3D Printers and Cosmic Mirrors: #techstyle Showcases the Future of Fashion

Textiles, meet #techstyle. Running from March 6 through July 10 in the Foster Gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts, the #techstyle exhibition aims to explore the expanding relationship between fashion and technology, along with the implications of that change for both the assembly and use of clothing. Some works on display—a Tweetable dress, a remote-controlled frock, and 3D printed platform shoes—seem drawn straight out of science fiction.

Structurally, the space is divided into three main showrooms: “Production,” “Performance,” and a connecting section that features four pieces from several well-known designers. “Production” highlights the use of technology in physical construction, with works arranged spatially by technique; laser cutting, sustainable practices, 3D printing, and electronics. “Performance” contains garments that are either products of performances or dynamic artistic experiences unto themselves. Throughout the gallery, other forms of visual media—prominently, videos of pieces on the catwalk and behind-the-scenes looks at technical elements—offer additional perspectives on a particular garment’s history, adding to the narrative quality of the exhibition.

Michelle Finamore, co-curator of the exhibition, believes that the value of #techstyle extends beyond pure entertainment. She hopes that the exhibition encourages viewers to consider the interplay between clothing and the modern world in which it operates: How is new technology redefining traditional notions of dress, and in what ways is it expanding the boundaries of design and display? More broadly, what do synergies between high tech and high fashion herald for the future of people’s interactions with their clothing?

The exhibition offers a diverse take on all of these considerations. Drawing from the worlds of wearable tech and haute couture alike, #techstyle features pieces from the runways of iconic fashion houses like Alexander McQueen and Comme des Garçons, the collections of modern-day atelier superstars Viktor&Rolf;, and the sewing machines—or rather, 3D printers—of specialty design studios like threeASFOUR. Represented artists hail from all corners of the world. Israeli-born designer Noa Raviv’s digitally rendered “Bodysuit” (2014) stands alongside “Kinematics 8”(2016), a laser-sintered dress created by the Somerville-based Nervous System, the co-founders of which, Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis Rosenberg, completed their undergraduate degrees at MIT.

The producers have taken special care to highlight works of local origin, identifying them with a black-and-white “b” symbol on accompanying wall labels. “We thought it was incredibly important to emphasize the Boston connection in the show, because we are a tech hub, and it’s amazing to see how much of what’s happening here is connected to both the national and international fashion worlds,” Finamore said.

In many cases, the introduction of advanced technology has transformed fashion design into a cross-disciplinary process, combining complex mathematical modeling, graphic design, and materials science approaches to fabrics with traditional drawing and tailoring skills. In the making of the main exhibition piece, “Anthozoa cape and skirt, Voltage Collection” (2013), Dutch designer Iris van Herpen worked with Neri Oxman, professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, to develop novel 3D digital fabrication techniques. The result evokes the texture and appearance of its eponymous life form, a class of marine organisms including coral reefs and sea anemones. “The designers of this piece are very interested in how you can replicate natural processes using technology,” Finamore said. “[One of the difficulties] designers encounter with 3D printing is that it usually requires a hard material, but wearables require much softer, pliable ones. This is one of the first garments to utilize a softer silicon-based printed material.”

Other objects in the exhibition practice a similar mimicry. Nature and natural forms clearly serve as the inspiration for the LED e-broidered “Tuxedo”(2014) by Akris and “The Bird” (2014) from T H E U N S E E N’s recent Air Collection. The latter, a leather cape featuring feathers coated with heat-sensitive dye, recalls the fluid, rhythmic molting of fowl. The vision for “Tuxedo” is drawn from a larger biological system: the cosmos. Dozens of LED lights stitched into the fabric run from the lapels of the jacket down to the pant cuffs. The bulbs, arranged in constellations inspired by Thomas Ruff’s astral photographs, twinkle like little electronic stars. Many of the other works—Bitoni’s “‘Molecule’ Shoe”, Raviv’s “Bodysuit”—also reference the natural order, if not necessarily living elements, vis-à-vis carefully rendered proportions and calculated geometry. Technology and nature often exist in contradiction, but #techstyle explores the interconnectedness of the two realms through the lens of fashion.

#Techstyle also considers those at the opposite end of the production spectrum: wearers. A few pieces directly address the function of a clothing piece or accessory item. Ralph Lauren’s “Ricky Bag with Light” (2015), for instance, includes a light-up interior pocket lining and a built-in phone charger for the truly smartphone-addicted. However, most works are less overt in addressing the user’s role. Issey Miyake’s “132 5. Ensemble” (2012) transforms from a two-dimensional pattern to a theoretically functional purse and dress by folding like origami; Viktor & Rolf’s Wearable Art collection pieces can be removed from the wearer, unraveled, and hung on the wall as art pieces. In any case, whether directly or indirectly, many of the pieces challenge traditional notions of “wearing”.

Much like the clothing itself, the creation of the exhibition gallery involves collaboration across disciplines. Everything from the installation backdrops, black and angled to hide all electrical wiring for minimalism’s sake, to the lighting, illuminated from below and above the piece to achieve a “floating” effect, is meticulously crafted to create a certain ambiance. “The process involves a lot of coordination,” said exhibition designer Chelsea Garunay. “Conservators, carpenters and electricians, designers, curators, videographers… we all work together to create a cohesive experience.”

Through the interaction of exhibition pieces and gallery design, #techstyle aims to create an immersive environment where viewers can explore cutting-edge fashion technologies and consider how clothing, both in its design and its use, is transforming within the digital landscape. “I would love for people to leave with the idea that… a dramatic shift on our lives and lifestyles is happening right now in the fashion world,” Finamore says. The future of fashion is a shifting evolution of construction and interaction, design and display. #techstyle hopes to explore these questions in microcosm—while leaving room for some dress-Tweeting, 3D-printing fun.

—Staff writer Qianqian Yang can be reached at qianqian.yang@thecrimson.com.


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