Tech in Motion hosted a fashion show for wearable tech this past week. There were ten companies that presented clothing and accessories as a part of the company’s Social Media Week. Included in the show were a knitted brains sensor that would lights up in different colors depending on your brain activity, an umbrella which lights up with a variety of colors and also in the accessories category geometric 3D printed nails by the New York City based group TheLaserGirls. The show also included 3D-printed shoes and nail art, as well as coffee-infused fabrics that can absorb odors to keep you smelling fresh. The idea behind the show was that wearable tech is now available for the average consumer. I count myself as an average consumer and at this point none of the fashions they showed wowed me to the point of wanting to buy, but I’m excited to see what else is out there.
If ever there were a precarious moment when the foundations of the great houses of fashion should tremble this is it. Labels rely on three elements when crafting fashion, and one is about to become obsolete. Aesthetic, innovation, and scarcity rule the industry. Designers are skilled artists working within the medium of silhouette and texture. Their clothes tease out elements of rich subcultures, offering visual satire of our most sacred assumptions: gender, religion, desire.
“Ghastly!” we hiss. Then a little softer “does it come in black?”
Twenty-first century innovation has spawned revolutionary thought in manufacturing textiles. New technologies like AirDye utilize heat to transfer dye from paper to textiles, saving as much as 75 gallons of water per pound of fabric. Conventional dying, which many industry leaders outsorce to developing countries, produces up to 72 different chemicals, 30 of which do not break down and can cause significant groundwater issues. Inde label I Am Not A Virgin pairs unprocessed “virgin” cotton with synthetic fibers from reclaimed plastic bottles and lunch trays to make their jeans.
Having breifly established the relative continuity of aesthetic evolution and innovation, the lights turn to scarcity. After all, haute couture, basically boils down to a exclusive creation only available to the select few with the connections and the money to obtain it. I can name other industries that rely on scarcity to drive up prices, but the comparison most suitable is the music industry. That’s right, Alexander McQueen, prepare to meet your Napster.
The future of 3-d printing means anyone with access to 3-d software and a printer will be able to recreate haute couture’s wearable sculptures. They’ll be cheap(er), easy to modify, and perfectly specified to the wearer’s form. And for many designers, they’ll also be the end of outsorcing labor under deplorable conditions.
I’m saving an in-depth look at intellectual property where the fashion industry is concerned for another post: however, I do want to highlight a very important change that 3-d printing is bringing about. Even if budding designers don’t have access to 3-d printers, which are still relatively expensive, the technology is becoming more accessible every day. For example, Shapeways allows users to create or upload a design and they’ll send you the finished product. Similar to Etsy, Shapeways’ users are encouraged to set up stores and sell their products directly on the site. Shapeways means that anyone can break into the fashion industry regardless of their textile pedigree. And with the new crowd come engineers, gamers, and hacktivists. Tremble, Fifth Avenue.
With the evolution of 3-d printing, functional fashion is due a radical awakening. I’m not talking about structural creations with which some of the well established fashion houses have begun to experiment. Within the next decade we should see the capability to print human tissue using a patient’s own stem cells, and eventually biomedical engineers will be able to grow replacement organs and limbs. For now, 3-d printing is finding a niche in artistic prosthetics.
When Bespoke Innovations started to gain momentum in 2010, industrial designer and co-founder Scott Summit drew on fashion trends, and design elements from luxury and sports cars, as well as motorcycles when assisting clients in designing their fairings for prosthetic limbs. A fairing goes over or attaches to an existing prosthesis in order to help regain limb symmetry. Once the desired dimensions are established using 3-d scanning and software, Bespoke Innovations uses 3-d printers to create each custom-made fairing.
While Bespoke Innovations can turn an existing prosthesis into a functional sculpture, veteran and architectural designer Collin MacDuff is just one of a number of people who were so dissatisfied with the lack of function in available prosthetics that he began tinkering on his own. MacDuff drew on 15 years of fabrication and welding experience to create his Biomechanical Prosthetic Finger (BFP), which mimics the natural flexion of the finger so that the prosthesis moves exactly the same way an existing digit does. One glance and industrial chic comes to mind, which is particularly fitting since MacDuff crafted the prototype from a bicycle handlebar.
For now the BPF is manually assembled but it represents a shift in self-agency when it comes thinking about prosthetics. Amputees need not rely on others when it comes to their own body aesthetic. All they need is access to 3-d scanning and modeling software, and a 3-d printer. Want to wear a brushed silver calve to your aunt’s Titanic themed wedding? No problem. How about a lighted pedicure to help you find your way to the front door without sloshing your new strappy sandals through any puddles? A little more tricky, but entirely manageable for about $50 with micro LEDs and an Arduino LilyPad from SparkFun.
In addition to pioneering biomechanics and fashion, the two aforementioned designers have also tapped into the empowering aspects of amputee subculture. Amputations are the result of frostbite from enduring the elements, competition in extreme sports, valorous combat far from loved ones, and long battles with significant illness. Even if an amputation is planned and brings some element of relief, it still requires the individual to graduate physical therapy and adjust to a new absence of the symmetry they’ve relied on their entire lives. Now, finally, we’re beginning to see individuality and innovation combined with form and function that opens an entirely new world—not just for amputees—but for everyone else who’ll soon have a window allowing us to visually connect prosthetics with the active and artistic trends of their users.