In 1938, the U.S. edition of VOGUE magazine asked fashion designers, What will Eve wear in the year 2000? Back then, the future of fashion was pondered based on one question alone – What do we want and what do we need? – regardless of technical feasibility. Ideas included apparel that adapts to the body and climate, luminous electronics for new aesthetics, and wireless telephones and decorative radios that attach to belts.
Fast forward to late 2019. All these ideas have become even more important. We find ourselves in the midst of radical changes yet again – we live longer, travel faster, and are becoming more productive. To cope with this speed of change and remain happy and healthy, we must design our environment more efficiently. We need better and more adaptive computers, mobile phones, homes, planes – and clothes. The idea of integrating technology into garments is not new; we tend to forget that they already feature technology.
Let’s look at the zipper, for example. It was invented in 1851 by engineers and originally meant for bags and footwear. At the time, zippers were not much to look at, they often jammed and were somewhat annoying. Then, during an inspirational journey designers quickly recognized the opportunity the zipper offered for clothes: getting dressed and undressed more quickly! What a revolution! Back to the start: Zippers were invented in a time of transition, when cars refashioned mobility and made life faster, longer, and more efficient. Sound familiar? It does. Fashion designers solved problems by introducing wearable technology: up, down, quickly on and off, and pretty to boot.
The zipper genuinely is the perfect image. If design and technology could be dovetailed to the same degree, we could overcome numerous challenges. After all, fashion always has been innovative, future-oriented, and on the edge (pun intended). The first computer ever invented was a knitting machine, sewing machines constituted near-robots, and stretch fabrics were borrowed from space travel. So, what happened? This is the problem – NOTHING happened. The fashion industry has not moved in this regard in the past 30 years, always focusing on the global market. Scaling and globalization were the talk of the town while innovation had to stand in the corner like a misbehaving child. Now it’s time for retaliation.
The market – that is, we consumers – need a new type of clothing. Why else would sports apparel be in fashion at the moment? Because it is wearable function. Comfortable shoes that allow me to walk faster? Sneakers. Pants I can wear to the gym, the office and parties? Yoga pants. Product innovation now is coming from a different side, the sporting goods industry, although it should emerge from the original segment, the fashion industry.
This process is not new. Just look at what has come to pass in other industries over the past 20 years: The movie, music, hospitality, transportation and other sectors have been turned inside out radically within an extremely short span of time. What do Spotify, Airbnb and UBER have in common? Their founders do not have any roots in the industry but were frustrated with the status quo. They snatched up the latest technologies and invented new solution in new channels.
The same is happening to the fashion industry. If the original hesitates to change, somebody else will do it. Without requiring much research, it is safe to say that sustainability is NOT innovation! Sustainability in the sense of longevity must be the standard at any rate. I enjoy working with European manufacturers because they are very pragmatic in this regard. If I ask about sustainability, they tend to shrug and say, We have been doing sustainability from the beginning (which usually means, for generations!), it makes total business sense, and we like to produce quality.
The true innovation is new materials made with modern production methods, not only because they are new, but because they help us advance in terms of function, reduced use of resources, and environmental protection. The purpose of our clothes extends beyond providing cover, and they need to do more than just look good. For example, they could generate energy, foster our health, or be so breathable they no longer need to be washed.
What should we do? As with so many things, the answer can be found in the past: Embark on a journey, discover new things, concepts and ideas in other industries and transfer them to and into clothes. Back to the zipper: Designers recognized its potential, adjusted it, and started a revolution. We can do it again! To the fashion designers I say, that is your job now. Your industry is not coming up with anything innovative at the moment. So go out there, do research, ask questions, experiment, and learn!