How Adobe’s Project Primrose and Christian Cowan created a runway showstopper for NY Fashion Week

February 21, 2024

Tags: Human Computer Interaction

At Adobe MAX 2023, the world saw Project Primrose—a futuristic, ever-changing digital dress—for the first time. Primrose quickly went viral, something the inventors could never have imagined. And suddenly, after three years of ideating, experimenting, researching, and prototyping, Primrose was mere months away from a New York Fashion Week debut.

On February 11, after two months of whirlwind dreaming, designing, and fabricating, the Adobe x Christian Cowan dress powered by Primrose technologytook its first steps into the fashion world.

Millions of people watched, talked, and posted about the dress and the remarkable technology that powered it when it appeared as part of MAX Sneaks, a crowd-favorite event at Adobe’s creativity conference where Adobe scientists and engineers offer a first look—or sneak peek—at experimental technologies. The inventors behind it—Research Scientist and Engineer TJ Rhodes, Research Scientist Christine Dierk, and Vice President, Fellow, and Head of Adobe Research Gavin Miller—were inundated with enthusiasm, excitement, and interest from potential collaborators. “People started coming out of the woodwork with ideas about how we could work together,” recalls Rhodes. “We were hearing from everyone from influencers to fashion designers, brands, and celebrities.”

Bold and brilliant demi-couture designer Christian Cowan was one of those people, enthralled with the possibility that Primrose held for the fashion industry. “Inspired by the audience reaction at MAX, and the technology itself, we were lucky enough to be approached by world-class designers, and we have relished the opportunity to work with Christian Cowan and his team,” said Gavin Miller. “It has been a monumental undertaking to combine Christian’s design vision with our technology. The new dress represents a more complete embodiment of the Primrose idea, with a variety of shapes and a more ambitious structure, all in a few short weeks. It is an amazing group effort from all involved.”

Part of the 2018 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, and well known for embracing new kinds of design mediums and collaboration, Cowan has dressed celebrities from Lady Gaga to Cardi B, Heidi Klum, Lil Nas X, Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Hudson, and Miley Cyrus. Drawing from inspirations from Edith Head to Sex and the City, Cowan designs with the notion that “Everybody can be who they want, and everything is fabulous.” “From the beginning, this was a passion project and a true collaboration,” says Rhodes. “A big part of Cowan’s creative vision was to let the dress tell the story of our coming together. The top half keeps the original scale-shaped petals of the first Primrose dress, and then the petals flow into a newly-designed petal shape—Christian Cowan’s signature stars.”

Racing toward the runway

In less than a month, the collaboration went from interest to sketches to designing and building the dress in time for Fashion Week in early February. This major moment for the world of fashion features presentations from established fashion powerhouses and trendsetting designers, as well as emerging talents and independent labels, and showcases a mix of minimalist elegance and avant-garde styles at runway shows taking place at various venues across New York City. “We assembled a mini-army to pull this off in record time,” says Rhodes.

The team needed to finalize the dress design and fabricate all of the tech components, including over a thousand petals in multiple sizes and shapes, a controller, and content grand enough for one of the world’s most prestigious fashion events. Not to mention setting aside enough time to embellish the final look with Swarovski crystals by hand and for in-house development to produce a runway-ready garment.  “It’s amazing how quickly everything came together. The dress prototype we unveiled at MAX took years to design and months to assemble. We learned a lot through that process, which allowed this new garment to come together extremely quickly,” says Dierk.

To get it all done, Rhodes picked up and moved temporarily from San Jose to New York, setting up in the local Adobe office with a laser cutter, and racing back and forth from his workspace to Cowan’s studio— sometimes multiple times a day—while coordinating efforts to build the new components on location. Dierk refined the design from the West Coast, mapping out where all the electronics and petals would integrate into the garment and finalizing the dress pattern. Then, as the only person who’d ever sewn with Primrose before, she joined the rest of the team in New York to advise the final assembly phase. “It was exhilarating—and exhausting. With our timeline, we knew we had only one chance to get it right. It was one of those situations where you measure three times because you only have time to cut once,” says Rhodes.

Designing a few new tricks for Primrose

During its sprint toward the runway, Primrose took several huge leaps forward. One of the most notable was completely covering the new dress in 360 degrees of dynamic petals (a change from the original Primrose dress which only featured petals on the front). To make this possible, Oscar Dadfar, Giorgio Gori, and Rhodes built and developed a new visualization workflow using Adobe After Effects so they could create and simulate the garment’s animation in 3D tools.

The dress also evolved from a non-stretch satin fabric to an Armani Stretch satin fabric with increased movement. The team had to solve for new ways to map the petal placement and keep everything uniform, while incorporating 88 modular controller boards of varying sizes to drive the 1200+ scales and new star-shaped petals.

To suit a runway, the team also created animations that could run on a loop as the model walked, rather than requiring the wearer to manage animations with a controller. 

“All along the way, this has been an amazing partnership,” says Rhodes.Christian Cowan’s team brought artistic vision and expertise in garment design as we produced the petals, boards, and software to bring the animations to life. Their talented craftspeople led the dressmaking, while we shared insights on things like how to space the petals and add the boards so all of the alignment comes out just right. It was a joy to see what we could create when we worked hand-in-hand.”

Looking ahead for Primrose

From Primrose’s earliest days as a flat canvas, to its first 3D foray as a handbag, to the Adobe MAX Sneaks dress, and now as a fully dynamic, demi-couture piece, “the journey still seems like it’s just beginning”, says Rhodes.

“We’ve gone from an idea to something that’s real, and from here Primrose could become anything. When we hit the New York Fashion Week runway, we moved one step closer to getting the technology out into the world. And there’s so much still ahead.”

Wondering what else is happening inside Adobe Research? Check out our latest news here.

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