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Hussein Chalayan
A lover of fashionable tech, Hussein Chalayan’s video dresses were embedded with 15,000 LEDsvia

The tech we were wearing before wearable tech

Tripping down ‘wearable’ memory lane pre-Apple Watch hysteria with the most innovative inventions from WT’s early days

At first glance, the building blocks of our wardrobes have barely changed in the last hundred years – or have they? The still-pervasive use of synthetic fabrics, cotton and animal skin may suggest we’re cut from the same cloth, but technology is being ingrained in the DNA of our clothing like never before. Technical fabrics – pervasive on the runway – provide the starting point for clothes that will eventually compute. Much like “selfie” and “GIF” before it, the term “wearables” is on the fast-track to becoming the zeitgeisty, OED-approved word of the year. 2014 has seen it take on new life at an alarming rate: Google Glass, the smart eyewear derided for looking like something a long-sighted android dreamt up, is proudly on sale at Net-a-Porter. Meanwhile, the highly-anticipated Apple Watch had a launch during Paris Fashion Week, with model Liu Wen’s attendance sparking rumours that she could be the product’s new stylish face. But the question of whether our clothes can do more has always been a drive for young designers; the integration of technology into those designs is just one way to address that question. Then, as now, we want clothes that are harder(-wearing), better, faster — and washable. So, as we look to the future, we mustn't forget that there’s a whole history behind wearable technology as we currently know it: from Lang to Levi’s, here’s our pick from the wearable tech archives.


Hussein Chalayan, whose name has always been synonymous with innovation, is an original practitioner of wearables. Or rather, unwearables. Chalayan’s ‘showpieces’, from coffee tables that turn into skirts and paper dresses that fold into envelopes aren’t exactly throw-on looks. But his most experimental moments are just that: moments, in the show space, that remain with you even when YouTube-looping takes their place in the collective memory. One such moment was SS07’s morphing dresses: here, microchips and animatronics seamlessly morphed a Victorian dress into a flapper one, and Dior’s ‘New Look’ into Rabanne’s modernism.


“Philips technology in every shirt and skirt” reads the slightly terrifying manifesto for the electronic giant’s Wearable Electronics centre in the late 90s. A memorable collaboration with Levi’s produced the world’s first commercial wearable electronics garment: the ICD+ jacket. The lead on the project was designer Massimo Osti, the high priest of high-tech fabrics (more on him, below). Not “intelligent” clothing as such, the jacket served as a platform for all the essentials of the Millennial ‘urban nomad’ – in other words, specialist pockets for MP3 players, mobile phones and their cables. It didn’t sell too well, but the media were all over it: the way that the MP3 player automatically cut out when the phone rang, described as “mindboggling” by the Guardian at the time.


What to wear when it’s raining drones? NY-artist Adam Harvey’s ‘Stealth Wear’ has some options for your capsule anti-drone ‘drobe. Designed with a lightweight, metallised fabric, his clothes protect the wearer against the thermal-imaging surveillance technology used by drones. The burqa design caused the most heat when this self-proclaimed anti-authoritarian statement was made in 2013. The artist’s rationale was that his hijab and burqa provide a separation between ‘man and drone’, just as Islamic dress does between ‘man and God’.


Issey Miyake specialises in reversing norms: that fabric should be first pleated and then cut and sewn, or that evening dresses should be dry-clean only. His ‘Pleats Please’ collections, launched in ’93, performed a volte-face on those expectations. Individual pieces are cut and sewn together first, and then pleated in a heat press; the distinctive texture and permanent pleats that result are favourites of the 00s woman, just as the 90s woman before her. As Laurence Benaïm writes, ‘His clothes, polyesterhaikus, are like brightly colored points of light twinkling in a huge transparent structure.’ No piece was more colourful than 94s ‘Flying Saucer’ – the otherworldly, tubular dress that could collapse down and return to its original shape with ease.


Inspired by 90s-era silly string, London-based designer Manel Torres is the inventor of spray-on fabric. Instant and non-woven, these ”outfits-in-a-can” can be worn, washed, and worn again. Consisting of short fibres that adhere to one another on the body, you can create just about anything you like. Look closer and you’ll see those models are smiling through gritted teeth, though, as the spray is still extremely cold when it touches the body. Nevertheless, Torres’ spin-off company Fabrican see the best potential for the technology in the medical world, such as for spray-on bandages or delivering medicine directly to a wound.


Designers approached the millennium with a somewhat retro-futuristic turn. For AW99, the apotheosis of Helmut Lang’s austere minimalism was demonstrated with a Spacesuit-inspired collection. Ever the “Space Oddity”, his designs for men and women demonstrated a look-less-back to the 60s than a look-forward-to-the-functional-all-in-one wear that proliferates today. After all Lang, one of the first designers to embrace the internet – in 98, he broadcast his show online – could never be accused of retro-activism. In a neat twist, the late Dazed contributor Shawn Mortensen later photographed astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the Lang spacesuit.


Imagine the following show notes, if you will. “12 Unwearable Dresses in contemporary materials, adorned with sequins and Rhodoid plates.” If you were in attendance at Paco Rabanne’s first show on February 1st 1966, that’s what you got. Models were barefoot, some of them were black, and they all wore rigid plastic and metal dresses held together by blowtorched rivets. Rabanne’s technique and show styling, pursued to reflect modernity, left audiences in future shock – and quickly established his reputation as the new revolutionary in Paris.


“Pure Magic”. That’s Lorenzo, Massimo Osti’s son, describing his childlike wonder at his first glimpse of his dad’s “Ice Jacket” invention. It came out, on Osti’s Stone Island label, in 91: a jacket that, due to the chemical composition of the fabric, could change colour according to temperature variations. One of the fabric innovator’s most lasting designs, Osti’s contribution to endurance clothing has lent him the moniker, the “godfather of sportswear.”


Some of the most notable features of the upcoming Apple Watch include its ability to let you pay for goods and services like a contactless card, and its personalised colors that make it some remarkably covetable arm candy. But cast your mind back to the mbracelet. Developed in 1999 by New York’s Studio 5050, the prototype never made it to the market, and has all but vanished into obsolescence. But with eight bright colours and a proposed ability to compute financial transactions with ATM machines, it would appear that it was simply too much for its time.


Ying Gao, based out of Montreal, makes garments inspired by air – they might breathe through pneumatic systems, animate when approached, or mimic one another through their numerous folds. 2006’s Index of Indifference purports a particularly unique use of algorithmic data, however. Shocked by the political indifference of internet users – those who reply “I’m indifferent“ when given the option – Gao used a software program to compile and manipulate data from online surveys. The entire pattern of her garments depended on these answers, as data concerning neutrality modified the basic structure of men’s shirts over four weeks. The results – from the angles of the pocket to the depth of the folds – formed a striking requiem to politicised minds.