'Haute Tech' Marries Fashion and Technology

We've sprouted fifth appendages that are our iPods and BlackBerrys. We make choices by simply touching a screen. Our lives have become digitalized, mechanized and compartmentalized, and fashion has begun to take on the silhouette of our gadgets.

In recent years, backpacks have begun sporting outside pockets that are, not coincidentally, the perfect size for an iPod. Handbags routinely feature cell-phone compartments. And now, from practical to avant-garde, the fashion industry is taking a cue from these gadgets, integrating their technologies into the fabrics rather than merely providing storage for them.

Known as "haute tech," these designs sometimes resemble costumes borrowed from the set of a sci-fi thriller. Like an old mood ring, one dress can sense the mood of its wearer by gauging his or her gestures and then respond with an appropriate song from its MP3-integrated hood. The innovations know no bounds, and can be quite comical; Erik De Nijs, a student at the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands, created a pair of tech jeans that incorporates a wireless Bluetooth keyboard into the lap of the pants. Speakers are integrated into the knees of the jeans and a mouse is conveniently stored in the back pocket. While some might find this kind of lap typing mildly vulgar, it highlights the way haute tech is pushing practical, wearable technology. Other garments use a nickel-and-titanium shape-memory alloy to move shimmery panels of fabric as if they are breathing, like coral shifting with the tide. "Clothing becomes the interface to tell a story," says British haute tech designer Di Mainstone, an artist in residence at New York's Eyebeam studio.

One of Mainstone's newest projects, Sharewear, stems from the idea that in today's fast-paced society, time for "intimate homey encounters" is limited. So Mainstone created an ensemble made up of modules inspired by icons of the home, like the armrest of a favorite sofa. These modules are connected through a series of electronic currents and power magnetically activated switches to produce light shows in the skirt and in a fixture that extends above the head. In addition to looking cool, Sharewear is meant to evoke the idea that clothing serves both to shelter and to define us—just like our homes. "I wanted that esthetic of something that was very familiar," Mainstone says.

Widely credited as the founder of haute tech, British designer Hussein Chalayan—twice named British designer of the year—is the subject of a fun and fascinating new exhibit at the London Design Museum called "From Fashion and Back" (through May 17), which highlights his 15-year career. Among the items on display: a garment made of crystals and 200 moving lasers to create a living light show, and two LED-screen video dresses that illuminate underwater sea life. Chalayan believes that integrating technology with fashion is "the only way in the world to create something new," he says. "These are the prototypes for things to come. They need this investment."

Haute tech designers do not expect to see their pieces walking down the street any time soon, but they believe their work is subtly guiding the fashion industry's conversation. Angel Chang, a New York–based designer, created a ruffle-tiered dress imbedded with heat-sensitive ink that reveals a map of New York City. The outerwear company O'Neill has created a garment line that includes things like the GPS-imbedded NavJacket, which features LED arrow indicators on the sleeves that direct a skier to various routes and slopes. "Some of it's going to be successful, some trashy, some faddy and some really powerful and just spot on," says Mainstone. At the very least it will provide diversion to those waiting for the bus.

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