survey via Millennial Corps (an internal task force of IBM employees across 60 countries) for a yet-to-be-determined Watson/Met Gala project — and Marchesa came up frequently as a favorite designer. "Their elegant designs embody and fulfill the manus half of the theme. So, if Marchesa is the quintessential manus, IBM Watson is the quintessential machina," Klein said. It was truly a collaborative process between man and machine (and one you can read about more in-depth on IBM's website): The fashion house came up with a dress silhouette and what the emotions the final product should convey and sent it to IBM Watson, which then studied hundreds of past photographs to narrow down on a color palette for the gown. Then, Marchesa worked with Inno360 and IBM Research-Almaden analyzed thousands of fabric options to zero in on the right LED-amenable material for the garment. So, while humans still do the actual designing and final decision-making, Watson lends its cognitive insight to find the best choices.
Much of the fanfare regarding tech-y fashion has revolved around clothes that light up. And, Kurkova's Marchesa dress certainly delivers on that front — but there's a lot going on behind the "ooh" and "ahh"-inducing responses that an illuminated dress elicits. The LED-powered colors on the gown are determined by public opinion: They change according to what people are saying about the Met Gala, Marchesa, IBM, and the dress itself on social media. Watson's Tone Analyzer reads through and interprets the tone of people's tweets, and will pick a hue that corresponds to the emotional consensus.
"This dress is our interpretation of the Manus x Machina theme, pairing delicate handcrafted floral petals with IBM Watson’s unique ability to process fans’ reactions in real time," Marchesa co-founder Keren Craig tells Refinery29. "It's incredible to see the dress’ color change in response to fans’ emotions surrounding it."