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Why the Future of Fashion Will Put Function First

To survive the current tumult and serve the future consumer, clothing must emphasize the functional side of design in conjunction with aesthetics, according to designer and fashion consultant Nora Kühner.

Given the fundamental changes underway not just in the fashion industry but society-wide as well, apparel brands and retailers cannot continue with “business as usual,” Kühner said at Lectra’s Fashion Goes Digital event at its headquarters in Bordeaux, France. Industry professionals regularly inquire about how to “add value back to the [textile] product,” she added. “Digitization is a topic we must tackle now.”

Athletic apparel was perhaps the original innovator in enhanced performance and functional design because of its close attention to the “framework” of the body and movement, Kühner noted. That focus on functional performance is already starting to trickle down into not just mainstream apparel but into the workflow for apparel design as well. “Technology is supposed to enhance services for the user,” Kühner said.

Among the innovations bubbling up in the apparel industry, virtual prototyping holds significant potential to save time, reduce development costs and get closer to the customer, she explained. “It will be important for all of us in textiles within the next year,” Kühner said. “It will become urgent for us to test product ideas in simulation.”

Amazon’s announcement last year that it has created an artificial intelligence (AI)-based fashion designer prompted questions over whether that development would kill off the fashion designer-job as we know it. “For a certain time, it’s okay to go with numbers and algorithms,” Kühner said, “but the human factor is still interesting. What does it mean to be a human being in the 21st century? What is our role?”

Much of the debate over this issue has focused on the notion that AI lacks the potential for inspiration and would simply create iterative versions of existing ideas instead of coming up with innovative new ones. At this point, AI still lacks the ability to ideate—though it’s getting better by the day and this soon could be a moot point.

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However, Kühner emphasized the need for clothing to be smart and a seamless addition to our lives.

“Clothing with a purpose is a driver for new development,” she said. The time when wearable tech focused on eye-catching LED lights that served no real purpose is quickly coming to an end and giving way to an era of smart fabrics that will become the go-to materials of tomorrow. “Bling bling in electrocouture is nice for an event but it’s not something that supports your life in any fundamental and necessary way,” Kühner said. “Clothing with a purpose moves away from idea of mass production.”

Brands like Lumenus are responding with apparel equipped with useful LED lights that provides high visibility for an urban bicycle commuter and feature different colors that serve as the left and right turn signals.

Despite the initial fervor over making every piece of apparel into some form of wearable tech, some of that interest has died down because of the ethical questions raised by embedding technology so close to the body. In speaking with a large apparel company that produces brassieres, Kühner discovered that the brand was interested in adding a health monitoring sensor into their bras but “still thinking about it”—largely due to concerns over who’s technically responsible in the event that the technology malfunctions and something goes wrong. Fashion companies are taking a more thoughtful approach to wearables instead of building in tech for the fad of it.

In addition, apparel design must put sustainability front and center in order to resonate with millennials and younger generations. “Sustainability is a topic that goes without saying,” Kühner explained, addressing how passionately Gen Y feels about ethical treatment of people and planet. For them, sustainability “is like breathing in and out. It’s their number one topic.”

Working with fashion design students recently, Kühner said that six of the group of 12 prepared presentations on sustainability issues.

Going along with the sustainability theme, fashion needs to come up with solutions to the mounting problem of textile waste. As much as 40 percent of apparel production never even makes it out of the manufacturing facility, Kühner noted, which is why the industry must rethink its attitudes on what waste really is. She pointed to a class that designer Christopher Raeburn led at the most recent ISPO, where he encouraged participants to turn away from virgin materials and “work with what is here.”

Raeburn is noted for his ability to reuse and remake en route to creating a fresh and fashionable product. “Waste is not waste,” Kühner explained. “It’s just stuff in the wrong place and maybe for others it’s precious.”

Kühner thinks that what some brands define as co-creation might be misguided. Quoting Henry Ford, she said, “If you’d asked people what they want, they would’ve said, ‘faster horses.’

“We need people like designers who are trained in careful observation, drawing conclusions, looking beyond one’s own barriers,” Kühner continued. “True co-creation in my opinion really is open source development where you make the customer an integral part of the value chain.”

Perhaps, Kühner said, architect, author and professor Friedrich von Borries put it best: “Design is a lead discipline of the future.”