Get Smart About Fickle Fashion

Becky Stern

Becky Stern Becky Stern is director of wearable electronics at Adafruit Industries, a DIY electronics and kit manufacturer in New York City. She creates do-it-yourself wearable electronics projects for hobbyists and designers. She’s a member of the art groups Free Art & Technology (FATLAB) and the Madagascar Institute, and also teaches in the Products of Design Department at the School of Visual Arts.

Soon smart textiles, or textiles that have been engineered and manufactured using high-tech means or for high-tech applications, are going to be everywhere. Textiles with special properties are being engineered to repel mosquitos, conduct electrical signals or even release moisturizing aloe onto the skin. Although many are developed for military or sports applications, I’m betting we’ll be seeing a lot more engineering on the fashion runway in coming years.

Even in saying that, I do think there is still a large disconnect between the science labs developing ultrathin circuits and nanotech textiles and the apparel industries. To succeed in fashion, new high-tech textiles will need creative cheerleaders who can demonstrate their potential.

Fashion designer Asher Levine (popular among the likes of Lady Gaga and Ana Matronic, lead singer with the Scissor Sisters) and wireless company Phone Halo recently matched up for a haute-tech partnership. The two produced a custom tracking system for locating misplaced luxury jackets and bags and embedded it into an aesthetically futuristic collection. But does this type of one-off collaboration have staying power? The pairing of a very practical application with a super-artistic design aesthetic highlights the tenuous nature of fashion’s obsession with newness—whatever came out last season is automatically out of style.

The flip side of fickle fashion is practical sports attire, where performance is king. Companies like Adidas and Under Armour are investing heavily in development of athletic sensing attire for professional athletes. Conductive fabrics with detecting electrodes for monitoring heart rate are being refined to perform more reliably and last through a whole training season. In athletic applications so far, smart textiles are tightly linked to consumer electronics through wireless connectivity hardware and sophisticated software used by athletes and coaches to analyze biometric data. Indeed, it’s the miniaturization of tech thanks to the popularization of cellphones that is just now making it feasible to pair electronics with garments, both in size and cost. There’s still a long way to go before the combo transitions from bespoke to mainstream, but the DIY wearables community is picking up speed.

The nozzles of most 3D printers may mainly print plastics to date, but biomedical and materials research is pushing to overcome barriers of manufacturability for all sorts of new materials, like the “matter compilers” in the sci-fi novel Diamond Age. Imagine the impact on the textile industries when you can buy leather that’s been printed in a lab to your color and texture specifications, with no imperfections that come along with its natural counterpart. However, new smart fabrics must prove their desirability and comfort, lest they fall out of fashion faster than you can say “double-knit polyester pants.”

This interview was originally published in the January-May 2014 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.