Innovation + Craftsmanship
How teams of technologists are teaming up with fashion designers to invent the future of clothing.
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Lights dim; silence descends. The only movement within the Telus Spark Science Centre is the soft fade of the LEDs that line the fashion runway. From within the media pit the anticipation is palpable.
This isn’t New York Fashion Week. It’s not even a fashion week, or anywhere in America for that matter. But what’s about to take place on this Calgary catwalk isn’t a story about where we are, but who we are. It’s about what we are becoming.
The show is called MakeFashion, and it’s a high-tech, high fashion event that asks audiences to consider the future of wearable technology beyond the wrist. More than 100 artists, designers, and creators will display 40 one-of-a-kind, wearable art pieces that incorporate emerging technologies such as 3D printing, projection mapping, and electronic brain sensing.
If fashion is about looking forward, MakeFashion embraces the opportunities of a world in which technology isn’t just something we hold in our hands or put in our pockets; it’s something that will be worn. It will touch our skin.
Our ever greater intimacy with technology became a focus for me as a freelance journalist two-and-a-half years ago, when I interviewed a cyborg for Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. It was my first big opportunity as a writer. I had been pitching newspapers and magazines for a year trying to break into a major media outlet.
Amanda Cosco, founder of Electric Runway, dedicated to discovering and reporting on fashion technology.
#techstyle at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
My pitches had, for the most part, gone ignored, until one day I stumbled on a story so unusual, so over-the-top exciting, I knew in my heart it was a winner. Once I had gathered enough information, I typed an email to the technology editor with the carefully crafted subject line: ‘A Cyborg is Coming to Town.’
The subject line wasn’t an exaggeration. It was the summer of 2014, and I had learned that Neil Harbisson—who was born colourblind and has an antenna integrated into his skull so he can sense colour via sound and vibration—would be speaking in my home city of Toronto, Ontario. By the true definition of the word, Neil is a human-machine hybrid. (See Blohm+Voss, Issue 1 for a full feature on Harbisson)
It was through meeting Neil and hearing his story that I fully grasped that we aren’t just wearing technology: We are becoming technology.
It has become my chosen career: chronicler of future fashion, connected clothing and wearable technology. I’ve interviewed leading fashion tech designers in New York and corresponded from Silicon Valley’s first fashion week. I’ve become obsessed. While we’re not all prepared to live with antennas in our heads like Neil Harbisson, stories are emerging everywhere about how we are integrating technology into our everyday selves.
“The Bird from the Air”: Jacket sculpture by The Unseen, designed by Lauren Bowker. The garment reacts to the movement of air, changing colour with environmental conditions.
“Wearable technology” has so far focused on wrist-worn devices like Fitbit and Apple Watch. While “wristables” have catapulted wearables into mainstream consciousness, they only scratch the surface in terms of what it means to wear technology. As sensors become smaller and batteries thinner and more flexible, one thing is clear: the next generation of wearable tech will look a lot more like a Ralph Lauren gown and a lot less like a Seiko watch.
Hardware is getting softer, as it’s being woven into the fibres and fabrics of our clothing. These textiles, loosely referred to as “smart fabrics,” will extend the function of our clothing and enable new avenues of human expression and connection. Our clothing will do everything from deliver heat to our bodies when we’re cold to monitor our breathing patterns when we’re sick.
Smart Fabric garments often debut as costume and concept pieces. In 2011, London-based Studio XO created a array of connected stage outfits for the Black Eyed Peas’ world tour. The costumes were made of leather and LEDs and were able to communicate with wireless systems around the stage to trigger audio loops and project light shows.
This Spring at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, visitors to the #TECHSTYLE exhibit encountered Ying Gao’s Incertitudes, a set of sound-reactive cocktail dresses that play with notions of proximity and interactivity. Sewing pins embellished onto the dresses are electronically-activated to move at the sound of a speaker’s voice, giving the dress a sense of presence.
The MFA Boston also commissioned a work by Italian fashion brand CuteCircuit. Their MFA dress is a flapper-inspired evening gown made from proprietary fabric and Swarovski crystals on rose gold and silver-plated chains. It includes more than 10,000 micro-LEDs, which display tweets and animations on the dress.
A 3-D printed dress, debuted in the Paris Fashion Week Spring 2013 as part of a collaboration with fashion designer Iris Van Herpen for her show “Voltage”.
“Molecule” shoe by Francis Bitonti Studio Inc.
While costume and concept pieces are able to demonstrate the capabilities of the fashions of the future, many wonder about the commercial implications. The commercialisation of technical textiles comes with a special set of challenges, since electronics are not easily washable at the moment. Still, leading companies are testing the limits of what’s possible.
Last year, Google announced a collaboration with Levis to weave touch and gesture interactivity into textiles, known as Project Jacquard. The idea is to make the fibres of your jeans from the same touch-sensitive materials as the face of your smartphone, with embedded electronics and bluetooth connectivity, so that you could dim the lights in your home just by swiping your jeans.
Earlier this year, the US Government invested $320 million in an advanced fabrics project in collaboration with the Defense Department, universities including the MIT, and nearly 50 other companies. The aim of the project is to push the American textile industry into the digital age and embed a number of tiny semiconductors and sensors into fabrics that can test the limits of our clothing’s capabilities.
The Bubbelle Dress, one of a series of dynamic garments developed by Philips Design as part of their SKIN research into emotional sensing.
Perhaps the most popular consumer example of a smart fabrics product is the Polo Tech shirt. A collaboration between Montreal-based OmSignal, MAS holdings, and Ralph Lauren, the Polo Tech shirt is a smart shirt woven with silver fibres that gather data from its wearer. The shirt interfaces with your iPhone to provide metrics such as heart-rate and breathing depth.
In line with the Polo Tech shirt, many smart apparel products available on the market today focus on measuring and monitoring the body. By gathering biodata, our clothing can now hold up a data mirror to ourselves, a phenomenon known as the Quantified Self. Today it’s possible to provide your doctor or personal trainer with a snapshot of your biometrics, with minute-by-minute insights about your resting heart rate, blood pressure, sleep depth, and calories burned and consumed.
Richard Nicoll’s Tinkerbell dress, designed with London fashion laboratory Studio XO, for Disney. It is made from fibreoptic fabric, LEDs tailored within the dress create a digital pixie dust effect.
While the designs showcased at MakeFashion won’t be available at your consumer electronics store any time soon, they test the limits of what’s possible.
Although the Quantified Self has tremendous implications for our health and wellness, my research currently focuses on wearables that are not only beyond the wrist, but also beyond the Quantified Self, which is how I found myself crouched in the media pit of a Calgary runway show.
The lights rise. The music sounds. The black curtain at the end of the runway opens, and one by one the models glide out: a romantic evening dress that bustles and falls based on the wearer’s brainwaves; a cyperpunk suit of armour with a high-neck collar that expands and contracts based on the wearer’s excitement; a pair of a-line skirts that light up with LEDs when in proximity to one another.
While the designs showcased at MakeFashion won’t be available at your consumer electronics store any time soon, they test the limits of what’s possible. They gesture towards a future where our clothing will be hyperconnected and hyper-communicative.
The wearables of the future will do much more than just count our steps. Tomorrow’s fashions are posed to augment our bodies and extend our abilities. They’ll blur the line between man and machine, and ultimately call into question what it means to be human.