While the human hand was once considered the ultimate tool in fashion, today it shares the spotlight with technological innovation. For one, modern technology can help designers create masterpieces that would likely be impossible without techniques like 3D printing. Innovations in textile science have also caused a surge in the creation of brand new fabrics like vegan and synthetic ‘leather’, or cloth with added functionalities we could have never imagined.
The fusion of age-old construction with cutting edge technology has long been explored in the realm of high fashion by designers like Iris van Herpen, who from the beginning of her career has been at the frontline of the fashion-tech movement. Van Herpen is known for her futuristic designs and her early adoption of 3D printing techniques, which she debuted back in 2010.
Also known for constantly redefining the boundaries of what is possible in fashion is Hussein Chalayan, the designer behind skirts that turn into furniture, water-soluble dresses that melt off in the rain, and a “possessed” dress that moves independently, in reaction to the movements of the wearer’s body.
Today, techniques like 3D printing are no longer reserved for the most explorative of designers and are something that many of fashion’s main players are experimenting with. Even designers associated with ‘classic’ style, like Zac Posen who is known best for his glamorous evening gowns and cocktail dresses, have started testing the limits just how much further they can take their craft with access to these technologies. For 2019’s Met Gala, Posen created a series of exquisite 3D printed dresses and gowns which are as astoundingly beautiful as they are testaments of science.
Increasing Sustainability & Functionality through Fashion-Tech
The aesthetic aspect of fashion is not the only place where technology has made an impact. Fashion-tech has also played a role in pushing the industry’s sustainability cause forward. With ordinary fabrics like cotton, it takes around 2,700 litres of water (the same amount that you would drink over 3 years) to make your average T-shirt.
Unsurprisingly, as per the United Nations Environment Programme, the industry remains the second-biggest consumer of water while producing 20% of the world’s water waste, with one of the main contributors to these numbers being the textile dyeing and treating process. As troubling as these figures are, there is a growing group of talented designers and scientists determined on finding solutions. This group of industry specialists are focused on developing technologies that when combined with apparel and accessories can transform the fashion industry in a multitude of ways, from curbing fashion’s water waste problem to creating clothing that can enhance mobility and quality of life.
One such specialist is Professor Juan P. Hinestroza, a professor of Fibre Science and director of the Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory at Cornell University in New York. Through their work in the field of nano-textiles, Professor Hinestroza and his team have successfully fortified cotton with many functionalities that at first thought, seemed impossible for the humble fabric. By synthesizing nanoparticles on top of the fabric, some of the things they have managed to do with cotton include 1. waterproof and oil-proof the cotton fabric, 2. enable cotton to selectively trap toxic gases, and 3. enhance the fabric’s ability to store and release insecticides, effectively serving as protection against diseases like malaria.
Where sustainability is concerned, the most relevant outcome of their research might be the new-found ability to colour cotton without the use of chemical dyes. Instead, Professor Hinestroza and his team use tightly wound layers of nanoparticles known as metal-organic frameworks to give physical colour to the fabric. The long-term potential of this technology, if it were to become accessible to a large enough market, is massive – not only would it make a substantial dent in the 20% of industrial water consumption spent on dyeing and treating textiles, it would also make individual pieces of clothing last longer, since physical colour, unlike chemical colour, does not fade with each wash. As Professor Hinestroza explains it, “This physical colour is like the colour that animals have, or like our own skin. Washing it with soap and water does not make the colour fade over time.”
While the possible impact of nano-science in textiles seem ever-exciting, Professor Juan notes that there is some time yet before the technology his team is developing – in particular, cotton with enhanced functionalities – will be available on the mass market. But for some others, like patent-holding company Nano-Textile, nanotechnology has already begun making waves in the medical field, owing to their development of antibacterial fabric that can protect against hospital-acquired infections.
Nano-Textile is one among the many organizations and individuals working to apply science to fashion to both solve fashion’s pollution problem and create functionality-added wearables that enhance lives. Algalife uses fibres and dyes developed from algae to create a “bio-tech-textile” that can cut the amount of water needed to make a t-shirt by more than 80%, to just 500 litres. The algae-derived fabric can also provide skin-care benefits to the wearer. Fashion heavy-weights are not being left behind either – Nike developed lab “cultured” leather, incorporating the material into shoes and jackets, while French luxury group Kering continues to support companies that develop alternative “leather” made from unconventional sources like apples and yeast.
Also creating smart wearables are designers Pauline Van Dongen and Yves Behar, who have made a case for increasing accessibility and mobility through their respective creations: Van Dongen developed a knitted cardigan with sensors that measures the movement of elderly wearers, while Behar released a clothing collection designed to aid the elderly in getting up, sitting down or staying upright through the use of ‘electric muscles’, which are actually motors housed in hexagonal pods.
One of the most widely known examples of fashion-tech might be Levis’ smart denim jacket, created with Google’s Jacquard fabric technology. Designed with cyclists and commuters in mind, the smart-jacket can dismiss phone calls with a swipe or retrieve directions with a tap, so users never have to shift their eyes from the road to their phones
These are just some among the legions of creative ways fashion-tech is being used to solve everyday problems while opening up avenues to tackle bigger, industry-wide ones. Led by the vanguard of designers, scientists and engineers who continue to develop new wearable technologies and improve upon existing ones, technology in fashion remains fascinating not only for the beauty it helps create, but for its suggestion of what lies ahead.