Today Utopia, Tomorrow Reality

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(published by J´N´C edition 1/13, Illustration by Frauke Berg/ www.bergwerk-illustration.com)

It’s no secret that fashion anticipates. Created by the pioneers of our social caravan on its journey through time, it gives all those who discover it a strong sense of the present. You could call it the visible surface of the here and now, or the smallest cog in the gearbox of aesthetic innovation. The one that turns the fastest. Despite all its ostensibly pioneering achievement, we do have to question, however, the truly innovative spirit of the fashion industry.

Where does the unfettered dominance of cotton come from? Was the search for serious alternatives simply halted with the advent of polyester and viscose? And why are we stuck with production processes that lag far behind the realm of the possible? In terms of a technological ‘redesign’ of human beings, why is fashion still playing an apparently subsidiary role? Are the heroes of tomorrow expected to save our world in a state of undress?

Who, if not fashion?

It is really rather astonishing: we mollycoddle our Tamagotchi pets, invent computers that politely say goodbye before crashing and burning on us and we optimise our bodies with plastic surgery. And what does fashion do? Yes, fashion, where the creation of an article of clothing with more than one collar is considered highly innovative. “The development and use of new technologies is always like playing with fire. But, after all, even the discovery of fire itself must have involved playing with fire,” argues Hendrik-Jan Grievink, researcher, designer and co-founder of the ,Next Nature’ think tank. Together with his partner Koert van Mensvoort he recently published the book ‘Next Nature’, which tracks the increasing overlap of (human) nature and technology. And Grievink is right: for quite some time now we have been moving in a world of identity-expanding products. So why is fashion seemingly happy to leave the development of new eyewear with integrated augmented-reality-systems to the likes of Google? Couldn’t Ray-Ban undertake such developments?

Jackets that inflate like an airbag when you’re involved in a bad collision, integrated solar panels, LEDs, computer systems – all of these examples are feasible in terms of technological advances. Just like clothing that can be scanned using a smartphone. Why can’t we access background information about a production process by RFID code or at least be taken automatically to an e-commerce portal? According to Anina, ex-supermodel and passionate advocate of online technologies in the fashion arena, it wouldn’t even be a cost factor. “The appropriate equipment for such functions can be obtained for next to nothing in any electrical shop. Even the smallest fashion labels could afford to do that. It’s solely down to a lack of knowledge or inspiration that such ideas aren’t being turned into a reality on a larger scale,” according to Anina in a lecture she gave last November at the ‘Beyond Fashion Summit’ in Berlin.

According to Gabriele Henkel of the Henkel dynasty: “Technological aversion can often be explained by the fact that user instructions are not understood.” Before you puzzle over the instructions it would probably make sense to pick up the said appliance: do rather than despair. For Anina, living in her chosen home, China, where there are seemingly unrestricted possibilities, it is incomprehensible that the apparently future-fixated fashion industry can continue its slumber through the introduction of such wide-ranging technologies. With her platform ‚360Fashion.Net‘ she wants to change all that by finding out about the latest communication tools. And that’s not all. Anina is developing an interactive online magazine that recently won her the title ‘Nokia Developer Champion’.

Neither time nor money

Fashion has what it takes to transform itself from a subtle form of communication to a concrete language tool. It has the potential to extend the reality of the wearer even beyond a narrow aesthetic framework. Why then does it leave these possibilities unexploited? A possible explanation is that even mass production processes hardly seem compatible with intelligent clothing, not even with serial production. Because these manufacturing principles form the basis for the leitmotif of short-term profitability. The industry is focused on launching new collections onto the market every six or three months or, at times, even every four weeks. The values of those collections have then, in essence, expired within the same timeframes. Indeed, innovation can often only be successful in the medium to long-term because it requires several phases of optimisation. Investment in new technology has to be a desired goal. However, if the interest in innovation is too superficial and producers, in the first instance, have their eyes only on additional sales arguments in order to maximise profits, then progress will only be relative. On top of that, consumers have to familiarise themselves with their own possibilities. They have to realise that by buying a new product they will be purchasing the opportunity of a better, faster or more comfortable life. With a smartphone this lasts only a few months – in the fast-moving fashion scene the timescale seems half an eternity by comparison. There, it’s sufficient to keep small fires burning, like thermo-active colours or nylon stockings with aloe vera molecules that are rubbed off during wear, pampering the wearer’s legs. But, let’s be honest: such novelties are a little like prescribing Diet Coke to the overweight, which only makes the issue worse. Is it presumptuous to criticise the introduction of such products for being based on questionable intentions?

It’s possible that sports and outdoor clothing represents a certain exception. In the end, it does the trick for the daily struggle of breathability, insulation and moisture-regulation – meanwhile even up to double digit minus temperatures. The fact that it is occupied with solving specific problems, like the special demands of sport or extreme weather conditions explains its success only partially. Who needs specialised clothing if you’re just popping down the road to buy a pint of milk ? The continuing expansion of the outdoor market can hardly be explained by arguing that we are increasingly confronted with extreme weather conditions in our daily lives, instead, it is much rather the perception that we will appear more adventurous with the right jacket.

But should real innovation not pursue a higher goal and be capable of development for the future? If it’s not capable of saving the world, it should at least have a clear added value for the user, above and beyond saving time on applying moisturiser in the morning. And shouldn’t this added value concentrate on the everyday lives of the majority, i.e. those who live in climatically temperate zones? The car industry shows how it can be done. Here, increasingly, fibre-reinforced composites and technical textiles are now used. With these light materials they are hoping to make a significant contribution to the development of a new generation of energy-efficient cars. So it’s a question of new functions – just as in medicine, which is also conducting research into fibres. Heart valves made of textiles, clothing that alleviates skin ailments, warmth-conducting sleeves for physiotherapy, a shirt that functions simultaneously as an ECG and transmits the data automatically to the doctor – this may sound like science fiction, but it is already today’s medical reality.

Cotton is not the last word

Of course the textile industry has developed in the last few years too. However, if you examine these developments under the microscope, you will see that many are lacking in long term sustainability. The natural fibres were optimised during cultivation? Fine, as long as this wasn’t directly connected with the use of complex chemical cocktails for pest control and gene-manipulated seed stock. Gene manipulation, in terms of biodiversity and long-term agricultural activity, is certainly not a project for the future. In a very negative sense at the very most: almost 90% of soya bean and cotton production in the USA, two of its chief exports, are already genetically manipulated.

It seems that a mixture of GMO-free and manipulated seed stock in agriculture is predestined. Nevertheless, cotton, as the textile industry’s most popular fibre, has been the subject of criticism in terms of its resource and cost levels. So it’s a good job that we now have numerous other raw materials from which fibres can be manufactured. However, whether it is soya, maize or bamboo – in most cases the new fibres are made using the viscose process. We’re talking about cellulose fibres, which are converted into yarn with the aid of various chemicals. During this procedure the original material is, to a certain extent irrelevant, as its characteristics get lost in the manufacturing process anyway. Bamboo, for instance, is a rapidly growing and uncomplicated plant. As a raw material it is really extremely resilient and sustainable but forfeits the majority of its ecological advantages during processing.

One option that can be implemented on a large scale is fibre recycling. Although, as far as natural fibres are concerned, this will often be down-cycling, i.e. the quality of the fibres becomes downgraded during processing. But the avoidance of further exploitation of raw materials is, in fact, in every sense, a pointer to the future and in it resides the chance of a sustainable structural transformation. Not only cotton, but also PET (polyethylene terephthalate) can, meanwhile, be completely recycled, into shirts for example. And it is not the only reason to take this opportunity to emphasise that polyester is, in its application, far better than its reputation suggests.

Open your eyes and go for it

We are quickly realising that so-called new materials are only accepted by the industry if their mode of production follows old patterns. As only then do investments remain manageable. And, in addition, the top dogs amongst the producers and suppliers need fear no competition. And they avoid the risk of being sidelined by rationalisation. Because innovation can also mean going back to old, tried-and-tested methods, as with hemp, for instance. Just like bamboo, hemp requires much less water than cotton. Due to its cannabinoids, it can be cultivated without the need for pesticides. It is also obliging and versatile in its processing. “Hemp cultivation is suffering from a substantial developmental deficit because it was banned for many years. That’s why we need to invest generously in its research today, everything from the cultivation, to harvesting and processing,” according to Tilman Herzog, Press Officer for the label HempAge. However, working with hemp can be rewarding. Its basic characteristics hold great promise for the future, once the developmental bottlenecks have been overcome.

Hemp is only one example from a whole range of natural fibres whose potential is nowhere near exhausted. With animal fibres it’s the same story. “There are many animals that build themselves cocoons,” notes Beth Mortimer in an interview with the specialist German magazine Textilwirtschaft. As a member of the Oxford Silk Group at Oxford University she conducts research into materials that can be made from spiders’ spun fibres. These are extremely resilient to tearing, but due to a tendency to cannibalism in spiders, and the fact that they are not easily domesticated, it is difficult to harvest their threads on a large scale, as Mortimer readily admits. Nevertheless silk does have many facets.

Cellulose fibres are a lot more than a mere typically aggressive chemical. The most well-known example is Tencel from Lenzing. This Austrian firm has developed its own process that works without the use of toxic solvents. Suzanne Lee is carrying out research at Central St. Martins College in London. She has found a way of taking a cellulose mat through a fermentation process using microbiological action on green tea, then drying it and processing it like a textile. Her research is only in its early stages, because the material absorbs readily and soaks up a lot of water (up to 98 percent of its own weight). Nevertheless, bacterially produced cellulose holds the promise of a finer texture than plant-based sources. An additional advantage is that the material produced by Suzanne Lee is completely biologically degradable. “The slow growth – as well as the fact that it is around 100 times more expensive to produce than plant cellulose – has hindered its industrial application up to now,” comments Dr. Sascha Peters from the Haute Innovation Agency.

But today’s utopia, as we all know, may be the reality of tomorrow. Peter Waeber, the founder of the Bluesign standard , speaks out in favour of synthetic fibres. For him the future holds enormous potential for synthetic fibres, much more than their reputation would indicate, also in the area of environmental protection. The traditional processes and usage of materials are far from truly reflecting the actual technological stage we are at. “Chemical processes are not bad per se, we just need the correct intelligent processes,” says Waeber. And let’s face it: for each kilogramme of textiles we use 1.5 kilogrammes of chemicals, and that’s for conventional vegetable fibre processing.

One vision, one goal!

Let’s summarise: in terms of material innovation, the functional extension of clothing and its finishing processes, we are technologically further advanced than the market reflects. The main reasons for the time delay lie in the ever- accelerating fashion cycles and the high price sensitivity of the markets. However, the wheel of technological innovation does not stop turning, even if the cog of aesthetic innovation loses momentum. It is the businesses that are particularly on the ball which are recognising the time/price crisis and are placing their bets elsewhere. In doing so, they need to demonstrate humility before the task ahead of them and find the path to the supporting experts and scientists. Progress is possible, alongside a shift in economic interests, even if, to begin with, the consequence is deceleration.

In addition to this it is important to educate the customer. They are the ones who need to be integrated in the developmental process. It’s not a mistake to explain innovation to them, demonstrate the advantages and give them a role in the process. In the case of the smartphone, as a comparison, this is a short process, despite the complexity of its function. So why in the fashion industry do we believe that people are only capable of understanding washing instructions? That they are too lazy to do anything other than unbutton the winter lining of their coats now and again? Surely the customer should be credited with more intelligence? Much more is possible as long as we invite them on the journey with us. To quote Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”