Wearable technology has become all the rage, and visions of cyborg fashion have begun dancing in our heads. Wearables have already grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, focused largely in the fitness and accessories space. You may already have seen shirts that can monitor your heart rate and purses that can charge your phone.
These early experiments in wearable technology tend to share a common problem: technology and fashion have made some ugly babies. There’s a reason that wearable tech has been mostly relegated to fitness wear. So far, the space has been dominated by chunky shirts that don’t hide their wires very well and glasses that make the wearer look like a robot.
But cutting-edge designers the world over are starting to take wearable tech out of the laboratory and onto the runway. Customers want technology infused into their wardrobe, but, as evidenced by criticism of Google Glass, people also don’t want to look, well, mechanical. The challenge for would-be futuristic fashion designers is now to create wearable tech that people actually want to wear. How do you marry the practical possibilities of technology with the aesthetic standards of high fashion?
Already, designers have risen to the challenge. Though wearable tech is still in its relative infancy, a variety of interesting, compelling and useful tech-heavy fashion designs have made their way onto runways around the world. Though many of them only exist as models and prototypes, these designs illustrate the fashion possibilities of the future.
There is a dueling trend in the high-end wearable tech field. Some designers are looking outward, and exploring how fashion can be influenced by the world around the wearer. Others are taking a look inward, creating clothing that changes based on the biology of whoever puts it on. These may seem like trippy concepts, but both of these principles have already produced some astonishing results.
The futuristic line Rainbow Winters experiments with clothing that changes with sound and light. The line features a leather dress that illuminates as sound increases and a bathing suit that changes in appearance based on light exposure. Designer Amy Winters calls this approach to fashion “visual music,” and a look at her designs make it easy to see why.
There are also outfits in development that react to being looked at. Designer Ying Gao calls this “gaze-activated technology.” When an admirer checks out one of these outfits, it activates tiny motors that create new patterns on your wardrobe. Beauty is now truly in the eye of the beholder. Gao has created two prototype dresses to date, and though each is outfitted with robotic technology, the prototypes – one has been likened to “a jellyfish” and another to “DNA” – weigh no more than a half-pound each.
Some designers have aimed at taking wearable tech beyond social interactions and have visions of wearable technology tackling social issues. Five years ago, student designer Mae Yokoyama created a solar-panel necklace that makes the wearer a mini-solar-power plant.
In the ensuing years, Dutch designer Pauline van Dongen took the idea of solar-powered clothing to the next level. She has released a fashion-forward prototype dress and coat that use the sun’s power to charge your devices while you’re on the go. Though you couldn’t tell by looking at them, the coat has nearly 50 rigid solar cells and the dress itself boasts more than 70. If you decide that Wearable Solar is for you, you can opt to flaunt it by revealing the cells or hide them for a more sleek, traditional look.
If five years has taken us from solar panel necklaces to hidden solar functionality, who’s to say what future developments the coming years will bring?
To date, futuristic fashions made available to consumers have largely been focused on the practical. We want our wallet to charge our phone. We want our shirt to monitor our heart rate. We want to do as much as possible while carrying as little as possible. As the fusion of technology and fashion moves to the next stage, however, we should expect something more. These designers, and others like them, aren’t willing to stop at asking our clothes to act as simple apps. The more ambitious visionaries in the fashion world are asking how technology can transform fashion so that it’s no longer just about the clothes we wear. The people around us, the environment that surrounds us, the thoughts within us and the issues that define us seem poised to have an impact on a broadened fashion world. It seems that fashion in the future will not simply be about what we’re wearing, but also about how what we’re wearing interacts with the world around us.
Judging from these prototypes and models, this interaction might also look really good.