There’s a very good chance that you’re reading this article on the slick screen of your iPhone or on your shiny iPad screen. Technology has seeped into every minute aspect of our lives today—how we shop, eat, travel or even sleep is monitored by technology. Why should the process by which your clothes are designed and created be any different, then?
Fashion is notorious for being the most laggard of the manufacturing sectors when it comes to embracing modernity. The ideologies, processes and aesthetics that govern fashion tend to still be seeped in a sense of nostalgia, a lovelorn view of past eras. In fact, would you believe it if I told you that most designer clothing today is still made with more or less the same techniques and materials that went into dressmaking half a century ago!
We value the human hand and appreciate artisanal practices that employ traditional techniques. Things made by hand have customarily conveyed exclusivity, personalisation and spontaneity. By that same measure, we deride machine-made objects in fashion as lowbrow, or mass market and soulless. But is this really true any more? We can vilify it endlessly, but the world today is a better place due to technology that makes things faster, simpler and more efficient. There’s been so much progress in the field of garment and textile manufacturing; you can get virtually any texture, weight and finish in materials developed by machines. If we managed to make it to the moon over half a century ago, there can be no valid reason, other than a myopic mindset, not to (prudently) use technology to make the clothing industry more responsible, imaginative and progressive than ever before.
We live in a time when clothing is mass produced, used quickly and tragically dumped in landfills. Rather than merely looking at the ever-accelerating cycle of trends, maybe the fashion industry should look at grassroot innovation to create clothing and products that genuinely bring joy, utility and longevity to consumers. Cutting-edge technology and innovation can help create products that are cruelty-free, less damaging to the environment and most importantly, genuinely new. Like Abraham & Thakore’s smart idea to turn wasted X-rays into paillettes for F/W 2015-16. Like fur replacements made with natural fibre, like clothes that self-clean and are easily biodegradable, like dyes that don’t pollute rivers; all these could be game-changers for an industry struggling to cope with outdated ideas of luxury and deeply disconnected from a new generation of consumers.
Globally, the movement is already afoot. Haute Couture started with Charles Frederick Worth espousing hand-stitched garments, but today virtually everything is sewn and embellished on the machine. The hallowed Haute Couture world has opened its arms to welcome the tech-savvy Iris Van Herpen, who uses the most avant-garde techniques, including 3D printing, in her clothes. Whether one talks of laser cutting as seen at Alexander McQueen, or flawless appliqué at Givenchy’s couture and RTW shows, bonded and moulded fabrics at Dior or even the shaved furs at Fendi, technology and craft have become consenting bedfellows. Materials like neoprene, vinyl, woven metal, silicon and even steel have seeped into clothing.
However, a lot of the technology that you may see in installations and at fashion shows has still not translated to the wardrobes of consumers. In order to really embrace the machine, we have to understand that it doesn’t mean shunning skills of the hand at all. It merely means amalgamating processes to make a product better than what it is currently. Imagine how cool it would be to have clothes with unbelievable craftsmanship that also change with the wearer? Hussein Chalayan’s shows always thrill because of his expert balance of tradition and technology—remember the S/S 2016 dresses that were watered down to reveal crystallised numbers? Claire Danes in that iridescent Zac Posen gown at the Manus x Machina Met Ball was an exciting, albeit extreme, example of incorporating technology into our wardrobes.
India has one of the youngest populations in the world, who are hungry for progress, eager to embrace innovation and preternaturally adept at imbibing technology into their lives. The challenge is to connect this generation of craftspeople with technology that keeps their product relevant and equips them to take on the future. There are a few who have taken up that challenge— Rimzim Dadu’s silica-weave sari, for instance, made waves when Sonam Kapoor stepped out in it at Cannes. Similarly, modern Indian brides have been queuing up for Amit Aggarwal’s futuristic vinyl frills.
As a designer, I work with a range of techniques—textured hand embroidery that embraces the age-old zardosi, and aari techniques done with badla, tarnished metal or even raffia. Equally, I love playing with the hand-guided embroidery machine, using its mechanical force to help the needle pierce through tough materials used for appliqué and embroidery. This is best illustrated with the embroidery developed for my F/W 2016-17 collection, ‘Tulipmania’, where Merino wool felt has been punched by hand to create sequins, which are then guided by the artisan and appliquéd onto a base fabric with the embroidery machine. In this case, the machine not only aids the process but also makes it more efficient. It would make no sense for an embroidery craftsman to use manual force to pummel through the very dense felt when a machine could do the same more efficiently. Likewise, I work extensively with tie-dye done by hand but also love shibori done by the embroidery machine.
It’s about time we shunned the parochial approach we have had towards the use of machines in fashion, and step confidently into the future of garment creation and ideation. Because ultimately, whether made by machines or by hand, fashion without soul is no fashion at all; a product has to make consumers fall in love with it even while it adds value to their lives.