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Computing

Transforming Clothes

Computerized motors pulled the strings at a recent Paris fashion show, dramatically altering dresses on the runway.

Turkish fashion designer Hussein Chalayan is known for his innovative ideas. Earlier this month, he wowed the audience at his Paris runway show with five dresses that automatically transformed in shape and style. Zippers closed, cloth gathered, and hemlines rose–all without human assistance. Beneath each model’s skirt was a computer system designed by the London-based engineering and concept-creation firm 2D3D. Rob Edkins, director of 2D3D, talked to Technology Review about how the computers controlled the clothing with motors and wires.

The underpinnings of one of the five transforming dresses featured in Hussein Chalayan’s latest runway show. Wires within the tubes connect to motors at the bottom of the dress. The motors reel in wires attached to the outer layer of the garment, altering its shape. (Credit: 2D:3D)

Technology Review: What was your vision for the clothes in the latest Chalayan show?

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Rob Edkins: He gave us a series of drawings: five dresses which morphed through three decades. Together with him we developed a means by which we could move the dresses into the various shapes of those three decades. It took a lot of R&D before we arrived at a solution.

With the first dress, the girl walked on in a 1906 costume, and it morphed from 1906 to 1916 and then to 1926. So she ended up having a beaded flapper dress of the twenties. The next dress was from 1926, and it evolved from 1936 to 1946, and so on. The final dress was 1986, 1996, and then 2007. So there were five dresses, and each dress [morphed through] three decades.

A lot of [the transformation] was unbelievably subtle. While you were watching something happen down around her waist, something else was happening on her shoulder. A little fabric might roll up and become a sort of half sleeve.

TR: One of the Chalayan dresses featured a rising hemline and a bustling of the skirt at the back. How did you make that dress transform?

RE: Basically, the dresses were driven electronically by controlled, geared motors. We made, for want of a better term, little bum pads for the models. So on their buttocks were some hard containers, and within these containers we had all the battery packs, controlling chips–the microcontrollers and microswitches–and little geared motors. The motors we used were tiny, about a third of the size of a pencil and nine millimeters in diameter. Each of the motors had a little pulley, and the pulley was then attached to this monofilament wire which was fed through hollow tubes sewn into the corset of the dress.

Some of the corsets were very complicated. They had 30 or 40 of these little tubes running everywhere, carrying these little cables, each doing its little job, lifting things up or releasing little linked metallic plates. There was a huge amount of stuff going on beneath the clothes.

TR: On another dress, the zipper on the front of the bodice closed automatically. What technology was involved?

RE: We drew a magnet up on a string. The [monofilament] was sewn very delicately into the hem of the fabric and then over her shoulder and down her back.

TR: A lot of nontraditional materials were used in the show. One dress seemed to have a skirt made of plastic cards that automatically rose up off the body, shrunk, and then changed color, from white to silver. What was that dress made out of and how did it work?

RE: It was all precontrolled on a microcontroller, on a timed sequence. We set the sequence just before the model exited out onto the stage. We hit an “on” switch, and off she walked. At the appropriate moment the panels were all released and pulled down … again with cables.

TR: Are these dresses for sale?

RE: No, no. Definitely not. I believe that these dresses are going to eventually find themselves in a museum.

TR: Where do you go from here? Will you be creating new designs or licensing the technology you’ve developed?

RE: That’s entirely up to Hussein or any other fashion designer who cares to commission us.

TR: Do you see any of this as the future of fashion?

RE: I’m not a fashion designer, so I can’t really comment [from a design perspective]. But [technically] I think it’s possible–it’s very possible. There’s no reason why you couldn’t have something so that instead of you having to reach down and pull something when it starts raining … it just reacts to water and a visor comes down to protect your eyes.

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