gif ponchos and led dresses: new york's new wave of wearable tech
A new wave of tech-fluent labels celebrate clothing that functions as an extension of the body.
On the first evening of New York Fashion Week last week, internet-bred fashion incubator VFILES debuted a collaboration with fashion technology company Studio XO. Maybe not the most recognisable names, but even those not immediately familiar with XO founders Nancy Tilbury and Benjamin Males have probably seen their work. They're the brains behind Volantis, Lady Gaga's flying dress, as well the LED and Swarovski crystal-studded mermaid bra worn by Azealia Banks during her Fantasea Tour in 2012.
"VFILES launched a wearable tech initiative because as we pursue ways to disrupt fashion it made sense to extend that to wearables," VFiles founder Julie Ann Quay told us of the decision to partner with XO.
While the wearable tech conversation has felt more like an awkward silence over the last few seasons, VFiles XO is the latest in a new wave of young New York labels steering it in a whole new direction — away from Fitbits or Apple Watches and toward clothing that functions as an extension of the body and its myriad emotions. During a week filled with anxious chatter about fashion week in the age of Instagram and permeated with theatrics that often overshadowed the clothes, there are some turning that trend inside out.
Perhaps the craziest thing about VFiles XO, essentially a fibre optic fabric that can be controlled via the wearer's phone, was that it didn't actually serve any utilitarian purpose. Not that Quay probably has any problem with fitness trackers — she does, after all, moonlight as a SoulCycle instructor. But those oversized T-shirts and puffer jackets are concerned simply with facilitating individual self-expression rather than tracking calories or charging your iPhone. "The way we dress, the colours we wear, what we say, how we dance, the music we like are all means of expression and all of these are already connected to digital technology already," says Quay. "Tech is just the last part of being able to wear the connection. New ways of self-expression are new ways of sharing emotion and connectivity — this is exciting."
VFiles XO wasn't the only exhibition in digital fluency that night. Also filling the silence on the same runway was Neurocouture, proffering a range of trippy GIF ponchos inspired by "wearing the internet." Think Donald Trump and Pikachu memes cast towards a tech-savvy audience. "A lot of the influences came just from watching GIFs and animation. I wanted to incorporate that movement, especially visually and aesthetically," founder Nayana Malhotra explained to us before the show. "I was also really inspired by the idea of wearing the internet and being able to link that to your thoughts, because what you wear is such an apparent signifier of your mindstate that linking the two things just seemed really logical."
There were no GOP candidates nor Pokémon at Milk Studios the following Friday, when Chromat architect-turned-fashion designer Becca McCharen presented her latest collection of "structural experiments for the human body." McCharen took inspiration from upstate museum Dia:Beacon, and in particular from the colour theory and light explorations of conceptual artists Robert Irwin and Dan Flavin. "I definitely think the internet — and access to information — has enabled me to become involved in fashion and technology Growing up in Virginia, I had never met a fashion designer before. I didn't know it was a viable career path," McCharen says. "But diving into the web — specifically fashion and tech blogs — has given me the tools to pursue something that otherwise would have been unknown to me."
McCharen's focus is on technology as a tool rather than the end goal. "Emotional connection, expression, protection — these are all goals for Chromat's garments," she says. Last season Chromat showed a dress that expanded into an imposing shape when the wearer experienced adrenaline. It utilised stretchable sensors, nitinol, 3D printing, and Intel's button-sized "Curie" chip to achieve that physical and emotional response. This season McCharen's army of body-positive babes lit up the runway in jellyfish-like LED cage dresses and aerodynamic, LED-trimmed shifts. Stretchable sensors by StretchSense were turned into hand-wrap gloves that allowed each model to control her garment by clenching her hands.
As an industry, fashion is both dependent on change and terrified of it at the same time. Take, for instance, the concern and conflicting opinion over the broken fashion calendar and see-now-buy-now model. If the key to survival in such a time is giving consumers more than just a dress, even if it is fully customisable and covered in cool LEDs, the most innovative brands allow customers access to a brave new world. VFiles, after all, is a social media platform first and a brand second. Mercer Street club kids and other fashion industry hopefuls are the new creative class. Chromat is a world where female DJ collectives rule the decks (they're closely allied with Discwoman and The Factory Girls) while everybody (and every body) can have full access to and customisation of well-fitting high fashion.
That's not to say there aren't challenges to freewheeling through such a world. "3D printed materials are not both soft and durable. Batteries are not small and flexible," laments McCharen. Quay says that packaging, charging, washing, and taking care of the garments were all obstacles when venturing into wearable tech. But nothing is impossible. "I'd love to be able to teleport through my clothes!"
Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Jason Lloyd-Evans