la mode d’emploi – fashion in need of an instruction manual

‘Fashion’ – as a terminology – has proven itself extremely liable for interpretation. The amount of associations, presumptions or images the concept fashion evokes in consequence seem dazzling at times. Fashion can involve spectacle as well as slavery, describe mass culture or foster iconography, create barriers and demolish them. While fashion presumably stages the individual, the surrounding environment is constantly entwined and a whole world of sentiments is arranged to do so. The outcome is frivolous and powerful, alluring and disgusting at once. But however accessible this category seems at first glance, the idea of wearables has not been acknowledged to be a part of it yet. Hence, the next few lines are a gentle attempt to understand just how difficult this task seemingly is.

Big names such as Chanel or Dior are saturated with pathos and are garnished with the melancholy of stories written by war. They unleashed the idea of haute couture – a genre as kingly as the ideal fashion perception can possibly be. But if one fast-forwards a few decades, Alexander McQueen will make for a more contemporary and opposing ideal. As it is important to state how locality, time and social environment have always contributed to the success of fashions’ main figures, McQueen can serve as a significant example. At least one of the reasons why Paris made him fail in the beginning could be his strong cultural and stylistic affiliation to London. You will have to excuse this little detour into the past, but mentioning just a few names that have contributed largely to the idea we share on the concept fashion and by illustrating its various stances first, proceeding to the concept of the ‘wearable’ will effectuate the anticlimax I intended to achieve. The category of ‘wearables’ lacks the immediate visual and emotional connotations conceived when talking of the ones named priorly: We dress for success, for good luck as well as for good look, hoping for our very own cinderella story to come true and always in search for the ones alike us. While fashion can be worse than gambling, putting ‘all in’ will most likely be its biggest success.
The term ‘wearable’ on the other hand describes the safe and functional achievement of attaching an electronic device to the body and hence centers around the machine rather then on the personality of the individual. This most rational procedure suits anything but the powerful cultural notion that comes with fashion. Indeed, a crucial observation of this discourse is that taking a risk, being outrageous and irrational, crossing cultural and even political borders are fashion’s main ingredients. But these don’t suit the business model of big tech-enterprises – which are the ones currently taking care of wearable tech. Instead, concrete and calculable products are more likely to spark their interest. If the players of this quickly emerging industry do actually want to intertwine with the concept of fashion, they will thus either have to change its well preserved recipe, come up with a hybrid that fits into both worlds or help to induce an alternative within its cultural understanding.
To illustrate the reasons for the currently biased relationship of fashion and technology even more clearly, I have chosen three examples. To start with, I will stick to McQueen and his ‘Savage Beauty’ robot-performance which offers fashion’s expected dramatic storyline and stages a theatric human-machine interaction: no function is suggested and robots are presented independently of the human, but the performance seemed to be exemplary for fashion’s shy and premature interaction with technology and  presented the clash of two worlds –orchestrated in the familiar fashion way.
As this performance piece can surely be identified as fashion’s advocate, I would like to name a fashion-tech hybrid next. However, most of the products trying to  create such a hybrid turned out to be devices rather then fashion items. This genre could best point towards the surely impressive work conducted by Studio XO. But as soon as functions such as data caption or displays come to play, our romantic, idle, anarchic or else cultural notion is set back and a separation of the genre fashion takes place.
Hence, I’d like to name Marloes ten Bhömer instead, who seems to have found a way to combine the sensations of fashion with an engineering approach whilst she avoids to enhance her pieces electronically. Her project A Measurable Factor Sets the Conditions of its Operation presents the best of both worlds.
 Although highly functional and ‘based on research into the structural parameters required to support a foot (in a high-heeled position)’, her work still transports the cultural notion needed when aiming to address the genre of fashion: by dealing with the significance of the high-heel, the specimen shoe obtains center stage instead of being superimposed by an alternative function that can be switched on or off. The genres of fashion and engineering are thus so densely intertwined that we struggle when asked to place her work in either or of the categories. Even the value of ‘history’ is kept present as she retains the craftsmanship inherent to shoe-making by staging the alternative process of production in a familiar way.

There are various examples which fit neither the genre of fashion nor the genre of wearables, and if we’d allow ourselves to analize how and why they successfully meander in between the two genres, we might manage to open up a new category to manifest their existence. Let’s even just consider that Pret-a-Porter and Haute Couture aren’t the only possible fashion-categories and we might manage to find a more natural way to host technological progress within our garments. Embrace the invasion of technology and we might even become witnesses of another cultural fashion-spectacle.