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At last year’s Met gala, model Karolina Kurkova lit up the night with a dress made in collaboration with Marchesa and IBM Watson. The LED lights on her dress changed color according to the mood of social media posts about the event. With advancements in new materials, the rise of wearables that can interact with artificial intelligence and sensor inputs, and designers that are eager to innovate, apparel like the Marchesa dress might become the norm in the future.

We were eager to explore the potential of these new textiles and how they can be incorporated into real products at scale. So we featured the topic in our latest MAKE IT Montly event.

We kicked off the discussion with a talk by Kristine Upesleja, founder of consulting firm Madisons Innovative Materials and the manager of the Innovative Textiles and Materials Department at FIDM. After the talk, special guests and the audience discussed in an unpanel session how they have overcome challenges implementing these materials in their products.

Kristine outlined four different major trends of new materials that are making their mark in the textile industry, along with striking examples of each.

Sustainability/Circular Economy

As we learned through Carolyn Casavan’s presentation last month, more consumers seek out sustainable products. In response, the sustainable trends in textiles seek to re-use and upcycle materials. Everything from pinapple to plastic is fair game.

Kristine highlighted company RECOVER, which upcyles discarded cotton garments into fibers, yarns, and textiles. Upcycling differs from recycling because the process turns materials into a better-quality product. Kristine also noted company Bionic Yarn, which develops yarn from plastic ocean waste. Music artist Pharrell Williams partnered with Dutch company G-Star Raw and Bionic Yarn to create a line of denim clothing made from plastics found in oceans.

Kristine gave an overview of a wide range of other materials that manufacturers are experimenting with. Cellulose from citrus fruit peels, for instance, can be extracted to make yarn, which is used by Salvatore Ferragamo. Combining wool and a corkshell layer, made from a by-product of wine cork production, gives the fabric higher thermal insulation than functional fabrics while offering high breathability. And vegan leather can be made from both pineapples and mushrooms.

Bio-Synthetic Materials

Bio-synthetic materials merge biology and fashion. Kristine noted company Modern Meadow, which is growing leather in a lab. The company uses a tissue engineering technique that follows the same principal as cultured products such as beer, wine, yogurt and cheese by using bacteria. They “brew” leather from skin cells obtained from biopsies that do no harm to the animal. Kristine also noted project Biofacture, which extracts certain types of bacteria that create uniquely colored dyes when cultured.

Wearable Tech

Wearable technology are garments, accessories, and jewelry that attempt to combine aesthetics and style with functional technology. The IBM Watson/Marchesa dress is an example. Kristine also showed other examples such as a graphene/LED dress that changes color with the wearer’s breath, a headpiece made with Swarovski crystals, and a special hair dye that changes color based on moods. Are the days of fitness trackers numbered? A Ralph Lauren shirt made with bio-sensing silver fibers and nylon can track heart rate and movement.

3D Printing

According to Kristine, additive manufacturing can be especially sustainable in part because there is no waste. She showed us images of dresses designed by Julia Koerner, who later during the unpanel explained how the process provides great creative freedum but is still very costly and has no tolerance for error. One of the more impressive items going into production today is the Adidas mass-customized shoe, which has a 3D-printed sole and knitted upper to match each customer’s specifications.

Joining in the unpanel after the talk were special guests and audience members Sabri Sansoy (designer of the Marchesa dress), Julia Koerner (UCLA instructor and designer of 3D printed dresses), Isaac Nichelson (CEO of RECOVER), Connie Huffa (a textile engineer who helped develop the Adidas shoe), Matt Borzage (from Syntouch, a company that uses robotic fingers to characterize textures), Arthur Lucero (from FitScrubs, a hospital gown company), and Tiffany Trenda (a high-tech fashion designer).

The general concerns raised by the participants were that new materials hold a great deal of promise, but there isn’t enough effort by enough of the manufacturers to make them accessible or manufacturable at scale yet. Some of these materials are mostly hype, and it’s hard to know which is which. Sustainability is gaining greater recognition, but there is still a long way to go until we reach a circular economy. If there weren’t waste in the first place, there wouldn’t be a need to recycle and upcycle.

But things are moving in the right direction, with exciting innovations constantly being incorporated and experimented with. Arthur enthusiastically recounted his success starting a new high-tech garment company and how new textiles have made it possible. Collaboration across industries, such as with IBM Watson and Marchesa, will be inevitable. And new job descriptions will reflect innovation happening in textiles, like synthetic biologist or design futurist. Kristine ended on the note that we’re living during exciting times in the textile industry, and we’re inclined to agree.

To watch Kristine’s talk and the unpanel session, visit the MAKE IT IN LA YouTube channel and subscribe to be notified when they go live.