High-Tech Fashion

Futuristic fashion design

High-tech fashion uses advances in science and technology to design and produce fashion products. Methods used in high-tech fashion borrow from technologies developed in the fields of chemistry, computer science, aerospace engineering, automotive engineering, architecture, industrial textiles, and competitive athletic wear. Fashion projects an image of rapid change and forward thinking-a good environment for use of the latest technologies in production methods and materials. As technology becomes more integrated with one's everyday life, its influence on the fashion one wears continues to increase.

Historic technological innovations such as the development of the sewing machine, the zipper, and synthetic fibers have influenced how garments are made, how they look, and how they perform. Elsa Schiaparelli was a noted designer of the 1930s and 1940s who had an eagerness to experiment with synthetic fibers. She introduced the first zipper to Paris couture. World events delayed advancements in techno fashions until the race for space began to influence designers in the 1960s. André Courrèges's use of bonded jersey, Paco Rabanne's experimentation with metal-linked garments, and Pierre Cardin's pioneering vacuum-formed fabrics began to push the boundaries of fashion through experimentation with technology and innovative materials. Plastics, foam-laminated fabrics, metallic-coated fabrics, and a sleek fashion silhouette launched fashion into a new realm.

Technological advances continue to influence fashion with new developments in materials, garment structuring and sizing, methods of production, and the quest for fashion that reflects the look and lifestyle of the future.

Techno Materials

Techno materials include fibers, textiles, and textile finishes engineered for a specific function or appearance. The U.K. designer Sophia Lewis believes that "the greatest potential for the future lies in experimental fashion using advanced synthetics to promote new aesthetics and methods of garment construction" (Braddock and O'Mahony, 1999, p. 80). While most synthetics of the twentieth century were developed to mimic natural fibers, the new synthetics are engineered to be strong and durable even when lightweight, transparent, or elastic. Blending natural fibers with synthetics in new ways to produce "techno-naturals" is adding to the aesthetic and performance advantages of textiles.

Recent fiber developments include microfibers, fibers regenerated from corn and milk proteins, metallics, and fiber optics. Microfibers can be produced at a thickness less than that of a silk filament to create fabrics that are soft and fluid with great strength and capabilities of performing under extreme environmental conditions. New processes and experimentation have lead to ecofriendly fibers made from renewable resources such as corn and soybeans. Another eco-friendly advancement is the genetic development of naturally colored cotton, eliminating the need to use caustic dyes. Shape memory alloys (SMAs) made of nickel and titanium can be produced in wire or sheet form to be incorporated into fabrics that retain memory of their original shape.

Holographic fibers can be used to reflect colors and images from the wearer's surroundings. Fiber optics incorporated into fabrics can be used to transmit messages.

While traditional fabrication methods of weaving and knitting remain, new fabric technologies are emerging. Knits are being fashioned to form seamless garments that are shaped to fit any figure. Nonwovens are inexpensive to produce and are adaptable to multiple end uses. Experimentation with a variety of finishing techniques for nonwovens has introduced a new aesthetic option for designers such as Hussein Chalayan, who fashioned dresses of Tyvek nonwoven fabrics. Foams give options of developing sculptural shapes for the body as well as providing insulation. Synthetic rubber allows garments to fit close to the body with freedom of movement in many applications, from wet suits to evening gowns.

Fabric finishes are providing new options for designers. Fabrics can be coated with microencapsulated substances such as vitamins, fragrances, insect repellents, or bacteriostats. As the tiny capsules burst, the substance is released onto the skin. Phase-change technology, originally developed by NASA, produces fabrics that adapt to changes in temperature with the potential of providing garments that heat and cool the body. Phase change materials (PCMs) can be incorporated into fibers or sandwiched between layers of fabrics. The PCM can absorb and distribute excess heat throughout the fabric before storing it. As the environment cools, the PCM solidifies and releases the stored heat to the wearer.

Textile designers have a heightened interest in combining both chemical and mechanical processes to develop beautiful and practical fabrics. Experimentation with high-tech interpretations of simple finishing techniques, such as calendering or mercerization, can give fabrics a variety of textures, from smooth and lustrous to crinkled or sculpted. The finish can dramatically transform a fabric's visual and tactile qualities as well as performance characteristics like stain resistance, wind resistance, or permanent-press features. Thermoplastic fibers can be molded with heat to create permanent three-dimensional surfaces.

Printing is another method of transforming the surface of a textile that has been advanced through experimentation with new technology. Computer Aided Design (CAD) is a tool that enables textile designers to create modern print patterns, including the feeling of three-dimensional space. The computer has replaced many of the labor-intensive production demands needed to create surface pattern. It provides flexibility and speed, and can be used with a range of printing options to create a new visual aesthetic. Ink-jet printing can move a design from the computer screen to the fabric with speed and flexibility. Heat-transfer allows for great experimentation by developing a design on special paper and then transferring it to a synthetic fabric with heat and pressure. Relief printing with synthetic rubbers and metallic powders creates textural surfaces that are modern and functional.

In addition to looking at technology for direction, many designers have a renewed interest in traditional finishing techniques such as pleating, shibori, and resist-dyeing. The strength of the pioneering Japanese textile industry is based on the combination of new technologies with traditional craft. Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe, and Michiko Koshino have been leaders in combining traditional craft techniques with cutting edge technology. These designers pioneered a trend toward cooperative partnerships between textile designers and fashion designers, enhancing the development of textiles and garments in a synergistic fashion. This is a model copied worldwide.

In contrast to the strong trend to use technological advances, a sentiment echoed by many designers worldwide is for a more balanced perspective. It is the belief that a design is enhanced by evidence of the hand that created it; thus imperfection, individuality, and an honest approach to materials is highly valued. In many respects, this effort to reject the uniformity of mass-produced garments has been attributable to rapidly evolving technology and move toward fashion that expresses individuality. The explosion of the Internet at the millennium added to this shift by presenting new possibilities in fashion.

Garment Production

Being a designer

The last quarter of the twentieth century saw rapid development of computer technology. Computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) dramatically changed the process of designing and manufacturing garments by reducing many labor-intensive processes, increasing speed and accuracy, and lowering costs. Garments can be developed with CAD from sketch to pattern and cutting, either locally or globally, in a fraction of the time it took.

Designers research trend and development information, communicate with clients and suppliers, and sell and market designs in a wireless Internet environment where yesterday is too late. Fashion news is available hours after an event occurs, and the Internet has even replaced some live fashion events. Walter Van Beirendonck, Helmut Lang, and Victoria's Secret have used Internet methods of showing designs. This rapid flow of information, an interest in individuality, and the technology to support rapid production have led to the development of mass customization.

Mass customization is a design, manufacturing, and marketing concept that allows a customer to order a garment to specifications for approximately the same cost as off-the-rack. Part of the specifications may include custom sizing that is achieved with the use of a body scanner, which records measurements that are translated to individualized patterns. This scanned measurement information, along with personal preferences and shopping history, can all be stored on a credit card to facilitate the shopping experience. There are many benefits to this method of operation, including a satisfied customer, less wasteful production, and sales made at full price.

Customization concepts may also support the development of new apparel production technology in molding materials, industrial fusing methods, and seamless knitting technology-providing a glimpse at forming garments without needle and thread. Hussein Chalayan's remote control dress uses composite technology borrowed from the aerospace industry to form molded panels that are clipped together and can move to reveal different parts of the body. The forerunner of this molding technology was the molded bra cup developed in the 1960s. Designers have worked with lasers for cutting patterns and creating intricate, cut designs, or ultrasound to fuse the seams of thermoplastic fabrics. New developments in circular knitting machines move from simple tube knits to entire garments shaped to the body on the machine. Industrial materials that include metals, glass, plastics, and industrial mesh are providing inspiration from architecture for many clothing designers. Traditional apparel production methods are revised or even abandoned according to the needs of the new materials and the way they interact with the body.

Fashions for New Lifestyles

Sports and active lifestyles have influenced fashions of the early 2000s. Apparel technologies developed for competitive sports are incorporated into fashions for everyone. Research and innovative thinking have advanced sportswear with attention to both performance and aesthetics. Garments that maintain body temperature, cool the body, and improve performance are researched and engineered with a new aesthetic that has moved the garments out of the gym and into everyday life.

Athlete on cell phone

Current fashion is making accommodations for the consumer's changing electronic lifestyle, including garments with pockets for cell phones, jackets with connections for electronic music players, and stylish bags to tote laptops. Researchers are developing "intelligent" fashions incorporating wearable computers, communication systems, global positioning systems, and body sensors. Systems may have the capability to allow the wearer to surf the Internet, make phone calls, monitor vital signs, and administer medication. While much research remains to be done, initial exploration has begun at MIT's Media Lab, Starlab, Charmed Technology, and International Fashion Machines. The goal of these groups is to develop prototypes of wearable electronics and to explore the synergy required between computer science, fashion, health care, and defense to produce marketable, user-friendly products. Advances and innovative thinking in the production of apparel and communication platforms and networks will be required to move these concepts forward.

The changing world political climate and the continuing challenges of world health present new opportunities for science to address wearable solutions. Development of protective apparel against bioterrorist attack and spread of infectious disease commands research dollars from governments worldwide. These investments will most likely lead to exciting new materials that ultimately result in new fashion.

Fashion is a reflection of the times, and thus incorporates current scientific and technological developments. Change is a constant in fashion, and one can look forward to ever-developing advanced materials and methods and perhaps even new purposes for fashion.

See also Extreme Fashions; Italian Futurist Fashion.


Braddock, Sarah E., and Marie O'Mahony. Techno Textiles: Revolutionary Fabrics for Fashion and Design. London: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1999.

O'Mahony, Marie, and Sarah E. Braddock. Sportstech: Revolutionary Fabrics, Fashion and Design. London: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 2002.

Quinn, Bradley. Techno Fashion. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2002.

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