Fashion, for the most part, follows function, as it follows us from infancy to old age. And technology, while it's taken longer than other industries to weave its way into the field, has been permanently embroidered into the process of designing, manufacturing, and marketing the latest looks.
Marty McFly and Iris van Herpen have a lot in common.
The future of fashion for moviegoers in 1989 saw an amazed McFly
pulling on a pair of self-lacing Air Mag
sneakers, technology that wouldn't even be available until a year after his fictional flight to Robert Zemeckis' dystopian prediction of 2015, where the Chicago Cubs could win a World Series, and a billionaire with bad hair could buy his way into political power.
When van Herpen brought her real-life vision of 3D printed fashion to the GRAM in 2016
, seemingly little had changed, save a different design approach to hoverboards and a stand-in for Biff Tannen.
Fashion, for the most part, follows function, as it follows us from infancy to old age. And technology, while it's taken longer than other industries to weave its way into the field, has been permanently embroidered into the process of designing, manufacturing, and marketing the latest looks. There are two other Back To The Future films illustrating this fact to various ends, but even more examples can be found in West Michigan.
It took large investments in research and development before Nike eventually released the HyperAdapt 1.0
last year, and the same challenges have limited expansion in other areas of the fashion industry. According to Lori Faulkner, Fashion Studies
Chair and Assistant Professor at Kendall College of Art & Design, newer technologies like body scanners that collect data used for research and custom designs, laser cutting for intricate patterns, and digital printing photographic quality imagery on fabrics are becoming more accessible.
"The fashion industry was slow to accept the use of computers in product lifecycle management and computer aided design in the 90s," Faulkner says. "One of the last industries to get on board with technology, the industry is fully embracing it now."
Even the most modest clothing, a plain white T-shirt or pair of socks, can punctuate a personal style, and carry an intricate technological backstory. For a long time, a needle and thread was the best way to make a pair of pants, but advances in technology and technique have made much more possible, with no limitation on creativity.
Off the rack
Photographer Steve Mann
built a wearable computer set-up in the early 1980s, with a camera and flashlight mounted to a helmet, and a power source worn in a backpack. His prototype evolved over the next 20 years of development at MIT, from an early iteration that made the wearer look like it was sent from the future to destroy you, to something a little more discrete. The 2012 design of Google Glass was only slightly less weighty and cybernetic looking than Mann's EyeTap
which, even 13 years prior, offered the added benefit of bringing different spectral bands in view.
At Slate Clothing
, which opened at 44 Ionia Ave. in December 2016, sales associate Zach Trisel relies on an Apple iWatch tethered to his smartphone to keep track of messages as well as the time. What was once a computer, communications, and entertainment suite that could take up an entire room, weighs just a few ounces, and goes with pretty much anything.
Wearable technology is one of the fastest expanding segments of fashion, expected to reach $57,653 million in annual revenue by 2022, Allied Market Research
reports, but the technology that goes into producing garments out of nonconductive fabric is often just as impressive.
A 3D bodice design by Kendall student Andrew Taylor.
Differences in the way twill fabrics are created have a major effect on the feel and wear of a garment. Levi's right-hand twill is iconic, and with tighter woven, counter-clockwise spun fibers, provides a smooth finish and distinct fading pattern. Pants made with left-hand twill, like the Seven for All Mankind
or PAIGE Transcend
jeans found at Slate, have a softer, more comfortable feel, and maintain their shape better, owner Stacy Mulder explains.
"It gives it that ultra luxurious, comfortable feel, like you're not even wearing jeans anymore, certainly not that rigid denim that people are used to in mens jeans," Mulder says.
You won't find smartwatches or fitness trackers for sale at Slate, which is unfortunate for Trisel, who's been eyeing the latest waterproof iWatch for some time. The shop focuses on more classic elements of style, emphasizing feel and function, but even old favorites need to be reinvented from time to time.
"We like to carry the newer materials that have a great look and feel, as well as a classic look," Mulder says. "Guys like a good shirt, but they will choose comfort over look pretty much any day of the week. In that sense, pretty much all of the brands are switching materials around and offering breathability without sacrificing quality."
Mulder, who spent a year in Los Angeles studying fashion merchandise marketing, decided it seemed like the perfect time to open her casual men’s clothing store when she returned home from school. As the person her family has always turned for with help buying clothes, Mulder now fills that role for countless local trendsetters, however restrained their interest in haute couture may be.
"There's definitely more of a relaxed look in Grand Rapids," Mulder says. "I wouldn't say there are people wearing crazy trends yet, but our city has grown so much that it's definitely on the horizon, and it's definitely been very exciting seeing that all happen before our eyes. We're very fortunate to be a part of that."
Nike released a short run of the $720-per-pair, self-lacing HyperAdapt 1.0 sneakers in December 2016. Were Marty McFly looking for a pair today, he'd be paying upwards of $5,000 for the same shoes, if he could find them. Classic and hard-to-find shoes are incredibly valuable to the right sneakerhead, and in Grand Rapids, few are more committed to finding the most sought after shoes than Angelo Martinez, owner of Sneaker Stash, LLC
For the last three years, Martinez has scoured the internet for leads on rare shoes, attended trade shows, and gotten the lowdown from those who truly determine which throwbacks or emerging designs carry the most value.
"The younger generation is really into shoes," he says. "Wherever the hype is going on, the more limited it is, the harder it is to get your hands on. That's what I look for. The things you don't see on an everyday basis."
A good sneaker combines both style and comfort, and while style can draw a few looks, comfort is key to mass appeal. Even decades-old examples of Nike's Air Max or Jordans are yet perennial favorites of those who want to look and feel good in their shoes, Martinez says, and that demand is unlikely to change.
A re-release of Nike's Air Jordan.
"Air Max has always been a comfort shoe; definitely a running or exercise shoe," he says, recalling the recent "Air Max Day
" the footwear giant observes every March 26, during which they update and re-release older designs. "They came out with a lot of the original Air Max 90s, and some of the other older ones. They were really popular and sold out everywhere. If you've got one of the Air Max's, of which only 12,000 were made in the U.S., I'm definitely interested."
Nike isn't without its competition, of course, nor is it even winning the race when it comes to comfort. Adidas has laid claim to that crown since it stepped into the future in 2013 with "Boost technology," a thermoplastic polyurethane foam with roots in research by NASA.
It's always been about comfort. And Nike's had to do better because Adidas is stepping their game up with comfort," Martinez says. "They've got the most comfortable shoes on the market right now, and they've got a lot of artists and designers doing collabs with them."
The technology of using 3D printing has changed prototyping for shoes.
No matter what they're made with, paying an exorbitant amount for a pair of shoes seems like a good reason to lock them up in a hyperbaric case, but it's not unheard of for someone to wear them and still sell them off at a profit, Martinez says. Replicas of the original Air Mags from "Back to The Future II" were auctioned off
for tens of thousands a pair, with the proceeds going to Parkinson's research, and you can rest assured Kid Cudi, Kanye West, and other lucky winners have been wearing them around.
Technology in textiles is most visibly evident in synthetic materials. Man made fabrics like rayon and polyester were once championed as the future of fashion, and fell out of it just as quickly. Moreover, as individuals learn more about the natural consequences of their purchasing habits, synthetic materials have come with a caveat.
"There are countless ways in which production of polyester clothing compromises health of lives and ecosystems everywhere," says Marta Swain, owner of Clothing Matters
, an outlet in Grand Rapids’ East Hills neighborhood offering garments made of both environmentally and health conscious materials. “Apparel is among the world’s most toxic industries and a top polluter of water, but it's still excluded from sustainability conversations and metrics."
According to Swain, the production of a single cotton T-shirt could carry the environmental burden of over 640 gallons of water being polluted, as a result of the pesticides used in cotton farming. Synthetics like polyester, on the other hand, while removed from the agricultural process, contribute to microfiber pollution through the laundering process.
Garments found at Clothing Matters are made from fibers that can be grown sustainably and without pesticides, including moso timber bamboo, a different species from that which pandas eat. The independent Oeko Tex 100
certification insures that the bamboo harvest does not leach harmful materials into the surrounding environment, and that the finished product is free of chemical residue.
The benefits of bamboo may stretch even further than environmental consciousness. Bamboo garments contain natural antimicrobial properties that keep odor-causing bacteria at bay, Swain says. Because of the natural properties of bamboo, the clothing doesn't need to be chemically treated to launder.
"This does a couple things," Swain says. "There is no risk of sensitivity to chemicals in our clothing so it is better on the skin. Oftentimes, chemical finish washes out very quickly but because this is an inherent property the fabric will perform for the life of the garment. And, because viscose from bamboo is not a habitat to bacteria, it keeps our microbiome, our first line of defense against invasion and infection, balanced and healthy to provide the best natural immune defense."
Moso timber bamboo can be grown successfully without pesticides, Swain says, and quickly, too; the definition of a sustainable crop. After a little more than two weeks old, Alabama-based nursery Lewis Bamboo
maintains the trees grow up to three feet per day.
New patterns and trends
van Herpen's exhibit at the GRAM exposed a new generation to the potential of 3D printing's use in the fashion industry. During her visit to West Michigan, she met Faulkner and her class, and reviewed a KCAD student-designed 3D bodice and shoe, inspired by the artist herself. Admittedly, 3D printing isn't exactly a new technology in fashion, Faulkner says, but it is still being explored, as are more organic methods.
"We are seeing growth in fabrications for the fashion industry being inspired by nature and sustainability using the concept of growing your own clothes from cultures, as well as advancements in LED and wearable technology that will allow the garment to change while on the wearer."
Technology is essential in the management of the product lifecycle, Faulkner says. It keeps the manufacturing process moving, relays feedback during usage, and enhances performance, as seen in smart fabrics, or e-textiles, and wearable technology. In a sense, a connected and responsive garment that alters its own form and fit based on data from the user, could outline the most basic Internet of Things network, and lead to the only shirt, shoes, or pair of pants someone would ever need.
Machine learning is also an indispensable technology in the fashion industry, Faulkner maintains, now that computers are faster and more affordable. Modern machines are able to gather and organize data on consumer purchases and buying habits, and can be used to define a customer’s preferences and needs in order for a clothing company to create the perfect garment.
"Fashion industry trends in the past have been defined by trend forecasting companies, but in the future they will be defined by the customer and local, regional, and worldwide information provided by online search engines and data, Faulkner says. "On the retail side, this type of information can be used for inventory management that can help reduce waste and increase the sustainability of products. The data could also be used to define competitive pricing, reduce the cost of logistics, and for marketing purposes. Creating the perfect garment for one person would be possible but creating one for the masses may be unattainable."
Faulkner received a B.S. in apparel and textiles from Michigan State University
, and A.A.S in fashion design from the Fashion Institute of Technology
in NYC as part of the visiting student program, much like the one offered at KCAD. After graduation, she worked as a designer in the fashion industry and returned to MSU to help with a major curriculum revision for their apparel and textiles program and in the process was instrumental in bringing in an internal grant and a multi-million dollar in-kind donation, she says. She worked at MSU for 14 years before completing her master's degree and moving to Grand Rapids to serve as the Fashion Studies Chair at KCAD, where she created the fashion studies program.
"At KCAD, I have been able to use all my experiences and knowledge to write the classes and create a program of study infused with collaborative community experiences that give students access to people, current issues and events for them to use their creative and engineering skills to solve real-life design problems," Faulkner says.
Technology has opened the door for a great number of advantages in fashion, in manufacturing, distribution, and functionality, but that's not to say it's without its challenges. Even 3D printed garments, which are becoming more and more accessible, have yet to match the comfort of your grandpa Marty's shoes.
"The materials available are stiff and difficult to move in, so research in new materials presents an opportunity for advancement," Faulkner says. "And using machine language and neural networks to create databases of customer information and preferences is powerful only when used in context with information supplied by experienced and educated humans regarding styling options and guidelines. But the main challenge for designers is keeping up with the new developments while producing viable lines for today’s marketplace."
On the outer side of those obstacles lies the freedom that fashion offers everyone, no matter whether you're a designer, maker, retailer, or otherwise. It's the freedom Faulkner first felt when digging into fashion magazines and the scarf rack at Murphy's Mart as a young girl. The freedom that KCAD students experience attending fashion week, year after year. And the freedom that ties together names like van Herpen and McFly, Armani and Jordan, or Zegna and Zuckerberg.
Whether you feel stylish or not, fashion and the technology behind it play a part in everything you wear. Unless, of course, where you're going, you don't need clothes.
This article is part of Rapid Growth's series highlighting the technological innovators and drivers in West Michigan. To see previous articles in this series, please go here. This series is funded by Open Systems Technologies(OST), a Grand Rapids-based information technology leader that is delivering enterprise level solutions around the globe.
Matthew Russell, the editor of this series, is a writer, baker, inventor and mapmaker living in Grand Rapids. He enjoys bicycling and playing with his daughter as much as possible. You can email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photography by Adam Bird.