Curious Corner: Valérie Lamontagne Part III

The last part of the Q&A with Valérie Lamontagne. Questions by Syuzi Pakhchyan (Fashioning Tech) & Simone de Waart (Material Sense).

Our second guest for the Curious Corner is  Valérie Lamontagne, the Canadian digital media artist-designer, theorist and curator researching techno-artistic frameworks that combine human/nonhuman agencies. At the end of her 4 months stage to do research for her PhD “Performativity, Materiality and Laboratory Practices in Artistic Wearables” at V2_, she curated one of the most interesting Test_Labs. 

On the occasion of this event, the Test_Lab: Clothing without Cloth, we've invited our online audience/designers/artists to send their comments and questions they would like Valérie Lamontagne to answer. In the last part of this extensive interview, w
e continue with the questions from Syuzi Pakhchyan (Fashioning Tech), Simone de Waart (Material Sense). 

"...what I think we are going to see in the future will be less on a symbolic scale and more on a material or lived scale."

Simone de Waart:
At the event Clothing without Cloth, the focus is on new materials and technologies for creating clothing without the use of common textiles. I can imagine that the meaning of clothing itself, and of how we dress, will change in the future as well. What’s your opinion about that?

Valérie Lamontagne: In essence, what you’re asking is for a trendcasting of the future meaning of clothing and its symbolic social value. This is an interesting question, because the way in which we engage with clothing went through a radical symbolic shift with the economic changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Where pre-Industrial Revolution clothing was regarded and designed as functional, fashion was reserved for the nobility (with a sovereign restriction on the use of certain colors, for example). The rise of the bourgeois class engendered an economy of style. Suddenly, common citizens could indulge in the luxury of style. What’s more, a readily available urban and leisure-class audience was there to witness this stylistic investment. In essence, what we had was a surplus of available finances meeting a leisure economy, which rallied around large-scale urban centers such as Paris, New York, and London. What this translated into (and there are many excellent references to theories as to how this occurred in Joanne Entwistle’s book The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory) is a desire to be “fashionable.” So, to answer your question, I believe one has to look at economies, urban and social habits as well as technology to assess what this future will look like fashion-wise. What’s so interesting about style is how it is predicated on immediate social events. Today, we can clearly witness an acceleration and multiplication of styles. A brief overview of summer 2011 reveals a multitude of fashionable choices, from romantic bohemian and modern, bold colors to ’70s flower prints. We are, in essence, living in a Blade Runner era, when all styles are relevant and contemporaneous to a certain extent.

But to get back to technology, I believe that we will have a continued interest in newness, intermixed with innovation. Technological “progress,” stylistically speaking, stems from an interest in the new. How technological innovation will impact on the styles that we wear depends on which innovations gain social currency. The advent of leather as a “cool” fabric (which it still is today) stems from its use in aviation and automobiles as a protective second skin. This was later translated into motorcycle jackets and the leather jacket as a signifier of cool. Similarly, Paco Rabanne and other designers in the ’60s harnessed the collective interest in space travel as a new way of articulating fashion and material practices in fashion. Paco Rabanne was a pioneer in the uses of nontextile textiles, such as mesh metals, as cloth. However, what I think we are going to see in the future will be less on a symbolic scale and more on a material or lived scale. We will want fashions which do not only point to or remind us of innovation but which actually integrate the innovations themselves. I see a shift from representational models to lived ones.

"I think it will become common practice to see geolocating devices, safety-enhanced features, telecommunications add-ons, and more in garments."


Simone de Waart: What is the most radical change we can expect for fashion in the future, or technology integrated into fashion, in your opinion?

Valérie Lamontagne: Some of the more radical changes, I believe, will involve a looking backwards in our utilization of materials and exploring new and sustainable forms of production and selection of materials. In this post-synthetic era, we will re-explore the potential of biological and nature-derived materials to provide solutions in terms of cost, environmental impact and sustainability. So the new may in fact be the old. It will be not only a question of developing new materials or new uses for known materials but also looking at the whole chain of production. One of the ways of doing this will involve looking at localized material practices and harnessing new potentials for these materials. One example is Grado Zero Espace’s revival of nettle fibers, which, according to their website, were used by Napoleon’s armada as a cotton substitute. Nettles’ special naturally endowed characteristic is their hollow interior, making them ideal for insulation. And there are many other natural materials, which I know you have also explored in your Material Sense exhibitions and research! The question will remain as to how to make this shift economically viable and practical on a day-to-day basis. 

Otherwise, I think it will become common practice to see geolocating devices, safety-enhanced features, telecommunications add-ons, and more in garments. This will not be “radical,” but a systemic use of such networked technology at such a scale has never been seen before, and that might have some radical social outcomes (as we’ve seen with the “Twitter revolution”). How these two visions –the sustainable and localized vs. the networked and safety-enhanced – overlap will be exciting to witness!

"We need technologies and practices (and large government-funded collectives of organizations are working towards this) which are easily adaptable and modular, and can be rapidly reconfigured as multipurpose tools."

Simone de Waart:
What, in your opinion, will make wearables “wearable,” and where is the freedom and the limitation for you in your own work?

Valérie Lamontagne: Wearable technologies have to adhere to all of the expectations of everyday clothing. The day the technology is robust enough in terms of electrical engineering, etc., is the moment we will see a proliferation of wearables technologies. However, we are not yet there, for a number of reasons. 1. The technology is not yet at the level where it can be integrated into a garment and used in the same way that we use a textile every day: washing it, drying it, sitting on it, traversing various environments (cold, hot, light, dark). Simply put, the electronics cannot weather that kind of wear and tear. This is a limitation at present. 2. Research and development is expensive and time-consuming. We need technologies and practices (and large government-funded collectives of organizations are working towards this) which are easily adaptable and modular, and can be rapidly reconfigured as multipurpose tools. The best we have on the market for wearable technology is the LilyPad Arduino, and this is still too craft-oriented for mainstream industry. 

With 3lectromode,  a design platform I initiated,  the goal is to change the landscape of wearables. Our slogan is “3lectromode holds the vision of innovating in the field of wearables by combining technology with customizable prêt-â-porter fashion. We aim to inspire a future where wearables are democratized, aestheticized, and performative.” 

What we believe has been missing so far, and what 3lectromode answers to, is a design platform which can really take advantage of these technologies and not just sidegrade a garment by adding some tech to it but make building a fashionable wearable from the ground up accessible to all. After all, the field of wearables is the meeting point of fashion and engineering, and few individuals are proficient in both at the level needed to make a satisfying design.

Fashion was, in many ways, democratized – no, not by H&M, but by the onset of the sewing pattern. One of the first couturiers, Paul Poiret, in an effort to curb individuals’ copying of his works, began to sell patterns of his designs, thus legitimizing the production of “copies” by everyday fashionistas. This is how fashion –and couture – entered into the everyday, through the Vogue pattern as we know it.

This, I believe, is a first step in making wearables wearable, where pervasive engineering meets pervasive fashion. 

"..we are going to see more biotextile and bioengineering textile research and solutions, which will move us away from the metal age of electrical engineering to an organic one."

Simone de Waart: Can the exploration of new materials lead to more sustainable solutions for the future?If so, how?

Valérie Lamontagne: Sustainability is all about materiality. When we speak of sustainable solutions, I believe we are looking for ways of engaging with the material potential of the planet in a less destructive fashion. All future industries and practices should have as a base minimum goal to reduce waste, pollution and destructive practices. Yes, new materials can play an important ecological role; however, I believe that the solution also lies in a cradle-to-cradle approach, where all chains of production and use – from raw material, fabrication and distribution to disposal or reuse — have to be considered. A material which can contribute positively to every chain of production and use is already a very sustainable option. After that, we need to address future material and social needs –materials which have the added value of contributing to the energy, food and transportation grid will be very welcome, either in the form of new forms of energy harvesting, sustainable food production or new forms of fuel. A material which does both – respects the cradle-to-cradle objectives and creates an added value – will be an exceptional material.

Explorations on this theme have been embraced by a number of wearables designers, such as Danish design studio Diffus, who developed the Climate Dress, which had a CO2 sensor, and a solar-cell-powered handbag, which can be used to recharge your electronic devices. There have been other devices like this on the market, but this is the first to really aim to be aesthetically purselike. 

I recently attended a conference in Denmark, Future Textiles, where this issue of sustainability was keenly debated, both from a business and a social/environmental point of view. A big concern in the West is how textile and fashion production is no longer done “at home.” Much of the industry is looking at how to revive local textiles through innovation in technotextiles. However, the challenge with mainstream developments in “smart” textiles is the reduction of polluting materials and practices. For this reasons, we are going to see more biotextile and bioengineering textile research and solutions, which will move us away from the metal age of electrical engineering to an organic one.

"Perfecting a technology that can be mass-produced and integrated at the factory cost of high-street fashion is still complex and requires a rethinking of its production at every step."

Simone de Waart: Our own experience at Material Sense has proven that the development of a new material takes many years, while the world of fashion moves very quickly. Do you see opportunities for designers and scientists to overcome this contradiction? If so, how?

Valérie Lamontagne: I don’t know that the speed of the two practices – science and fashion – can be fully reconciled, but there are some solid arguments as to why they need to engage and overlap in a more contemporaneous rhythm. To begin with, a distinction has to be made between the unique epistemic cultures of these “laboratory” practices. Let us compare the two. The scientific laboratory is not a simple unidirectional system; it is a meeting ground of science, industry, government and academia. These collectives converge to participate in research. For research to be engaged in, there need be deliverables on the horizon – that is to say, there is a research goal, or likely more than one. Large research collectives for the integration of electronics in textiles, such as STELLA (Stretchable Eectronics for Large Area Applications)and now PLACE-it (Platform for Large Area Conformable Electronics by InTegration), which the Fraunhofer IZM has been involved in, have as their goal to develop industry-transferable knowledge in the field of engineering integration. They are, for example, involved in the Philips Lumalive research. 

However, the life cycles of these research schemes are quite long and can be rather open-ended. They usually operate multiyear funded research platforms, which may even be permitted to result in a negative outcome – for example, testing out a technology which cannot, ultimately, be applied, i.e., “We tried this; it doesn’t work.” The academic field also engages in speculative research, which does not always need to have an applied outcome (though this is changing, but that’s another story related to the privatization of education). The work conducted on the Textile Futures MA at Central Saint Martins, directed by Carole Collet, where nanofictions, posthumanism and imaginative “biological” ateliers are being produced, is this type of exploratory and future-forward research. Emily Crane’s work looking at food cultures as a form of sustainability is another example of research which explores the potentiality of a material (food) in new, playful and unexplored ways. These are not “market-ready” but can propel us to rethink the material world and how we wish to engage in it. So “scientific” practice has as its end goal to produce knowledge which may or may not be immediately, if ever, industry-transferable but which is a key contribution to the scientific or artistic terrain. Of course, ties between industry and science can be very beneficial, but we do not (at least I do not) want a scientific landscape which only pays lip service to industry; there should be such a thing as academic and artistic freedom, which permits speculative and even “impossible” research.

Fashion, on the other hand, though clearly perceived as part of the cultural economy, is much more market-driven. Fashion designers do not receive state funding to do “research” (or few do!), and they must instead produce market-viable goods. Designers operating on a large or small scale have a bottom line and consumer appeal to respond to, which is very immediate and which tends to render the deliverables less materially risky (though not necessarily stylistically unrisky), with the exception of a few cult designers such as Maison Martin Margiela, Hussein Chalayan and Yohji Yamamoto. However, even these “adventurous” designers, when exploring unconventional materials and technologies, do so as show (or art) pieces and not as the main staples of their fashion lines or businesses. There are clear reasons for this discrepancy.

If we take the two cultures and compare them side by side, we can identify a number of key differences. The first is a lack of overlap in their distinct production cycles. The development and perfecting of science, or technology (multiyear cycles), does not coincide with those of fashion (three-month cycles). Science, as presently constructed, simply cannot respond as quickly as style. The second disjunction is a question of volume. Perfecting a technology that can be mass-produced and integrated at the factory cost of high-street fashion is still complex and requires a rethinking of its production at every step. Otherwise, what remains is what we have: a craft industry of one-offs regarding wearables (the Instructables way of integrating LilyPad Arduinos into existing fashion), or couture-style showpieces, which are virtually irreproducible because of the time and fragility of the wearables (i.e., Hussein Chalayan’s kinetic and LED designs). It’s a question of a lack of rapid new technical integration in the field of fashion.

One area which has current potential to meet the objectives of fashion plus technology is the performance sportswear industry. We are seeing an increase in prosumer (professional plus consumer) products in the sports industry, which are having some very aesthetic and technologically robust outcomes. For example, Adidas has collaborated with fashion designers such as Stella McCartney and the Y-3 Yohji Yamamoto line in making their performance wear all the more fashion-oriented, while on the tech side of sportswear, Nike + iPod is probably one of the most commercially successful “wearables”.

Examples presented in the V2_ Test_Lab Clothing without Cloth show a spectrum of science/fashion overlaps and how collaborative research practices in the twinned fields can merge to create new and exciting outcomes. For example, the collaboration between Dutch fashion designer Pauline van Dongen and Freedom of Creation is one example of the best of technical expertise meeting the most creative design minds. This is a case where a technology initially developed for rapid prototyping has the potential to be very mainstream, and very versatile in terms of future uses. Grado Zero Espace is utilizing material research in polymers, shape memory alloys, etc., and really giving them a design form and a social purpose. Their thinking is design- and function-forward, and the garments they’re designing span and respond to different, and very applied, uses, ranging from those of firemen (hydrogel garments that absorb and repel water) to motorcyclists (impact-shielding materials). Above and beyond new technologies, we also need more companies such as Grado Zero Espace and Freedom of Creation to apply research and create a bridge between science and fashion.

"...our critique of technology bastardizing fashion does not rest on the technological apparatus perse but on the way it’s applied! In this way, technology has the potential to expand the spectrum of material virtuosity in fashion."

Syuzi Pakhchyan: This is an observation followed by a question. From the series of talks, I noticed that there were two very distinct trends: one that leaned towards using nanotechnology, scientific labs and sophisticated machinery to fashion materials and clothes and the other towards using fairly inexpensive rapid fabrication technologies. The former is more exclusive, while the latter is more inclusive. Will technology be used in fashion to create couture available to only a few or to democratize fashion by bringing "couture" to the masses?

Valérie Lamontagne: I think we have to compare the two concepts, that of couture and that of technology. The practice of couture is a craft and a virtuosity-with-materials-based practice. Couture is small-run, atelier-based and customer-specific. I think of couture as an artwork — something which culturally inspires but remains materially inaccessible – the fact that I have never owned and will likely never own a Lanvin dress does not annul his cultural influence on me, for example. Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction was one of the first, and is still one of the most referenced, texts to look at the “aura” of an object in a technologically reproduced culture. In essence, what he outlines is this: Leonardo’s Mona Lisa has a cult status because she is globally recognizable, and this confers on her an aura. When we encounter her, above and beyond whether or not this is a “great” work of art, we measure her against all the other Mona Lisas in the universe of postcards, tablecloths, mugs and advertisements. We confer to the “real” Mona Lisa the status of the original, of which she holds the aura because of her distributed and ubiquitous presence. Hence, she has an aura because she is famous and recognizable. The couture fashion logo is of the same influence. A recognizable emblem gives an otherwise perhaps unspectacular object an aura, just like the Mona Lisa on the coffee cup! Couture confers to the other, subsidiary and technologically reproduced products – i.e., Chanel bags, sunglasses and perfume – the aura of the couture house.

To answer the question of whether technology will create couture: yes, I believe so. When we begin to use technology in a virtuosity-with-materials-based manner, we will produce small-run, atelier-based and customer-specific fashion. We are seeing this already with independent and affordable manufacturing processes which can facilitate small, specific and technically unique designs. The 3D printer is a good example of this – it’s a 3D sewing machine. No one would ever fault a sewing machine as not being part of the couture equation – after all, our critique of technology bastardizing fashion does not rest on the technological apparatus perse but on the way it’s applied! In this way, technology has the potential to expand the spectrum of material virtuosity in fashion. 

To answer the question of whether technology will bring couture to the masses: no. Couture will remain about exclusivity and uniqueness, which mass production would annihilate! Hence, couture (exclusive) for the masses (inclusive) is a kind of oxymoron. That doesn’t mean that we won’t benefit from a greater diversity of designs with the advent of more accessible and advanced production technologies (on a small or large scale), which we may simply call something other than “couture” – perhaps just “good design”!

To explain better, couture is a question of production exclusivity. As long as a technology or material practice is exclusive (like nanotechnology, scientific labs and sophisticated machinery), it can be perceived as couture material. As soon as the “masses” have access too, it will lose its cachet and become a technical practice. That is neither good nor bad!

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