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Bluetooth Is the New Black

The fashion world is embracing digital technology in a big way; soon, your clothing will be smarter than you are

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration John Ritter

tech

Imagine a huge laboratory for the fashion business—a place where designers and technicians scuttle around, Oompa-Loompa-like, creating animated sweatshirts and self-darning socks, where shoemakers collaborate with rocket scientists to create killer heels that aren’t hell on your feet.

Such a scenario, as it happens, is already at hand. Bob Bland, a former Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren designer, has just launched Manufacture New York, a 160,000-square-foot complex in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, which she describes as “Silicon Valley for fashion.”

Manufacture New York, say its backers, represents the world’s first incubator, factory and research lab for the fashion industry, and it will house dozens of startups that are inventing new textiles, creating new fabrication techniques and developing highly unconventional manufacturing processes, such as growing bio-leathers—vegan-friendly materials that emulate the real thing.

While Manufacture New York looks set to establish NYC as the U.S.’s high-tech fashion hub, Bland hopes it will lead to something far bigger: a revolution in American manufacturing. “We’re not just dreaming up ideas, we’re making the products here, too,” she says. “By collaborating on so many innovative techniques and processes under one roof, we are creating a completely new business model.”

Much of the Willy Wonka stuff takes place in a lab next to the factory floor that is overseen by Amanda Parkes, a fashion technologist and a visiting scientist at MIT. Current collaborators include STHIRA, a firm created by staff from Elon Musk’s venture SpaceX, with the mission to develop comfortable high-heeled shoes. Another is Francis Bitonti Studio, which is working with biological materials for clothing but is best known for the 3-D-printed gown it made last year for burlesque artist Dita Von Teese. Other parties “actively involved” with Manufacture New York underscore just how quickly the smart-clothing race is gathering pace. Google Advanced Technology & Projects, for instance, is developing “interactive textile interfaces,” which will digitize the stuff we wear. The Princeton Lab for Electrochemical Engineering Systems Research, meanwhile, is working on producing “fiber batteries,” which will power our socks and shirts as required.

While the current focus for these technologies is on practical uses (such as gauging heart rate), some designers are more interested in how things look than in what they do. There is, for instance, work being done on smartphone-controlled outfits that can instantly change color or pattern, so if someone else at the wedding has also opted for pink polka-dots, with one swipe you can be in shimmering green.

In general, self-customization promises to be a big part of what Manufacture New York does. One of its partners, AM4U, enables users to design their own clothing remotely, then have the item manufactured on-site in batches as small as one. “You can be online anywhere in the world, design a piece, order and have this automated process produce a garment in half an hour,” Bland says. “Customers can scan themselves on a device like a Kinect [the Xbox motion sensor]. Then we take the measurements.”

Francis Bitoni believes that within five years, customers will be able to order design data for clothing that can be customizable in texture and pattern, then have the product 3-D printed anywhere in the world. “I am already seeing the ‘cloud-collection model’ disrupting other kinds of manufacturing,” he says. “It’s a catalyst that is going to initiate radical change.”

Already, big-name clothing brands are rushing to keep pace. Last year, Levi’s opened a super-secret Eureka Innovation Lab in California that the company claims can turn a design from idea to product in less than 24 hours. Prototypes that have come out of the lab include a new kind of denim for cyclists that will light up when a light is shone on them, enhancing nighttime visibility.

According to Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, an associate professor of industrial design at Pratt Institute, smart textiles are poised to become a huge global business. “This is definitely not a fad,” she says. While practical wearable technology is already well established, she adds, “the aesthetic side is growing enormously too—materials that change color, say, as they react to sound or heat.”

The pace of innovation in high-tech fashion is “staggering,” according to Pailes-Friedman, and enterprises like Manufacture New York promise to speed things up even more—and possibly put America at the center of a massive global market. “Some of this stuff is on the edge of sci-fi,” she says, “but it’s also not very far from the mainstream.

Berlin-based editor and writer Boyd Farrow looks forward to the day when his sweater will text him to say that it clashes with his pants.

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