Part 2: The interwoven past, present and future of fashion and technology

It’s May 2nd, 2016. The Met Gala Ball. The theme is ‘Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology’.

As the who’s who of the day descend upon that legendary red carpet in dazzling interpretations of the theme — chrome-coloured gowns with metallic components, flesh-tone fabrics that move like fish scales, laser-cut skirts, studded bodices, gleaming breastplates with a look of the robotic about them — the air crackles with electricity. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Claire Danes’ Met Gala Gown by Zac Posen

Until Claire Danes arrives.

At first, it seems the Hollywood luminary has made quite a traditional style choice for a theme centred on exploring the bold, the new, the futuristic. While undeniably beautiful, her pale blue organza dress, by American designer Zac Posen, looks like it would be better suited to a 1950’s Oscar’s red carpet than this, contemporary fashion’s night of nights.

But this dress has a hidden superpower. Dim the lights or take it into shadow, and it shows itself to be one of the most on-theme garments of the evening.

Claire Danes’ Light-Up Met Gala Gown

“I’m interested in that place where the past and future meet,” Zac said in an interview with Good Morning America, and the place Zac spoke of revealed itself the moment Claire’s dress lit up the room — literally.

The secret? “It’s made from fibre optic fibres,” explains Zac. “There are about 30 battery packs inside!”

Though definitely making the biggest splash on the red carpet that evening, Zac’s design was not alone in augmenting the appearance of an attendee’s garment with electronics. Designers Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig of Marchesa partnered with IBM to also use electronic components in a dress worn by model Karolína Kurková — and in a way that was arguably more interesting, if not quite so eye-catching.

Karolina Kurkova’ Met Gala Marchesa x IBM Watson Gown

“We worked with [IBM’s] computer, ‘Watson’,” said Georgina Chapman, when interviewed by New York Live. “Watson aggregated all the tweets from Marchesa fans and came up with a colour story of emotions, and then we came up with the idea of doing this dress with all the flowers that would change colour. They linked that in with their technology, so whenever someone tweets about The Met, [the dress] will change colour.”

Behind-the-scenes of Making the Marchesa x IBM Watson Gown
Behind-the-scenes of the Marchesa x IBM Watson Gown

And change colour, it did. Shifting from white, to lilac, to blue — indicative of the Twittersphere’s shock, awe, delight and general excitement, according to Kurková — the dress responded to human input throughout the evening. So while the lighting elements of Zac Posen’s and Marchesa’s dresses might have been visually similar, it was this interactivity that made the Marchesa gown the more advanced piece, technologically speaking.

The difference between the dresses was more than a functional one. It was a marker of the moment where technology goes from being a static element in a garment — essentially no different to a bauble or any other kind of passive, decorative detail — to being something that directly interacts with humans to affect the way a garment functions.

In part one of this article, we took a look at the way technology has developed over time to change and improve the ways fashion is manufactured — from textiles woven on the Jacquard loom, to ready-to-wear couture that is 3D printed.

But what’s beyond simply using new technologies to make garments? How can technology help us to engage in a real dialogue with our clothes? How can it help us to make our clothes ‘smart’?

‘Who would we want to be, if we could wear our own desires?’

Falling somewhere between Zac Posen’s statically illuminated gown and Marchesa’s data-responsive gown is Tae Gon Kim’s 2009 work Dresses of Memory. Also made from fibre-optic LEDs, this series of four dress-shaped sculptures was inspired by the French philosopher Roland Barthes’ seminal text, A Lover’s Discourse.

Dresses of Memory by Tae Gon Kim

“When we love someone deeply, sometimes we want to be them,” says the Strasbourg-based draughtsman, designer and artist. “This work thus leads us to imagine that we become the people we love. Dresses and materials transport us inside the image, as if we were wearing our desires. This set of images is also intended to evolve according to our desires.”

Appearing at exhibitions and events around the world, including Lumiere London, Fête des Lumières Paris, and White Night Melbourne, Dresses of Memory is not composed of real garments, per se. But in imitating something worn by humans, the work explores the intimacy of garments; the way they represent human relationships, feelings and memories, and how those things change over time.

Lumiere London King’s Cross, Artichoke Project, Mayor of London, Dresses 24, by Tae Gon Kim

Recent explorations in wearable technology — or ‘wearables’ — have the potential to give some quite literal answers to the philosophical questions raised by Tae Gon Kim’s work. This idea of ‘wearing our desires’ is something that many different kinds of designers are incorporating into all manner of objects worn on the body, across fashion, product development, and beyond.

Institute of Isolation by Lucy McCrae

One such designer is Australian science fiction artist and body architect Lucy McCrae. Working with Philips Electronics in their Far Future Design Research Lab, Lucy developed dresses that responded directly to their contact with the human body. One in particular, the Blush dress, consisted of inner layers of biometric sensors that could track the wearer’s emotions as expressed through their physiological state. The data collected was then converted into coloured light, and projected onto an outer textile layer, causing the whole garment to “blush and shiver with light” — a veritable ‘mood dress’.

Blush Dress is a Dress that shines by sensing the emotions of its owner, by Lucy McCrae

“I use the body as a conceptual space to explore biotechnology, and the future of human evolution,” says Lucy. When it comes to wondering just where that evolution is going, Lucy feels the answer is as open-ended as the question.

“The future is up for grabs.”

Interpreting gestures and reading the body

Up for grabs, swipes, and all manner of other physical indicators, it seems.

By now, tech companies the world over are in the throes of developing textiles and garments that respond to the wearer, and, of course, the giants are at the fore. Beyond step counting and heart rate monitoring devices, the usual suspects like Google and Apple are working on wearables that interact more intimately with the body, taking commands, supplying information, and collecting data through passive wearing and active gesturing.

Google Project Jacquard and Levi’s Connected Smart Jacket

While Apple is keeping quiet on the details of their recently lodged smart fabric patents, Google has been a little more forthcoming about their progress in the field. Paying homage to the man who invented the first mechanised, punch-card loom, Project Jacquard is one of Google’s latest explorations in smart textiles. The project, in conjunction with Levis, aims to turn any type of fabric into a gesture-controlled surface, just like a tablet or smartphone. Along with a cuff that is linked to a smartphone via bluetooth, the jacket’s left sleeve features 15 conductive threads that match different gestures to different commands, like playing music, asking for the weather, or answering the phone.

H1 Heated Jacket by Madison Maxey x Loomia / © Marta Molina Gómez

But it’s not just the tech leviathans who are doing really exciting things in the realm of wearables. Another much smaller company rending garments into objects that respond to and assist the human body is Loomia. Helmed by American designer Madison Maxey, Loomia has just launched its H1 Heated Jacket — a thin wool garment that heats up with the use of the company’s patented LEL (Loomia Electronic Layer). Maxey was first granted the opportunity to develop the LEL when she won the Thiel Fellowship, which awards USD $100,000 to ‘young people who want to build things instead of sitting in a classroom’. Since winning the highly coveted prize, the former Parsons NY student seems unstoppable. Her LEL — a thin, wire-free, hand-washable circuit board that can be integrated into textiles — is now being marketed to all kinds of garment manufacturers, who can use the invention to enhance existing designs without having to develop similar circuitry themselves. At this stage, the LEL is capable of heating, lighting, touch-sensing, and data-transmitting, so Loomia’s potential market is a considerable one. And while smart fabrics across the board aren’t without their issues — delicacy, reliability, washability, and even uncertainty around the safety of a piece as the fabric deteriorates over time like a ‘normal’ garment — the current capabilities of Loomia’s product already opens up an unquantifiable scope of possibilities for clothing companies that want to ‘smarten’ up their product.

The Loomia Electronic Layer (LEL)

“How can these new technologies become a companion?”

‘Smart’. It was a loaded word before it came to denote a human-made object imbued with artificial intelligence. A synonym for words like ‘clever’, ‘brainy’, and ‘knowledgeable’. But in a time where we are only just coming to truly appreciate the value of emotional intelligence in every aspect of our lives, the word ‘smart’ is being reworked again. We don’t just want our intelligent devices to know how to do things, we want them to do those things in a way that feels ‘human’ — with warmth, sensitivity, and humour. If our technology is going to become such an intimate part of our daily life, we want it to act like a kind of companion. ‘Smart’ now needs to encompass wearable technology’s ability to perceive and address human feelings with emotional intelligence — by doing things like easing loneliness, or enhancing social interactions. This could mean acting like a pet and comforting us in times of solitude, or intervening in social situations when we need extra help.

Behind-the-scenes of the Electrifying Designs of Anouk Wipprecht

These considerations are what compel the hi-tech fashion designer Anouk Wipprecht’s explorations in adornment.

“For me, fashion is about expression. It’s about communication… how can these new technologies become a companion?.. How can [they] help you emote, or express yourself?”

Spider Dress 2.0 by Anouk Wipprecht

Addressing questions around the ways clothing could act on its wearer’s behalf, the Dutch innovator has designed a collection of over forty garments that respond to different social situations. Acknowledging that the appropriateness of different behaviours can vary dramatically between cultures, individuals, and even moods, Wipprecht integrates her dresses with microcontrollers and sensors to create pieces that behave accordingly. The dresses are based on a scale from public, to social, to personal, to intimate. At the social / playful end of the spectrum, her Cocktail Dress is a spectacle of light, action, and literal social-lubrication — at the press of a button, its central chest piece pours and mixes cocktails. Her Smoke Dress is significantly less inviting of human company, emitting plumes of obscuring smoke when others are in its immediate vicinity. And then there’s Wipprecht’s robotic, 3D-printed Spider Dress, enhanced with proximity sensors, which goes even further to discourage anyone from getting too close by spreading out a threatening collar of pointed legs when a certain distance is breached.

Caress of the Gaze by Behnaz Ferahi

Designer and creative technologist Behnaz Ferahi takes Wipprecht’s notion of a garment that is inviting or defensive a step further with her interactive, 3D-printed piece Caress of the Gaze. Something between a top, a shrug, and a bolero, Caress of the Gaze goes beyond responding to another’s physical proximity — it detects, interprets, and reacts to their gaze via a camera. Depending on the way it reads the expression of that person, the garment’s covering of quills either entice the gazer with coy ripples, or repels them with a more sudden, ferocious porcupine-like display. Ferahi, whose training as an architect, and studies in media arts and practices, have drawn her into different realms of interactive design, says she is primarily interested in the idea of designing emotion into a static object. Her work Synapse — a helmet that moves over and off the wearer’s face according to levels of brain activity — was another project dedicated to investigating the ever-deepening relationship between the human body and technology.

“The idea behind this project was, for me really to think about how we blur the boundaries of our body. How we can really claim that something outside our body has become an extension of the human body.”

And this is just the tip of the iceberg of explorations being conducted in the name of removing what separates humanity and worn technology — of bringing us together so completely that we blend. Beyond Ferahi, Wipprecht, Loomia, and McCrae, countless designers and companies are breaking new ground everyday by creating wearables that augment and enhance the human experience.

Footnotes on fashion

It’s May 7th, 2019. The Met Gala Ball. The theme is ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’.

As the who’s who of the day descend upon that legendary red carpet in dazzling interpretations of the theme, the air crackles with electricity.

Because — in a pale blue, Cinderella-style, fibre-optic-lined gown by Tommy Hilfiger — Zendaya has arrived…

Zendaya in Tommy Hilfiger

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Article authored by Genevieve Callaghan from FAB9.

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