As the worlds of technology and fashion come together to produce wearable, innovative clothing, your next pair of pants may vacuum the house for you.
Are trends electric?
The massive effect of technology on 21st-century lives cannot be overstated. Not only are people more connected to each other than ever before; thanks to digital cameras, smartphones and portable computers, we also have more control of the media we consume. This brave new era even extends to the fluffy world of fashion. Research into fabric technology, for instance, is a growing area of fashion education, with highly regarded degrees at some of the best colleges in the world. However, many of their innovations have remained firmly in the realm of virtual reality - until now.
Known for its century-old tailoring traditions, the Italian luxury menswear brand Ermenegildo Zegna is one of hi-tech fashion's leading lights. In fact, this company recently launched an item of clothing that just a few years ago would have sounded like pure science fiction. The Ecotech Solar Jacket by Zegna Sport is a piece of "intelligent clothing" that can charge the wearer's phones, MP3 player or digital camera. "This jacket is addressed to the young, tech-driven and environmentally responsible individual," says Anna Zegna, the company's image director. So far, so conceptually enticing- but how does it work?
It's a tour de force in combining functionality with wearability, something that previous experiments in hi-tech fashion have lacked. Rectangular solar panels, just below the shoulders in each arm, direct the energy generated from the sun's rays through a washable lead connected to a battery where the power is stored for use. Employing the various connection cords that come with the jacket, it can then recharge electronic products from various companies such as Nokia, RIM, Sony Ericsson, and Motorola.
While this garment won't give its wearers special powers, it will make them impervious to the woes of forgetting to charge their phone - no matter how remote their location. You don't even have to wear the jacket in order to benefit from it: the rectangular panels attached to the sleeves can be removed for more independent use. Although this innovative product places its emphasis on convenience, it also has much loftier environmental motives. "Since the 1970s, temperatures at the earth's surface have been steadily increasing. The whole world is warming up as we burn up the planet's coal, oil and gas reserves. In a few words, humans have been causing irreparable damage," says Zegna.
In an era when car manufacturers are looking seriously at alternative fuels and energy companies are producing large-scale infrastructure projects for renewable sources of power, Zegna's eco-conscious product couldn't be more timely. And it is not the only fashion house to take positive action. While the world's leaders wrangle over their environmental responsibilities at the Copenhagen climate summit, the Nordic Fashion Association has organised the concurrent Fashion Summit. The event includes competition to promote innovation in sustainable design among new designers, proving that fashion can embrace technology and environmental concerns and still "delight us in terms of aesthetics", according to the presenter, Crown Princess Mary of Denmark.
Zegna certainly feels that these twin aims can be achieved. "We have been researching the idea of using recycled material for quite some time," she says. "[Our] jacket has been created with a specific need to respond to the ongoing climatic situations that are affecting the world today." Zegna Sport's jacket uses Rinnova, a 100 per cent recycled fabric from Thermore, a leading manufacturer of outerwear thermal fabrics, for padding, lining, outer fabric, seam taping and its inner membrane. Using such material allows the label to provide an ecologically sustainable answer to performance apparel.
Angel Chang, a New York-based designer who works at the intersection of fashion and technology, is full of praise for such innovations from powerful fashion companies. "It's great to see Zegna's consistent commitment to tech innovation," she says. "The jacket shows how much technology has improved recently. Just a few years ago, it would have taken a solar panel the size of the entire jacket to power one cell phone." The relatively small panels on the Ecotech Solar Jacket take roughly four to five hours of exposure to sunlight to fully charge the battery.
But, no matter how technically sound or how innovative a fashion item is, consumer adoption is key. "For me, style always takes precedence over the technology. The garment must look good, otherwise it loses its main purpose - that is, to clothe and flatter the body. People want to look good, after all," adds Chang. She has a point. Hussein Chalayan, for example, has long been one of the most avid supporters of the union of fashion and technology. Critics were in awe of his computerised dresses for his spring/summer 2007 collection. However, few of these forward-thinking pieces were actually wearable.
Young labels such as schmidttakahasi in Berlin and Junya Tashiro in Japan are also full of bright ideas. The former reworks old clothing into new pieces, the transformation documented in a computer chip attached to the new article. The latter has attached codes in dresses, which mobile phones can scan, linking them to a webpage that shows how the dress was made. Great ideas, but, like Chalayan's work, they seem more like conversation pieces than practical products.
Conversely, some brands also know that infusing technical trickery with clothing can be a perfect strategy to get consumers' attention. The Generra Hypercolor thermochromatic T-shirts, which changed colour depending on body temperature, caused a stir in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In a typically retro move, American Apparel now has a similar range. Others brands have added a functional element to these buzz-worthy techniques to attract shoppers.
The UK-based company Kiniki, for example, has created a fabric with microscopic holes that allows seamless tanning, with 80 per cent of the sun going through to the skin. Meanwhile, in Japan, Fujibo Holdings, a textile manufacturer, has launched a line of fabrics that allows the wearer to take in nutrients without orally taking pills. The material for its "V-Up" line contains vitamin C that is absorbed by the skin when the body's natural oils touch it. The company has also developed other fabrics that give an energy with the Q10 enzyme, kill odours and bacteria, and can even stimulate hair growth for follically challenged men. However, without the benefit of sustainable design possibilities, these ideas could still end their days as mere gimmicks.
The difference is that, with the Ecotech, if you forget about the jacket's larger causes beyond protecting the wearer, the design is as wearable as a winter jacket can be. The shell protects the wearer from the elements, the collar is heated by the battery and the piece is designed to regulate body temperature. Its clinching element is simple: it has the kind of stylish appeal one would expect from such labels as Moncler or Canada Goose.
Moncler's quilted jackets in shiny fabric have generated wonderful sales already, but even this Italian brand is looking at sustainability. It has commissioned the musician Pharrell Williams to design a limited-edition line of men's jackets. Inspired by bullet-proof vests, they are lined with photographs by the Japanese artist Keita Sugiura and decorated with waterproof gold zips. Hip-hop bling aside, the jacket's outer shell is made from Bionic Yarn, a company owned by Williams that makes materials out of recycled plastic bottles.
"It is hard to predict what people will respond to. There are so many reasons why a product is successful, and it has to do with the marketing, the PR, the distribution, the price and the design. When tech hardware is attached to it, it raises another set of concerns about tech support and not looking outdated," says Chang. Consumers, at least at the upper end of the market, are voting with their wallets. At more than £900 (Dh5,400), the jacket isn't cheap, but the initial consignment of 24 issued to Zegna's store on London's Bond Street has almost sold out.
"We all know that the environment is in danger today and we believe it is our duty to be part of a global approach towards responsibility not only for today but tomorrow's generations," Zegna says.