Design Development: Decrypted

Alexandra Clement

At his Spring 2015 presentation in September of 2014, Elie Tahari unveiled a dress adorned with 50 functioning iPhones. This look, and other costume-esque pieces of the same genre, kicked off a global discussion about the role of technology in fashion. But as is the case in most works of art, the physical representation of a design is a statement, an interpretation of a much larger phenomenon or idea. Putting technology on display as part of a garment merely symbolizes the function of underlying mechanics and processes and foreshadows the evolution of the role that science will play in the fashion industry.

The darting eyes of the ever-watchful media have settled upon the most relevant influence on the future of fashion—the only other industry that evolves at such a rapid pace: technology. From sketching designs on digital tablets to laser cutting fabric; three dimensional scanning measurements to 3D printing shoes; technology is no longer a stylistic choice for the more daring of designers but a constant that permeates the entirety of the design, production, marketing and consumer process.

Methods such as laser cutting have become common at all tiers of brands. This process draws upon mathematics and computational strategy to eliminate human error in precision cutting and pattern making. Greta Ohaus, senior Fiber Science and Apparel Design major, has used laser cutting in her own work, for two main purposes: functional and decorative. Beyond the basic cutting of pattern pieces, says Ohaus, “You can add extravagant cut-outs to a fabric, you can emboss, you can make thousands of layers of fringe,” all using laser technology. This technique is only one of many in the design process operating upon technological foundations. Two fields distinctly separate—art and science—blur together via the common thread of innovation.

Andrew Bolton, head curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, wanted to emphasize the entire designing process for this year’s Met Gala. The exhibit recognizes the fundamental role of technology in fashion and society in the theme of the first Monday in May’s event: Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology. The exhibit is organized in such a way that focuses on the chronological stages of design. As one walks the material layout of the exhibition, they follow a path through history, into the current era of innovation, and toward the future of fashion.

According to a recent Vogue article, Bolton’s inspiration was actually a realization that fashion has been inseparable from technology since the dawn of the sewing machine. Once that particular piece of machinery was perfected, haute couture was born. Viewed objectively, the common descriptor of couture, “hand-made”, is a misnomer, as technology in the form of a foot pedal and automated needle and thread is always involved.

Just as fashions fade out, are replaced, and come back into style, so will couture and unique pieces come full circle. Fast fashion, the mass production and disposability on the shelves of H&M, ASOS, and the like, will soon make way to “slow fashion,” according to Nancy Tilbury, co-founder and director of Studio XO, a London company operating “at the intersection of science, technology, fashion and music”, in the documentary film The Next Black. Slow fashion is a result of consumers investing in their clothing and keeping it for longer periods of time. Tilbury sees a future in which clothing can be edited post production, like “tumblr for the body,” to quell the desire of generation digital to constantly change their wardrobe, as a remix culture emerges.

Sophie Mather, former head of innovation at Nike Asia, sees possibilities not yet possible: garments that preserve dyes and materials by using light reflection to portray color and pattern, like a butterfly’s intricate wing pattern. This focus on sustainability is not uncommon in today’s pioneers. “We’re not happy with ‘x’ percent less,” says Mather. “We want zero.”

Another field of research combining fashion and science strays from the mechanical and focuses on a topic much more basic: biology. Using only green tea, sugar, vinegar and a starting culture, Suzanne Lee started “brewing” fabric-like material in her bathroom. This material takes on the shape of its container and can be dyed, laser cut and sewed. Lee, fashion designer turned biological experimenter, aims to reduce the waste of “old world practices” and one day grow clothes directly into their final form. The possibilities of this kind of production are limitless--the bacteria can be manipulated to be waterproof or contain certain nutrition that can be absorbed into the skin. Bio materials may one day replace the plastics used in 3D printing, creating fully biodegradable garments. Lee says there is “no time for [research and development] in fashion,” but she and visionaries like her understand that you have to look beyond what’s fashionable, even 50 years so, to prepare for the next big idea.

The consumer themselves also use technology in their fashion pursuits. Surfing the web is now passé, and there is more onus on the producer to market directly to each shopper. This practice is manifested in the use of Instagram. Sponsored posts, a term attempting to dissociate from “advertisement”, are not even the most prominent form of social media influence brands utilize. The real marketing happens in interaction with other Instagram users, tagged posts of popular accounts and reception of customer feedback and ideas.

Business of Fashion writer Vikram Alexei Kansara sums up the importance of social media: “Today, success is less about paying for ad pages in a magazine and more about earning attention by nurturing the dominant media-technology platforms where consumers spend time.” Kansara spoke to Eva Chen, Instagram’s head of fashion partnerships, who identified the new principles of online marketing. “It’s not a number game” anymore, she says. More important factors include engagement, brand identity, authenticity, community, and collaboration with “natives,” or laypersons on Instagram. These guidelines focus on connecting with consumers on a real level, versus using reputations of popular Instagram users to increase fashion brands’ followers.

The success of such strategies is apparent. Following New York Fashion Week and until the Paris events, between February 10th and March 9th, ten percent of Instagram users—42 million people—had almost 300 million interactions related to the last round of women’s fashion shows. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” says Chen, “and now a picture can speak to millions of people.”

As noted in The Future of Fashion, a film by fashion magazine i-D, ten years ago, a model at a go-see waited four minutes for her Polaroid to develop. Today, in that same amount of time, Gigi Hadid can take a photograph, edit it, post to Instagram, and have it shared globally. One day, perhaps not that far off, a garment can be photographed, shared, viewed, and reproduced ten thousand miles away. All in those four minutes.

The fashion industry is not known for following societal trends, but for starting them. As innovators prioritize social responsibility and design for a future of health and environmental initiatives, for once, it’s the tech world that needs to keep up.