Tonight is what for many in the fashion-Hollywood-business-celebrity nexus is considered the highlight of the social season: the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala. Before guests like Sarah Jessica Parker and Johnny Depp run the flashbulb gauntlet to get to their Champagne and canapés, however, they will have to air-kiss co-hosts Anna Wintour, Miuccia Prada, Taylor Swift, Nicolas Ghesquiere, Idris Elba and Jonathan Ive, and at least pretend to pay attention to the nominal reason they are there: the opening of “Manus x Machina,” the Met’s annual fashion blockbuster exhibition.
A meditation on the assumptions we all make about what constitutes value in clothing, the show features 150 garments made between the 1880s and last February by names like Chanel, Iris van Herpen, Lanvin and Hussein Chalayan, and is meant to draw attention to the increasingly meaningless standoff between hand and machine. Why do we believe a dress that took one seamstress thousands of hours to embroider is worth more than a dress that took thousands of hours to 3-D print? Can you even tell the difference?
”Technology is eroding the difference between haute couture and ready-to-wear,” said Andrew Bolton, chief curator of the Costume Institute, who wants the show to convince viewers that “we need a new paradigm for thinking about creativity.” Not to mention, he added, to raise the question of what wearables really means.
The implication being that, despite the fact that Apple, maker of the Apple Watch (aka the poster object for wearables), is a sponsor of the show, the answer is not necessarily a gadget you strap on your body.
Rather it may have something to do with what is going on a few miles to the south of the museum, across the East River in a cavernous old industrial building in Brooklyn.
That is the headquarters of Manufacture New York, a fashion incubator, factory and research facility housed in a landmark building that was once Storehouse No. 2 of the U.S. Navy Fleet Supply Base (so noted on a plaque by the entrance) and is now the wearables epicenter of a Brooklyn waterfront reinvention that has been taking place over the last few years.
Forget Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach. Welcome to the land of the Silicon Schmatte.
Incubator hubs in former factories have begun to dot the river’s edge and the uplands like pearls on a string: Aside from Manufacture NY, there is the Greenpoint Design and Manufacturing Center, a complex of old brick buildings originally built for the textile industry, and New Lab in the Brooklyn Navy Yard (which concentrates on prototyping and structures), to name just a few. Then there is the Brooklyn Army Terminal, just a few blocks down from Manufacture NY’s home, and a million-plus-square-foot center for “advanced manufacturing” (including biotech), in the words of Maria Torres-Springer, president of the New York Economic Development Corp., which will manage the space.
Thanks to an unexpected collision of circumstances – a borough with a surfeit of unused industrial spaces; city planning (the realization on the part of the development corporation, among other agencies, “that there is enormous economic opportunity in encouraging this identity,” according to Scott Cohen, one of the founders of New Lab); the rise of the maker movement, with its emphasis on small businesses thinking in a local and custom way; and the city’s legacy as a fashion capital – New York, especially Brooklyn, has become “the natural home of the greater wearables movement,” said Francis Bitonti, a designer who runs a namesake studio and whose primary tools are algorithms and 3-D printers.
“The West Coast has a lot of software talent but not really a strong fashion culture,” said Bitonti, who has collaborated on dresses for Dita Von Teese and Chromat and shoes for United Nude. “They take a very engineering-led bottom-line approach to their startups.”
Manufacture NY has a somewhat different approach.
The 21st-Century Garment District
Manufacture NY was founded in 2012 by Bob Bland, 33, a redhead with stints at Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger on her resume, who was inspired to “create the 21st-century garment district” after struggling to run her own label, Brooklyn Royalty, and source production locally. Now the group aims to focus on the points where design intersects with technology, and how together they can alter the supply chain.
To this end, the 10-person executive team includes a chief technology officer named Amanda Parkes, a 41-year-old computer scientist and mechanical engineer with long blond hair who talks at warp speed, has a thing for biofabrication, and tends to pepper her sentences with words like “density mapping,” “voxel” and “hacking interfaces.” Together, she and Bland are the sharp point of the wearables spear. They function a bit like “Charlie’s Angels,” if the angels had thrown off the patriarchy and gone out on their own.
“We want to create a whole new genre of company that will have the instincts and design skills of fashion and the back end of research and IP,” Parkes said, pointing out that current fashion startups exist in one sphere and tech startups in another, and, generally, never the twain do meet.
But, Parkes said, “If you are making a clothing line, you need research facilities for the hydrophobic nanotechnology that’s going to make it special, and you need to know what it takes to create a private label so you can actually bring it to market.” If you are Dan Steingart, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Princeton University and an energy specialist who is researching how to make fabric into a battery, “You need to know who can actually scale the fabric you make, or who can actually make clothes out of it. Who can design them.”
You need to be in the same ecosystem.
Or at least on the same floor – all 160,000 square feet of it, with washed concrete floors, giant mullioned windows and curving pillars nearing completion. (Manufacture NY is in a temporary home on a lower floor.) There will be space for 30 or 40 companies, a denim lab, digital printing, laser cutting, 3-D knitting, weaving, chemistry and biology labs, and a working sample room. At the moment, 15 are in the temporary site, with another 50 or so linked into their network. Not all of them are product-centric. But all of them embody, to varying extents, this new kind of thinking and function somewhat as a circuit unto themselves.
Dropel, for example, was co-founded by Simardev Gulati, scion of a textile-factory-owning family in India, who studied international trade and finance at the University of Oxford. He and co-founder Bradley Feinstein, a former consultant, have patented a nanotechnology process that bonds hydrophobic polymers with natural fibers on the molecular level to make them water- and stain-repellent, a process that can be licensed by clothing brands. Translated it means that a linen or cotton or denim shirt looks and feels exactly like linen or cotton or denim, but if you spill cranberry juice (or soy sauce or wine) on it, the liquid beads right off.
Recently they were in the “office” hanging out near Jae Rhim Lee, an artist and TED fellow, who first became known for her “burial shroud,” an art project she created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that combined biological material (mushrooms) with textiles to help achieve perfect physical decomposition after death. “But I’m not a designer, so it didn’t look that attractive,” she said.
Parkes introduced Lee to Daniel Silverstein, a Fashion Institute of Technology graduate who had interned at Carolina Herrera before going out on his own, and who has a space in Manufacture NY denoted by a gold velvet vintage chaise, a silver bowl of apples and two rails of clothing. Silverstein redesigned the funeral shroud into a neatly tailored funeral suit, and now Lee plans to sell it for $1,500.
Silverstein, meanwhile, spends most of his time creating sweatshirt-like tops for his label ZWD (Zero Waste Daniel) that are painstakingly and personally collaged from scrap fabric left on the cutting-room floor at local factories, so that within its basic contours no one garment is the same. His goal is to connect with a company using visual algorithms that allow robots to identify and manipulate the scraps, which would allow him to automate the process and produce at scale (and use up ever more textile ends that would otherwise end up as landfill).
“If you put designers and engineers really close to the manufacturing process, what happens is they realize they do things the way they do because they are working with machines that were made a long time ago,” said Cohen of New Lab. “Suddenly they say, ‘Why not just make a new machine?' And it transforms the process.”
Building a Better Stiletto
Process is the key word in the language of the new wearables, as it reflects the idea of technology used to improve the creation of an object, as opposed to technology that is the object in itself.
Such was the genesis of Thesis Couture, a Manufacture NY startup shoe line founded by Dolly Singh, the former head of talent at Elon Musk’s SpaceX who in 2013 enlisted a rocket scientist, an orthopedic surgeon, a mechanical engineer, a shoe designer and an Italian shoemaker in her goal of re-engineering the stiletto.
“It essentially hasn’t changed since it was invented in 1950,” said Singh, who has spent the last two years trying to build a better shoe. Now she says they have done it.
The result, which is in prototype and they hope will be available to order next month, is a limited edition of 1,500 pairs, each pair selling for $900. On first view the shoe looks like a black leather high-heeled gladiator sandal very much in the Jimmy Choo/Christian Louboutin/Manolo Blahnik vein, except it is made of ballistic-grade thermal plastic polyurethane, the pieces of which snap together. There are no internal steel shanks, as is traditional. The trademarked system is known as “structural interlocking architecture” and will make “a 4-inch stiletto feel like a wedge,” Singh said.
Thesis Couture’s website already has a list of almost 11,000 interested consumers who are waiting to be notified when the shoe goes live, as well as another 2,100 who have registered to place orders. Singh plans to do a Series A fundraising next year, at which point she intends to bring out a 21-piece collection, each style balanced on a towering spike and named after a high-achieving woman: the Sally Ride (a black ankle boot with a curve of gold beads), the Maya Angelou (an open-toe gladiator-style with a contrasting color heel), the Malala Yousafzai (a hot pink sandal with a gold ankle strap) and so on.
“The fact is, technology has been a part of fashion forever,” Bitonti said. “Fashion has always used tools, whether they are sewing machines or knitting needles.”
Back at the Met, Bolton called this “silent technology” – the tech you can’t see, like the ultrasonic welding used by Nicolas Ghesquiere in a floral dress for Louis Vuitton – and said that for him, it and the collaboration it represents is the future of fashion.
Not to mention Brooklyn.
Met gala tonight
PRE-SHOW TIME: 7 – 7:30 p.m. ET/PT time delay: E! News pre-coverage of the Met Gala on-air, online and via social media. This will be featured on the E! Network.
RED CARPET TIME: 7:30 – 9 p.m. ET/PT: Giuliana Rancic and Zanna Roberts Rassi, along with Olivia Culpo and celebrity stylist Johnny Wujek, will give the red carpet rundown on the fashions of the evening. Catt Sadler and Zuri Hall will interview some of the biggest celebrities on the red carpet live.
TV CHANNEL: The Live From the Red Carpet special will air on the E! Network, but there has been no report of a live stream.
HONORARY CHAIRS: Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Jonathan Ive, Nicolas Ghesquière, Karl Lagerfeld, and Miuccia Prada.
2016 MET GALA THEME: “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology”
EVENT HOST: Chairwoman Anna Wintour
TICKET PRICES: According to the NY Times, tickets for this year’s gala are $30,000 each, and tables are $275,000.
EXHIBIT SPONSOR: Apple