When we think of fashion’s future aesthetic, we can be forgiven for conjuring up somewhat unwearable designs, heavy on bioluminescent qualities or 3D printed solid exoskeletal structures. Given the recent boom in fashion manufacturing, which includes material sciences and advanced technologies, this is hardly surprising. Bubbling below this boom is a universe of nanotech fibres and smart textiles with the ability to revolutionise the way we buy, wear and preserve our clothes for millennia. The future might well be high tech but thankfully far more wearable than we imagine.
A market in the making
Very often, what’s available to us in the world of wearable tech prioritizes spectacle or gimmicks over real function and user experience. Cue some of the freshest emerging designers today who are beginning to challenge common perceptions of wearable technology. Without losing an ounce of style credibility, they’ve introduced technology into their regular design process that could have a tremendous impact on how we currently understand and utilise fashion.
Christopher Bevans, winner of the 2018 International Woolmark Prize, measures into this niche category with his label Dyne, which launched in 2014. Its luxury sportswear aesthetic of everyday utility and street-savvy cuts seamlessly incorporates progressive technology into the fabrication and structure of Bevans' designs. Dyne is making an impact by bridging the gap between fashion and technology with forward-thinking collections.
A Fashion Institute of Technology graduate and alumnus of sports giants such as Nike, YEEZY and Billionaire Boys Club, Bevans scooped the Woolmark Company‘s inaugural Innovation Award for his submission of a technical, ’80s-inspired snowboarding wardrobe. Through the lens of wool and technology, Bevans further aims to alter current perceptions of the fabric as a strictly seasonal textile.
Bevans told ORDRE’s Fashion Director Kirsten Lock about the varying degrees of technology embedded in his International Woolmark Prize submission. He describes a long grey wool parka as “100% wool, coated with a breathable membrane to give it a waterproof ability.” The piece features reflective hits on the hems and cuffs - like many of the pieces in the collection - riffing on the visual and practical element of performance wear. Bevans’ pieces also feature bonded textiles, allowing very little thread to be visible alongside laser-cut pockets and panelling adding a sleek, minimal edge.
One of the standout pieces from the collection is a 3D knitted, blue and grey tracksuit with geometric prints produced on a 14 gage. “The Merino wool is engineered to complement its natural thermal abilities. Just changing the gage, the direction of the knit and adding the mesh means when you’re at standstill it’s closed and when you move, the mesh starts to move with you,” he explains. “I think it’s the future. I really want to present the future of tracksuits. I’m an athlete and growing up in New York, tracksuits have always been a staple. I want people to look at this, identify with it and also want to wear it.”
When treated through the eyes of technology, and designed in response to the natural movements of the human body, Bevans’ manipulated wool becomes incredibly wearable and comfortable against the skin. The designer breaks even more barriers with his 100% waterproof wool bomber jacket which incorporates NFC technology, a method of wireless close-proximity data transfer that establishes communication between two electronic devices. This technology can relay the product’s history, production background, fabrics and price point, directly to the consumer’s hand-held device.
“It’s embedded with a near-field communication chip (NFC) that allows you to scan the garment with your mobile device and then read about its properties. We work with a great team that helps us code everything and we ship all of our garments with this communication system. It’s another way to create a bridge to your customer. Now, everyone has their phone in their hand so if you want to learn about the clothes you wear then this is the way to do it.”
Consumers aren’t often given background information on the clothes they wear, only learning the basic materials and recommended types of cleaning from the standard label which makes Bevans’ work even more innovative. If implemented correctly into general clothing production, this added value technology - though perhaps not entirely new - could help towards revolutionising transparency between consumers and brands. Allowing wearers and consumers be even more informed about original fabric sources, manufacturing and production processes, and how to correctly prolong the life cycle of the garment, can also make the industry more accountable.
Nanotechnology is a branch of technology which is becoming even more prevalent in revolutionising sectors such as medicine, engineering and electronics and is now being applied to fashion. It deals with scales of less than 100 nanometres - a single human hair comes in at about 80,000 nanometers wide.
Scientists and engineers today have developed the ability to control and manipulate individual atoms and molecules to create materials at nanoscale, allowing them to explore enhanced properties such as higher strength, lighter weight, increased control of light spectrum and greater chemical reactivity when compared to materials at regular scale.
The textile industry can now embed regular materials with nanotechnology to create nano-enhanced fabrics. One of these processes, 'hydrophobic,' when applied to a fabric results in properties such as waterproofing, odour and stain resistance and antibacterial properties, yet ensure the treated textile retains its original feel and structure.
Since its inception in 2013, New York-based label Area NYC has championed the use of nanotechnologies. Known for specialising in textile manipulation - particularly embossed leather which is now a label signature - the brand was founded by Parsons School of Design graduates, Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Panszczyk, and has since reached cult status.
In 2016, it teamed up with Dropel Fabrics, a company developing hydrophobic textiles through material science and process technology. Dropel is revolutionising textiles, enabling them to be significantly longer lasting by infusing fibres with a protective layer of nanotechnology liquid repellent.
Area NYC’s first collaboration with Dropel was a capsule collection of unisex, hydrophobic cotton t-shirts. Continuing to employ this technology throughout their collections, Area NYC demonstrates that craft and style can be preserved, even when introduced to innovation and new technologies. Gracing the wardrobes of celebrities like Kim Kardashian West, Bella Hadid and Rihanna with their aesthetic of contemporary glitz (think rhinestone-embellished tees, fur trimmed coats and shimmering lurex), it’s refreshing to see a young brand infusing technology so seamlessly and inconspicuously into the trend-driven design process.
By developing a method of eliminating textile’s susceptibility to water and liquid stains, Dropel offers an incredibly functional tool for the apparel industry which other brands such as Mister French and Japan's Ceam have also utilised. Both used Dropel’s liquid-proofing technology to underpin designs that retain the softness and breathability of the original textile.
While nanotechnology is still, by and large, a development carried out in laboratories rather than in factories, Dropel is a solid example (with active applications of the technology) of how the fashion industry can tap the benefits of nano developments. As well as adding an extra layer of desirability and functionality to garments, in the long term, nano-enhanced fabrications will also inevitably lead to a reduction in the need for textile cleaning; in short, it could well be a viable way to implement sustainable production processes on a mass scale.
Technology meets sustainability
The Global Fashion Agenda’s Pulse of Fashion 2017 report states that energy used while a garment is being handled and washed in the hands of the consumer is its biggest environmental footprint during its active life cycle. This is also in addition to the water and energy wastage that comes with washing and drying during the consumer use phase of a garment’s lifecycle. Cotton, for example, requires approximately 79 billion cubic meters of water yearly to grow and be harvested (it makes up around two-thirds of all fibres used globally in clothing production).
According to Chris Jardine, a senior researcher at the Environmental Change Institute of the University of Oxford, in an essay from Sandy Black’s ‘The Sustainable Fashion Handbook,’ the utilisation of energy required for washing (which is almost always fossil fuel derived) will result in the emission of toxic greenhouse gases. Jardin estimates that an average household will use an average of 650 kWh of electricity per year just for washing and drying clothes, generally speaking, this makes up a substantial 10% of a household’s yearly electricity consumption.
Research carried out by circular economy experts Wrap - a charity that works with businesses, individuals and communities to achieve a circular economy through sustainability - states that extending a piece of clothing’s active lifespan by just three months could reduce its environmental footprint by 5-10%. As consumers, we can help extend the life of the garment by washing less to help reduce global water and energy waste; this also means clothing will become less prone to damage from over-cleansing. In recent years, there has also been a surge in the development of products that have the ability to prolong the useful life of a garment as pioneered by Moscow-based brand Hydrop.
Hydrop, co-founded by entrepreneur Marina Ross and scientist Andrei Grunin, is a pioneering technology company harnessing nanoparticle-based products for the protection and cleaning of clothing and shoes. Though there is an abundance of products currently on the market claiming to provide similar garment healing properties, Hydrop is one of the first to use nanotechnology to inform their products, with a virtually invisible, non-toxic substance that is both odourless and colourless.
Using similar principles to Dropel, Hydrop produces nanotechnology-infused cleaning products for dry or wet cleaning on a range of materials including nylon, fur, and silk. It also specialises in textile deodorant conditioners featuring antistatic and antibacterial properties that claim to refresh, disinfect and eliminate wrinkles. Hydrop’s hero product is a hydrophobic spray which adds a liquid repellent coating to natural textiles, suede, and nubuck. This coating allows surfaces to acquire superhydrophobic and self-cleaning properties; alongside repelling moisture from the fabric, it allows for air to permeate, resulting in a perfectly breathable end product.
The fashion industry generally operates on a linear ‘take, make, dispose’ production model that depends heavily on large amounts of the planet’s finite natural resources and energy. Now, there are sharp calls for a shift to a more circular system, one that aims to minimise negative waste, emission, and energy impacts by boosting regeneration and creating a closed recycling loop.
New product developments hint at exciting future prospects for the industry as advanced technologies are already beginning to permeate the fashion design sector with real purpose. If products from Hydrop and others can be delivered and utilised on a mass scale, this could be a step on the way to address the issues facing the industry.