The future of fashion is not jumpsuits and leotards. It’s not PVC boots, and it’s not fishbowl helmets. The future of fashion is sustainable. It’s wearing without wasting, but it’s also so much more than just wearing.
The future of fashion is soon, and it’s thrillingly explored in the new “#techstyle” exhibition, on view through July 10 at the Museum of Fine Arts. The show concentrates the work of 33 designers into the 2½ snug rooms of the Henry and Lois Foster Gallery, and while its gaze is fixed forward, the periphery is staggeringly wide, questioning both the way clothes can be crafted and what they can do once they are.
“Part of what’s exciting about fashion today is that there’s a rethinking about fashion,” says Lauren Whitley, one of three curators on the project. “There’s exciting collaborations between scientists and designers, and it’s taking multiple forms.”
After loosely recapping the past decade or so of pioneering designers, the exhibit splits into “Production” and “Performance.” For that purpose, the introduction is somewhat thin. But the wonder-stoking pieces placed up front — from Alexander McQueen’s H.R. Giger-inspired “Alien Shoe” (2010), made with an early sort of 3-D printing method, to Hussein Chalayan’s teal steel “Remote Control Dress” (2005), with retractable panels like something out of a “Jetsons”-era Sears store — make it impossible to decide which side to explore first.
The centerpiece of “Production” is Iris van Herpen’s “Anthozoa” cape and skirt, which, with its 3-D printed “barnacles,” was among the first of its kind on the Paris runways in 2013. Like its counterparts, it’s a proof of concept as much as an art piece. Van Herpen collaborated with the MIT Media Lab’s Neri Oxman — one of many Boston brains the show features —to fashion printed plastics into something suitable for clothing.
In fact, the implications of other pieces in “#techstyle,” too, tend to be more fascinating than the pieces themselves. That’s surprising considering how astonishing many of the pieces are, but it’s also something that the exhibit leans into. The “Kinematics 8” dress, developed by the Somerville studio Nervous System, stands near a video of the firm’s design app. In go body measurements and design preferences, and out, using some dizzying type of mathematics, prints an entire dress, completely customized and ready to wear. Imagine, some years from now, having that in your home. It’s not cheap, but it’s getting there.
More pressing, meanwhile, is the exhibit’s treatment of sustainability in fashion. Recycled polyesters are expected — see G-Star Raw and Pharrell Williams using repurposed ocean waste, for example — but laser cutting is not. That technology, in the hands of a smart designer, minimizes stitching and scraps, with the added potential to realize unimaginably precise designs. (See the frayed quality of a free-hand sketch in Elvira’t Hart’s “Wearable Drawings” jacket.)
But if the rise of fast fashion is any hint, we rarely pay mind to how our clothes come about. In that case, the more intriguing — if less explored — half of the exhibit houses the “Performance” pieces, offering answers to how clothing might function.
“Do you want it to recharge your cellphone?” Whitley wondered, as an example. “Do you want it to respond to heat and light and wind? We have this idea now that clothes are very static, but in the future clothes could do their own thing.”
There are robotic dresses and heat-reactive leathers (“Mood clothes,” Whitley joked). There are micro-LEDs stitched into the fabric of a dress, turning it into a screen that displays tweets. The high concepts here are stratospheric, but if you can wrap your head around the applications they promise, it’s impressive.
It’s worth noting, though, that some of the technology directing the future of fashion is also reinventing it. Whereas platforms like Instagram had once promised a bridge between brands and buyers, what high fashion got instead was a fast-forward button, ensuring that next season’s styles would be current once they reach news feeds and dated once they reach stores months later. A fixture for decades, the fashion week cycle is faltering, forcing designers to dream beyond New York, Paris, and Milan and into the new couture capital: social media.
“A lot of designers don’t even do runway shows anymore,” Whitley said. “They do online shows, because that is the world today, and designers are very much aware that the world will see them in perhaps a small screen.”
Aside from a title that’s both hashtag and dad-pun, “#techstyle” does flirt with its legacy through a number of multimedia elements. A video loops Alexander McQueen’s “Plato’s Atlantis” show, whose live-stream in 2009 invited a server crash, alongside Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons, with its flat garments made to be seen on screen. (“The future is two dimensions,” Kawakubo is quoted.)
The success of “#techstyle” comes from the intangible wonder beyond what’s on display. Sure, so much of that is happening right here — Whitley, a textile historian, happily points out that the area’s fashion legacy has come full circle, from the looms in Lowell to the labs at MIT. Technologies will become cheaper and more practical, and the promise of “#techstyle” will someday speak to most anyone who wears clothes. Ideally, that’s a lot of people.