Leading fashion innovation
2019-12-18 | By Molly Quell
When the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston wanted to celebrate the collaboration of designers and scientists, curator Pamela Parmal brought together examples of 3D-printed shoes, reinventions of runway fashions and laser-cut jackets in an exhibition called #techstyle. Nearly one third of the pieces were by Dutch designers or came from Dutch-based design companies.
Ahead of the crowd
“The Netherlands isn’t at the forefront, it’s six months ahead of the forefront,” says Dr. Troy Nachtigall, a designer who completed his PhD at the Eindhoven University of Technology. Nachtigall helped design the 3D-printed dress and shoes that former Dutch Education Minister Jet Bussenmaker wore to Prinsjesdag (when the reigning monarch of the Netherlands addresses a joint session of the Dutch Senate and House of Representatives to set out government policy for the coming parliamentary session) in 2015.
Through the years
Dutch innovation goes beyond one museum exhibition–the Dutch have a history of innovation in design, clothing and fashion. The Dutch invented the first high-precision watch–the precursor to the pocket watch, developed and refined the ice skate, invented Dyneema which is used in the production of body armour, and Cornelis Drebbel–who also invented the submarine–developed a process for creating a scarlet dye which became all the rage amongst the rich in Europe in the 1630s. Bringing things up-to-date, Eindhoven has the first ever city councillor dedicated to design, Mary-Ann Schreurs.
Today, the Dutch have an even broader impact on technology in fashion–in 2016, a student at the Industrial Design Engineering Faculty at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) developed a 3D printed bra; Dutch denim designer G-Star Raw is aiming to be a completely sustainable company by next year–a huge leap for the most polluting segment of the fashion industry, and denim brand Kuyichi is the world’s first organic denim company.
Innovation and education
Amsterdam boasts Fashion for Good, a start-up incubator focusing solely on sustainable fashion, and its headquarters also houses the world’s first interactive fashion innovation museum, The Experience. “The Dutch don’t have a deep history in fashion, like Italy, so they don’t carry that weight,” says Marina Toeters, a fashion innovation expert. She also emphasises how collaborative working in the Dutch educational system has influenced the industry. “Fashion is a dispersed industry,” she says, “designers and brands, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers all have to learn to work together to move forward.”
Lucie Huiskens, former programme manager at MODINT, a network of fashion industry companies, agrees. “Fashion institutes here create a climate that fosters technological development,” she says. Several Dutch universities offer degree programmes in fashion that emphasise the technological side of the industry, and other faculties, such as industrial design and engineering, often have fashion-focused research groups.
Looking back to go forwards
In the fashion industry, however, steps forward reflect the past. “One thing we are working on is very local production,” says Toeters. She predicts a situation where a customer could bring a worn out garment to a local store for a designer to redesign or repair. Elsewhere, G-Star Raw and other Dutch denim manufacturers have started air-drying their denim to reduce energy consumption, a method that harks back to one used in the 1800s.
Fast fashion, a contemporary term used by fashion retailers for designs that move quickly from catwalk to high street to capture current fashion trends, is a concept that our grandparents wouldn’t have been familiar with. “The idea that you buy an item that you invest more in, take better care of and keep for 10, 20 years hasn’t really existed for many for awhile.
People aren’t used to that anymore,” says Peter Leferink, the founder of the M-ODE Foundation. They want to help the fashion industry move toward a slower model–one that identifies sustainable fashion solutions, such as buying vintage clothes, redesigning old clothes, shopping from smaller producers, making clothes and accessories at home and buying garments that last longer. Something our grandparents would be more familiar with.
Innovations in sustainability
In 2018, designers Viktor&Rolf partnered with fashion retailer Zalando to create RE:CYCLE, a 17-piece womenswear collection created entirely from Zalando overstock “to explore garment recycling and environmentally conscious design” according to the company. “We tackle throw-away culture by only providing you with the essentials, and we never go on sale,” advertises Unrecorded, an Amsterdam fashion brand with two locations in the city. They don’t have seasonal patterns or styles, but aim to sell a few basic pieces of clothing that last longer, and their cotton is 100% organic.
Did you know…
The Dutch app United Wardrobe allows users to buy and sell second-hand clothing.
Not everything, though, is going back to how your grandparents shopped. Dutch design innovation also looks toward technology to improve clothing and how it works for wearers. Toeters refers again to local garment repair, where “you could ask for your garment to be more supportive of your hurt back and the designer could take that into account.”
Other futuristic projects Toeters has worked on include wearable technologies–a shirt that monitors your posture or stress level–and clothing that could text a friend for you, a project she worked on with artist Contrechoc. Designer Maddy Ekkelkamp came up with the concept for her Biometric Couture while she was studying, asking “imagine what it would be like if there were no longer any boundaries between the online and offline dimensions?” Her clothing concept would allow wearers to embed information in sensors in the clothing itself which can be read by a smartphone. So you could wear your entire Twitter profile or Tinder bio on your shirt.
Amsterdam is home to the unique and world’s only digital fashion house, The Fabricant. “Free from the constraints of the material world,” it was founded by Amber Slooten and Kerry Murph. They sold a digital dress, Iridescence, that only exists online. “The world doesn’t need more physical clothing, so many beautiful things already exist, does it need another? Our answer is no,” says Murph.
While wearable technologies and futurist concepts feel like the freshest advances, many of the developments in fashion by Dutch entrepreneurs take place behind the scenes, during the manufacturing process. These are making significant impacts on helping the fashion industry become more environmentally friendly.
Denim production is one of the fashion industry’s worst contributors to environmental pollution. The average pair of jeans takes 2,200 gallons of water to create, the popular distressed look is created using heavy chemicals and the waste from dying processes often pollutes rivers and streams.
The 2016 award-winning documentary River Blue found that 70% of waterways in Asia are contaminated by waste from the denim manufacturing industry there.
In response, G-Star Raw has invested heavily in making their manufacturing process more environmentally friendly. Dutch bio-design research project Living Colour is developing technology to produce dyes from bacteria. Living Colour collaborators Laura Luchtman and Ilfa Siebenhaar met while taking a course on textiles in Amsterdam, which included a workshop on dying fabrics with bacterial pigments. Living Colour uses bacteria from the roots of plants to dye fabrics during a process that takes three days.
Recycle and reuse
Founded in California, Ambercycle recently joined Amsterdam’s Fashion for Good incubator, and is working on a process to recycle old clothing to create polyester. Polyester is synthetic, used across fashion, but cannot be broken down. Ambercycle’s technology aims to turn these complex ‘end-of-life’ textiles into new yarns that can be used again and again.
Wieland Textiel isn’t a new start-up but was founded in Amsterdam in the 1960s as a rag recycling company. They recently pioneered a method for sorting textiles –to precisely sort old clothing, bedsheets and any other fabric into similar groups to make the recycling process easier and cheaper.
There’s a mobile-phone app for everything these days, including how to make better purchasing choices and recycle your clothing. Project Cece is an online platform that launched in 2017 and will show you how ethical your purchase might be, focusing on how well the workers who produced the clothes are treated.
Lena, which exists both online and as a physical store in Amsterdam, lets you borrow clothes for a fee. MUD Jeans, headquartered in Larven, has jeans for sale at around €120, but can be leased for a monthly fee. When you’re ready for a new pair, return them to be recycled.
Each year Dutch households discard about 210 tonnes of used clothing and textiles. Only a third of this, 75 tonnes, is collected separately; the rest, 135 tonnes, is incinerated with residual waste. With optimal separation, about 65% could be suitable for reuse and recycling. Besides household textiles, each year 30 tonnes of workwear and uniforms are thrown away.
Iris van Herpen
No discussion of fashion and technology in the Netherlands is complete without mentioning Iris van Herpen. Her 3D-printed cape and skirt were displayed in the #techstyle exhibition in Boston; Scarlett Johansson wore Iris van Herpen outfits in the movie Lucy; Beyoncé wore an Iris van Herpen dress in her music video for the song Mine; and Rihanna wore one on the cover of Vogue.
Van Herpen studied at the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Arnhem, which is where she started her fashion label in 2007, and her career took off after Lady Gaga wore one of her dresses in 2009. Time Magazine included one of van Herpen’s 3D-printed dresses in a list of the 50 best inventions in 2011. “Both art and fashion are linked to our deepest desires, moods, and our most personal expressions,” she says of her vision.
Representing a nation with a population of only 18 million people, compared to the USA with 330 million or Japan’s 128 million, it feels that a disproportionate number of pieces in the Museum of Fine Arts’ #techstyle exhibition were Dutch. That the Netherlands isn’t necessarily famous for its fashion only adds to how impressive this is.
About the author
Molly Quell is an American journalist, based in Delft. She is The Hague correspondent for Courthouse News Service and a contributing editor at Dutch News. When she’s not working, you can find her enjoying a beer and hanging out with her dog. You can follow her on Twitter at @mollyquell.