Why Did Designers Embrace Tech This Season?

From Rick Owens's human tents to Helmut Lang's CD-ROMs, Anastasiia Fedorova examines fashion's long, tangled love affair with futurism and tech.

Courtesy of Rick Owens Spring 2019

Today we’re often confronted with the fact that technological progress moves faster than our capacity to comprehend it. It’s not so much about clunky humanoid robots by Boston Dynamics, but about the shifting nature of reality — constant connection, digital avatars, AI — and our place in it. The future clearly lies beyond our physical limits, in technologically enhancing our bodies and perhaps even outliving them entirely. As a sphere of culture inextricably linked with the body, is fashion able to keep up?

Today our projections of the future are closely connected with the ideas of transhumanism. Transhumanism believes that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and minds and that by merging with machines we could eradicate ageing and perhaps even death. High-tech prosthetic limbs (like carbon-fibre blades used by athletes), artificial organs, memory chip implants and all kinds of wearable tech could become a part of day-to-day reality in the next few decades. In this context, it’s impossible not to wonder if clothes could be part of this conversation. So far, high fashion is not particularly concerned with enhancing physical performance — but it certainly could be a way to re-imagine what it means to be human.

Courtesy of Cottweiler Spring 2019

Rick Owens is one of the designers who is constantly pushing the limits of body representation. During his recent SS 2019 menswear show at Palais de Tokyo, models walked through the clouds of coloured smoke wearing nylon parkas which doubled up as constructivist wearable tents. The geometric structures completely altered body shapes and movement. “That’s my story, and that’s the story of humanity: trying to fix ourselves, always trying to fix ourselves,” Owens explained to Vogue US. It’s not the first time he drew the viewer’s attention to the sexual, ambiguous and odd nature of the body: think of towering elastic cocoons in Spring 2018, human backpacks in Spring 2016, and earth-shattering step dance performance in Spring 2014.

Rethinking and altering body shape is by no means new in fashion — for instance, it’s one of the foundations of Rei Kawakubo’s continuous work for Comme des Garçons. But for the new generation of emerging designers, it’s also a quest of moving away from the ideas of attractiveness and gender in fashion, and therefore opening new pathways for representation. Pierre-Louis Auvray, one of this year’s Central Saint Martins MA graduates, designed a collection of colourful muscly latex bodysuits layered with bikinis, with inspiration drawn from images of medieval fighters and TV wrestling competitions. Sinéad O’Dwyer, who graduated with an MA in Fashion from the Royal College of Art, created moulded silicone garments, which looked like a second skin or only just dried shimmering paint, and exposed the natural shape of female breasts, thighs and bottoms.

Future in fashion is a powerful narrative tool. In the past, numerous designers combined clothes, technology and runway presentation to channel their utopian and dystopian visions. Alexander McQueen Spring 2010 show “Plato’s Atlantis” was the first fashion show to ever be live-streamed online by the means of moving robotic cameras (after Helmut Lang began streaming shows and making CDRoms in the late 90s). Wearing claw-like shoes and garments with digital prints merging animal, bird and reptile patterns, models gave an impression of alien creatures. The vision was apocalyptic — in line with the idea that global warming might condemn us to a life underwater — yet breathtakingly beautiful.

For Spring 2007, British designer Hussein Chalayan famously created transformer dresses, the Victorian-style gowns which moved like giant flower petals or gentle live beings, simultaneously sensual and strange. In her “Biopiracy” installation for Fall 2014, Iris van Herpen had models vacuum-packed in plastic and suspended a few feet above the ground, with tubes for breathing reminiscent of 1979 sci-fi classic, Alien.

Every generation of designers is keen to imagine their own version of the future, but how is it different for the ones working on the brink of the 2020s? The influence of sci-fi is currently bigger than ever. Ironically, its aesthetics are often rooted in references to cult classics of the genre from the recent past. Prada’s recent return to their iconic black nylon and Vetements’ imposing leathers evoke the sleek style of the Matrix. Numerous brands, including Raf Simons, has cited the futuristic noir aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. Meanwhile, Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster have been hugely successful with their sunglasses in the most otherworldly shapes and configurations. Transparent plastic raincoats, skin-tight latex, cyberpunk footwear — incorporating sci-fi elements in one’s wardrobe seems to be the new norm.

Courtesy of Charles Jeffrey Loverboy Spring 2019

This new practical approach to futurism has been particularly popular in menswear. Clothes created for the contemporary urban environment today often has a slight hint of dystopian survivalism. High-performance materials, the abundance of practical details like pockets and reflective elements, reference to various protective gear appeared in collections from Heron Preston, Undercover, Cottweiler, Armour in Heaven and A-Cold-Wall*. This new type of urban menswear channels anxiety and discontent in an age of political and economic crises. The recent Spring 2019 collection by A-Cold-Wall* was a perfect example: inspired by the sociological legacy of brutalism, it was clearly a story about the urban landscape of today — but told through clothes created for tomorrow.

But while the global future is looking undoubtedly bleak, futurism can also serve as a territory of untamed imagination, a tool to create the new world for your community.  Charles Jeffrey Loverboy’s SS19 collection painted a joyful image of all-inclusive tomorrow. Jeffrey tapped into his teenage love of sci-fi and video games, but also mused on the continuous struggle of LGBTQ+ community. Among silver-foil clouds, dance performers jerked in reptilian black and grey bodysuits, while the future of the human race, according to Loverboy, gleefully paraded past in reworked tartans and curiously-shaped padded tailoring. It was proof that sometimes the future should be simply dreamed into existence.

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