While the press looks to this month’s fashion weeks to learn what will be in next season, we look to five designers working at the fascinating intersection of style and technology to see what will be on trend for the rest of the century
This May, the Met Gala promised to explore the role of technology in fashion with its 2016 centerpiece show, Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology. The exhibition, though critically adored, tended to cast a glance backward, with a focus on past innovations like the invention of the dressmaker’s dummy, the rise of haute couture, and more recent, though established, techniques like 3-D printing. But this is only half the story.
Thus far, the world of wearable tech as most of us know it has involved taking familiar items (a watch, glasses, a computer, a printer) and combining them in different iterations, to make, say, a wristwatch that doubles as a tiny laptop. But the real frontier of garment design is far wilder, weirder, and more seamlessly tech-integrated than you could ever imagine.
Forget about laser-cut garments, 3-D-printed sneakers, and dresses with LED lights. Here, we speak with five designers whose work can melt T-shirts back into thread, change a garment’s color according to its environment, and tackle global problems of sustainability, manufacturing, and even health. This is the true future of fashion in the age of technology—and beyond.
Designer, The Unseen, London
Photograph above by Ben Quinton
Lauren Bowker calls herself an alchemist rather than a chemist or a designer. Her design firm, The Unseen, channels the medieval art of alchemy by striving to transform invisible things such as pollution, air pressure, temperature, and even pain into visual information—in her case, using color-changing inks. Her revolutionary work has grabbed the attention of everyone from activewear companies to neuroscientists.
What’s The Unseen’s origin story?
I founded the company about two and a half years ago, after working for about six or seven years in the materials sector and really seeing a need for a design house that could harness technology and science in a more applied and aesthetic sense. I felt like someone needed to understand science and design from the very beginning to create beautiful but meaningful products.
Can you tell us about the first color-changing ink you developed?
My background is in chemistry. When I was younger and studying chemistry, I created a compound that absorbed air pollution and would change its color from yellow to black to let you know how much air pollution you’ve absorbed around you each day or in the time that you’re out in the environment. I realized really early on that rather than throwing facts and figures and books of data at people, it was much stronger to visually show somebody in the language of color change how much pollution was in their environment.
What else do you want to visually manifest for people?
I have a lot of chronic pain, and I find it very difficult to articulate that pain and what that pain level is. The holy grail of The Unseen—and what I’m always trying to strive for—is to create a soft, tactile surface that allows me to understand my body’s pain a little bit. If you’ve ever been in pain and been to the doctor, they say, “What’s your pain today on a scale of one to 10?” I find it very difficult to translate it into a number, so I want to use color change as a way to visually track that.
Have any of your inks been used in the medical field before?
We collaborated with Swarovski on a headdress that had 4,000 stones and a really, really sensitive ink, which changes color if the temperature changes as little as .4 of a degree. Depending on where the brain is active, it can generate really subtle temperature differences that are hard to pick up, but because the stone amplifies the temperature, we could read the different patterns. We released that project purely as an artistic concept, but the response we got from the medical world was incredible. Within 24 hours of it being out in the press, we were getting phone calls from all sorts of incredibly profound neuroscientists wanting to work with us as a way of visualizing activity in the brain.
You’ve been reluctant to label The Unseen a part of the wearable-tech movement. Why?
For me, I think wearable technology should just be a given. We should be designing with materials more intelligently anyway. I’d prefer to be associated with material science rather than wearable tech. I think wearable technology is quite gimmicky, and I actually think that the world should be embracing new ways to create materials. It shouldn’t be a fad.
Co-Founder and CEO, Dropel Fabrics, New York City
Photograph by Mark Hartman
Everyone knows that there’s a Murphy’s Law when it comes to white dress shirts, heirlooms, and anything silk: If it shouldn’t get stained, it absolutely will. This is where Sim Gulati and Dropel Fabrics come in. Gulati and his partner, Bradley Feinstein, co-founded their New York–based startup to develop hydrophobic natural fabrics that resist red wine, soy sauce, and whatever else you can throw or dribble or spill or splash on them.
How does hydrophobic fabric work?
It happens with polymers, but essentially we can think of it as similar to dye. When you dye a yarn or fiber or fabric, the whole thing becomes that color. Similarly, when we treat our fabrics with hydrophobic technology, we encompass the fiber itself. The difference between what we’re doing and what’s been done in the past is that it has typically been stamped on.
Your friends must approach you for samples all the time!
On a daily basis. I was at a party last weekend, and someone spilled a beer on his shirt and everyone was like, “Sim, you need to get him clothing.” It kind of advertises itself when the moment arises, and that’s really the whole idea behind what we’re doing. It’s so that we can be human, live the way we want, and not have to worry about the limitations of our clothing.
What’s the end goal for you? How far can this technology go?
We believe that any fabric that has the potential to get stained is an opportunity for us. That’s a huge market, so what we’ve done is really focus on two categories to start, and those are high fashion and uniforms specifically for health care, where this technology can prohibit the transmission of diseases and bacteria.
Designer, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Tom Cridland’s eponymous label is the antidote to fast fashion, measuring the life span of garments in decades rather than seasons. Only 23 years old when he founded the brand in 2014, Cridland ambitiously set out to close the gaps between luxury and affordability and sustainability. His line of long-lasting trousers and T-shirts is changing the way people—including famous fans like Daniel Craig, Ben Stiller, and Leonardo DiCaprio—shop.
Without giving away any trade secrets, what does a garment need to last for 30 years?
We use well-taught craftsmen. We double-reinforce all of the seams. We make everything out of luxury materials that we source in Northern Italy. We treat the garments once they’re put together to avoid fading, shrinking, and pilling. And we put our hands on our hearts and say that this is our pledge to make the best sweatshirt that we possibly can, and it’s made so well that we’re guaranteeing it for 30 years.
What was the most challenging aspect of getting your label off the ground initially?
Well, getting an international e-commerce brand off the ground with just £6,000 is extremely challenging. Part of the beauty of me not having any previous fashion experience, though, is that I didn’t have any idea how significant a challenge I’d set for myself.
I see that you’re not unveiling a 30-year tube top. How do you choose your designs?
We choose garments that we can see being long-running wardrobe staples that people aren’t really going to change. It was very much from the perspective: If you want to guarantee a garment for 30 years, then make it something that’s a timeless wardrobe staple.
Who’s your typical customer?
I can’t say that we have a typical customer, because we ship all over the world. About half of our customers are from the U.S., but it’s as far and wide as Singapore, Australia, Japan. As our philosophy is “Well-made, luxurious clothing should beaccessible to everyone,” I don’t bracket out people and say, “Our customers have to look like [English model] David Gandy and enjoy expensive whiskey.” We’ve got no desire to sideline ourselves to any one target market. That’s something that business focus groups might tell us is an idiotic approach, but I think it’s worked fairly well.
What do you think is behind the widespread interest?
I think we’re at a crucial point in terms of making the world more sustainable. Fashion is the second-most polluting industry after oil, and a lot of well-read, well-educated people realize this and are trying to change it. I also think that the fast-fashion retailers are under a lot of pressure, so they’re now talking about sustainability. But I still don’t think it’s a conversation that’s on everyone’s mind just yet.
Co-founder, Evrnu, Seattle
Photograph by Kyle Johnson
Evrnu takes the phrase “one person’s trash is another’s treasure” quite seriously. Stacy Flynn co-founded the Seattle-based startup after a 2010 trip toChina, on which shewitnessed the effectsof garment waste first-hand. Her experience in textile production at major companies like Target and DuPont led her to create a revolutionary new system that reduces textile destruction byconverting cotton cast-offs back into thread.
What inspired you and your co-founder to start Evrnu?
The very first ingredient in any garment is fiber, and the resource extraction to create fiber is tremendous. We plug all of this value into clothing that we eventually just dispose of—the disposal rate is staggering, at 14 million tons per year just in the U.S. alone. It’s really insane. I wanted to figure out If we could create regenerated fiber that was as high quality as a virgin material, so that we could actually use this destructive model as a positive catalyst for environmental change.
Is there a difference between the thread that you produce and regular cotton?
I don’t know if the language has caught up with innovation yet, but this fiber is actually “regenerated” rather than “recycled.” Recycling has this inherent perception of taking materials and compromising them in some way. By regenerating fabric, we’re actually taking the waste down to the molecular level and rebuilding it up into whatever it needs to be, so it’s actually stronger and potentially higher quality than it was in its original form when it was new. So, it’s kind of a mind-blowing concept.
What was it like to take this technology to the fashion establishment?
With our very first prototype, I was able to take a T-shirt from a solid to a liquid and back to a solid using a syringe. I brought my 3-D proofs into Fortune 500 companies, put them on the table and said, “I want to fundamentally change the way you do business with this technology.” They said, “Ms. Flynn, you have three beakers and a dream, and it’s going to be so fun to watch you try this.”
Did you ever have any doubts that this would work?
You know, when you’re a social entrepreneur, you can’t see anything but the success of the outcome. I had lunch with a friend of mine after I did this, and she said to me, “Have you ever considered that this might not work out for you?” For that split second, I came clean with the fact that I’d never once considered it. A social entrepreneur needs only one reason why something should happen, and the millions of reasons why it’s going to be difficult almost fade out of the picture.
VP and head of global product innovation, Levi’s, San Francisco
Photography by Cody Bratt
Screens are so last season—at least according to Project Jacquard, the latest from Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. Using conductive thread, Project Jacquard can weave touch and interactivity into any cloth surface, including the denim sleeve of its partner, Levi’s, Commuter Trucker Jacket. Wearers can pick up calls, send texts, and skip songs on their playlist with a simple swipe of their jacket sleeve, which then sends the information to their phones via an app.
What was your initial reaction to the idea of making a smart jacket?
At first, we were a little skeptical about “wearable technology” as a concept. When we thought about a woven tactile interface, we were impressed that it could be done, but unsure if it should be.
So what made you finally decide to take the leap?
After spending a few days thinking about how this technology could be useful, the “problem” this technology could resolve became clear: People rely on their smartphones for a lot of useful functionality, but they spend too much time staring at a screen instead of being present and engaged in the world around them. At the dinner table, this behavior can be annoying. But on your bike, it can be dangerous. In this way, Project Jacquard became a solution to a major challenge that anyone who rides a bike understands: “How can I go on my ride without going off grid?”
If smart garments are mass-produced, do you think people will shop less frequently?
Perhaps, or digital connectivity will become ubiquitous, and we’ll start expecting this level of tactile interface in every garment we buy. I wouldn’t want to speculate about either future scenario. I do think that the integration of apparel and technology will require a new class of fashion designers who can craft both interface and object. We need design schools to consider building cross-disciplinary curricula to prepare designers with a broader skillset.
What’s the learning curve like with this? Are people going to be teaching their parents how to use smart jackets as well as their smartphones?
Using the technology is much easier than you’d think. As we designed the Jacquard application and developed the architecture of the interface, we focused on simple, intuitive gestures and actions. We wanted everything to feel natural, using behaviors we already associate with getting dressed.
Do you have future plans to make entire garments touch-sensitive or wired?
The placement and size of the tactile interface area was thoughtfully designed for easiest access and maximum value. We wanted the gestures to feel natural and discreet. It’s possible to activate much larger areas of the textile or to place the active interface all over the body, but I wouldn’t. I think you might look funny sending a text from your shoulder or skipping ahead to the next track by tapping your butt.