Back to the Future

The notion of looking forward has been the fascination of popular culture for decades. It was in 1968 that both Hardy Aimies’ costumes for Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and Jane Fonda’s Paco Rabanne ‘Barbarella’ dress erupted onto the screens. Fashion designers spent the 1960s creating fashion for a future that maybe never came in the way they had hoped.

Think of Pierre Cardin’s infamous Space Aged designs of the same era, clothes central to the shift in fashions raison d'être – as a dress made from paper became an allegory for how far mankind had come in thinking about material and innovation.

The clothes that came from the 1960s were purposefully renegade as renowned designer Paco Rabanne recalls, “the sixties marked the end of the artistic use of traditional materials and metal became ubiquitous in all creations… my first fashion show in 1966 was a collection of 12 unwearable dresses.” Using rings to articulate metal plates into dresses, the Franco-Spanish designer later developed his research into working with Rhodoïd laminate in the 1990s.

It is true that the whimsy, artisanal appeal of fashion is at odds when compared to the ordered reality proffered by technology and science, yet in many ways their collaboration is vital as it allows us to evolve – challenging us to think differently. “I think that creation can be done with any material and that everything is creation. Creation must ‘shock’,” Rabanne smiles.

During the same decade that Rabanne was working with metal, the designer Issey Miyake’s impetus for forging technological research with fashion was inspired by the May 1968 student riots in Paris. “I had a revelation that changed my vision of clothes making forever. I realised that clothing, from here on, needed to appeal to a wider audience than that of yesterday’s haute couture. I knew I needed to find ways by which to create clothing that would be integral to people’s lives and be designed to suit their life- styles,” he states.

Technology is applied to fashion in many guises. Take for instance the closing to Alexander McQueen's untitled Spring Summer 1999 catwalk show. Model, Shalom Harlow saunters onto a revolving wooden platform, wearing a white cotton dress strapped to her chest with brown, leather belts. Two mechanical robotic arms spray Harlow violently with black and yellow paint as she involves herself in a transfixed, tribal dance to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major (K. 488). It went on to define a ‘moment’ for both technologists and fashionists to marvel at. Today, how fast a dress is seen around the world affects its influence as live streaming – now commonplace with most luxury brands – would have captured a bigger, hungrier audience to McQueen’s 1999 show, which today remains safely stored in the vaults of the Internet and in fashions history.

“It goes without saying that our clothing has to be relevant, but the problems that modern society faces are more complex than ever.” Miyake says, “not only are there environmental issues and dwindling resources, but there is also the danger of losing our most valuable resource: human skill.” Designers working today are at the point where there is a natural relationship between technology and craft, just as an artist meets his canvas. “There is an urgency and necessity to start training people who are capable of tackling a variety of problems.”

A decade obsessed with ‘the future’ - the Sixties brought with a it a new clientele and younger designers, who were free to experiment and break the rules left behind by the old school bourgeois. During the period, designers like Cardin gave free rein to his futuristic ideals and scientific progress by becoming one of the first couturiers to work with synthetic materials. Today, Balenciaga’s Nicolas Ghesquière maintains this approach, his Autumn Winter 2011 show delved into the shapes and cuts of Cristobal Balenciaga’s archive, where he rediscovered the celluloid paillettes and fishnet fabric’s from the very same decade that revolutionised couture fabrics.

It was Miyake who affirmed his position as a designer at the forefront of a techno-fashion movement by first making paper dresses in 1967, working with beaten metal and aluminium jersey the following year. His agenda today is very much for a new decade. His ‘132 5. ISSEY MIYAKE’ line is in collaboration with Japanese computer Scientist Jun Mitani. Mitani developed software that allowed him to construct three-dimensional origami forms from a single sheet of paper. When translated to clothing, instead of cutting and sewing, fabric would be folded with sharp, precise, permanent creases — like those of origami — based on Mitani’s computer-generated formulas.

The keywords to this project are “recycling” and “regeneration” Miyake explains. Developed together with ‘The Reality Lab’ – a research and development team lead by Miyake, textile engineer Manabu Kikuchi and pattern engineer Sachiko Yamamoto – the collection is based on a range of clothing that unfolds from entirely flat, round geometric shapes into multi-faceted angular tubes that can be worn as day dresses, cocktail dresses or a long skirt. Remaining economic in form and extraordinary in design.

Reality Lab’s concern is to explore the future of making things from clothing to industrial products and finding new ways to stimulate creative production in Japan; when fashion marries anthropological provision with the latest technology, it can create garments that are light and minimal. But what of the wearer? “I like to think that my garments are not gadgets, but rather design objects that have been extensively reflected upon and have a conceptual and esthetical ‘life’ corresponding to their technological mission,” tells designer Ying Gao of Canada, creator of ‘Walking City’ – a series of three pneumatic dresses that interact with passers-by, reacting to sound, movement and touch. Ruffles and pleats heave as people pass by the garment, pushing forward Miyake’s similar concern for using lightness and air in clothing.

Whilst completing her Masters in Interactive Multimedia in 2002, Gao worked as a fashion designer and soon realised that the world of fashion was far from what she had hoped for, her exploration into the future function of clothing is in reaction to this. “All too often, I heard that designing is ‘pointless’. To work in the fashion industry, all you need to know how to do is to copy,” she says saddened. “I wondered a great deal about the role of the fashion designer and I wanted to return to what a designer is supposed to do – create and innovate.”

Innovators in the field of technology and fashion are often labelled as ‘conceptual’, reminding us of the often-unwearable nature of such clothes, but the motivation to conceptual design can be a practical one. Miyake allowed fashion to catch up with industrial design (which has concentrated for many years on reducing the weight and volume of manufactured objects) and thus his clothes are never constrained or sewn up. In tandem, Gao’s ‘Walking Air’ project focused on air as a medium – the element of lightness was very important. “Air is where colour, light and vibration converge. It’s lightweight, ethereal and lyrical – it escapes ones grasp. My inspiration, my intention was to give aesthetic form to the ethereal but these garments are not for everyday, for everyone.” The link remains with innovation, “there is no compromise between high concept and ready-to-wear but there is a strong link between them,” Gao affirms.

Fashion rooted in technological innovation that can be worn on the streets (and not be relegated to the vaults of ‘high concept’) is something that Miyake pioneered, with his ‘Pleats Please’ collection remaining one of techno-fashions most prolific. Introduced in 1989 the collection is made up of polyester jersey garments that are first cut and sewn and then pleated – the introvert of what is normally done in production of clothing. By doing this, the garments permanently retain washboard rows of horizontal, vertical or diagonal knife-edge pleats. Here technology constructs form, dictating function.

Gao herself now wants her work to be worn everyday by everyone; she is working on ‘Post-Vernissage’, a limited collection of garments created using conceptual research with modular characteristics. “This ready-to-wear project is an important step in my life as a designer. The garments have left the museums and are appearing on the streets,” she opines.

The shorter bridge between conceptual ready-to-wear and technology has slowly become commonplace. Korean designer Kuho Jeong’s influences may be taken from his culture and that of origami, yet his innovation is forward thinking. The creative director of Samsung’s fashion division, balances avant-garde and modernist aesthetics with textural dimensions in his ‘Hexa by Kuho’ line. To him clothing equals architecture, “both have a human aspect,” he tells, “they essentially protect the human body in addition to fulfilling an aesthetic purpose. The only difference is one is movable and the other not.”

Curator, Andrew Bolton in his book, ‘The Supermodern Wardrobe’ writes “all clothes have social, psychological and physical functions” and designers embracing technology concur. “Lifestyles are constantly evolving and changing,” Kuho says, “according to one’s lifestyle, fashion can also change and diversify. The technology in relation to this evolution will have an impact on fashion, and thus, the function and aesthetic value of the clothes will change as well.” Technology is rarely away from his thoughts, “advancements at Samsung Technological inspire changes in lifestyle and the current times. My work is inspired by the same point of view.”

As Gao, Kuho and Miyake borrow origami patterns and work consistently with balancing the lightness of garments, designers synonymous within fashion meeting technology also explore the emotional trigger fashion can proffer. Why shouldn’t a dress transform into a table as designer Hussein Chalayan showed for Autumn Winter 2000 with his art project, ‘Afterwords’, which explored notions of wearable, portable architecture. In a time when the future of fashion is in great debate, it is Chalayan’s work that looks to anthropology.

At its core is an idea not dissimilar to that of the young couturiers working in Sixties Paris. Just as Rabanne was using metal rings and plates in his collections to innovate society and to challenge tradition, Chalayan does too, whether the fashion appears as an apocalyptic apparition or an artistic whim.

Heavily guided by the concept of transient cultures and displacement Chalayan’s work infamously embraced the concept of cultural metamorphosis for Spring Summer 2007, as he guided the audience through a lightening speed glossary of historical styles as "robodresses" transformed in seconds from a Victorian gown to a crystal-beaded flapper dress. Here, the presentation of fashion is where digital revolution and technology really shine.

As Chalayan’s celebrated Spring Summer 2007 show collaborated with the animatronics design team behind ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’, Kuho’s ‘Hexa by Kuho’ Autumn Winter 2011 show featured models walking along a darkened catwalk. As bright spotlights revealed each garment, the models wearing black patchwork coats, would exit after pealing their outer shells to reveal artfully crafted origami silhouettes, underpinned by Kuho’s background in theatrical costume design. “The shape of clothes is defined by the relocation of air space between clothes and the body. This relocation creates the difference in various types of clothes through which we can indicate more about its construction,” he tells.

This concept of communication and personage combined with technology irks back to the central concept of Miyake's ‘132 5’ line. 1 refers to a single piece of fabric, 3 to a three-dimensional shape reduced to 2-dimensions, and 5 refers to the fifth dimension, which Miyake describes as the moment the garment is worn and comes to life, “through the communication among people.”

The body is now more than just a mannequin on which to drape fabric; the body and clothing have to work together – inspiring a constant communication between the wearer, observer and designer. In 1981, Steve Mann created a backpack-mounted computer to control his photographic equipment as a practical consequence rather than an attempt for aesthetic provocation; in simplistic terms, Mann’s backpack meant that the technological elements of modern day life were now not only confined to the office.

In 2008, Studio5050 (Despina Papadopoulos & Jesse Lackey) created Day For Night (Modular Extensible Reconfigurable). A dress that comprises of 436 white circuit boards that are linked together with metal rings, which light up as it becomes dark, using solar power to charge itself. The dress sits in homage to Rabanne’s self-assembly design kits which consisted of 750 discs, 1,300 rungs a metal label and two pairs of pliers and helped to define a new era of dress making that has gone on to become legendary in it’s influence. “There has always been an unconventional slant to all of my creations,” Rabanne reacts. “I'm no avant-gardist, just a contemporary artist who captures the trends of the time. I brought a creative and avant-garde dimension to fashion that was strict and rooted fashion in its time with a contemporary vision and creation.”

The wearers control over a garment is the crux of fashion meeting technology and in recent times it is Chalayan who continues to question what is deemed fabric. In ‘Before Minus Now’ he presented a dress made of materials used in aircraft construction that changed shape by remote control. As Studio5050’s ‘Day For Night’ would come alive at night, a year previous, Chalayan also presented ‘Airborne’ – a dress that used up-to-the-minute LED technology consisting of Swarovski crystals and over 15,000 flickering LED lights; the final vision appearing as a fluid television screen as it sauntered down the catwalk. His ‘Readings’ dress for Spring Summer 2008 used over 200 moving lasers as well as presenting a spectacle of light helped to forge his reputation as a designer hell-bent on blurring the distinction between wearable fashion and conceptual art.

Rabanne himself was a great admirer of the artist Duchamp, beginning his career in fashion by creating jewellery for Givenchy, Dior and Balenciaga. When he started his own fashion house in 1966 he lauded, "I defy anyone to design a hat, coat or dress that hasn't been done before...the only new frontier left in fashion is the finding of new materials." Using such unconventional materials as metal, paper and plastic, proffered a new vision of what role fashion had to play in society. The same curiosity today preserved in the ceramic underwear created by designer Johanna O’Hagan and the construction of womenswear designer, Holly Fulton’s bulbous Swarovski and Perspex necklaces. Both are derivative of Rabanne’s central concept of how new materials can be used and worn.

Technically, advances in fabrication have and continue to inspire designers. Miyake wanted the 123.5 collection to be as sustainable as possible, so he chose to work with fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles. His earlier use of Tyvek and material innovator Chalayan’s exploits with fiberglass or laser cut nylon, help to create a conversation between technological textile advances and the importance to push boundaries; using fashion as a communication tool.

“To me, fashion is the reflection of a political, social and artistic era. It is tied to all the tastes of its time,” Rabanne tells. Today it is left to designers such as Mary Katrantzou. – her Autumn Winter 2011 collection fusing digital prints borrowed from Fabergé eggs, cloisonné enamel and Ming vases onto knee-length three dimensional dresses and coats – and Dutch designer, Iris Van Herpen, to play with technology and both demonstrate a more bourgeois apparition of how it can be used to edify the female form. “For me it is just logical that technology finds ways to improve my creativity and possibilities of making and designing fashion. I only use technology so that I can make something that I could never make by hand, so structures become more intricate/complex and detailed,” Van Herpen says.

Rather than eschewing the female form as Cardin and his contemporaries did fifty years previous, Van Herpen and Katrantzou’s goal is to express the character and emotion of a unique 
woman - to extend the shape of the feminine body in detail. Van Herpen attests “I mostly have the movement that the wearer will create while wearing the piece in my head. That is something very important; the interaction of the design with the woman who wears it.”

Her motivation offers contrast to Chalayan, Cardin and Rabanne who’s work appears more as conceptual artistry than sensible clothing, Van Herpen’s creations stand for a reciprocity between craftsmanship and 
innovation in technique and materials, while creating modern couture with a futuristic digital craft.

“Today, fashion and luxury have become completely warped; they're no longer sources of pleasure, but offensive weapons that people use to protect themselves from others,” Rabanne warns. “To me, fashion is the reflection of a political, social and artistic era. It is tied to all the tastes of its time but at the same time, human beings are looking for new values to ground their future evolution, just as the fashion world is evolving dramatically.”

In the past Rabanne had great admiration for designers like Poiret, Balenciaga, Cardin and Courrèges but right now, he concludes, “the next generation is ready to take over! I've been astounded over the past four or five years to see how talented our young designers are and I believe that Paris has gotten its spirit and its talent back.”

Once again, fashion’s focus is back to the future.

As published in METAL MAGAZINE N°24 S/S 2011
Paco Rabanne, Do-it-Yourself Disc Dress Kit, c. 1970
Alexander McQueen, Dress No. 13, spring/summer 1999
132 5. Issey Miyake Reality Lab
132 5. Issey Miyake Reality Lab