Fashion's new focus: innovative materials

Designers look outside the fashion industry for inspiration

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Giles Deacon

Western society is fascinated by anything new. iPods are becoming smaller and sleeker, cell phones have more functions, and clothes are no longer limited to basic cotton, silk, or polyester.

In an effort to modernize 21st century dressing, creative minds in fashion have been churning out clothing made of innovative materials. With technology on their side, designers are looking outside the fashion industry for inspiration on expanding the range of clothing material.

Last spring at Balenciaga, models stomped down the runway in metallic gold leggings reminiscent of C-3PO from Star Wars. These interesting leggings were made of a reflective fabric and their resemblance to metal was astounding. The collection also boasted chunky dresses knit out of metallic yarn to create a chainlink armour appearance.

At Fendi, Karl Lagerfeld created a space age-inspired collection using hi-tech materials. Silver leather was cut with a laser, resulting in a mesh-like appearance that gleamed beyond belief. Additionally, the evening dress was redefined with gowns made of black silicone with sliced rubber strips used as fringes.

This season, designers continue their experimentation with materials of various textures, sizes and appearances. Giles Deacon updated the traditional knit sweater and scarf by supersizing the stitch. He also constructed a dress out of sheer, pleated fabric made to resemble paper fans.

Deacon’s less extreme pieces included jackets and pants that were quilted or striped with PVC, a material traditionally associated with garden hoses and rainwear.


A trend many designers are following is to blur the line between jewellery and clothing this season by incorporating crystals into their fabrics. At Dolce and Gabbana, dresses are encrusted with crystal beads of different shapes and sizes. Likewise, Vivienne Westwood procured high-glitz pants covered entirely in Swarovski crystals.

As the green movement thrives in the fashion industry, perhaps the animal rights movement will follow a similar course. Yves Saint Laurent’s winter collection features a two-tone jacquard fabric made of silk and wool that would be a great lightweight alternative to crocodile skin. Meanwhile, Prada uses mohair (Angora goat fleece) as a fur replacement in coats and created skirts out of “feathers” made of strips of plastic.

“For me, fabric is 90 per cent of the mental work in design,” Miuccia Prada said in a recent New York Times interview. Prada pushes boundaries by synthesizing traditional fabrics with hi-tech materials. Her latest winter collection, a strange mix of primitive and industrial, is among the most innovative of the season. Skirts and jackets were made from textured fabrics that resembled mountain ranges, while fleece tops and dresses were glazed with malachite, a copper carbonate mineral.

Giles Deacon

In a recent collaboration with Lacoste, designer Michael Young produced a limited edition of shirts called Plastic Polo, which are adorned with metallic plastic to imitate the appearance of crocodile skin. Young was inspired by the soft, durable rubber found in gardening gloves. In order to reproduce a commercially viable version of this rubber, Young and the Lacoste crew went though tedious trials of fusing various materials together before arriving at the final product.

The fashion industry is keen on experimentation and innovation, but how much of this affects the general public?

Currently, one can find knockoffs of this season’s Prada dresses and Marni rubber gloves at Zara, as well as several lamé pieces at American Apparel. But it’s obvious that cotton tees and jeans still dominate mainstream fashion.

The main factor that impedes the flow of high fashion ideas into the mainstream market is money. Despite being unique, rubber dresses and aluminium-like leggings are unlikely to have wide appeal anytime other than at Halloween. Avant-garde materials simply do not sell well in the mass market and are therefore mainly available only from high-end designers.

However, fashion rarely remains in one state for long. In a few years’ time, designers will learn to finetune the use of these strange materials to create clothing that is more practical. Then we can all embrace new fashions without receiving unpleasant stares when we walk down the street.

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