High Tech Couture
Clothes that light up, play music, and fabrics that change their shape.
And yes, the cloak of invisibility.
The modern cultural love affair with new technology may be verging on obsession. Gadgets and new media tools are changing the way we think, work, interact, behave —even the way we dress. Such a wired zeitgeist calls for a new breed of “smart fashion,” taking the industry’s continual quest for superior fabrics and high-functioning garments to new heights. Design innovations that respond to contemporary, multi-tasking lifestyles range from the practical to the truly bizarre. With a shortened collective attention span, demanding consumers won’t take long to test which of these trends will be a flash in the pan, and which will endure as style essentials of the future. Today’s cutting edge may be tomorrow’s scrap metal.
In the era of smartphones and social media, where connection is constant and the public sphere has morphed into one giant hot spot, a new fusion of communication and style is taking shape. The body itself, and its adornments, can now function as broadcasting devices, as a new wave of designers expands the frontiers of interactive fashion.
Remember the childhood excitement of light-up shoes that flashed on impact? New York-based designers Younghui Kim and Milena Berry expand the concept for the 21st century with HearWear, a line of “wearable electronic” wrap skirts. Inspired by the fast-paced urban rhythms of Manhattan and Seoul, HearWear promotes the idea that consumers should be more in touch with and expressive through their environments. The skirts fuse audio and visual stimulation, responding to noise with LED panels imbedded in the fabric. Battery-powered sensors hidden in the waistbands activate the panels and electroluminescent wires embroidered into the garments’ design. The louder the noise, the more intense the impromptu light show. “We work not only towards a better environmental awareness for most people, but also towards the unnoticeable integration of technology in your day-to-day fashion and lifestyle,” says Kim of her creations. She is also debuting a sister line of skirts dubbed Stir it On! which respond to physical stimulation such as being jostled on a crowded street or dance floor. The built-in sensors could be applied to almost any wearable piece, including handbags, accessories, and jackets.
Similar technology made a red carpet appearance when pop star Katy Perry attended this year’s Met Costume Institute Gala in a flashing LED-paneled gown designed by London-based CuteCircuit. The techno-chic company also boasts the Hug Shirt, which allows multiple wearers to send hugs long-distance through embedded sensor technology. The shirt collects data on the touch strength, heart rate, and skin temperature of the sender, which is sent via Bluetooth to a distant wearer and recreated in their Hug Shirt. The SMS affection might not be quite the same as a human embrace, but a close second for those times when all you really need is, well, a hug.
Even vital signs can be shared through new wired wear. Guests at Vienna Fashion Week in September were treated to the organic soundtrack of a model’s heartbeat as she prowled the runway, courtesy of a collaboration between Dutch designer Anouk Wipprecht and V2 Labs. The knitted jumper has a built-in stethoscope with a microphone placed just below the wearer’s collarbone, which transmits her heartbeat through speakers resting on the hips. “Most of my narratives are based on topics regarding personal space, embodied experience, hypersensitivity, modern nomad issues and mimicking nature’s capabilities,” says Wipprecht of her designs. “We shaped technology and…technology became an extension of our skin…Future fashion will become more adaptive and transformative.”
Some designs aim to lessen the need for social interaction, rather than promote it. The Company Keeper, a creation of artist-researcher Di Mainstone, explores the role of fashion as a social tool. An androgynous hooded dress, Company Keeper analyzes its wearer’s mood and motions through gesture-recognizing embedded touch sensors, an internal microphone, and a dangling accelerometer. When the system collects a combination of data it is programmed to recognize as indicating stress, claustrophobia, anger, or simply “awkwardness,” a soothing soundtrack automatically plays through headphones attached to the hood. “Once installed, the occupant enjoys the perpetual company of a wise, humorous and absurd friend,” explains the project’s press release. Mainstone’s objective as a designer is to “create innovative wearable architectures that redefine our notion of fashion, through the exploration of new technologies, pioneering fabrication, hands-on interaction, and collaborative working models.” Who needs friends, with fashions like these?
Flashy vs. Functional
The line between functional fashion and wearable art is not always clear. A marriage of style and technology has led to some eye-popping designs that, while not likely to appear in ready-to-wear collections anytime soon, push the boundaries of a tech aesthetic.
Turkish-born designer Hussein Chalayan has often been at the front lines of experimental couture, and his galactic concepts are often cited as inspiration from a new crop of high-tech designers. At a 2006 Paris show, Chalayan stunned audiences with a collection of motorized women’s wear that slowly morphed as models crossed the catwalk. Skirts bustled, jackets unzipped, collars loosened, hemlines shortened, and sleeves disappeared, all without human touch. One model was defrocked completely as her diaphanous cover-up was sucked into a wide-brimmed hat. The magical effect was achieved through computerized corsets developed by London-based engineering firm 2D3D. Powered by battery packs, an intricate system of miniature motors pulls thread-like cables through dozens of wires and tubes—a micro-puppet master hidden beneath layers of fabric.
This fall, inventor Charlie Bucket of Casual Profanity unveiled his “Fluid Dress,” a sleeveless, close-fitting sheath constructed from 600 feet of clear tubing, through which neon-hued liquid is pumped. Although the attached machinery lends an unwieldy, IV-drip effect to the ensemble, the effect is nonetheless stunning as fluorescent yellow fluid circulates rhythmically through the dress’ loop design. The pump can be programmed for variations in speed and pressure, producing snakelike cascades and flashing patterns. The wearable art piece is an evolution of Bucket’s earlier “Fluid Skirt” prototype, which gradually concealed its wearer’s nether parts with a circular flow of blood-red liquid.
Standing tall at the crux of social statement and function are Aphrodite platform shoes, high-tech footwear designed in response to the unique job risks faced by urban sex workers. The six-inch silver platforms are equipped with a personal alarm system to ward off attackers, an internal GPS device, and an emergency button to broadcast a distress signal to police or sex worker’s advocacy groups. The platforms also link wearers to a virtual toolkit including appointment calendars, a “problem client” blog, and a tracking map of other registered users who chose to broadcast their locations. The platforms are part of the Aphrodite Project, which explores the historic cult of the Greek goddess of love and how it relates to issues of modern prostitution. In addition to their real-world safety applications, Aphrodite Project creators describe them as both “social sculpture” and “a vehicle for public dialogue.”
[quote]Fashion has the power to define how we interact with our environment, with each other, and with our most prized resources.[/quote]
Intelligence by Design
In addition to such amped-up styles, scientific breakthroughs are leading the way towards some very functional fashions with the potential for real-world use. A focus on adaptive features to suit multi-tasking, time-strapped trendsetters is at the center of many of these newest innovations.
Reliance on portable electronics has practically turned them into a new appendage for some users. Technology developer Fibretronic wants to help tech-addicts keep their gadgets even closer with a system of washable embedded textile devices (ETD) which can be implanted into almost any garment or soft accessory. Fibretronic’s product line includes controller modules and keypads for MP3 players and smart phones, wearer-activated personal heating systems, LED visibility panels, and two-way radios. With a fully-loaded ETD wardrobe, there’s no need to ever go unplugged or unprepared.
[quote]We shaped technology and…technology became an extension of our skin… Future fashion will become more adaptive and transformative.[/quote]
In the future, indecisive dressers may have relief from the daily dilemma of what to wear. Forget outdated “day-to-night” tricks, and imagine a garment that seamlessly adapts to whatever environment the modern multitasker finds themselves in. No time to change? No problem. Researchers at Alburquerque’s Sandia National Laboratories hope to make chameleon-esque clothing a wearable reality in five to ten years. By imitating the microcellular protein movements that occur naturally in some species, such as color-changing fish, Sandia scientists are making progress in adapting nature’s wizardry to nonliving materials. The multi-chromatic key lies in the motor proteins that mobilize cellular material, including pigments. A shift in pigment spacing results in a visible change in color. Though actual motor proteins cannot survive on a dry, nonliving surface like fabric, researchers have created faux proteins out of nanoscopic pigment crystals, controlling their movement and density by attaching a metal atom. This molecular maneuvering is not being done for the sake of style (at least, not yet), but with hopes of military applications. An evolution of traditional camouflage fatigues, color-changing uniforms would safely conceal soldiers in a variety of combat zones. If successful, such adaptive clothing could have other uses, such as temperature control. With fabrics that expand or condense for breathability based on weather conditions, a new generation of molecular-chic could make the layered look obsolete.
The search for intelligent material is also motivating studies at MIT’s Research Lab of Electronics, which has engineered acoustically-sensitive fibers that can interact with their environment and each other. Produced from graphite-containing plastic that supports a crucial balance of fluorine and hydrogen atoms, then zapped with a powerful electric field, the fibers audibly vibrate at different frequencies when an electric current is applied. Because of their unique properties, the fibers can both detect and release sound waves. Though research is still in the formative stages (supported by the US Defense Department), this new fiber technology has the potential to make waves in the world of smart fashion. Used like thread, the sensitive fibers could produce clothes that are literally tuned into their wearer, woven into millions of tiny microphones capable of recording speech and even monitoring vital signs. In the future, we may expect clothes to not only be a good fit, but a good listener.
The ultimate in wearable technology may prove to be the elimination of design entirely. The interactive fashions grabbing style headlines and runway dominance could one day be eclipsed by a piece of outerwear that renders all others obsolete: the invisibility cloak. The irresistible mystique of making oneself invisible appears in ancient Greek, Welsh, and Norse mythology, where retina-deceiving caps and cloaks were often put to sinister use by gods and heroes. More recently, the idea has captured public imagination thanks to the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises.
However, the concept no longer exists purely in the imagination, as scientists in the US and UK continue to make advances that may unlock invisibility using metamaterials—synthetic composites with unique electromagnetic properties. Acting as a cloak or shield, these materials can redirect light waves around an object, concealing it from the range of human perception. Researchers at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering have been steadily making advances on the first invisibility cloak prototype they unveiled in 2006, which deflected microwave beams to flow around an object, effectively making it disappear from sight. “The cloak would act like you’ve opened up a hole in space,” explains project engineer David R. Smith. “All light or other electromagnetic waves are swept around the area, guided by the metamaterial to emerge on the other side as if they had passed through an empty volume of space.” Last year, the Duke team introduced a new model of cloak that covered a wider spectrum of waves and was far easier—and cheaper—to manufacture, encouraging to the possibility of large-scale commercial production. Another team at UC Berkeley’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center expanded on the same concept, but with 3D metamaterials capable of reversing visible and near-infrared light’s natural direction. Existing metamaterial technology does have limitations—so far, the range of wavelengths it can conceal is limited, and any movement could disrupt the invisibility effect. So, while the prospect of incognito acrobatics may be some ways off, advances in this electromagnetic innovation are sure to cause waves in the future.
Fashion has the power to define how we interact with our environment, with each other, and with our most prized resources. As technology becomes ever more intertwined in our daily lives, the boundaries of functional fashion will also likely expand, whether in the form of wearable electronics, social devices, smart textiles, or entirely new fusions of adaptive apparel. The design arena is a playground for exploring the possibilities of a hyper-wired world and, hopefully, will continue to turn out some pretty jaw-dropping looks along the way.