Smarty Pants

What's next in tech-enhanced fashion

Ahmed Riaz of Frog Design
Ahmed Riaz of Frog Design (Photo by John Anderson)

Remember those Hypercolor T-shirts that magically changed from purple to bleach-stained pink according to the wearer's body temperature, decorating one's torso with what were essentially photo-negative sweat marks? If you still have nightmares about glowing peninsulas forming around your love handles, you'll be forgiven for thinking that fashion's flirtation with technology in the Nineties was mercifully brief.

Think again. Tech-enhanced fashion is entering its next phase, pushed forward by young designers equally motivated by style, sustainability, and serious geekitude. A handful of these fashion innovators are coming to SXSW Interactive to deliver the news: Soon your clothes will be smarter than you are.

And this time it won't be just a passing fad, according to Dr. Sabine Seymour, founder of Moondial Inc. and director of the Fashionable Technology Lab at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. The daughter of a fashion designer and granddaughter of a tailor, Seymour started programming on a Commodore 64 at the age of 12 and designed her first wearable tech, a virtual reality helmet, in 1996. Now she is working on fabrics that will function as conduits for digital data, creating a kind of "soft motherboard."

Heated shoes for chilly offices and GPS blouses that alert our significant others when we're stuck in traffic are just two examples of the smart clothing that's on the horizon. But Seymour is most excited about clothes that change shapes, colors, patterns, and functionality, allowing consumers to "curate their own garments." In addition to the obvious draw of a pair of bicycle shorts that can transform into an evening gown in under five minutes, these garments might just banish disposable clothes from our closets and landfills for good.

Seymour cautions that such products are still "five or 10 years off." However, design teams are already putting customizable fashion in the hands of the people. Mary Huang and Jenna Fizel of Continuum Fashion have designed "the first crowd-sourced fashion label," allowing customers to upload images and body measurements onto customizable templates, which they then produce using inkjet printers and old-fashioned sewing machines. The duo also uses 3-D printing to create futuristic-looking high heels that resemble delicate modern sculptures and a 3-D-printed bikini made of interlocking nylon discs. (Having trouble picturing it? Imagine a Slave Leia costume by way of Ikea).

"I like the Renegade Craft Fair, but I can't really wear cute dresses that often," laments Daniel Stillman, who represents the more manly side of 3-D-printed fashion on the panel. His company, GothamSmith, started with four computer-savvy friends lamenting the shortage of cool, affordable, heirloom-quality men's accessories. Now they design 3-D-printed cufflinks and pendants shaped like bicycle gears, anvils, and headphones. GothamSmith's designs actually harness the limitations of 3-D printing to create a handmade look. In granular materials binding, tiny beads of glue are printed onto successive layers of stainless steel dust – "almost like a dot matrix printer," Stillman says. When the finished product is heated, the grains of metal fuse together, but the surface texture left by the granules ironically makes the objects look hand-cast.

Other sessions focus on streamlining and diversifying the wearable tech first pioneered by the fitness industry. Sarah Rotman Epps of Forrester Research (presenting "Wearables: Moving from Niche to Mainstream") sees the future of wearable tech in ingestibles and injectables that will literally vanish into the body.

Ahmed Riaz of Frog Design agrees. The Austin-based user interactivity designer is less interested in fashion per se than "how it's going to change your perception of the world." Riaz's workshop, "Designing Wearable Technology and the Augmented Self," will explore wearable tech using a rather low-tech example: the watch. "Think of when people first started wearing watches. In a way, you suddenly controlled time. And it changed the way we worked."

It also, incidentally, gave us some killer Swatches.

Related Events

Smarty Pants

The Skin as Metaphor: Fashion, Technology, & Body

Saturday, March 9, 12:30pm

Radisson, Town Lake Ballroom

3-D Fashion: Nonstop Innovation in Production & Fit

Saturday, March 9, 12:30pm

Omni Downtown, Longhorn

Designing Wearable Technology & the Augmented Self

Monday, March 11, 3:30pm

Driskill Hotel, Maximilian

Wearables: Moving From Niche to Mainstream

Monday, March 11, 3:45pm

Hilton Austin, Room 615AB

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wearable tech, Sabine Seymour, Moondial, Fashionable Technology Lab, Mary Huang, Jenna Fizel, Continuum Fashion, Daniel Stillman, GothamSmith, Sarah Rotman Epps, frog design, Ahmed Riaz

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