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Fast (forward) Fashion - Design

Continuing our series on some of the latest technological breakthroughs that are poised to impact the fashion industry, this post focuses on some remarkable advances in the Design of textiles and garments. Some of the amazing things that are currently being developed are nothing short of mind-bending and could have just as easily been pulled out of a sci-fi film.

bio-engineered textile development in the lab

image source: Bolt Threads

Bio-engineered fabrications

If early indicators are accurate, some of the most cutting edge fashion that will be developed in the next ten years will be grown in a lab as opposed to traditional fibers sprouting in a field or from the pelt of an animal. Bolt Threads out of Emeryville, CA has been spending the last several years perfecting a synthetic spider silk to rival the traditional version spun by silkworms with the additional benefits and tensile strength of actual spider's silk. What's more, they have the confidence of one of fashion's leaders in the sustainable realm, none other than Stella McCartney has collaborated with them on some standout pieces in her recent collection.

Modern Meadows has been hard at work creating an organic and animal-free leather that is not only inherently more humane, but also boasts less material waste and a much smaller environmental footprint. Designers and bio-engineers like Natsai Audrey are putting bacteria to work to create alternatives to dyeing and printing that are much more environmentally sustainable. Researchers at MIT have developed bioLogic, a technology using moisture-reactive bacteria to create self ventilating clothing which responds when the wearer's body temperature rises and they perspire.

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Designer Tina Gorjanc has raised some compelling ethical questions about privacy and propriety with her new project Pure Human. The project uses DNA extracted from human donors and grows synthetic human skin to be used in creating various projects and even products. This raises some serious issues about what this technology should be used for and what an individual's rights might be concerning the use of their genetic materials. The designer has said that this moral dilemma is actually at the heart of the project itself; she wants these difficult questions to be confronted because the technology is being developed far more rapidly than legislation around it.


Connected garments

The strides made in the realm of smart textiles is pushing the boundaries of what we have come to expect from clothing. More than just a covering to protect us from the elements, or to express our personal style, pretty soon the term “performance clothing” may come to cover a lot more features than we would have even been able to conceive of twenty years ago.

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Textiles have been wired for connectivity to our personal devices and some smart clothing items are engineered to do everything from record our vitals to express our emotions and anticipate our needs. Design house Unseen exercises their special brand of alchemy in creating reactive garments to both environmental cues and the wearer's biological ones. Studios such as Cute Circuit and Ying Gao have developed garments that react when provoked and also display thoughts, ideas, and emotions. These and other amazing pieces from talented creative teams have been displayed recently at popular art museum and university exhibits over the past several years such as TechStyle and Coded Couture, and the exhibit currently under way at MoMA’s exhibit “Is Fashion Modern?".


Strides in 3-D printing

There are compelling predictions that eventually we will be downloading the schematics to the latest fashions and printing them at home This could really mean substantial benefit for the environment - imagine the positive impact of less product shipment worldwide. Also the convenience of having the product you want within hours of purchase is certainly appealing.

Design-wise, there are some amazing things happening with 3-D printing in regards to fashion. For the longest time apparel construction has basically meant taking a relatively 2-dimensional material, fabric, and constructing it to wrap around, shelter, and move with a dynamic 3-dimensional object, the human body. 3-D technology is creating a shift in the starting point since we can begin building the garment as a structure in a different way.

Companies such as Nervous System just outside Boston, MA, have been leaders in pushing the parameters of what is capable with 3-D printing. Some of their designs have been featured in the 2016 TechStyle exhibit at the MFA (mentioned above), and they have been involved in several collaborations including running shoes with New Balance.

3-D manufacturing technology does not only entail resin material; companies such as Ministry of Supply have already begun selling their 3-D Knit product to consumers. The machine, made by Japanese firm Shima Seiki, produces very little waste - the wastage from one blazer can fit into a coffee mug! Also, because blazers can be made to order there is no waste of excess inventory languishing on the shelves.

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Cutting edge designers like Noa Raviv and Iris Van Herpen have been taking the runways by storm with their futuristic creations that are marvels of technology while being breathtakingly beautiful and thought-provoking. At this point, designs by creative houses like Raviv, Van Herpen, and legendary collaborative threeASFOUR still feel very conceptual, but at some point in the not too distant future, this technology will be embraced by more main stream designers and filter down into product more accessible to the average consumer.

short video below about how threeASFOUR utilizes 3-D printing in their work


Algorithm based design

There have been several businesses and experiments over the past few years in using algorithms and big data to do everything from anticipate trends and customer needs, to projections for manufacturing and order fulfillment. The most mysterious of all has to be using artificial intelligence to produce creations. Throughout history the ability of the human mind to be inspired, conceive of and then execute the creation of a new idea has always been assumed to be something uniquely human. The concept of machine as a designer is equal parts fascinating and a bit terrifying - it is new territory.

Stitch Fix, an online retailer, is proposing to do just that with its in house brand Hybrid Designs. In reality, the algorithms use in "designing" a new garment based on a customers preferences are technically throwing together elements from already existing pieces and combining them to create a new selection of items for the customer to choose from. Still, it is an interesting spin on customization, which is very much in vogue right now with fashion consumers.

Earlier this year, Italian brand, Ferrero, hired advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather Italia, which ran an immensely successful marketing campaign in which they used algorithms to generate millions of uniquely patterned labels for its iconic product Nutella. No two labels were the same and they were all machine generated.

Nutella Unica - algortithm generated patern design

image source: Dezeen


What could all this change mean for us?

There are some questionable sides to of some of these innovations, naturally. As we already pointed out in the case of Pure Human, there may be some ethical quagmires to confront in using some cutting edge technologies. Certainly in the use of bacteria, although it is naturally occurring, we may run the risk of creating strains that could come back to haunt us.

For designers in particular, there is also the issue of being replaced by an algorithm or by over-zealous amateurs. Democratizing fashion through the refinement of 3-d printing at home for the consumer, or computer-generated design as a replacement for human imagination and ingenuity could produce some catastrophic, or at least incredibly banal fashion. I am not simply being a snob here. Imagine if everyone attempted to design their own house, or furniture, or cars without the aid of a professional architect, engineer, or designer. I can concede that the results may not be as blatantly dangerous for a novice to design a skirt as to design a car (although shoes might be another matter), but it will be hard on the eyes, that's for sure.

OK, maybe I am being a bit of a snob...

At the end of the day, I do think the act of creation is not something that will be easily replaced by an algorithm, or that trained designers with years of experience will be supplanted by someone experimenting in their home office. Just because someone has the tools to create something does not mean that they do not need the experience and training to do it well. The average person knows good design when they see it, or at least they can tell bad design when they see it, even if they cannot put their finger on why it's not good.

Designers should welcome new technologies that come, because new tools offer chances to grow as creatives and to learn. We will keep what works and eschew what does not just as we have with each new leap into the future. To do otherwise would be looking backwards.

We would love to hear your thoughts and feedback on what we have covered so far, also any ideas you might have for what should be included in this series. Feel free to let us know in comments!

Stay tuned for upcoming posts on the topic of new technologies; we will be covering manufacturing and retail innovations in the near future. Look for the tag #FastForwardFashion to keep up with this series.

Sources: Noa Raviv | Quartz | Inc | Technology Review | Fast Co | You Tube | Vogue | The Atlantic | Cute Circuit | Ying Gao | Promostyl | Modern Meadows | Nervous System | Bolt Threads | Tina Gorjanc

* We intend no copyright infringement by displaying images from other sources on our site. Unless otherwise noted, all images are the property of their respective owners.

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