The Report

Fashion designers apply new technologies to stunning results

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An exhibition at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology spans 250 years of garment history to illustrate how designers play with new technologies to create adventurous styles.

NEW YORK -- Fashion and innovation certainly go hand in hand, and not just because the two words practically rhyme. By definition, fashion is about newness and timeliness, two qualities that likewise tend to define innovative products in general. Often, advances in manufacturing, textile production -- or even computing -- have affected how designers create and sell their clothes.

An exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan, bluntly titled "Fashion and Technology," serves to make this point very clear. It's a small but engaging show that spans 250 years via 100 objects from FIT's extensive archives, and is on view through May 8 at FIT's Fashion and Textile History Gallery.

If you're familiar with runway trends of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the show features the innovative designers you'd expect to see included.

The late, great Alexander McQueen is represented, with a video of his iconic 1999 catwalk presentation that featured robots spewing paint on the supermodel Shalom Harlow. Miuccia Prada, is as well, by some colorful computer animations used in a marketing campaign for her eponymous Prada label. So is Hussein Chalayan, known for his dramatic, sculpture-like silhouettes.

There are lesser-known designers represented, some who even work far from the world of fashion.

For instance, the show presents an early example of 3D-printed clothing and accessories dating to 2005 (picture above), designed by Freedom of Creation, which is an Amsterdam-based product design company. On view is a slinky plastic dress and a purse that resembles chain mail. That it dates back eight years illustrates how fashion can often be ahead of the technology curve: only now, in 2013, is 3D printing really reaching mainstream consciousness.

BEYOND DECORATIVE

The trend of fashion serving as a vital arena for innovation isn't new, either, as the show makes clear.

The curators present a wide range of examples of clothing designers' experiments with new materials and manufacturing techniques in the 19th century. These include a hair ornament from 1887 that was made from one of the first synthetic plastics, celluloid, but resembles tortoise shell.

And of course the curators have included an early sewing machine from 1882, which obviously sped up the time needed to assemble garments previously stitched by hand.

The display texts remind viewers just how effective fashion innovation can be on a very large scale. In other words, designers' breakthroughs eventually prove that in many ways, they do not only serve the elite.

For instance, when clothing designers first incorporated zippers in 1913, they reduced the time it took most people to dress in the morning. No longer did they have to waste minutes buttoning buttons on trousers or dresses. Or consider Norma Kamali's chic adaptation of puffy down jackets in 1977, turning the outdoorsy garment into a more wearable and warm winter staple for non-jocks. It paved the way for mass-market versions later. The examples go on and on, making the case that fashion, when it incorporates the use of new machinery and material inventions, is not just decorative. It can actually improve people's lives.

INNOVATION THAT REFLECTS CULTURE

That's especially true when one considers what I consider a parallel timeline, or underlying theme, to this exhibition: tracing how women's lives have changed in the last two and a half centuries. To be specific, how they have changed in the United States, Europe, and other so-called developed economies within the last two centuries -- and how fashion has evolved to reflect new "freedoms."

For instance, a bicycle ensemble from 1888 features what looks like a formal skirt, but is actually a set of very wide trouser legs, allowing women to get out into the world and ride a bike easily. Or a girdle from 1915, made with a type of rubber thread new to that era, which allowed for much more comfort than a traditional corset. Or even a beautiful digital "clutch," actually a small laptop that's easy to fit in a handbag, designed by Vivienne Tam in 2007 for PC maker Hewlett-Packard.

All of these examples illustrate how fashion designers have addressed women's needs as they became more active outside of the home, in society and eventually in the workplace.

The examples of fashion meeting technology from the late 2000s and early 2010s presented here rightly illustrate new uses of holograms and wearable computing.

For instance, a video of a 2011 Burberry runway show, featuring spectacular holographic images that made it seem as if models instantly changed clothes, is striking to watch. And the curators' surprising inclusion of the Arduino Lily Pad micro-controller board (above), which can be sewn into e-textiles, is very smart. This device allows designers to program clothes to do such things as play music or monitor the wearer's heartbeat. Both of these examples show that experimenting with new tech never goes out of style.

Still, there are some purely beautiful clothes on view here that convey what I believe is the strongest point of the exhibition.

There's the gloriously beaded dress from 1924, which is just as eye-catching as another Art Deco-era masterpiece: the Chrysler Building in Manhattan. There are geometric, neon-hued dresses from Pierre Cardin (above), designed in the psychedelic 1960s. There are intricately pleated dresses with bizarre silhouettes like no other by Issey Miyake from the late 1990s.

These examples show us that perhaps the most exciting innovations to come from fashion designers are those that marry adventurous aesthetics and cultural trends, and which simply make use of new technologies to deliver them.

All images: Courtesy The Museum at FIT

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure