Sylvia Heisel: Difference Between Physical and Digital Goods Will Fade | Podcast 28

Sylvia Heisel: Difference Between Physical and Digital Goods Will Fade | Podcast 28

Interview by Ricardo Esteves
Published: January 05, 2024

In the 28th episode of the DesignRush Podcast, our editor Vianca Meyer talked to Sylvia Heisel, the visionary behind the Heisel design lab, and a pioneer in using technology like 3D printing to create sustainable fashion.

Listen to the full episode to get answers to questions such as:

  • How can integrating technology revolutionize the traditionally conservative fashion industry?
  • How do detailed customer profiles and a collaborative team contribute to effective engagement and creativity?
  • How does a dynamic, evolving creative process with a focus on flexibility lead to innovative and successful fashion designs?

Who Is Sylvia Heisel?

Sylvia Heisel, a New York City-based fashion designer and consultant, excels in fashion technology, digital fashion, 3D printing, and sustainable apparel innovation. Recognized as one of the "Top 100 Women in Fashion Tech" and "25 Forward Thinkers Defining the Future of Fashion," Heisel leads a design lab focusing on sustainable fashion and experiential fashion. Previously, she was the CEO and designer of her namesake women’s evening wear brand, renowned in elite U.S. stores and major fashion publications for over 20 years.

DesignRush: Can you tell us about the concept of merging fashion and technology, and how that idea sparked for you?

Sylvia Heisel: I think it was the newness that fashion always talks about, what's new and what's trendy and all, but in the end it's a conservative industry and it's a giant global industry.

We kind of keep making the same clothes over and over again and so creatively, to me, making new things and making things that use technology is super exciting.

Our bodies are the same, but our lives are completely different because of technology. I feel like bringing that to what we wear is super exciting and challenging, and that's my focus creatively.

What process do you use to identify your audience and keep them engaged?

Coming from fashion design, when you design a piece of clothing, you start with this image in your head of who you're designing for.

Is it a millennial woman who worships Kim Kardashian and spends four hours getting ready in the morning and never wears sportswear, or is it a 40-year-old woman who works in a corporate office and only eats gluten-free and drives a Tesla? You create this whole customer profile and then you go, “Okay, what, what would she love or what would he love?”

And then there’s identifying who's the bigger audience and the demographics. I'm a big believer in demographics and numbers and knowing your customers that way.

With such a creative process, how do you go about identifying the right people for your team?

Finding the right team is an endless challenge. We're a tiny little company and so, for each project, the team goes up and down and it's about bringing together a group and a community and a team that works well together.

I don’t think I'm a good manager and I don't enjoy managing people. So, I look to people who are equals and I look to build a team where everybody contributes equally and everyone has different skills that they bring to the project always, so that we're all working together and we all have our strengths and our weaknesses.

And trying to make sure that everybody gets heard is crucial.

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Can you expand on your company’s creative process, considering there are so many different facets to it?

I guess I approach everything as a fashion designer, as my original core kind of thing. And I guess it's a little like putting together a runway show where you're relying on all these different people who have different creative skills, and you start with a description of what's in your head.

And everyone sort of listens and then gives their own interpretation, and then you may change the idea you started with because they've given you new ideas that built on it. Some of our biggest successes have been things where the end product is completely different from the idea that I pitched and started with in the beginning.

When something works and resonates, even if it wasn't in the original brief, you go "Okay let's go with this and that's exciting." If you try and stay true to exactly what the original idea was, sometimes you have big failures because it might have been a good idea on paper, but maybe it wasn't the best once it was executed.

How important do you think flexibility is when it comes to having an idea in your head and possibly having to pivot it into something else?

Again, that's one of the advantages of smaller companies and smaller projects is that it's much easier to pivot. The bigger the project, the larger the number of stakeholders, the harder it is to pivot. The more flexible you can be, the bigger the opportunity.

Think of it as comparable to investments, where kind of starting very open, with a really clean slate. We're going to do something amazing, but we don't know exactly what it is. You'll have the greatest chance of coming up with something amazing and creative, but there's always the risk that you might not come out with that.

You might end up spending a lot more time and money without having a great result, but the more you manage and control from the beginning, the less likely it is that you're going to have a really powerful and creative impact. Being flexible gives you more opportunities to succeed in ways you couldn't have imagined on a lot of projects.

3D printing is revolutionizing fashion production. Can you talk about how you see it impacting the industry even further in the future?

It's still a very early stage for 3D printing. It is still not widely adapted in fashion. And there's a huge amount of area for expansion and all. I like to think of 3D printing as additive manufacturing.

And with the idea that almost all traditional clothing manufacturing is subtractive, so that you're cutting out, you're leaving 15% or so of the material on the cutting room floor, you're assembling those cut pieces into things.

Whereas additive manufacturing is the idea that you are creating something with only the material that is needed, and you're transforming a material from one form into another to make the product you need. And you can do that on demand.

You can do that rather than traditional fashion manufacturing, where the more quantity of an item you produce at once, the less expensive it gets. With additive manufacturing, it's the same price. The machine is making it and whether you make one of it or 10 million of it, it's the same thing.

This gives us an amazing opportunity for customization, and I think that's super exciting, something that will change fashion as we develop it.

This idea of being able to customize things that we put on our bodies is so huge that, in terms of how it looks, in terms of how it feels, in terms of how it functions... I think we'll see clothing that's very different at some point when this becomes a global manufacturing method.

Web3, the Metaverse and VR — How do you see this technology shaping fashion in the near future?

I think that's going to explode, and it's sort of already starting to. There's been some research that shows that little kids don't differentiate between physical goods and digital goods in the same way that adults do. And so as those kids grow up, they're going to have a crossover, as their digital wardrobe and their physical wardrobe will coincide and will be all one to them.

I think it is all going to kind of come together that way. It's just at a very early stage, as most people who currently buy fashion aren't 100% comfortable with the value of digital products yet.

As the world gets more digitally native and comfortable with the digital ownership of things, we're going to see Web3 and digital fashion explode.

We're still at an early stage of blockchains being used on everything, and as more and more products and things are connected and verified on blockchains, consumers will start to look and go "Hey, I want to know that the things I'm buying are verified. I don't want to know that they're on a blockchain." That trust makes digital goods more valid.

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