Developing technologically advanced clothes for a not so distant future and for a society that constantly moves at a faster pace has been one of the main preoccupations of many designers and researchers in the last few years.
Designing, producing and putting into the market a truly supermodern wardrobe may still be difficult, but, for the time being, there have been interesting and exciting projects providing an insight into what the future of fashion may be like. One of the latest events is the Pretty Smart Textiles exhibition (on until tomorrow) at the Textiles Open Innovation Center in Ronde, Belgium.
Curated by Melissa Coleman and designed by Joachim Rotteveel, the exhibition features a selection of garments, accessories and applications merging design and technology and exploring how environmental changes can interact with our bodies and clothes.
Projects span from 2009 to the present day and include quite a few “behavioural” garments from the Histerical Bubble (Anja Hertenberger) that explores the interaction between an individual and a group to Unlace (Eef Lubbers), reactive lingerie that allows partners to connect and become more aware of touch and warmth; from a helmet that can help the wearer saying sorry (Meg Grant) to a human hair dress that moves when you brush it (by Dutch designer Django with technical support of designer Ricardo O'Nascimento) and a carpet that picks up radio waves and acts as a medium to enter an electromagnetic space transforming those who sit or walk upon it into human antennas (Florian Kräutli).
Some of these multi-sensory pieces such as a necklace that contracts when the wearer reaches certain stress, joy and anxiety levels (Seçil Ugur, Laura Duncker), a dress that gives out an electric shock when the wearer says a lie (Melissa Coleman/Leonie Smelt) or organic skins that express emotions (Local Androids) are used to explore new technological, behavioural and aesthetic possibilities, while shoes that can reveal people's positions and send messages/images on Twitter and Facebook (Ricardo O'Nascimento) take interaction to the next level.
LED lights are providing new ideas allowing electronics to be woven into fabrics: in some cases LEDs are integrated inside tops to give the illusion that the light shines through the body or are combined with conductive thread and wool (Charlotte 't Hart); OLEDs (Organic light-emitting diodes) are instead used as elements of self-expression in a skirt (Marina Toeters and Loe Feijs). In some cases open-source platform Arduino was also used to programme the patterns of light generated by the LEDs.
The exhibition also includes pieces that explore the power of sound: the Body Speaker is a device that allows the wearer to listen to one's own internal body sounds (Karina van Heck), while the Circuit Dress is an unwerable dress, but a wearable instrument that can be played through copper finger-plates (Nicky Assmann).
One of the most stimulating projects about sound remains Melissa Coleman's Media Vintage, a series of three interactive electronic textiles entitled “Alpha” (a suitcase in which temporary messages can be woven in Morse code), “Bravo” (a tapestry that sings a song when the visitor passes a finger on the embroidered Braille) and “Charlie” (a trench coat that reads fabric punch cards and tell stories from an elderly man's life), based on the fact that nowadays we all lose our images and memories pretty easily since we store them on digital supports that often become inaccessible after a few years. In the case of this project digital memories are stored inside textiles encoded by embroidery, weavings and patterns of holes.
An important concept behind quite a few projects showcased is the mix of traditional techniques with new and advanced technologies: patchwork inspired a snowflake that, thanks to a servomotor, transforms into a sunny flower (Heike Sperber); lace was employed for sensor dresses embroidered with poems that, evoking different emotions, trigger gestures that allow the poem to be played through tiny speakers integrated in the dress, and tailoring traditions inspired a men's suit that allows the wearer to change music by pulling on six zippers on the suit (Maartje Dijkstra and Beorn Lebenstedt aka Newk).
The most interesting researches look up at solutions that could be applied to garments in a not so distant future including a photovoltaic fibre that will enable any textile surface to become a flexible solar panel and generate all the energy we need for different appliances, mobile phones and storage batteries included, but there are also intriguingly dystopian biotechnology projects looking at the possibility of implanting spider silk produced by transgenic modified goats in the human skin to make it bulletproof (Jalila Essaïdi).
Videos like Bart Hess's study on the simple expression of body and structural form and Florian Kaayk's Human Birdwing saga about his fictional character Jarno Smeets and his dream of building a pair of wings to fly complete the event.
Will Haute-Tech be the real future of fashion? We will have to wait and see, but it's exciting to think that one day the fashion industry will stop revolving around the fashion designer and will also include other key figures like researchers, engineers, technological pioneers and scientists.
When did this travelling exhibition start?
Melissa Coleman: The exhibition started in 2010 when we got the opportunity to show works of e-textiles in a place called the Nutshuis in The Hague. At the time I gathered everyone I knew that was doing this kind of work in The Netherlands and suddenly I realised we had a proper show. It was quite exciting to see all the works together as it suddenly seemed easy to think about technology and the impact it can have on fashion. After this first event we were offered different places, so we kept on updating the exhibition with more works trying to arrange them in settings made for specific sites. I think the current exhibition allows to easily spot the direction e-textiles are taking in The Netherlands.
Which of these technologies on display do you feel will become availble to us relatively soon?
Melissa Coleman: I think that electronics in general and textiles integrating lights in particular will be easily accepted into interior design. In a way it's also easy to see how the technology behind some works may be applied in future on products manufactured on a larger scale for companies such as Ikea: who knows, maybe in a few years' time Swedish design will include tapestries integrating electronic parts and lights!
Did you find it difficult to select the pieces?
Melissa Coleman: There is a lot of work being made along the wearable textiles/technology lines, but it is still quite complex to find pieces that work on three levels - aesthetically, technologically and from a material point of you. Most of the works I wanted are included in this exhibition, but, if I continue to do this for another two years, there will be many more pieces and this will allow me to select things more by theme (interior design, fashion, art, new material explorations....) rather than trying to give a complete picture of what is happening. All of the pieces I selected in the exhibition now do work on all these levels in my opinion (technically, aesthetically, conceptually...), although some garments or accessories work more in one of these fields than in the other.
Can you tell me more about the inspiration behind your Media Vintage project?
Melissa Coleman: I'm a very nostalgic person in general and everytime I see old products I'm amazed by the solutions that they suggest. Sometimes they feature very clever ways to close or fold them or organise things within one product – think for example about a classic toiletry bag that you can open and hang somewhere. I think we don't see anymore such inventions in a product and while products are more clever from a digital pont of view, they are less clever when it comes to providing functional solutions. While thinking along these lines I read an article by Bruce Sterling in The Book of Imaginary Media in which he referred to new media dying in a much quicker way than the old media and I found this point really interesting. Technology improves all the time, but everything we are storing in these black boxes – or that we stored on floppy discs and CDs – has a very limited time. These supports may work well for about ten years and then they deteriorate or become obsolete and we have to transfer them to new media. Most people don't do it simply because that's not in our nature, since if you have an old diary you don't rewrite it into a new one every few years. So technology is somehow preventing us from physically accessing to information, while a book, an old diary or letters that you used to write to people are still there, they are physical archives that we can still check out. The project was spawned by the idea that we have to find a middle-ground and get the best of the new and old media.
Why do you think Dutch designers are so forward-looking when it comes to wearable technology: are you more experimental or do you have more resources at university level?
Melissa Coleman: Wearable technology has been a topic of interest within the cultural sector in The Netherlands. We have quite a few art organisations that really put wearable technology at the forefront of their researches and that provided people interested in this kind of things with hands-on workshops. Besides, at university level there is also a great interest in this topic: at the University of Eindhoven there are roughly 60 students each semester specifically working on wearable technology.
Where would you like to take this exhibition in future?
Melissa Coleman: That's a good question. I hope that the next few times we can show it in a place that is really central so that a lot more people can see it. We always exhibited in lovely places but at times they were a bit secluded, so the people who came were specifically interested in this kind of work. So far we mainly got people from the textile or the fashion industry, design students and independent artists and designers among our visitors, in a nutshell people who are interested in discovering how this topic may have future applications or who may be interested in developing their own projects. I hope next time we will be able to show it in a more central place so that people who may just stumble upon the event may become familiar with this work. I do feel that even those who are not into the wearable technology concept may still enjoy the pieces on display or they may find it interesting to discover there is a paradigm shift going on in the technological field as well. We are very familiar with a type of technology that has a very specific look at the moment, but in future things may be different and some visitors will understand this as soon as they walk into the exhibition.
Images 2-7 and 9-13 by David Joosten
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