TRADING ON THE PAST
It’s especially visible in menswear, where words such as ‘heritage’ and ‘provenance’ have become the sector’s most potent buzzwords, and where today’s youngsters aspire to dress in styles their grandfathers might have considered hopelessly outdated. But it’s no less apparent when you look at womenswear in detail; a field where, despite the hype, there’s little sense of real innovation at play. These days, luxury is defined by archaic couture techniques and romantically impractical shapes, by painstakingly handmade fabrics and techniques to the point where even the most ‘cutting edge’ designers – Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière, or Loewe’s J.W. Anderson – are hailed as radicals despite having aesthetics which seem to have become marooned at a point in time somewhere in the late Seventies. And even the most tech-savvy brands (case in point Burberry, which has embraced social media and virtual retailing strategies to turn itself from heritage dinosaur to global powerhouse) keep their innovative impulses confined to fields that are entirely separate from the runway.
And yet all this is happening despite the fact that we’re living in what we once expected to call the Space Age; a world where, month by month, the boundaries of technology shift, and where fact long surpassed the fantasy of science fiction; where driverless cars are a reality and we’re only a matter of years from functioning robots and commercial space travel. When you look at it in that context, fashion’s season-after-season tinkering with hemlines and colours and decades-old silhouettes begins to seem, not excitably new any more, but rather hopelessly quaint. And when you look at what’s actually happening in textile technology – as recent exhibits at Somerset House by material scientists The Unseen and radical knitting collective Knyttan demonstrate – it’s not hard to understand why. The future, after all, looks set to be one where the end-user can create their own clothing at the touch of a button. And in that future, you may, quite simply, not need fashion designer at all.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
But there are, at last, some glimmers of change. Fashion seems to be tiring of digging through its back catalogue and is starting to look to the new again. Last season, Richard Nicoll closed his show with a slip covered with delicate strands of fibre optic light, made in collaboration with London-based Studio XO (a practice best known for designing Volantis, a revolutionary flying dress, for Lady Gaga.) In Paris, young Dutch designer Iris van Herpen has infiltrated the closed ranks of the couture world with mesmerising garments made using cutting-edge techniques - including laser cutting, injection moulding and 3D printing.
Meanwhile, Opening Ceremony’s tech-geek separates come complete with built-in charges, and Fashion Fringe-winning duo Fyodor Golan have debuted garments made entirely from smartphones. And there are, beyond these individual experiments, some wider success stories – notably that of Hussein Chalayan, the unsung godfather of tech fashion, who is finally receiving recognition for his inventive, magical marriage of art, clothing and science. But the real innovation is happening far from the catwalk circus, in the far more prosaic world of sportswear. There, giants like Nike and Adidas are pioneering the use of performance fabrics in elite sport, making runners faster and swimmers sleeker, reducing world records a millisecond at a time. And the technologies these companies are using – sweat-reducing, heat-retaining, biometric-data capturing – are the ones that seem to be slowly trickling down to the mainstream; Uniglo’s Heat-Tech range and Ralph Lauren’s biometric T-shirt are just two of the most high-profile examples now on the market. It’s the future – just not, perhaps, the future we thought it was going to be. And maybe, before too long, fashion’s today will finally catch up with the world’s tomorrow.