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Say Yes to the High-Tech Dress

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Oscar season is over, and it’s a shame all those A-List actresses looking to make a dramatic entrance didn’t get to see the latest collection of couture dresses from avant-tech designer Hussein Chalayan. He presented all kinds of eye-popping outfits at Paris Fashion week for his fall 2013 collection, but Jen-Luc Piquant’s favorite — and io9′s — were the “crazy chameleon frocks“: the models strutted onto the runway in a short cocktail dress, tugged at the neckline, releasing several “poppers,” and voila! Cascades of fabric transformed it into an elegant evening gown.

Oh, you want to see it for yourself, do you? You can watch the full video of the entire line, or check out the animated GIFs featured at io9, courtesy of the Twitter account of Errolson Hugh. Jen-Luc can totally see herself in the dress below.

Animted GIF courtesy of Errolson Hugh

Courtesy of Errolson Hugh, via io9

Fantastic as these dresses are, they’re actually a bit tame for Chalayan, who never fails to impress with his ingenuity. He’s a self-described techno-geek who tries to bring together technology, science culture, and fashion in some really intriguing ways.

Back in 2008, he designed dresses with frickin’ laser beams for Swarovski — yeah, you heard me, hundreds of little lasers were embedded into the dresses along with crystals to better reflect the light.  Lady Gaga is a fan: she made a splash in February 2011 by debuting her version of a shape-shifting “living dress” inspired by Chalayan’s designs.

Chalayan’s work was all the rage in Paris back ins the fall of 2006, too, when he debuted his “One Hundred Eleven” collection, designed in collaboration with a company called 2D3D. That line gave nods to 111 years of fashion in just five dresses, using technology to morph from, say, an 1895 look to something more common in 1900, and finally into a Roaring 20s flapper sheath.

The Hour-Glass Dress morphs from a style reminiscent of Dior in the 1950s to a 1960s metallic sheath, and the grand finale during the 2006 Paris show featured a dress that disappeared entirely into a wide-brimmed hat, leaving the model pretty much naked on the runway (see video below).

Chalayan has remained at the top of the field ever since with increasingly outre designs; it’s the haute couture version of wearable electronics. 2D3D director Rob Edkins described some of the underlying technology for Technology Review back in 2006:

“Basically, the dresses were driven electronically by controlled, geared motors. We made, for want of a better term, little bum pads for the models. So on their buttocks were some hard containers, and within these containers we had all the battery packs, controlling chips–the microcontrollers and microswitches–and little geared motors. The motors we used were tiny, about a third of the size of a pencil and nine millimeters in diameter. Each of the motors had a little pulley, and the pulley was then attached to this monofilament wire which was fed through hollow tubes sewn into the corset of the dress.

Corset with machinery for Chalayan's Hourglass Dress. Credit: 2D3D

“Some of the corsets were very complicated. They had 30 or 40 of these little tubes running everywhere, carrying these little cables, each doing its little job, lifting things up or releasing little linked metallic plates. There was a huge amount of stuff going on beneath the clothes.”

My personal favorite of Chalayan’s creations is his “Big Bang” dress, which debuted during the 2008 Paris Fashion Week. It’s another mechanical dress, except this one projects moving spots of light to symbolize the birth of the universe.

Check out a video of the dress in action over at Adam Wright’s website (he collaborated with Chalayan on the dress). [Click "Fashion" on the right side, then click on "Hussein Chalayan: Big Bang."]

Chalayan has also designed a series of LED dresses, in which light-emitting diodes are incorporated into the fabric. Pop singer Katy Perry recently wowed the crowds when she showed up at the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a stunning LED gown.

Oh, but Chalayan didn’t stop with morphing outfits and LED dresses; he also put together an architecturally inspired collection in 2009 featuring chairs and tables that transformed into wearable (at least in theory) garments. When was the last time you saw a tiered wooden skirt that doubled as a table? Chair covers that can turn into dresses?

Chalayan is not the only designer to find inspiration in architecture. Neri Oxman earned her PhD in design computation at MIT, and per io9, she specializes in

“reactive architecture: surfaces, furnishings, and structures that change their own properties according to different stimuli. Her resin floors grow thicker where they need to support more weight; her composite walls rearrange their windows and stress lines based on local weather conditions. One of her best-known works, a chaise lounge called “Beast,” can adjust its shape, flexibility and softness to fit each person who sits in it.”

Chalayan's Big Bang Dress. Source: http://www.geeksugar.com/Hussein-Chalayan-Creates-Big-Bang-Mechanical-Dresses-1083576

Oxman incorporates so-called smart materials into her pieces. So does designer Marielle Leenders, who weaves wires containing shape memory alloys (like alloys of nickel and titanium) into her clothing to create, say, fabrics that contract under heat.

So if you walk outside in a long-sleeved shirt, and it’s warmer that perhaps you might expect, there’s no need to roll up your own sleeves: the garment will respond to the increase in temperature and roll up itself.

No kidding. No need for all those intricate cables, wires, motors and microcontrollers featured in Chalayan’s designs! (Cracked.com has a problem with this concept. What’s their problem? “You’re an incredible lazy ass, that’s the problem! What, you can’t roll up your own sleeves?”)

It’s still pretty ingenious on Leenders’ part, and certainly preferable to Spray-On Fabric, or “Fabrican,” which (according to the good folks at Cracked.com) “uses a pressurized formula that, when sprayed from an aerosol can, creates fibers that adhere to any surface and bind to create a piece of non-woven fabric. It can be sprayed onto a … model, for example, to instantly create an entire dress or outfit right onto her body.”

Then there’s the tantalizing prospect of incorporating glitter-sized solar cells into fabrics to create clothing that produces electricity — just the thing for charging your iPhone when you’re on the go. At least those mechanical dresses would have a built-in power source to keep Chalayan’s laser dresses all fired up… so long as it was a sunny day.

[Adapted from a much longer May 2010 post on the Cocktail Party Physics archive.]

 

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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