NEW YORK, United States — It’s New York Fashion Week, and there is a frenzy backstage as models are worked into their dresses and mob the assembled engineers for instructions of how to operate the technology that magically transforms a subtle gesture into a glowing garment suggestive of the bioluminescence of jellyfish. I know there’s not enough time for them to do their work. Almost instinctively, I find the designer and bargain for 20 more minutes.
While I wonder to myself how I got here, backstage at a runway show, I also know I am witnessing what may be the harbinger of how a fourth industrial revolution is set to change fashion, resulting in a new materiality of computation that will transform a certain slice of fashion designers into the “developers” of a whole new category of clothing. By driving new partnerships in tools, materials and technologies, this revolution has the potential to dramatically reshape how we produce fashion at a scale not seen since the invention of the jacquard loom.
The jacquard loom, as it happens, inspired the earliest computers. Ever since, textile development and technology have been on an interwoven path — sometimes more loosely knit, but becoming increasingly tighter in the last five years. Around that time, my colleagues and I embarked on a project in our labs to look at “fashion tech,” which at the time was a fringe term. These were pioneers daring to — sometimes literally — weave together technology and clothing to drive new ways of thinking about the “shape” of computation. But as we looked around the fashion industry, it became clear that designers lacked the tools to harness the potential of new technologies.
For a start, all facets of technology needed to be more malleable. Batteries, processors and sensors, in particular, had to evolve from being bulky and rigid to being softer, flexible and stretchable. Thus, I began to champion “Puck [rigid], Patch [flexible], Apparel [integrated],” an internal mantra to describe what I felt would be the material transformations of sensing and computation.
As our technologies have steadily become smaller, faster and more energy efficient — a progression known in the tech industry as Moore’s Law — we’ve gone on to launch a computer the size of a postage stamp and worked with a fashion tech designer to demonstrate its capabilities. In this case we were able to show dresses that were generated not just from sketches and traditional materials, but forward-looking tools (body scans and Computer Assisted Design renderings) and materials (in this case, 3-D printed nylon). At the same time, we integrated a variety of sensors (proximity, brain-wave activity, heart-rate, etc.) that allowed the garments themselves to sense and communicate in ways that showed how fashion — inspired in part by biology — might become the interface between people and the world around them.
Eventually, a meeting between Intel and the CFDA lent support to the idea that if technology could fit more seamlessly into designs, then it would be more valuable to fashion designers. The realisation helped birth the Intel Curie module, which has since made its way down the catwalk, embedded into a slew of designs that could help wearers adapt, interpret and respond to the world around them, for example, by “sensing” adrenaline or allowing subtle gestures to illuminate a garment.
As the relationship between fashion and technology continues to evolve, we will need to reimagine research and development, supply chains, business models and more. But perhaps more than anything, as fashion and technology merge, we must embrace a new strand of collaborative transdisciplinary design expertise and integrate software, sensors, processors and synthetic and biological materials into a designer’s tool kit.
Technology will inform the warp and weft of the fabric of fashion’s future. This will trigger discussions not just about fashion as an increasingly literal interface between people, our biology and the world around us, but also about the implications that data will generate for access, health, privacy and self-expression as we look ahead. We are indeed on the precipice of a fourth industrial revolution.
Todd Harple is the director of pathfinding and innovation strategy at Intel.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.