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The Fabric of Our Lives: Technical Innovation

By Lucie Greene

The second of a series on technical innovation looks at how connectivity is being woven into the very clothes we wear  

S/S 2013 Issey Miyake, Gareth Pugh, Diane von Furstenberg, Prada
Catwalk tech: S/S 2013 Issey Miyake, Gareth Pugh, Diane von Furstenberg, Prada
Solar-reactive iPod-charging jogging suits, posture-enhancing Bluetooth yoga-wear, ski goggles with GPS and email, even bras that promise to detect cancer tissue in its early stages – the latest innovations in high-tech clothing and accessories border on science fiction.
According to Nancy Tilbury, co-founder of Studio XO, a London-based fashion technology company which specialises in creating interactive light-up stage costumes for performers such as the Black Eyed Peas and Azealia Banks: “Generation Digital are constantly connected and live their lives digitally. Clothes are the next logical step.” Studio XO plans, she adds, to unveil a new range of wearable tech incorporating decorative lighting, social media and internet functions later this year.
Ilaria Alber-Glanstaetten, founder of luxury consultancy Provenance, agrees the trend is growing: “Whether it’s Burberry’s digitised flagships or Nike supporting SXSW [the interactive festival in Austin, Texas], brands are trying to align themselves with the latest technology.”

Wearable tech – clothing that incorporates technology and digital functions – is something of a buzz phrase. According to IMS Research, about 14m wearable tech devices were produced in 2011; by 2016, the global market could reach $6bn.
“We’re seeing a whole raft of intuitive, self-monitoring designs being introduced,” says James Wallman, editor of LS:N Global, the forecasting division of trends think-tank the Future Laboratory.

ElectricFoxy’s yoga outfit with integral motion sensors
ElectricFoxy’s yoga outfit with integral motion sensors

Oakley’s Airwave goggles (£500), for example, were a must-have on the Verbier ski slopes over Christmas. The luxury tech ski glasses had sold out nearly instantly at Harrods in December when they launched. They feature integrated GPS, Bluetooth and on-board sensors that transmit everything from emails to texts and music playlists directly to the eye, as well as tracking navigation information, speed and altitude data. Sound dangerous or, at least, impractical? Oakley says no, as the lenses have “prism technology”, which means there’s no need for the user to refocus vision.

ElectricFoxy, a Seattle-based fashion/tech research company, is developing the Move, a yoga/Pilates outfit that functions as a personal trainer via embedded sensors that buzz when the body’s posture is incorrect. Using Bluetooth technology connected to an app, the wearer can also record and analyse their workout – and, afterwards, share results on social media.

A bra that purports to detect breast cancer in its early stages by sensing the changing temperature of tissue is being developed by First Warning Systems. And at Penn State University a team is working on a fibre made out of crystalline silicon semiconductor material that functions as a solar cell – a photovoltaic device that can convert light energy into electricity. The US military has reportedly expressed interest.
Oakley’s Airwave goggles with GPS and email; Nike’s Fuel band; and Flyknit trainer
Wearable tech products: Oakley’s Airwave goggles with GPS and email; Nike’s Fuel band; and Flyknit trainer

With last year’s Fuel band, a bracelet that allows runners to track their progress with an app, Nike was an early proponent of wearable tech. Last summer, it launched the Flyknit trainer ($150), a featherlight (5.6oz), form-fitting shoe made from synthetic yarn.
Caroline Till, course director of the MA textile futures course at Central Saint Martins, says this is just the tip of the iceberg. Next up is the biological manufacturing of fabric – the fusion of biology with nanotechnology to grow fabrics such as lace from plants.
Other predictions include, from LS:N Global’s Wallman, “energy scavenging”. Soon, he says, “You’ll be able to go for a jog and the energy your outfit absorbs from the sun will charge your iPod.”

And, in a more tactile vein, from Studio XO’s Tilbury: “Light-up garments that change colour as you stroke them.”
Designer quotes
“As almost everything in fashion has been done, I feel that technology is the only thing left to create originality in fashion. I work with technology in order to communicate an idea – it is always project specific and it doesn’t always require mechanics. My ‘airmail’ dress, for example, was made out of unrippable paper that could be folded, put in an envelope and mailed with instructions as to how it could be adjusted to fit the wearer.” – Hussein Chalayan

“I have always been interested in conducting research that yielded new methods by which to make cloth, and in developing new materials that combine craftsmanship and new technology. But the most important thing for me is to show that, ultimately, technology is not the most important tool; it is our brains, our thoughts, our hands, our bodies, which express the most essential things.” – Issey Miyake

“Technology is a constantly changing tool that can both aid and inspire designers. Fashion is the fastest moving design discipline; everyone is under pressure to come up with the new big thing, so it is particularly sensitive to innovative technology. For me, digital print on textile is a great move forward. It means I can recreate watercolour paintings that were previously impossible to achieve, and also that I can experiment with small runs rather than having to dive in with a huge cost of one silkscreen for each colour. In English Eccentrics scarves we used up to 15 screens per design! Now I can achieve hundreds of colours with no screen cost. As soon as I discover a new technique I ask myself, ‘How can I interpret this?’” – Helen David, English Eccentrics

“It can be a bit of a paradox, technology, in that it provides both freedom and control. It is constantly moving forward, and innovation is the overriding aim – which is also the basis of fashion. Both are also concerned with change. Take fashion shows: historically they were only seen by a small invited audience or in still images circulated after the show was over. But I have made films with director Ruth Hogben that have proven to me that an innovative concept can provide just as much impact as a live show, if not more. For example, the film we made for Italian trade show Pitti Uomo presented the collection via a video installation projected on the ceiling of a 14th-century chapel – our version of a Renaissance fresco. I think it really surpassed anything we could have done with a live show.” – Gareth Pugh

“Technology is at the basis of my whole work in all its different applications, and for me is synonymous with deep research. It can mean ‘avant-garde’ – as demonstrated by our highly technological epicentre stores in New York, Tokyo and LA, and by our strong attitude towards revolutionary materials used for clothing and accessories. But it can also mean jumping into the past; revitalising the old-time manual techniques of yarning, dyeing and sewing.” – Miuccia Prada

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