katherine shen on fashion's relationship with the mighty machine
The rising popularity of “Year-in-Review” journalism produces a comprehensive, if not overwhelming, annual summary every 31st of December. If this type of reporting is an accurate indicator of where human attention has being directed over the past year, then one facet of life to which much of our time and energy has been devoted has been curiously overlooked. The humanization of machines, which has initially being purely physical (consider the automobile, the crane, even the Rhoomba, all of which are enhanced reproductions of previously human activities), has now broached the realm of the cerebral. Machines are now made to inmitate and improve
on, not only the human body, but the human mind. Progress in AI and deep learning is announced in the latest ‘TechNews’ yet thus far, the arts and the humanities have not yet gathered a systematic response to the mechanization of human intellect. Admittedly, technological progress occurred in 2017, as it did in 2016, 2015. Perhaps, the constancy with which such “breakthroughs” occur mean that advancements are no longer marked by discrete events but moves in a grand arc (bending towards justice?) Why raise any sort of hullabaloo about technology when the modern machine is never obtrusive, and always helpful? Alexa has entered homes, but she is merely a humble personal assistant, who plays music and writes shopping lists. Self-driving cars have descended from the labs of Mountain View, California, to motor shows and public roads, proving again, that technology is capable of seamless integration into the everyday. The mechanization, technologization, and automation of our very existence has become so mundane, it is perhaps, no longer worth remarking on.
As machines seep into all aspects daily life, increasingly personal, personalized and person-like, one industry remains strangely disaffected. The “wildest innovations” in clothing technology this year was decidedly un-wild and embarrassingly obsolete compared to the products pushed out of Silicon Valley. HighSnobiety waxes and wanes about the enhanced properties of new textiles – lighter, warmer, more breathable – and the Business of Fashion hails the invention of the “solar panel dress”, yet many designes have been slow to adopt the technological advancements so readily embraced by other industries. The claim here, however, is not that fashion has remained unchanged by the mechanization that pervades modern day life. Rather, fashion’s embrace of technology seems to be mostly superficial: high-end brands, once too good for social media, now hop onto Instagram, unabashedly appropriating meme culture while physical garments remain resolutely un-electronic. Even though the fashion industry’s obsession with the “cool and relevant” perfectly dovetails into Silicon Valley’s “coolness and relevance”, no major clothing brands have mass produced “smart clothes” the same way tech companies have disseminated Smart Watches, Smart Phones, and Smart Glasses. Such an observation may seem obvious to those who are skeptical of fashion’s utilitarianism; the industry’s inability to act as a carrier for the nifty electronics is just one of clothing’s many ‘useless’ characteristics. However, luxury accessory brands exhibit a similar reluctance to mechanize their products, which are the very same goods other companies are ‘revolutionizing’ with technology. Patek Phillipe and Rolex are in no rush to produce digital, much less touch screen watches; Louis Vuitton is not trying to embed fingerprint recognition locks onto their suitcases (at least not yet); and even the Hermès x Apple Watch line is a muted affair, with Apple being much more vocal about the collaboration than its French counterpart.
Fashion clearly has the opportunity to mechanize its products, even if it is in the form of collaborations, yet partnerships between technology and aesthetics remain few and far between. It would seem that fashion’s response to automation is far more ‘conceptual’ than literal. It is not nifty gadgets, but mechanical ideas that are weaved into design details. The aesthetics of “innovation” and “technology” no longer channels full-body latex suits à la ‘The Matrix’; the future demands something subtler than the clumsy mimicry of the machine’s clean, practical outer shell. Modern garments must not only adopt the image of efficiency, it must be cerebral – mechanical in its very purpose. Innovation in pure aesthetics no longer satisfy consumers who are increasingly desensitized to the new. In a market where a new Apple product is launched every three months, the seasonal cycle of fashion no longer stands at the peak of novelty. Adjustments in the cut of a coat, or the subtle reshaping of a heel pales next to the new wireless Airpods or voice-activated controls. How does a designer create clothing that excites and tentalizes in this new age of wearable machines? The answer seem to lie in appropriating the essence of automation: a machine exists because it is “useful”, it has a purpose. Clothing, too, must prioritise, highlight, worship its own “usefulness”.
The rise of techwear – garments with advanced technical properties – best exemplifies the fashion industry’s attempts to shift from futuristic aesthetics to mechanical purpose. Textiles used in such ultra-modern garment are developed in a scientific space (laboratories) instead of a commercial one (factories). The design process is more about experimentation and less about art. The integration of functionality with form is a response to the redefining of “innovation”. Technological progress has made machines synonomous with the new, and thus, the modern must necessarily be “useful”, because the machine is inherently utilitarian. An industry that had once the proud champion of excess, indulgence, and luxury for luxury’s sake, has shifted away from brazen hedonism, and instead, co-opts “functionality”. The conceptual parallel between garment and machine is affirmed by ACRONYM, perhaps the most influential techwear brand in terms of impact on mainstream fashion. Founder Errolson Hugh speaks about a recurring theme in his designs: “One of the ideas I always come back to – I can’t remember where I first heard it – is the proposition that everyone is already a everyone is already a cyborg; contact lenses, a phone that’s basically external memory…You don’t have to graft a device onto your skeletal system to be a cyborg. Everybody is already a cybernetic organism because of how intimately electronics are implemented into our life”
Fashion’s aspirations towards a seamless synthesis of aesthetics and utilitarinaism is purely reactionary. Humans have become mechanical beings, and the mechanization of our bodies has already surpassed the mechanization of our garb. Designers are playing catch up, and the conceptual embrace of “mechanization” in garments merely creates clothes worthy of the existing man-machine.
Is it, then, time to surrender to the inevitable and embrace the automation of our bodies and lives? Or does fashion (and film and music) offer some temporary solution? Perhaps our creative, conceptual engagement with machines and automation is a fundamentally human response, indeed, the need and desire to come to terms with a strange new world is a profoundly human concern. Machines do not need not to “accept” anything, they merely are. Humans, on the other hand, can move into a new world, a new space without acceptance. The new age of machines makes strange and unfamiliar demands on the human mind and body, which in turn, demands something different from humanitarian pursuits, as embodied by literature, art, and fashion. Clothing that protect us from the elements is no longer sufficeint, rather, gaments are charged with the resposnbiiity of preparing human bodies for a new mechanical reality. Technology has not being built into human flesh, at least not yet, but we struggle today (and tomorrow) to prepare our minds for what appears to be the inevitable automated future.