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Renee Farris headshot

Social Good Fashion Turns to Biomimicry and Tech


What if your clothes mimicked nature? What if wearing a jacket gave you an internal compass like a migrating bird? What if a dress shed leaves like a tree?

A collection of fashionable garments, designed for social good by the students and alumni at the Parsons' Design and Technology Program, were exhibited at SXSW and drew significant attention. It's easy to see how social good fashion could be incorporated into, say, the marketing of an eco-friendly car such as the Tesla Model 3. (Audi did something similar with electronic, 3-D plastic garments last year.)

Here are five of the garments that were exhibited. Birce Özkan contributed to and curated the Design and Technology collection.

1. "Fall" by Birce Özkan

“ … Fashion can be kinetic, dynamic and almost living expression of our unique experience with nature. I strongly believe that Fall can influence the fashion world to become more dynamic and to increase the way clothes can react to the world around them," Özkan said. "I want clothing to have more responsiveness to the environment, so that instead of people always change their clothes, the clothes can sometimes change themselves.”

She began the garment design process by asking herself: “What if when the temperature got hot suddenly, our clothes would start to break apart in response? What if they had the skill to behave depending on the surrounding conditions? What if garments had the ability to sense the environment just like living organisms?”

Trees naturally shed leaves depending on the temperature and light. So, Özkan created an interactive garment that does the same. “In the fall, as the days shorten, and the temperature gets colder, the trees, without the light they need to sustain their chlorophyll, shed their leaves to keep their energy to survive for the winter ahead," Özkan said. "This process was the inspiration for creating my garment’s mechanism. To prepare for the fall of leaves, trees activate “scissor cells” that split to create a bumping layer that forces the leaves out of place, destabilizing them so that they fall.”

Özkan used the same process for her garment that trees use. Light activates small motors in the garment. The motors speed up when there is less light and make the “leaves” fall from the garment. The motors are attached to steel wires, and the wires connect to holes where leaves are attached with wax. When there is less light, the motor pulls the wire which breaks the wax adhesion and makes the leaves fall down. Özkan said she believes the piece will help people have a greater appreciation for the earth.

2. “Augmented Jacket” by Birce Özkan

Birds have a biological compass that tells them what direction to fly during migration. Their compass is guided by the earth’s magnetic field.

“This gives them a freedom that humans lack. Instead, humans become more dependent on their mobile phones to find their bearings. This dependency limits the awareness of their surroundings and denies them of some experiences,” Özkan said. So she created a jacket that imitates a birds’ internal compass. The jacket uses an electronic compass and embedded motors that make the feathers on the shoulders rise up when the wearer walks north.

3. “Bury” by Yuchen Zhang

Distraught by the amount of pollution in the environment, designer Yuchen Zhang created a hood that protects against pollution. The garment also provides commentary on the fact that we are rapidly destroying our naturally healthy environment. When we damage our surroundings, we turn them into a hostile environment that we then have to protect ourselves from.

“This garment protects the wearer by using reflective fabrics to increase their visibility in dim daylight which results from heavily polluted air," Zhang said. "Its unique facial covering allows the wearer to wear a filtration mask without compromising his or her style. More importantly, the garment illustrates an environment where we have almost depleted the protection of our atmosphere.”

4. "Vessel" by Elizabeth Tolson

The dress responds when a woman is touched inappropriately and changes colors depending on the wearers menstrual cycle. It turns a taboo topic into an interesting conversation that empowers women. Designer Zac Posen also created an LED dress last year in an effort to inspire and challenge girls to code. Posen's dress was part of Google's Made With Code initiative, and the electronics for the dress were coded by 30 girls in the program. Even today, girls can go online and learn to code the dress.

5. “Sensory” by Kendall Warson

"Sensory" is a garment designed to help people with visual impairments. It is often difficult for them to tell their clothes apart, so this garment has a braille label which allows the wearer to identify the clothing. Another user-friendly feature is the rubber band pocket which allows the wearer to easily slip in their hand (there are no cumbersome buttons or zippers) and the elastic nature of the pocket entrance prevents the contents from falling out. The cane that visually impaired people often use can slip inside the front edge of the jacket, allowing the wearer to blend in and not be immediately identified as having a visual impairment.

"Fashion is a form of self-expression,” Warson said. “To not understand color and patterns, people with visual impairments lose so much independence. I want them to get that back and to feel a sense of empowerment.”

Photo credits: 1) by Alex Tosti, 2) by Rebecca Enis, 3) by Rebecca Enis, 4) by Alex Tosti, and 5) from Elizabeth Tolson

Renee Farris headshotRenee Farris

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

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