The fashion industry has been rife with talk of the rise and the future of fashion tech. The problem for most brands, however, aside from maybe ACRONYM, that keeps consumers from responding en mass is a general lack of wearability. Few designers have been able to marry form and function in a way that is deemed fashionable.
Take Iris van Herpen, for instance. The young Dutch designer, who shows both couture and now, ready-to-wear collections in Paris, likely has the firmest handle on tech-infused fashion. Her designs are striking. The 3D printed skeleton dress that model Liu Wen wore in the designer’s show one season comes to mind automatically, as do the rock-crystal formation heel-less platforms she showed for F/W 2015. Van Herpen’s most technically impressive works – the standout pieces in any given collection – are designs to write home about! But they’re not wearable.
But fashion for fashion’s sake is dead, and considering that fashion absolutely depends on sales, van Herpen’s overly-technical creations could be deemed problematic. She has expanded into ready-to-wear in order to reach a larger audience (read: and sell clothes). She now injects some very wearable garments – ones that are less dependent on actually growing (yes, growing) her own materials (with the help of biologists) and 3D printed sculptures that hang on the body as opposed to actually clothing it in the traditional sense – into her collections. Her most commercial pieces are ones that blend into the fashion landscape in any given season, save for the laser-cutting and hand-weaving techniques and specialized materials.
With this in mind, there may be someone doing things that are just as interesting, and maybe even a bit more wearable. Enter: Simone Schramm. She is a German interface designer interested in the intersection between humans and technology and how we can use the latter to visualize what is hidden to our eyes. Tech/design sites have largely focused their attention on Schramm’s stressball, an interactive prototype that determines the stress level by measuring the skin conduction with an external sensor. Per DesignBoom, “The values gathered by the sensors are then translated into a physical transformation of the surface of the spherical object, oscillating between a smooth and a rough texture.”
More interesting for us, however, is a design that no one has picked up on quite yet: Schramm’s Muscle Shirt.
Tell me about the muscle shirt.
The muscle shirt is a wearable concept that measures an individual’s level of athletic performance by detecting the heartbeat with a sensor integrated into the fabric. If physical activity is detected, the shirt physically transforms. The fabric contracts and gathers at the back of the shirt. The transformation ranges between its resting state of “wide” and “comfortably tight” when activity is sensed. Activity is perceived by the skin surface and the shirt has the potential to enhance the posture of the wearer. The transformation can also be associated with psychological values like speed and agility, which are directly related to physical activity during exercise.
Unlike the existing self-tracking apps, the muscle shirt’s transitions do not include any fixed steps, nor imply any categories. The transitions correspond with the human body perception and deliver a completely haptic experience. The registered measurements are also communicated in a visual way. The upper layer of the fabric has a finely sliced structure that gets pulled apart through the contraction and reveals an underlying colored layer. The originally monotonous-seeming grey fabric transforms into a colorful and lively looking piece of fashion and second skin.
For prototyping, the effect was realized with a stepper motor. The motor is connected to the heartbeat sensor and rotates a bar, which gathers the fabric at the back of the shirt if athletic performance is perceived. In the future, to make it more "wearable," the effect could be realized with shape memory wires, which are integrated into the fabric. The wires have the ability to contract and relax by minimal, imperceptible electrical power impulses.
In many ways, this sounds quite a bit like your first project, the stress ball. What made you decide to do a garment?
Both concepts are highly connected to my attempts to find an answer to the question of whether it's possible to create innovative self-tracking devices, which only communicate in a visual and in a haptic way (without using any numbers, diagrams or categories like most of the common self-tracking devices do).
In contrast to stress, which we often try to hide, people are interested in displaying their physical activity to other people. The individual stress level is meant to be something more private. The stress ball can be hidden because it is a handy object. The muscle shirt is meant to be a second skin, which can be presented to other people. So, both concepts try to do the same thing but in a different way. They are measuring and communicating your physical (muscle shirt) and mental tension (stress ball).
What do you think the future holds for wearable tech in the realm of fashion?
I think we will continue to see the technology industry and the fashion industry growing together. Today technology always promises a greater value, an innovative function, a relief in our day-to-day lives. Technology is not beautiful; it is inherently functional. Fashion, on the other hand, is about aesthetic values, only a minor part of it is purely functional. With this in mind, if fashion and technology are connected, the fashion often becomes functional and tries to cover technological values.
I think the combination of fashion and technology can only succeed if the technology is not only used as technology, but as a tool to make fashion like fashion is meant to be. This requires collaboration beyond what we are currently experiencing for the most part.
You touch on something interesting here. It seems like tech fashion is bit of a hard sell for people right now. Beyond the Apple Watch, the general public is just not embracing it. What do you think it is about the existing tech-focused designs in fashion that keeps them from being more successful?
The designs we are seeing are too conceptual. I think the designers and developers of interactive fashion need to find a way to make the fashion more wearable and less conceptual. For example, most of the concepts, mine included, would fail if you were to wash them. And ... what happens to all the sensors, batteries and other technology if you go out in the rain?
To make the people really want wear interactive fashion, there also needs to be a higher level of acceptance of wearing technology. There needs to be a larger change in how the majority thinks about putting technology all over your body. I think we are already observing the beginnings of a trend. People are starting to wear self-tracking bracelets and smart watches and other smaller devices after all. But I think there is still some time until the majority really starts to embrace interactive fashion.
Do you think anyone is doing this very successfully? Whose work do you really admire in terms of tech and/or fashion?
There are definitely a lot of successful projects out there. I always admire material transformations and innovative materials in terms of interactive fashion. I really like Behnaz Farahi. She’s an architect and interaction designer, whose work focuses on exploring the potential of interactive environments and their relationship to the human body.
Ying Gao and her designs are pretty amazing, too.
This is kind of “old” but I think the Studio Roosegaarde project with fashion designers Maartje Dijkstra and Anouk Wipprecht is really interesting. They teamed up to create the variable transparency intimacy dresses, which allow the wearer’s social interactions to determine the level of transparency of the dress.
I also really like Outsourcing, which is a project from Max Schäth that came out of the EMotion studio in Berlin a while ago. Utilizing shape memory alloy and integrated sensors, Schäth made a jacket with a hood that is capable of changing with the wearer's mood.
Do you think you’ll do more clothing-type designs?
I think interactive fashion, as a part of the interface or interaction design, is becoming more and more popular. Interactive fashion has the potential to behave like a second skin. As an interface designer, I'm always interested in the intersection between humans and technology. If I create a second skin, it is the closest I can get exploring the intersection. So, yes, if there is a project connected to interactive fashion again I would be very interested to be a part of it.