Fashioning a brave new world

Coats that are inflatable, or made of old vacuum cleaner parts? Shoes you design yourself? Wearable pianos?

Issey Miyake vacuum cleaner design 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Issey Miyake vacuum cleaner design 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Okay, you want “unusual”? Here’s “unusual.”
You want something ingeniously innovative? How about this: You are walking down a crowded city street. People are jostling and elbowing you from every direction. You blow into a little hose attached to your new designer coat, and it inflates – yes, inflates – just enough to provide you with a little more space between you and the “madding crowd.”
Or perhaps you’re out walking on a windy winter day. While everyone else is struggling against the strong blustery wind, you are wearing something that enables you to take the buffeting in stride. The wind just seems to stream through you, and indeed it does.
Your haute couture “windcoat” is made from the parts of old vacuum cleaners; vacuum cleaner hoses, in fact, run almost the entire length of your raincoat.
Later on, you notice your feet are beginning to hurt from all the walking you have done today, and you decide that the problem is your shoes. You pop into a shoe store and proceed to design your next pair of shoes.
Tapping at the colorful little icons at a computer screen, you find yourself answering a visual questionnaire that is helping you identify everything you want in the shoes, from the thickness of the heel to the width of the toe; from color to design motif to type of materials. The finished product is the result of your design.
We are not likely to see these things in stores any time soon. Indeed, if we are lucky, we will never see clothing made from old vacuum cleaner parts in stores at all.
However, we can see these creations, and more of their ilk, at an exhibition called “Mechanical Couture: Fashioning a New Order” now showing at the Design Museum in Holon.
On hand to open the exhibit were co-curators Judith Hoos Fox and Ginger Gregg Duggan, both based in the US.
“As independent curators, my partner Ginger and I see as much art and design as we possibly can – visiting exhibitions, reading publications, and traveling,” Fox says. “And when we note that there are many designers on different continents – some young, some newly emerging, others established names in their field – all addressing the same issue or using a similar methodology, then we know that it’s a valid and necessary topic for an exhibition.”
Asked to supply the overall topic for this exhibition, Fox says, simply, “We are proposing a new definition of the concept of couture.”
More expansive in their written introduction to the exhibit, Fox and Duggan explain that “Haute couture is, by definition, made-to-order, high-quality and hand-executed, and for centuries has signified the ultimate in luxury and exclusivity. Conversely, machines typify the antithesis of couture, and are associated with mass production and decreased standards.
“Currently, however, we are witnessing a fascinating phenomenon of mechanical luxury, whereby designers are reinterpreting couture as a hybrid of both mechanized processes and customized craftsmanship.”
DESIGNERS ARE turning to machines, and one result of this new focus, say Fox and Duggan, is the democratization of high fashion. Designing through machines now makes it possible for virtually anyone to have their own personal, individual custom-designed apparel.
Another outcome of this turning to machines, according to the curators, is the blurring of any distinction between machine and finished product, as many new finished products become, in effect, “wearable machines.”
The exhibition, comprising the works of 15 designers – three of whom are Israeli – is divided into four different categories of design.
The first, “Designer + Machine = Product,” occurs when a new machine or technology is directly incorporated into the design process in order to create a new product. An example of this is the “Fat Maps Collection” by New York designer Shelley Fox.
Motivated by the emphasis on body size in American society and the problem of weight as a social issue, Fox worked with Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Peter Mansfield to scan the bodies of seven volunteer participants while they underwent medically supervised weight loss. These MRI “fat maps” became Fox’s blueprints for a collection of dresses that reflect the changes in the participants’ body sizes.
Using vintage clothing – the original dresses came from a thrift shop – and years of experience in the fashion industry, Fox has created a line of dresses with elements of couture we readily know and recognize; but her inspiration is technology.
The second design process category of the exhibition is “Concept = Machine = Product.” This is design that is inspired by machinery and incorporates machines into the finished product, like Montreal-based Ying Gao’s apparel, which is equipped with micro-motors and sensors that detect stimuli and react by expanding, inflating and transforming into altogether new garments.
Her “Walking City” collection is fashioned with hoses to blow into and inflate your clothing while wearing it, to provide you with a little more personal space.
Her somewhat drably neutral “Living Pod” dresses react to flashlight stimuli by literally blossoming, like flowers, into fancy formal evening wear. And her “Playtime” collection entails yet another group of interactive garments that react to sound and to the surrounding environment. They do this, according to the co-curators, to “mimic the often futile attempts to ‘capture’ our presence via surveillance mechanisms.”
“This project was inspired by the film Playtime by Jacques Tati, which involves optical illusion and surveillance,” says co-curator Duggan. “It involves not being able to capture anything that we think is real.
What we think is real is possibly an illusion. These things cannot be photographed. If they sense a camera lens anywhere near them, they blur. This is what Ying Gao is saying with these garments.”
Perhaps the most interesting category of objects in the exhibition is the third, “Product = Machine.” The designers whose works are featured in this category have neither relied on machines for inspiration nor integrated machines into the design process. Instead, they have actually created products that exist as machines in and of themselves – wearable machines.
MIKA SATOMI and Hannah Perner-Wilson, for example, use a distinctly do-it-yourself approach to make both designing and technology more user-friendly and democratic. Using cheap, readily accessible materials and providing easy, step-by-step instructions, these designers – working together under the name Kobakant – make it possible for virtually anyone to transform his or her T-shirt into a wearable piano.
Who would want a wearable piano? Probably no one. But by showing the actual design diagram on each piece in their line of T-shirts, Kobakant aims to demystify wearable technology by bringing the design process out into the open and showing that anyone can do it.
Somewhat more mysterious but always interesting, US-based Alyce Santoro deserves honorable mention in the Product = Machine category for her contribution “Sonic Fabric.”
Santoro collected the audio tape from hundreds, if not thousands, of discarded cassettes and devised a process to weave the material into a new textile. The garments she created out of this new fabric have retained their ability to make sound, which they do whenever a specially designed tape-head apparatus is rubbed against the fabric.
If any of the works in this exhibition are likely to ever see the light of day commercially, they would be the items grouped under category 4, Designer Through Machine = Product, products created in a machinemediated process.
The best example of these is undoubtedly Netherlands designer Cedric Flazinski’s visual questionnaire that enables any woman to custom-design her own shoes.
Based on Flazinski’s extensive research on signifiers and icons and their relationship to different personality traits and shoe shapes, the visual questionnaire allows for the design of a myriad number of shapes and styles reflecting the individual personalities and preferences of each consumer/designer.
“Here is an interesting cross between couture and technology, fashion design and machines, trying to find a new way for machines to democratize design,” says Duggan. “Here, any individual, not only a wealthy individual, can use the technology to create a design based upon her own specifications.”
Fox adds: “The clothes that we wear should express who we are. The role of designers is not to impose their thought on you, but for you to be able to express yourself.
So Cedric Flazinski has come up with a very extensive questionnaire, and your answers to that questionnaire design the shoe. He has assigned different attributes of the shoe – whether the toes are spread out or together, whether there are thick heels or thin heels – and all those kinds of attributes are taken into account in this questionnaire.
“Each shoe is defined by you, the owner, going through the questionnaire and designing a shoe that expresses who you are.”
“Mechanical Couture: Fashioning a New Order” is showing until January 8 at the Design Museum Holon. For further information, tel. 073-215-1500 or visit the museum’s website,