Is Wearable Tech Just Bad Fashion?

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Is Wearable Tech Just Bad Fashion?

Wearable Technology is often criticized to be merely 'bad fashion'. Being on the verge of art, fashion and technology, one could argue it is therefor not real fashion. Or at least not attractive in it's design. In this e-Textile Workspace edition, we have invited nine fashion masters from ArtEZ Institute of the Arts to discuss this from a fashion point of view.

Thursday March 1st 2012, we had a 'special guest' edition of our eTextile Workspace, with nine students from ArtEZ ánd seven people Skyping in from the Swedish School of Textiles, SF Fashion+Tech and elsewhere. It was very surreal to have multiple heads sitting at the meeting room table on laptop screens, with personal 'care-takers' to turn the screens towards the live audience. 

Piem started with an introduction about V2_ and the wearable artworks that are produced by the Lab. She focussed on specific issues regarding presentation formats and the differences between Art and Fashion when presented on stage or during a performance. After that, all participants briefly introduced themselves. Melissa then moderated the discussion.

Here is a summary of the discussion, thanks to Meg and Evelyn for taking notes!

 

Initial ideas from the fashion design group

First, the group explored the overall question. We asked the participants to give an opinion on existing examples of Wearable Technology and how they feel about WT in general. 

  • Should you approach WT as a component, or as a type of clothing? If you compare electronic components to buttons and zippers, they are not considered to stay forever as basic parts. 
  • It seems like wearable technology is more likely to be a trend, here today gone tomorrow, rather than something in the designers' toolkit to be integrated again and again into a design. 
  • What is the function of WT? To the fashion group it seems more logical to have an application in accessories, since these are considered more functional in themselves (reference: bags, shoes). And you don't have to change them all the time to wash.
  • Chargers for electronic equipment is considered functional.
  • "I don't need something that can DO something. It unnecessarily involves with my life. There are already too many computers around me."
  • Hussein Chalayan's pieces are well known, but this 'Back to the Future' style is considered a pitfall. Subtlety is the way to go. 
  • None of the fashion students has seen any convincing piece yet.

The roles of art, fashion and technology

To better understand the matter, we shortly discussed the respective roles of art, fashion and technology.

  • Fashion and accessories are about creating a character, the design-process allows a lot of trials and the result is seasonable which means fast changes.
  • For functional fashion the esthetics stay most important, the function should make sense and the life duration of a product becomes a requirement (reference: snowboard with solar panel charger, bike with light).
  • Functional clothing is “in general not cool unless it becomes a trend” (reference: Nike shoes).
  • Art in fashion is about the concept, introducing something, the model needs to actively participate; if the smart function fails, the model should perform and save the show (reference: Hussein Chalayan).
  • Art criticizes and questions the audience - Design wants to come up with something useful and nice - Fashion wants to express, bring awareness and sell.
  • Wearable technology is about merging two worlds by creating body interfaces, textile electronics. It changes the perception on hard- and software.

Do we want wearable tech? Do we want it in fashion?

Wearable technology started with wearable computers developed at MIT and is going towards mainstream fashion; do we want this, and where to go next?

  • As a showpiece, yes. In daily life, no. However, there is an interesting market aspect in showpieces. How to go from stage wear to merchandized art?
  • Wearable technology should not require any cables (reference: “apple jacket”).
  • The customer (fan) can be involved in the design process (reference: control vs. niche vs. trend).
  • With technology, the clothing is going to have a character. This might interfere with the identity of the designer.
  • Does the gimmick fit function; the material gets its own life, there is a difference between a material being unpredictable or a material which you can influence (reference: color sensors which adapts to the environment through light reflections). Unpredictability is interesting, but the wearer can also get annoyed when you don't know what the dress is going to do next.
  • Technology is "hot" in fashion: show your laptop, phone, gadgets. But although technology is “hot” right now and everyone wants to be seen with the latest Apple device, no one wants to wear an Apple jacket. 
  • The question is: Does it add extra value or not? Wearable Technology should be subtle, not flashy. 
  • The function of the technology (if there is one, e.g., posture corrector) is seen to be separate from the fashion element.

This last point, function not integral to form, is seen to be a big obstacle to wearable tech. The example of solar-panel backpacks was brought up. This is potentially a really handy accessory and it's relatively easy to find a bag with solar-panels. The problem is that most of them don't fit into a fashion palette at all.

Another point raised, is that things you wear every day often already have a function. If technology adds a second function, the two can clash. An example would be a dress with solar panels to charge your devices. A dress is worn one or two times before it must be washed and a new dress (also with solar-panels?!) would be required.

Where are we now, technically?

The technical possibilities play a central role in the design-process of wearables. Wearable Technology is often developed as a 'technology-driven' piece of work, and focussed on the further development of the tech or to explore the limitations. 

  • We can integrate light, shape and sound and develop fabrics that generate power.
  • Dynamics that did not exist before into textiles create new materials. 
  • Wearable technology communicates and people start to understand how to use the new materials. 
  • Designers inspire textile companies and should collaborate more, the lab helps to mediate between these two. 
  • Sustainability and electronics; deadly combination OR future fashion possibility towards the creation of fashion?

In regards to presentation is the fashion method (Photography) the best way to present WT?

  • Photography cannot capture all the dynamics (reference: a gimmick might need time before phase changing).
  • Video offers more when you want to present a transformation.
  • Sound can be expressed through vision and association (reference: perfume editorials).

Would you use technology to add light/sound/movement to your collection?

Having discussed the most common expressions in wearable tech, we asked the fashion students directly if they would be interested to use any of these 'usual suspects' in their future designs and collections. 

  • What if you could have fabrics that accentuate your movements or change, depending on your mood? Or have acoustic fabrics with noise cancellation, or a REALLY GOOD working invisibility cloak/ projection dress.
  • When a child gets a flashy toy with light and noise, it's fun at first but after a while they'll return to the old toy that does nothing. The toy with no lights or noise is attractive because you can play with it using your own imagination.
  • Fashion designers don't want to have to learn to be engineers, they want to use traditional techniques (cut, sew, drape, etc) and have the technology fit that.
  • So we see the future as more embedded technology, i.e. cotton transistors, but we need it to be intuitive to use.

If we didn't have to worry about things not working, what would you make?

It seems that this question hadn't really be posed to the fashion students before. They feel the answer is something beautiful, not necessarily functional, like fabric that is lighter than air. The idea of a self-repairing fabric or energy-generating fabric was also exciting, but it was seen as a function adjacent to fashion and not the main focus. The main focus would still be the look and feel of the garment.

  • They want to start with a story to tell or a concept or a particular environment and design for that rather than starting with the technology and trying to integrate it. The idea of transformation is key to fashion concepts, so there is definitely some potential there. The fear is that things will become gimicky and too “futuristic”. But then maybe that's just the result of bad design, not necessarily the technology itself.
  • Fashion is focussed on change - if it's fashionable this year, it won't be fashionable next year because that's how fashion works. Also, marketability is important to the fashion industry, although the fashion students think it's more about self-expression. They see the fashion system as a means to an end. And fashion needs frontrunners who do something crazy that no one pick up until later.
  • Buying ever-lasting BASICS is considered an interesting idea: that you can buy one garment and change it's color at will. Or you can buy an 'upgrade', comparable to software updates. 
  • The textile companies want to try new things, but no one asks them for it. Fashion people want to try it but they are afraid to come to the textile companies and ask.
  • Collaboration is key - fashion + textile designers working with engineers and textile manufacturers plus a mediator like a university or a lab. 

Conclusion

So, is wearable technology just bad fashion?? At best, wearable tech is currently seen as a showpiece from which to derive more sellable works, or a performance piece, to garner attention. The students were also aware of technical limitations – wearable tech might not always work as well as we would like it to.

The agreement after this discussion is that it does not have to be bad fashion, it is up to the designer. Given the state of the technology, we are simply not there yet. On the way to innovation, failure is inevitable and that is what we see a lot nowadays. To be ready for fashion designers to work with it, smart materials should be as intuitively to handle as normal textiles. Generalizing: where artists and engineers see beauty in the challenge of experiment and research, fashion designers are more interested in the resulting looks and do not want to deal with the technological hassle. Collaboration with people from different backgrounds and education is key, provided there is clear guidance from a mediating party. And don't underestimate the value of amateurs working in the field. Amateur has it's origin in the word 'amare = to love something'. Do it because you love it! That will give you best results.

 

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