Tweeting tops and see-through suits: Clothes of the future will keep us connected
There was a flurry of fabric in New York this week, as famous bodies climbed the steps towards the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Inside, a TV star stood in the dark, interlacing blue lights passing along the seams of her dress.
The theme of this year’s Met Gala was “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology”. A parade of sci-fi tinted outfits were on display, including Zayn Malik’s metal arms and Claire Dane’s glowing dress. Fashion and technology are stepping out in public, and the result is a strange new world of what we wear, from clothing that grows in transparency as its wearer becomes aroused, to fabrics that are able to generate power and store data.
Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman is an associate professor in industrial design at New York’s Pratt Institute. She’s also the founder of Interwoven Design Group, a firm specialising in the development of wearable technology and smart textiles. I spoke to her about the ways technology and fashion circles are affecting each other, and how designers and developers are using new overlaps to challenge expectations of what clothing is, and what it can do.
“Technology can be especially provocative when it is applied to high fashion,” she told me. “Hussein Chalayan, Iris van Herpen, Ying Gao [and] Daan Roosegaarde are just a few of these trailblazing designers that are experimenting with technology and smart textiles to push the boundaries of traditional fashion, and to provoke discussion.”
A dress connected to the wearer’s heartbeat that becomes more transparent the more aroused the wearer becomes.
Daan Roosegaarde is a good place to start. In Pailes-Friedman’s book – Smart Textiles for Designers – there’s a section dedicated to Roosegaarde and his Intimacy project. The project involves an item of clothing made of reactive film, which changes depending on its users’ biological signals. Roosegaarde’s studio made several iterations, including a dress connected to the wearer’s heartbeat that becomes more transparent the more aroused the wearer becomes. There’s also a man’s suit that becomes transparent when the wearer is lying.
(Above: Studio Roosegaarde’s Intimacy project)
A dress that becomes transparent as you get turned on might sound like a public-transport nightmare, but it taps into a tendency at the heart of how we choose what to wear – to make signals that other people can pick up on.
“Humans have used clothing for expression almost as long as they have used it for protection,” Pailes-Friedman said. “Clothing is our second skin, and we use it to express and define our personality, to reflect our culture, and to cover our bodies. In this era of saturated social media, our visual identity has become our personal brand and is even more important than ever.”
While Roosegaarde’s design takes signaling to its extreme, the theme of communication is a consistent one in Pailes-Friedman’s book. Conceptual designer Ying Gao’s No(where) (Now)here project uses photoluminescent thread and embedded eye-tracking technology to create dresses that are lit up by a viewer’s gaze. Elsewhere, Jennifer Darmour’s Ping project uses gestures such as lifting the clothing’s hood, pulling down the zipper or working the buttons to trigger custom posts on the user’s Facebook page. Get a response and the shoulders of the garment will softly vibrate.
(Above: Jennifer Darmour’s Ping)
With the advent of wearables such as the Apple Watch, it’s interesting to see concepts like those behind Ping transform functions associated with phones into all-body actions. I asked Pailes-Friedman what she thought would come next for wearable technology, and she told me designers are looking beyond the wrist.
“I see the future of wearables as integrating technology with products and garments that we already wear. The watch was the first attempt at this, integrating incredible functionalities into a form we are familiar with. But let’s not stop at the wrist – there is a lot of competition for the real estate on your wrist. And to be honest, the watch form factor is a bit antiquated.
“You rarely see young people wearing a watch. But integrating technology directly into your clothing, shoes, glasses, jewellery, and other accessories is a natural fit.”
Harvesting energy and storing data
Facilitating all of this is the development of e-textiles – conductive fabrics that are variously able to harvest energy, generate power and store data. It’s a fascinating area of development, and one that necessitates a strong relationship between designers and leading research centres.
Two NASA nanotechnologists at the Ames Research Centre are working on a computer memory-storing e-textile that can store a gigabit of data.
In her book, Pailes-Friedman outlines work done by researchers at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology to develop lithium-ion battery fabric, as well as two NASA nanotechnologists at the Ames Research Centre who are working on a computer memory-storing e-textile that can store a gigabit of data for 115 days. While e-textiles and smart garments may be making a visual impression on the fashion industry, Pailes-Friedman suggested that collaborations between designers and technologists are also affecting how engineers think of their work.
(Above: Forster Rohner Textile Innovations)
“The intersection of fashion and technology has brought a new aesthetic to what was an engineering-driven field, where function was valued over form,” she explained. “Today, engineers see that they can reach much larger audiences with their discoveries when they work together with designers to create projects that are beautiful, sexy and desirable. The most successful wearable technology products bring the technologist and designer together from the onset to truly integrate the technology into the object.”
Many of the projects Pailes-Friedman talks about are concept pieces. While a heartbeat-reactive dress or a messaging hoodie are interesting in theory, will they be applicable to everyday use? Will we see all-body wearables with LED lights and woven memory in Topshop anytime soon?
Pailes-Friedman’s comments hint at the need for a larger shift to happen before that becomes a reality – a sense of not only how existing garments can be improved by new technology, but how technology can change the entire way we think of what we wear. “Clothing with embedded technological functions and/or electronic, can create an experience for its users that goes beyond simply wearing a piece of clothing,” she told me. “Technology can add the expression of deeper emotions, feelings and experiences, with new ways to express emotions through the application of color, light, sound, smells and other metrics.”
(Above: From Pankaj & Nidhi’s Geometrica collection)
Showboating dresses like those on display at the 2016 Met Gala may be unlikely to appear on the high street, but we are living in an age where digital connectivity is seeping outside of the black rectangles in our pockets. The expression of emotion is increasingly tied up with our digital lives, and while our data has passed from computer to cloud, it looks like it’ll soon be woven under our second skins.
Smart Textiles for Designers: Inventing the Future of Fabrics by Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman is published by Laurence King Publishing.
Lead image: Ying Gao’s No(where) (Now)here project.