The fashion industry at the moment seems desperately stuck: after writing about the show calendars being revolutionised by the "see now-buy now" madness, journalists are currently too busy reporting about this or that designer leaving a historical fashion house/brand (or speculating about who will be the next creative director...); big fashion groups/luxury houses are pondering about their sales going down, while high street retailers are pretending they have suddenly gone green and love sustainability, even though they just seem interested in filling the world with more useless clothes.
Yet we are living in a rare moment in time, even if the mainstream fashion industry may not have realised it. When Milan Design Week closed on Sunday it left a tangible impression in many visitors: research in innovative materials and techniques is taking place in many disciplines out there (in some cases with professionals from different fields working together) rather than fashion.
The Costume Institute at the Met Museum in New York is preparing to open in May its latest exhibition – "Manus X Machina" – revolving around the hand-made/machine-made dichotomy, and attempting at taking stock of the power of new technologies in couture. Yet the real material revolution is happening in university laboratories such as the MIT Media Lab, thanks to innovative minds like architect and designer Neri Oxman, Sony Corporation Career Development Professor and Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the Media Lab, and founder of the Mediated Matter design research group.
Oxman and her team focus on computational design, digital fabrication, materials science and synthetic biology, working from the micro scale to the building scale. Oxman actually coined the term "material ecology" to describe their unique approach to combining these disciplines together.
On 20th May Oxman will be one of the keynote speakers at the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Convention in Philadelphia (19th-21th May 2016) with a talk about design at the intersection of science and engineering.
Oxman seems to have a split personality, since she is equally interested in design/architecture and science/technology: having collaborated a while back with Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen on a 3D printed cape and skirt with no seams ("Voltage" Haute Couture collection) together with her team she has been experimenting the potential of products that fit not only the shape of our bodies, but also the physiological makeup of our tissues.
Among Oxman and her team's previous experiments there is a small collection of garments ideal for interplanetary wanderers who are setting on a journey beyong planet Earth.
One design was characterised by a dense hairy texture that may protect from Saturn's vortex winds; another was conceived as a protective exoskeleton to wear on Mercury and included antler-like extensions of the scapulae (created by calcifying bacteria grown within a wearable Caduceus) to protect the head.
For life on Jupiter the team went as far as to engineer two microorganisms that never interacted in nature - cyanobacteria and E.coli - to have a relationship inside a piece of clothing designed like an organ system.
So far her experiments have revolved not about mere fashion, but around the future of our race with biologically-inspired fabrication technologies that enhance the relationship between designed objects and the environment.
The bio-crafted Silk Pavilion - where 6,500 silkworms wove a cocoon over robotically spun threads - is for example a combination of nature and technology and a way to breathe life into a product, while introducing a new age of creation taking us from a nature-inspired design to a design-inspired nature.
Oxman's researches can be applied to a wide range of subjects and disciplines and even just sitting and listening to her talking for 20 minutes about some of her projects (check out the TED talk embedded at the end of this post) can open your mind and let you see a glimpse of a possible and more intriguing future than the one currently suggested by the fashion industry, a future (that is currently being shaped...) in which art, science and technology live and work together.
There are actually further interesting talks and keynote speakers at the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Convention in Philadelphia, including actor Kevin Spacey, and architect Rem Koolhaas, and you can find further information about the event or book your talks here.
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