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Techno Fashion

Author: Bradley Quinn
Publisher: Oxford & New York: Berg Publishers, 2002
Review Published: April 2007

 REVIEW 1: Andrea Zeffiro

Fifteen years have passed since Donna Haraway wrote "A Cyborg Manifesto" (1991), in which she drew attention to one possible consequence of the coupling between organism and machine: the cyborg. Since then, numerous scholars have shared perspectives on the unhinged possibilities of this celebrated figure. For some, the cyborg is best symbolized in cultural representations such as Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982), and The Terminator (1984). For others, it is the visionary work of individuals such as Steve Mann who, in building wearable prototypes, are materializing the cyberorganism. Still, there are those who propose that the marriage between body and technology is not restricted to seminal academic texts, science fiction films, or the work of scientists and engineers. For these individuals, the union between flesh and machine occurs in fashion, specifically techno fashion, which fuses fashion design and technological innovation.

In Techno Fashion, British writer and curator Bradley Quinn provides an overview of the visionary international designers who are working within the realm of techno fashion. Quinn, who has published various works on fashion, design, and architecture, in addition to establishing Fashion Futures, a private organization that provides a creative forum for young fashion visionaries, focuses on the designers working within techno fashion, who are heavily influenced by technological and architectural developments, and owe much of their technological abilities to mobile and nano technologies. Fashion has proven to be a desirable means for such innovative research and development, given that wireless electronic devices can be assimilated into fabrics and worn as jewelry or accessories, and mobile phones, music players, personal organizers, and laptops can be fully integrated into items of clothing. The outcome of this permutation between clothing, technology, and the body is a wearable "body area network," which can execute such tasks as surfing the Web, monitoring vital signs, and administering medication through the wearer's skin (1). These systems, which are activated by sensors, respond to voice-recognition and body movement, and can detect and respond to other local area networks. Given these remarkable innovations, Quinn justly suggests that, "the potential of techno fashions may have profound implications for our experiences of body and mind, our communication abilities, health care and lifestyle" (1).

Published in 2002, Techno Fashion is somewhat dated given that there have been numerous innovations since publication. Nevertheless, Quinn's well documented research provides a thorough introduction to the field, outlining the key designers, themes, and concerns within the field. Structurally, Quinn divides his work into nine sections: 1) Fashion and the Built Environment; 2) Twenty-first-century Bodies; 3) Surveillance; 4) Cybercouture; 5) Intelligent Fashion; 6) Transformables; 7) Japanese Innovation; 8) Electronic Textiles, and; 9) Sportswear. This mode of textual organization also indicates the various areas of research, design, and development within the field.

In section one, "Fashion and the Built Environment," Quinn interrogates the work of Yeohlee Teng, Lucy Orta, and Hussein Chalayan, three fashion designers who infuse fashion design with principles of architecture. For instance, Teng implements high-performance fabrics such as Teflon, polyurethane, nylon, and polyester in her designs, fabricating breathable, water-repellent surfaces and creating wearable body shelters for the urban nomad. For Quinn, Yeohlee's designs evoke measures of empowerment, given the manner in which she supplies control to the wearer who can, "negotiate environmental conditions in clothes succinctly tailored to create a formal feel and still meet the needs of the everyday causal dresser" (17). As a result, the wearer is implicated in constructing and manipulating the form of the garment based on particular individual needs. Techno fashion designers who cite architectural principles simultaneously explore fashion's relationship with the built environment (32), inverting the notion that clothing and built environments are distinct entities (19).

Quinn revisits this theme in section six when he interrogates the realm of techno fashion he refers to as transformables. Similar to concerns expressed within the realm of fashion and the built environment, designers classified within the domain of transformables incorporate utility and functionality, and experiment with space and construction, thereby challenging the established boundaries and conventions of fashion. Quinn organizes transformables into three methods of transformation: 1) garments that transform only through the reorganization of surfaces, such as reversible garments, or linings that detach and transform the garment into two pieces; 2) garments that can transform into other clothing functions, such as a jacket that transforms into a backpack; and finally 3) garments that can transform into objects such as furniture or tents made for the built environment, or modified into multiple designs through a modular design (119). Modular fashions can be transformed by restructuring its central components, or by combining with other items. Similar to fashion and the built environment, transformables imply a mutability of the garment's form and the active involvement of the wearer in this mutation.

Techno fashion is also witness to the integration between body and machine, "which now extends beyond the heroes of science fiction" (33). For Quinn, the "technological revolution" is not only revolutionizing the world of fashion, it is also transforming the fashioned body and maximizing its potential. In section two, "Twenty-first-century Bodies," Quinn examines the work of Tristan Webber, Alexander McQueen, and, again, Hussein Chalayan, interrogating the manner in which twenty-first-century designers are reinterpreting traditional manifestations of the clothed body. These designers, as Quinn uncovers, put forth a body that cites empowerment, technological enhancement, and the cyborg (34). For instance, for his Spring/Summer 2000 collection, Hussein Chalayan designed "Memory Wire Dress," a dress constructed with electric coils which, according to Chalayan, "opened like the flowers that remember how to take several forms" (27). Controlled by the wearer with a remote control, panels on the skirt of the dress shift vertically, revealing and concealing erogenous zones (52). Unlike a customary dress that moves with bodily movements, the "Memory Wire Dress" modifies its own shape, moving independently of the body. Therefore, while the body moves in one manner (i.e. a model walking down the catwalk), the dress moves in another (i.e. the panels on the dress shift up and down). In as much as Chalayan's designs explore the relationship between technology and the body, many of Chalayan's designs, according to Quinn, examine the manner in which, "the form of the garment could evolve around the body in a spatial relationship to its environment" (52). Thus, as demonstrated by Chalayan's creations, in as much as the work of techno fashion designers may be aligned with maximizing the body's potential, these designers are also interested in complicating the concept of a predetermined and static bodily form.

Given fashion's relationship with visibility, specifically situating the fashioned body as a marker of public identity, it is not surprising to learn that techno fashion is preoccupied with surveillance. In section three, "Surveillance," Quinn describes the relationship between fashion and surveillance as the following:
    Fashion's engagement with surveillance places emphasis on visibility . . . Clothes, being the form in which the fashioned body is made visible, give the wearer a public identity while fostering construction of the self. The gaze of visual technologies makes the experience more intimate and more exotic, amplifying the function of clothing as both boundary and margin in the ever-narrowing gap between public and private. (57)
Those working within this realm of techno fashion are quite familiar with technologies employed by the military and security companies. In fact, some designers have military training, such as Katrina Barillova, who was secretly recruited into a Czechoslovakian espionage training program at the age of ten (71). For Quinn, techno fashion that is inspired by surveillance technologies is necessarily aligned with fashion's inherent to-be-looked-at-ness and contemporary society's fear of Big Brother. In fashion, one is either monitoring trends or tuning one's gaze inwards as an act of self-surveillance, and contemporary society is inundated with surveillance technologies, particularly in public spaces. For Quinn, this niche of techno fashion engages with fashion's relationship to hypervisibility and perhaps more importantly, "explores the extent to which clothing has the potential to react against surveillance, and how technology can equip fashion with the means to cheat surveillance systems" (58).

The fusion between fashion and technology has also been fundamental in reshaping the manner in which fashion is displayed. For the most part, collections are exhibited at fashion shows and retail boutiques, both of which impose restricts on accessibility. However, the nature of the internet has encouraged the development of what Quinn refers to as "cybercouture" (77). This domain of techno fashion is directly aligned with information technology, visual representations, and interactivity. According to Quinn, cybercouture is a significant departure from traditional conceptions of couture as it abandons retail boutiques, couture showrooms, and catwalk events. Instead, clothing can be purchased on-line and entire collections can be webcast. Moreover, this shift has allowed designers to manage their creative processes in addition to production, presentation, and distribution.

At the heart of Quinn's text is his section on intelligent fashion. The positioning of this section is somewhat surprising given that it is perhaps the more publicized realm of techno fashion. Abandoning an examination of specific designers, Quinn focuses instead on what become six sub-categories of intelligent fashion: i-wear; electronic embroidery; sensory signals; techno medicine; military intelligence; and virtual networking. Generally, the premise of intelligent fashion is the integration of a wearable computer interface into clothing, jewelry, or accessories. According to Quinn, the goal of designers working within this domain is, "to take the concept of clothing as we know it to its very limits -- integrating software, communication devices, sensors and speech-recognition systems into garments to make them think for the wearer" (97). Most compelling about intelligent fashion is its vision of a future rich with ubiquitous wireless systems. However, the materialization of such a future is contingent on the potential for industries of fashion, communication, and information technology to forge an alliance and work towards common goals. Since the publication of Techno Fashion, there have been numerous instances in which these seemingly divergent industries have united. A most recent development is platform shoes for urban sex workers, which have an alarm system that emits a piercing sound to scare off attackers, and a GPS receiver and an emergency button that relays both the prostitute's location and a silent alarm signal to public emergency services. Although still in its prototype phase, the shoe nonetheless is integrated with LCD screen, speakers, internet connection, and a GPS tracking system. However, in terms of everyday-life, it is the sports industry that has forged one of the strongest bonds with industries of technology, placing it at the forefront of textile development (186). In his final section, "Sportswear," Quinn examines the interrelations between the sportswear industry and technological and textile developments, focusing on major sporting good companies such as Nike and Adidas. In addition, Quinn interrogates the developments introduced by Fashion Active Lab, a sportswear design company that bridges the gap between sportswear and designer clothing, producing garments that are versatile enough to perform in the gym and be worn in the street (196). In other words, clothing that responds to physical intensity and is also fashionable.

For many, the possibility of producing technological and scientific innovation from the realm of fashion may seem a tad ridiculous. As a field of inquiry, fashion carries a fleet of designer baggage bursting at the seams with frivolity, shallowness, and triviality. Yet fashion is more than a means of covering the naked form. It is a system of communication, expressing inherent cultural and historical practices and politics. In this sense, fashion is an essential element and mirror of everyday life, and in the realm of techno fashion, it is an advantageous means for information technologies to be continuously accessible to the wearer. Embedded within fabrics, jewelry, and accessories, technological devices are indistinguishable from clothing and are therefore ubiquitous, enabling devices to engage with the human body in a manner that is both comfortable and aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps one of the great feats of techno fashion is the manner in which it has debunked the traditional division between science and fashion, radically altering "the relationship between science, which had traditionally dismissed fashion as frivolous, and fashion, which is now heralded as a legitimate area of enquiry and critique" (2). The next feat will be as, former Czechoslovakian secret agent-cum-techno fashion designer Katrina Barillova explains, "to make computers that resemble everyday fashion objects ... only then will people stop fearing technology" (75).

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Haraway, Donna. (1991). "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge.

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Platforms. (2006). The Aphrodite Project. [Online]. http://theaphroditeproject.tv/safety.

Scott, Ridley. (Director). (1982). Blade Runner. USA: Warner Bros.

Andrea Zeffiro:
Andrea Zeffiro is a Ph.D. candidate in the Joint Programme in Communications at Concordia University, Montréal. She is a member of EMU (Evaluation Mobility Usability), the evaluation arm of the Mobile Digital Commons Network. Her dissertation work focuses on the institutionalization of locative media.  <a_zeffi@alcor.concordia.ca>

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