How Technology Is Changing Fashion
Technology is allowing fashion designers to care about regular people and real problems. Historically speaking, designers spent their entire lives catering exclusively to the fashion needs of the elite- royalty, celebrities, the well-connected, and the ultra-wealthy. The Industrial Revolution democratized most other industries, but until recently, fashionable clothing, expertly designed, perfectly fitted to one's body, customized to reflect personal tastes, beautifully sewn and decorated by nimble hands was a luxury that very few in the world could afford even once in a lifetime.
The quality of clothing available to just anybody improved after the invention of the sewing machine, but standard sizing fit one body type only, the type built like the ideal models of their era or in other words, 10 percent or less of the people who wore the clothing. Regular people with means could buy clothing off the rack and have it altered to fit. Even for a wizard at altering, there were limited choices, only so many fabrics, designs, and colors available. As anyone who has ever tried on clothes in a store knows, it can be devilishly difficult to find anything worth buying, especially when you really need something to wear.
Now we stand on the cusp of fashion democracy. Yes, the ultra-rich will always wear more fashionable clothes than the rest of us, but that's not the point. The point is that now, suddenly everyone will have real choices. Everyone will have access to healthier more ethically sound clothing that functions as intended and helps make all our lives better. Everyone built like a model or not, will have clothes that fit! Read on and discover the technologies that are changing the fashion industry forever and freeing up some time for designers so they can share their talents with the rest of the world.
Miniaturization and Wearable Technology
Not long ago, wearable technology referred to nothing more complicated or capable than an electronic wristwatch. The road, toward increasingly personal computing and smaller miniaturization, now leads us into these early days of truly wearable high-tech. From this point on, the boundary between fashion and technology will get fabulously blurry. Personal technology will become wearable art. Fashion, now more than mere adornment or protection, becomes ever more multi-functional and tailored to fit our daily lives.
It is a testament to how far and how fast technology has come that the entire computing power of the ENIAC computer, which weighed three tons, occupied 1800 square feet, and cost $500,000 in 1946 (about $6.9 million US dollars today,) can now fit onto a disposable chip from a musical greeting card.
If this trend continues, in another decade or two, a new smartphone's worth of computing power would occupy a disposable device small enough to fit in a human red blood cell. As our computers get smaller and cheaper, personal electronics become more wearable and far more complex in what feats they can accomplish. Adding connectivity into this equation, we reach toward having limitless computing power from the Cloud available from devices smaller than the fibers in our clothing.
In 2014, the worldwide market for wearable technology was just under 3 billion dollars. That number doubled to nearly 6 billion in 2018. Some experts estimate the amount will increase to about 50 billion over the next decade. That may be a conservative estimate. Either way, if you are looking for the next big thing for a long-term investment, then wearable tech might be it; and now might be the time to buy some stock.
Fashion Design and Energy Technologies
The advent of wearable tech is creating the need for portable power production, better personal energy management devices, and new power storage solutions. We are starting to think seriously again about ways our clothing can harness solar, thermal, kinetic, or other forms of energy. Batteries and supercapacitors are shrinking, transforming, and becoming more wearable.
Once we can harness mobile personal power, we can use it to pixelate our clothing with tiny LEDs or LCDs. Soon, changing the appearance of a garment might involve downloading a new app. One preprogrammed "fabric pattern," "texture," and "palette" might be traded for another set from a stored library or the garment could be set to cycle through a personalized light show creating a dramatic evening look.
Take a Look at This Collection From CuteCircuit
Materials are constantly being discovered or re-engineered to improve existing technologies and pioneer new ones. Here are some recent events that may shape the future functions of our clothing and change how we use and power our wearable technologies.
A Recent Timeline of Energy Advances Impacting Contemporary Fashion
February 2012: Researchers at Wake Forest University announced the development of low-cost organic, thermoelectric fabrics with a multitude of wearable tech applications. Besides using body heat to power electronic devices and flashlights, winter jackets with thermoelectric interior lining can use the temperature difference between body heat and outside the jacket to regulate a constant set temperature or heat up a flexible, sewn-in element to keep the wearer more toasty.
- June 2013: Dutch designer Pauline Van Dongen presented a coat and a dress designed with solar cells capable of powering wearable tech. The two wool and leather prototypes have modules with solar cells, which can be revealed when the sun shines or folded away and worn invisible and close to the body until needed. The coat incorporates 48 rigid solar cells while the dress has 72 flexible ones. Each garment, if solar cells are exposed to full sun for an hour, can charge a smartphone to fifty percent.
- March 2014: A research team from Dublin City University in Ireland and the University of Wollongong and the University of Sydney in Australia spun a strong, versatile yarn from graphene-oxide, using a new wet-spinning technique, a relatively simple method that could be scaled up to produce mass quantities. This technique allowed them to produce unlimited lengths, of highly-porous yet dense graphene yarn from liquid crystals, out of very large graphene-oxide sheets.
This new graphene yarn has unrivaled electrochemical capacitance, as high as 410 F/g. The best capacitance value reported before this was as high as 265 F/g, also from a graphene-based material. Researchers believe that graphene yarn could create clothing that will act as a wearable supercapacitor to store power for any type of devices.
- July 2017: University of Texas at Austin researchers developed graphene tattoo stickers for cosmetic, fitness, and medical applications. The temporary tattoos can not be felt against the skin but can monitor the body's electrical changes and interact with electronics, supercapacitors, or next-generation prosthetics.
- February 2019: University of Maryland researchers created a fabric that regulates its insulating properties according to sweating and body heat. When the fabric is cool and dry it holds in heat and releases heat when moist and warm. It is the first fabric suitable both for ice-fishing in Alaska and running a marathon in Florida.
Moving Toward a More Sustainable Fashion Industry
While fashion is constantly changing, until recently, the fashion industry has been rather curiously resistant to change. It is still one of the most polluting, waste-producing, and wasteful industries of all. What does bring about change, and what the industry is most sensitive to, is new technology that comes along to do whatever needs doing more cost-effectively. Increasingly, the industry is adopting new processes and new materials that are as sound for the environment as for the bottom line.
Automation in Fashion
3D Printing in Fashion
When Dutch designer Iris van Herpen presented her collection at Fashion Week 2013 in Paris, the world of couture got its first glimpse of what 3D printing technology could bring to runway fashion. Some of the garments in the collection were entirely seamless. All were made to fit each model like skin. The designs were so complex they were nearly impossible to create using any other technique.
3D printing gives a designer the ability to construct complex geometric, sculptural, and architectural clothing in a single piece. It enables the quick production of sample garments. Rapid prototyping speeds the creation of an entire collection. 3D printing allows for fast model fitting for runway shows and customization to meet the needs and tastes of individual clients.
By utilizing 3D printing, designers have shorter lead times. They can produce items in small quantities or only upon an order from buyers or a client. 3D printing could revolutionize garment sizing and product development in mass production. It could also allow startup labels to produce small orders to avoid stock that doesn't sell.
Clients will enjoy high levels of customization according to their body shapes and personal preferences. Environmentalists will love its sustainability and the fact that it significantly reduces raw materials waste.
Eco-Friendly Materials in Fashion
Non-organic cotton farmers deploy 25% of the world's insecticide use every year and about 10% of the world's use of pesticides in general. That is a lot of poison that is killing cotton farmers and seeping into our water. According to the World Health Organization, about 20,000 human deaths annually are due to environmental pesticide poisoning. In addition, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 67 million birds in the US alone die from pesticides annually. Also heavily hit are other key pollinators like butterflies and honey bees.
Organic cotton, which requires no chemical fertilizer, pesticide, or herbicide to produce, is ideal for kids and anyone with allergies or sensitive skin and is also great for the environment. India currently produces over fifty percent of all organically grown cotton. Unfortunately, organically grown cotton accounts for only about 1% of all cotton grown on the planet. The fashion industry is helping to change that.
Ten years ago, organic cotton clothing was still a niche market. Now huge companies like Nike and Walmart include organic cotton products in their signature lines. Organic cotton has become so popular in the fashion industry that there is often not enough to satisfy the huge demand.
Fashion industry leaders now showcase other sustainable fabrics like hemp and bamboo-based textiles on runways across the world and are actively developing new alternatives to petroleum, animal-based textiles, toxic dyes, and otherwise ethically problematic or environmentally unsound materials.
More Fashionable Materials
- QMilch: German designer and former microbiology student Anke Domaske uses waste milk to make the new fabric produced from fibers of casein. Qmilch ( the name combines the German words for quality and milk) is silky, odorless, affordable, and washable. Qmilch uses half a gallon of water to make 2 pounds of fabric. In comparison, making 2 pounds of cotton fabric requires about 3000 gallons of water.
- Lab-Grown Bio-Fabric: London based designer Suzanne Lee grows leather-like textiles out of kombucha. As kombucha ferments, it naturally produces microbial cellulose. Lee is working with biologists and various microorganisms. However, all the textiles produced so far to one degree or another water-soluble, which might be ideal for creating truly disposable trendy clothing and accessories that will never take up any space in landfills despite becoming outgrown and out of style.
- Thermal Fabric Recycled from Coffee Grounds: California based performance wear company Virus pioneered a proprietary process by which old coffee grounds are turned into coffee charcoal, a natural eco-friendly fiber. The coffee charcoal fabric is moisture-wicking and heat-retaining, two properties that make it perfect for a base layer for athletes, travelers, winter sports enthusiasts, and those who dwell in colder climates.
- "Bionic Denim" Made from Recycled Plastic Ocean Waste: Musician Pharrell Williams announced at NY Fashion Week that he is partnering with designer denim label G-Star RAW to incorporate recycled plastic waste collected from the ocean into jeans as part of the core of each strand of denim thread.
- Piñatex, a Natural Vegan Leather-alternative Created from Pineapple Leaves: Piñatex products could one day utilize the 13 million tons of waste created annually in pineapple production while providing a natural replacement for both animal-sourced leather and petroleum-based synthetic vegan substitutes.
What do you consider the most important new trend for fashion?
Looking Forward in Fashion
Imagine this. Since you were ten, you have known of your severe allergy to wasps. A couple of years ago a skiing accident paralyzed you from the waist down. Today you are wearing a 3D printed smart biomechanical exoskeleton on your legs over your sustainable, high performance, LCD equipped smart fitness wear, currently displaying your racing number and official ribbon color, in order to participate in a charity run in your local park.
You are halfway through your run when a wasp stings you behind your left knee. Though you don't feel the sting, your body reacts. Sensors in your fitness wear notice. Your clothing informs you of what happened.
At the same time, your clothing summons an ambulance, reporting your identity, medical history, nature of your emergency, current condition, and your exact GPS location. A patch on your thigh injects you with an emergency dose of epinephrine to treat for anaphylaxis. Your clothing informs the team of paramedics on the way that you received this injection. When they arrive, your clothing wirelessly uplinks with their equipment, allowing the EMTs to monitor your vitals on route to the hospital.
While this scenario might seem far-fetched, like something from a futuristic movie, all the technology needed to make it happen already exists. It takes time to incorporate our current capabilities into working prototypes, and even longer to make them available to the public. One day soon, the above event might seem as expected, if not as commonplace, as watching someone purchase lunch with an iPhone, which a few years ago would have seemed like science fiction as well.
© 2014 Besarien