Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Suzanne Lee


Suzanne Lee’s Fashioning the Future: Tomorrow’s Wardrobe was published late last year by Thames & Hudson. Including chapters that range from “The Spray-On Dress” and “The Growable Suit” to “The Self-Assembling Raincoat”, the text represents Lee’s considerable research into the future of fashion as well as our ongoing curiosity for garments that move or adapt to the changing environment. While Lee’s research unquestionably focuses on the future, perhaps one of the most interesting outcomes is the realisation that our interest in clothing that walks and talks is not a recent phenomenon. For instance, Lee notes: “Battery-powered ‘flash jewellery’ in the form of kinetic or illuminated hatpins, brooches and diadems, became the fashion fad in France and England during the late 1870s and 1880s.” Such historical references are followed by a chapter on “The Shape-Shifting Skirt” which includes “Spring Shoes” that date to the 1930s and an inflatable carrier/apron from 1956, which handily holds washing while the wearer pegs clothing on the line. Some areas of fashion, it seems, have long toyed with finding the next new thing. In the following interview, Lee speaks to Jessica Hemmings about the future of fashion, from the research that informs Fashioning the Future and the realities of wearable computing to the challenges of collaborative practice and the emergence of bio-textiles.

J: How did your research for Fashioning the Future begin?

S: The book initially evolved out of my interest in wearable technology. I discovered the research at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] in wearable computing and began to see work that was challenging what clothing might be in the future. Nearly a decade ago, at a symposium on Wearable Computing in Atlanta, I met only one other woman, Despina Papadopoulos of 5050. We were the only two people who came from a design background (from my case from a fashion background). I thought, “there are people here who are making things that are supposedly geared to be worn but none have any understanding of textiles or clothing. None were working with designers.” It was quite hard, I suggested collaboration and they laughed.

J: The division between technology and design seems to be a longstanding problem.

S: There seemed to be two camps then, one was coming from an engineering background with no understanding of how or why people wear things. But the other, the textile camp, really had no skill or knowledge of how to use electronics. The two need to be brought together. My research for the book began with electro-textiles and the wearable technology, but as things evolved I also became aware of other technologies.

J: There must be examples that successfully bridge the divide between technology and design?

S: Manel Torres is an example. He had a very traditional fashion education from the Royal College of Art and then went on to do a PhD at Imperial College in the Chemistry Department. [Torres FabriCan moves fashion away from looms and sewing machines and instead has developed a spray-on non-woven material that covers the body in lieu of clothing.] I find those sorts of crossovers that are situated in a much broader picture interesting. People are now questioning what textiles and fashion could be or how we could make things and do things in a different way. Does a fabric always have to come in a roll of cloth or be put together on a sewing machine? The picture of what we will wear in the future is actually much broader than simply looking at smart textiles. There are many versions of how we might make things in the future. But we can also question what clothes might do, other than what they have traditionally done, which is to keep us warm.

J:  Can you explain why the fashion industry, while it always seems to be looking for the next new thing, is relatively reluctant to take up some of these possibilities?

S: I think it is complicated, but the number one problem is that most of the designers, here in this country anyway, simply don’t have the resources to devote to that type of research project. One or two like Alexander McQueen or Hussein Chalayan will put out one showpiece, which uses shape memory polymers or electroluminescence, for instance. But essentially they are showpieces and there is no way they can be put into manufacture. Designers either don’t have the time or they don’t have the money to devote to researching at that level. Even if they do create some sort of prototype, they find it impossible to get it manufactured because the traditional fashion manufacturing system at present is not geared to small, technical production runs. For example, Hussein Chalayan wanted to make an electric blanket jacket. He went to an electric blanket manufacture and asked if they could produce it and they said yes but needed a minimum order of ten thousand. Those kinds of numbers make it very difficult for the high end of fashion. These changes have come from the mainstream companies. There are some companies who have gone out to China and have educated the factory manager in how to stitch the textile interface. But they have to hold the hand of the manufacturer and you can only do that if you are working with a really big order.

J: Are there any countries with an industrial base that is set up in a way that means they are less plagued by this problem of needing volume, or is this predicament worldwide?

S:  In fact it is in Britain that you can still find little factories that will do small runs, which will create one hundred or two hundred of something. But it would be so expensive to do that. And the fashion industry is reluctant to take on the risk and the hassle. Until they can see that there is a product on the market that they can see is selling so well that they can make money they will wait and watch others try it out. This attitude means that everything takes a lot longer. There has been so much hype around technologies, but the reality is that these technologies are not going to hit the fashion industry anytime soon. When I first started looking at this a decade ago everyone thought we would be talking into our sleeves by now. I think it is going to be at least another ten years before we do see anything like that on the streets.

J: Is the collaborative element always a relatively uncomfortable relationship within these projects?

S: There are examples. Levi’s and Philips put together a unique studio of people whereby they brought together electronic engineers and programmers with designers recruited from the Royal College of Art from Fashion and Weaving. In one room you had sewing machines and pattern cutting taking place next to people soldering circuits. There was a lot of tension, but over a period of time people learnt about each other’s disciplines. Although it has been much criticised, the ICD+ Mooring [Industrial Clothing Design] Jacket (2000) developed in that studio was a successful product because it understood the market: the urban nomad. I think they grasped the fact that if you choose a really technical garment and you work with technical textiles then that user or wearer is familiar with the idea of technology. They are already carrying a mobile and an mp3 player so to plug it into the jacket is not such a huge leap. I think they also understood how to bring the two companies together and create a product that was hybrid of technology and fashion. The fact that they terminated the studio was down to the fact that they still felt that while there was a real niche market in London the wider market really wasn’t ready for it. In fact, the basic electronic components needed a lot more development. When I spoke to Paul Gough who managed the studio he said that they felt that it needed smaller developers like people such as CuteCircuit to come up with the ideas of what the context might be for these products and how people might use them, rather than a big company like Philips.

J: And the other end of the spectrum of effective collaboration?

S: CuteCircuit is planning to launch their Hug Shirts this year. They are getting to the point were wearable technology needs to be. In fact it is not wearable technology; it is clothes again. It is a new generation of clothing. CuteCircuit is just two people; one with a technical computing background and one design trained and they are working on a really simple design brief. Their hug jacket came about because they took a survey of what their local student community would most like to have right now and the response was “a hug.” They came back to the studio with the design question, “how do we offer a remote hug?” I think that approach to using technology is what is going to make things successful. It is not starting from the point where you have people saying we have these technologies, how can we stick them on the body? Instead it starts from an understanding of human desires and what we do in our daily lives. It notices a need to create something and believes that technology can help. I think this kind of mindset is why you now see interaction designers leading these kinds of investigations rather than technology companies.

J: And is this where the future now lies for fashion? What about sustainability and bio-textiles?

S: When I started looking at the idea of growing clothing or growing textiles it seemed so far fetched. I wasn’t even sure that there was enough to fill a chapter [of Fashioning the Future]. There were two projects – biojewelry in London and Tissue Culture and Art in Perth, Australia. Bio-textiles could have been seen as a one-off, but in fact what has happened is that more and more questing of the use of biotechnologies seems to be taking place in the design world. The idea is that with biomaterials you can fuse materials in the laboratory that are natural, recyclable and biodegradable. You can grow as much of it as you need and use minimal resources. The fact that biojewelry looked at the human body for raw material and Tissue Culture and Art were talking about a living garment show the extremes. But the idea that we can grow things from simple cells is much more enduring. My own Bio Couture project looks at something as simple as cellulous that has been around for millennia. It is not as though this is a new technology. It is the transfer of something from the natural world to explore the potential of these materials and see if they can work in a different context. I can eat what I am growing now in the laboratory, it is perfectly harmless and benign in that respect. It may well be that when it comes to exhibiting these garments we will have something that you can eat.

J: And do you think we will be open to the idea of grown fashion by the time it is realised?

S: When you tell people your current research project is about growing clothes they think you are a nut. And when you tell them it is growing bacteria, they think you should be stopped! But I think it is a case of breaking down prejudice. I do think fashion can change opinions.

Future Materials (issue 4, 2006: 19-21)