Reclaiming privacy: the Cap_able way

Italian fashion brand Cap_able makes clothes with a statement – that privacy is important. Laws should reflect that, its founders say.

Cap_able will celebrate its one-year anniversary in July but it has already established a name for itself through the headline-making Manifesto Collection, which renders its wearers unrecognizable to facial recognition systems.

It's part of a larger movement that's pushing against the increasingly ubiquitous use of surveillance technologies – a market that is projected to almost double from $114 billion in 2021 to $213 billion in 2026.

Cap_able’s clothes give people an opportunity to opt out from their biometric data being collected and stored by these systems, often unbeknownst to them, the brand’s co-founders Rachele Didero and Federica Busani said.

But it's also important that policymakers keep up with technological advances, which has not happened when it comes to facial recognition, they said, pinning hopes on the European Union's landmark AI Act that would ban AI policing systems.

I sat down for an online chat with Didero and Busani to discuss Cap_able’s cutting-edge design, privacy in public spaces, and their take on AI debate.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Image by Cap_able

Can you tell me more about Cap_able? What's the inspiration behind the brand?

[Didero] The idea of Cap_able was born in 2019. At that time, I was living in New York, and, as an Italian, I'd never heard of facial recognition technologies. But in New York at the time, there was a discussion taking place about the use of this technology and if it was good or bad.

So, we were also talking about this, and the main thing we concluded was how it's possible that we don't have a choice to opt in or out of this technology. We said that we should create something that gives people the possibility to choose whether to give consent or not.

These cameras are in public spaces or in private spaces open to the public, and sometimes you don't even see them. And they’re recording your biometric data, something that is really sensitive and unique.

We should at least make people aware that this is happening.

What are the main principles to follow when creating a clothing item or a pattern that can block facial recognition software? How do you come up with a specific design?

[Didero] We rely on something called adversarial patches. And there's a long story behind all this. First of all, you have to develop the image and the image needs to confuse the system.

Previously, such an image could only work digitally or in printed form. Not on a garment because when we think of a garment, we need to think of the volumes and shapes of the body.

And so the main point was to transform, to transfer this digital quality to textile. And when you design a textile, you need to understand the requirements behind it and try to simplify this image.

So, in the beginning, it was really empirical research, practice-based research. We also did extensive background research looking into all the other examples of this approach at first.

It's a patented technology. Do you see any possible applications beyond fashion?

[Didero] Right now, we want to stick to fashion because we believe in what we're saying about the need to raise awareness. It's very important. Of course, there could be general applications because facial recognition technology is used in many different areas.

The first thing that comes to mind is, for sure, military use. There are drones that use facial recognition technology to identify people and shoot at people. But we focus on fashion because we wear clothes every day.

[Busani] One interesting application that we were thinking about was furniture and indoor space design, but it's a project that we're not going to follow now because there's a lot of work to do in fashion.

Fashion is the opportunity to express yourself in a very strong way in public spaces, and it would be very interesting to study how these patterns can be used to protect people that enter them.

What's Cap_able's target audience?

[Busani] Our audience is, at the moment, very diverse in the sense that we don't limit ourselves to a specific group of people. We want to be the brand for everyone because everyone is impacted by these technologies, and everybody should have the possibility to protect themselves. So this is what we aim for.

We have been distributing these garments for six months, so we have the picture of the very first, the very early adopters. Usually, these are people that are definitely very much into tech.

We also have different age groups, but it's most commonly people who work or are involved in fields that have to do with equality and how to make society more just, more equal, and more accessible for everyone.

We have a lot of entrepreneurs who are curious about our product because of the scientific research behind it. Everyone's interested in being the first to get closer to a new technology.

But definitely, for us, the aim is really to reach people that usually don't think about things like mass surveillance or even AI. We want to reach people who are not experts.

Image by Cap_able

Do you have any data based on your sales so far? Which countries are your top markets?

[Busani] The most orders we've had so far are from the US, and it has a significant lead. Then we have Canada, Australia, and the UK. This is not surprising, as these are the countries where facial recognition technologies are used and are most present.

Of course, Asian countries could also be described as such, but these are the places – not all of them, but some – where the use of AI recognition is just part of the system, making our product less attractive.

I would say that we find success in markets that are more concerned about the issue and therefore find more excitement in our project.

What are your future plans – what direction will Cap_able take?

[Didero] We have many ideas right now. We want to explore this technology more because we have the Manifesto collection that is really a manifesto because people who are wearing this collection really want to make a statement. They want to be part of something and create a community.

But, of course, we'd like to go further with the technology, making the garments even more efficient and adaptable to different environments. Also, in terms of different kinds of garments and different kinds of textiles. Right now, we have knitwear, but we are exploring different forms.

When we think of the future, we think of ordinary people using it, not just governments or businesses. It's really a technology for everyone. We want to offer people the option to wear our clothes every day in different colors, different shapes, and accessories.

Cap_able is a startup that talks about the problems of our times that will shape our future. So, privacy is just one important topic. Other collections could explore other issues.

Considering the increasing use of AI in mass surveillance technologies, what's your take on current advances in AI – do you think it is going to be a much bigger problem in the future?

[Didero] Yes, it's increasingly used everywhere. The problem with all these really powerful technologies is that their development should involve people beyond engineers.

It should include sociologists and people like designers and philosophers – someone who could study the impact that technology has on society. When this doesn't happen, the impact on society could be really problematic.

[Busani] What's very important is that regulation also keeps up, which is something that hasn't happened in terms of facial recognition, for example. Now with the AI Act, Europe is taking some very important steps that hopefully will bring us somewhere.

But again, the technologies are never mean or harmful by themselves. They become so because of the way we use them. So as long as there's regulation, as long as there are rules on how to use these technologies, they can really improve our lives rather than destroy anything. But we've seen how hard it can be to reach that balance.