BOSTON — Texture, structure, and motion are the center of #techstyle, which opened last month at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) here. The exhibition presents clothing and accessories that fall under the rubric of wearable technology — phone-charging solar panels or LED lights embedded in the fabric — but move beyond gadgetry to joyful innovation. Bringing 3D printing and computer-aided design to the forefront, the pieces meld high-concept work with a sense of playful futurism. Some designs explore our relationship to the environment; others push the limits of fabrication and construction; still others encourage the wearer to interact with their clothing in unexpected ways.
The exhibit is split into two sections: “Production” and “Performance.” They’re joined together by a display featuring some well-known early adopters of alternative and advanced technologies, including Hussein Chalayan. One of the first designers to introduce digital and 3D printing and video in his work, Chalayan approaches fashion as performance and frequently collaborates with technologists of all stripes, creating clothing that’s meant to embody ideas more than function. He’s represented here by his Remote Control Dress, constructed from deceptively simple, rigid fiberglass and resin panels concealing remote control elements that move; it’s modeled on the design of an airplane wing.
Also featured in the introductory tableau is Alexander McQueen’s Plato’s Atlantis collection from spring 2010, presented at the first couture fashion show to be live-streamed. A digital printing extravaganza, Plato’s Atlantis was one of McQueen’s final and most famous collections, building on the themes of technological advancement, ecological meltdown, and hybridity that come up again and again in #techstyle.
Boston is a center of technology development on the East Coast. With schools like Harvard and MIT close by, it’s no surprise that much of the science behind the 3D designing and printing of garments in this exhibition was developed in the orbit of the MFA. The “Production” section showcases designers who work with scientists and engineers to rethink how we develop cutting-edge clothing. So, designer Iris van Herpen collaborated with MIT Media Lab’s Neri Oxman to create the Anthozoa 3D Cape and Skirt (2013), which was produced by Boston-area 3D printing company Stratasys. The cape and skirt’s combination of stiff and flexible materials is a trailblazing hybrid of 3D-printing techniques that evokes both coral textures and beetle shells.
Nervous System, a design studio in nearby Somerville founded by a mathematician and an architect, created the first flexible 3D-printed garment, ready to wear right out the printer. In the current generation, the process produces the Kinematic Petal Dress, a sheet of small, tessellated units that spring to life on the body. Fully customizable both in shape and texture, the garment is constructed from a personalized 3D body scan and an array of modeling and design software, controlled by the wearer through an app on Nervous System’s website.
The Kinematic Petal Dress shares a foundation with Francis Bitonti’s Molecule shoe (2014), a towering mule that’s meant to manifest mathematics in physical space, turning calculations into a tangible reality. (It was also printed by Stratasys.) Much like the Nervous System dress, the shoe’s final pixelated texture and color gradient are generated by an algorithm, so no two pairs are alike. These collaborations play with the concept of customizable fashion, allowing the wearer to adjust the aesthetic as much as the fit — technology creating bespoke looks without the painstaking process of individual pattern drafting and handcrafting.
Bitonti thinks fashion is finally picking up on technologies that other disciplines like industrial and furniture design have embraced. “The depth of the relationship between materials, design, and technology — that knowledge hasn’t quite made it into fashion,” he says. Bitoni sees a gap between technologists and fashion designers that doesn’t exist in other design-based industries like architecture.
New partnerships with technologists expand the knowledge available to designers, pushing fashion into interesting new territory, says exhibtion curator Lauren Whitley. “One of the really exciting things about fashion today is it is very collaborative. You have scientists working with an artist, even the computer programs, the printers are noted [on the wall labels].” It’s fitting, then, that #techstyle goes beyond presenting just static clothing; many of the works are accompanied by images and videos that show how the piece was created or how it moves when it’s worn (or moves on its own, as the case may be.) 3D printing has been revolutionary in fashion, and it’s rapidly improving, addressing concerns about flexibility and movement, developing an organic quality alongside the more traditional rigid objects. “Everything innovative in fashion right now is technology driven, with the widespread adoption of the computer as a design tool. These effects couldn’t be achieved before,” adds Whitley. She speculates that the future of fashion may be a baseline body scan, your digital device, and a 3D printer in the next room, ready to manifest your individual take on a template sent by a fashion house (bespoke meets mass production).
Pieces like the Bodysuit (2014), from Noa Raviv’s Hard Copy collection, embrace technology but retain a human touch. To create it, the designer combined digital models of Greek sculpture with deliberate distortions to create 3D-printed objects and laser-cut decorative additions with impressive volume and crisply gridded patterning. Despite the high-tech nature of the design and printing process, the resulting appliqués were painstakingly attached to the piece by hand using traditional dressmaking techniques. The flat, precise lines of the surface decoration on the computer-generated volumes and curves challenge the neat divide between 2D and 3D surfaces. Raviv’s first priority, however, is making sure that whatever he produces pushes the boundaries of fashion as an art form. “Fashion comes first,” says the designer. “Before I look at technology, I look at whether or not it’s fashionable.”
The future of wearable tech goes beyond production to challenge the way the wearer interacts with their apparel. In the “Performance” side of the exhibition, clothing breaks free of the body, as with the unnerving Possessed Dress, whose internal, hoop-like elements move on their own. The piece, also designed by Hussien Chayalan, is shown at the MFA alongside a video of its use in a performance by the Sadler’s Wells dance company. Another kinetic outfit, the Incertitudes Ensemble (2014) by Ying Gao, features dressmaker’s pins that undulate and twitch in waves across the surface of the suit in response to nearby speech. Other pieces interact with the body more directly, like the Spike, an artificial leg created by Alternative Limb Project designer Sophie de Oliveira Barata and pop singer Victoria Modista. Its futuristic and slightly lethal design — a single, high-gloss gunmetal spike, deadly sharp — seeks to augment rather than disguise the absent limb.
For some designers, the performance of a piece is about its integration of data. This is the case with the CuteCircuit MFA Dress, designed by Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz on commission for the museum; with a “Magic Fabric” consisting of more than 10,000 LEDs, the dress displays patterned animations and classic artworks from the museum’s collection (like Hokusai’s “Great Wave”), as well showing live tweets with the hashtag #tweetthedress. It’s also the speciality of “material alchemist” Lauren Bowker of the Unseen, a design house aiming to materialize data and interactions that are usually invisible. Bowker — who has collaborated with a team working on Formula 1 race cars, analyzing air flow and heat — sees the assimilation of environmental data into fashion as inevitable. “As technology becomes more common, it will slowly became more invisible and part of our daily lives,” she says. Bowker created two leather capes that mimic, respectively, the exoskeleton a beetle and the graceful slope of a bird’s wing. On view at the MFA, they’re coated with a black ink that turns iridescent in response to warmth, light, and air flow, allowing the garments to manifest our interactions with the world and the wearer to better understand their body’s relationship to the elements.
In fact, heightened visibility is part of what makes the tech boom in fashion so compelling. Not only are designers innovating, they’re also sharing their work with a wider audience than ever before. The McQueen collection featured at the beginning of #techstyle was the first to be streamed digitally to a wide audience — it was so popular, the streaming site crashed. And the flat lines of a series of Rei Kawakubo pieces in the same section are meant to reference the impulse to photograph and share clothes via images, rather than by wearing them. The exhibit makes a point of engaging with this profoundly different way of consuming fashion. “Instagram has really leveled the field,” says Whitley. “If you look at shows from decades ago, they were very exclusive affairs. Today they are streamed online. The world has instant access, and we view fashion on our our phones, on our screens.” As the show’s title suggests, she encourages visitors to #techstyle to tweet and photograph the work at hand with abandon — this is fashion innovation meant to excite everyone.
#techstyle continues at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (465 Huntington Avenue) through July 10.