Garments that shield
The Italian garment brand Capable Design was born as a reaction to the increasing surveillance of people. Founder Rachele Didero considers brand activism not only self-evident, but the backbone of the company.
A curly-haired model casually leaning a skateboard on her shoulder, another model hanging from a climbing rack dressed in multicolored knitwear. These young urban adults in the ads are the faces for promoting the world’s first fashion brand that protects the privacy of users.
Capable Design is an Italian startup founded in 2019, led by designer Rachele Didero and her partners Federica Busan and Giovanni Maria Conti. The brand’s Manifesto collection is designed with AI in order to create knitted garments that distract facial recognition programs. When a person is dressed in garments from the collection, the person doesn’t appear as themself: instead, the programs recognises, for example, a giraffe or a dog hidden in the knitted patterns.
“In the future, technologies will follow people and absorb more and more data about them. We want people to be able to block surveillance with their clothes”, says Didero.
Capable Design sweaters and pants are strikingly colourful. The knits showcase a mix of turquoise, light green, magenta and sandy brown – and despite all the chaos, the patterns tie it all together, giving the garments a neat overall impression. According to Didero, the sweaters are made for avant-garde people who want to express themselves and be part of a community of technology-conscious people.
“We design clothes for people who want to lead by example and take action to change societal flaws.”
The company originated from a real-life event
Didero’s interest in the effects of technology has followed her from one top university to another. She’s currently pursuing a doctorate at the Politecnico di Milano. The dissertation deals with the same topic as Capable Design, i.e. combining textiles and computer science to prevent facial recognition. In addition, Didero has studied at the Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York.
The idea of clothes protecting the privacy of their users was born in the US. Didero still remembers the news a few years ago about a housing cooperation in Brooklyn, where tenants opposed the landlord’s plan to install a facial recognition system at the entrance of the house. That was the beginning of Capable Design. By the way, the tenants won the dispute.
Activism embroidered on clothing
Increased surveillance is also a hot topic in Europe. The controversial decision of the French government in the spring of 2023 to legalise the use of AI in mass surveillance frightened many. The interim law is intended for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. The initiative raised widespread concerns that the mass surveillance seen in other parts of the world would form a stronghold in the country.
Didero was also concerned about Parisian legislation, although the case showed that there’s a demand for socially-minded brands like Capable Design. When asked about about if she regards her company as activism, she says yes without hesitation.
“Fashion is communication, and our clothes communicate activism. For example, the name of the collection is Manifesto, meaning to express something and making it visible. It’s bold and recognisable”, Didero says. Resistance to surveillance is literally embroidered on the brand’s knitwear. “We are preceded by many others, whose story is based on important values: diversity, inclusion or responsibility, without greenwashing. These types of brands are part of the changing world. Not only do they embrace new trends, but they are born out of societal needs”, says Didero.
Not all innovations are valid
In addition to privacy protection, the designer wants to support, for example, the rights of gender minorities. In the end, AI-enabled apps like facial recognition software will always look like their creators, who are often sadly white heterosexual men. Technology is never impartial.
Didero feels that, as a designer, she has a responsibility to stand up for the people. Her work is guided by solid values that rest on cornerstones such as ethics, pioneering and innovation. However, not every innovation is good enough.
“I mean sensible innovations. That is, the ones that build on top of what already exists. Our clothes, for example, are technologically innovative, but they are made in Italy, where fashion is almost a sacred tradition”, Didero concludes.
In addition to activism, the fashion brand is also a global business. However; according to Didero, the company has managed to avoid seed funding, and instead, runs on profits accrued from the sales.
“We haven’t had to adapt our operations to the wishes of investors. We run the company based on our own values” – Rachele Didero
Who? Rachele Didero
Education: PhD from the Politecnico di Milano University
Company: Capable Design, founded in 2019
Exception times: When the corona pandemic spread to Italy, Didero moved to Tel Aviv to be able to work on the collection at the local university.
Photo: Capable Design