How Technology is Changing Fashion
Miniaturization and Wearable Technology
Not long ago, wearable technology would have referred to nothing more complicated or capable than an electronic wristwatch. The road toward more personal computing and ever smaller miniaturization has led us into these early days of truly wearable high-tech.
From this point on, the boundaries between what is fashion and what is technology will get fabulously blurry. Personal technology will become our 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, took up 1800 square feet, and cost $500,000 in 1946 (or about 6 million in US dollars today,) can now fit onto a disposable chip from a musical greeting card.
If this trend continues, soon, maybe in another decade or two, the same amount of computing power in a new smart phone will fit inside a device cheap enough to be disposable and small enough to fit inside a human red blood cell.
As our computers get smaller and cheaper, personal electronics will become more wearable and far more complex in which feats they can accomplish. Adding connectivity into this equation, we reach toward having limitless computing power from the Cloud available from even the tiniest of devices.
In 2014, the world-wide market for wearable technology was about 3 billion dollars. That number is expected to double by 2018.
Some experts estimate that this market will increase to about 50 billion over the next decade. Still others think that is a very 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 in which our clothing can harness solar, thermal, kinetic, or other forms of energy. Batteries and supercapacitors are also 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. One day soon, changing the appearance of a garment might involve downloading a new app. One preprogrammed "fabric pattern," "texture," and "palette" might be traded to another set from a stored library or selected as one of many to cycle through a personalized lightshow for a more dramatic evening look.
For a glimpse into the future, take a look at this collection from CuteCircuit :
Materials are constantly being discovered or re-engineered to improve existing technologies and to 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 announce 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 inside liners 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 even more toasty.
- June 2013 Dutch designer Pauline Van Dongen presented a coat and a dress designed with solar cells capable of powering other 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 invisibly 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 smart phone 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 unrivalled 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. The researchers believe that graphene yarn could create clothing that would 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.
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. Luckily, doing things cheaper sometimes also means doing things more environmentally friendly as well.
3D Printing in Fashion
When Dutch designer Iris van Herpen presented her collection at Fashion Week in Paris in 2013 the world of couture got its first glimpse of what 3D printing technology could do as applied in runway fashion. Some of the garments in the collection were entirely seamless. All were made to fit each individual model.
The designer was excited about this convenience but also about the artistic freedom it offered her in creating complex geometric designs central to her show that would have been nearly impossible to create any other way.
3D printing is uniquely capable of the rapid construction of complex geometric, sculptural, and architectural designs created in a single piece.
3D printing increases a designer's productivity. It provides the capability to produce sample garments in a far shorter time. Rapid prototyping allows for the quick creation of a collection and fast fitting for a runway show.
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 unsold stock.
Clients will enjoy high levels of customization according to their body shapes and personal preferences. Environmentalists will love the technology because it is sustainable and significantly reduces the amount of waste of raw materials.
The Need For More Eco-Friendly Materials in Fashion
Non-organic cotton farmers deploy 25% of the world's use of insecticides every year and about 10% of the world's use of pesticides in general. That is a lot of poison that is killing 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.
Luckily the use of organic cotton has become so popular in the fashion industry that in recent years there is not enough to satisfy the demand. Organic cotton is ideal for kids and people with allergies or sensitive skin and is also great for the environment. Right now, it accounts for only about 1% of the cotton that is grown world-wide. The fashion industry is helping to change that. It is also embracing sustainable fabrics like bamboo-based textiles and is actively developing alternatives to petroleum and animal based textiles, and otherwise 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 a half 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 micro-organisms. However, the textiles produced so far are all water-soluble.
- 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, and winter sports enthusiasts.
- "Bionic Denim" Made from Recycled Plastic Ocean Waste Musician Pharrel 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.
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 you were paralyzed from the waist down in a skiing accident.
Today you are wearing a 3D printed smart bio-mechanical exoskeleton on your legs over your sustainable, high performance, LCD equipped smart fitness wear, currently displaying a 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 you are stung by a wasp just 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 has 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. Upon their arrival, your clothing uplinks with their equipment for the monitoring of your vitals on route to the hospital.
While this scenario might seem far-fetched, like something out of 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 of years would have seemed like science fiction as well.