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Future retail: smart textiles to transform fashion

Drapers takes a look forward to the fabric and materials innovations that could shape fashion for the next 100 years.

Consumers today are tired of standard fabrics and have become less tolerant of retailers that sell garments that only last a few washes, believes Alison Welsh, head of department at the Manchester Fashion Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University: ”Why weave or knit in a fibre that will not last?”

Intu trafford centre graphene dress (23 of 34) copy

The National Graphene Institute’s colour-changing graphene dress

Whether for aesthetic or performance reasons, the focus within the textiles sphere continues to be on smart fabrics – from those that change their colour to those that regulate body temperature. Textiles are being developed to do things that traditional fabrics cannot. The lines are blurring between fashion and technology, and the possibilities are endless and exciting.

“If you think about what your skin is doing and then think of fabric – it will be able to do the same,” says Sabine Seymour, a futurologist and founder of wearables start-up Supa. “You tan, you sweat, your pores open up, your skin changes depending on the humidity … So imagine your hairs standing up and that changing the shape of the garment, or tanning and your apparel changing colour. If you perspire, what if a garment responds to that?”

Your clothes could provide self-healing properties, she adds. For example, if you fall over and graze yourself, instead of reaching for a plaster, the technology woven into the fabric will treat your skin. 

“There is a consumer demand for it,” says Seymour.

Furthermore, our smart clothes will help us keep track of our health, says Welsh: “Are we about to suffer from a medical problem? Are we having a good time? Do we need to relax? Textiles will warn you about impending epileptic seizures. Your bra can already contain a heart rate sensor. There could be advantages to using garments rather than attaching gadgets, as some of the sensors need to be placed in exact positions on the body. We need investment in wearable technology, and smart textiles, as they will have relevance for us all in the coming years.”

If you think about what your skin is doing and then think of fabric – it will be able to do the same

Sabine Seymour, founder, Supa

In the future, likely to be five to 10 years away, these smart materials will be able to function as your health warning. If your heartbeat or breathing is abnormal, your clothes could ping an alert to your GP.

Fabrics interwoven with technology are becoming a reality. Google’s Advanced Technologies and Projects unit operates Project Jacqaurd, which weaves technology into fabric to give it conductive and interactive properties. Google has partnered with Levi’s on a smart jacket that enables cyclists to brush their fingers on the fabric of their jacket to check the time or play their music. The Commuter x Project Jacquard was originally scheduled for a spring 17 release, but was pushed back to autumn 17.

Levi's google jacquard

Google and Levi’s Project Jacquard integrates technology

And last year University of Manchester’s National Graphene Institute unveiled a dress produced in collaboration with wearable tech company Cute Circuit, which incorporated “wonder material” graphene to change colour according to the wearer’s breathing patterns.

We are embracing the new and brave, even if we don’t quite understand how it works, says Welsh: “Dresses can be solid at the top and see-through at the bottom – how do they do that? Fabrics are cut and manipulated, and look like a magician has had a hand in using the technology.

“Designers can embrace a highly technical machine, breaking the rules to create a product which not only draws press attention, but also leads design into a new era – one where technology meets craft and craft meets art, while making perfect business sense.”

She cites Nancy Tilbury as a pioneer in wearable technology – she co-founded London-based Studio XO, which was responsible for Lady Gaga’s flying dress and interactive clothes for the Black Eyed Peas.

Authenticity will continue to rise up shoppers’ agendas.

“We value the traditional – textiles based on our heritage and handcrafted fabrics now have a real commercial value,” says Welsh. “There is a greater level of complexity in textiles, combining natural and synthetic blends to develop fabrics which benefit from the best of both fibres, a new level of flexibility, drape and stretch has been introduced.”

Sizing will be more complex and realistic, leading to more flattering shapes

Alison Welsh, Manchester Fashion Insitute

Garments will be more functional, and have a greater level of design integrity.

“Customers will be able to purchase a garment that fits better, as companies start to analyse body shapes and tailor their clothes to the customer’s actual measurements, rather than an idealised version of a woman,” adds Welsh. “Sizing will be more complex and realistic, leading to more flattering shapes and garment lengths that are tailored to the customer’s height.”

In the near future, consumers will be able to order online using a body scan to closely match the fit.

Sustainable materials are also becoming a key factor.

“Plant-based fibres that harness the latest technologies will continue to yield innovative hybrid fabrics, fusing science with nature,” says Kate Hart, senior trend researcher at Trendstop. “Developments such as Stella McCartney’s Skin-free Skin illustrate the elevations in faux leather quality, increasing their viability as an alternative to animal hides at designer level.”

Readers' comments (2)

  • Clever fabrics still need to washed. Electronics historically don’t wash well. This is never discussed, yet it’s a key barrier to customers adopting. It’s all very well it lasts 10 years, but if it stinks because you can’t wash it, or you have to remember to remove bits (people will forget) before washing, it’s unlikely to go far beyond elite sports and specialist workwear.

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  • These ideas are lovely in principle, but will the Great British public really buy into something costing vastly more than the price of a Happy Meal or will they stick to their disposable fashion? And will the High St retailer have the bottle to throw their margins out of the window to incorporate such innovation? Recent history and collapsing High St sales suggest not...

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