Intelligent fashion on its way

It's getting hot in the nightclub, but Dina isn't bothered. Her shape-memory blouse is responding right on cue: its sleeves automatically rise, turning her garment into a cool, short-sleeved number at a stroke.

    Garments, as we know it, will take on a different look and feel

    Dina looks over enviously to her friend Valeria, who's clearly having a great time. Her Light Dress, whose heartbeat sensor is designed to signal her emotional state, is shining a brilliant blue as she chats to a handsome young man.

    So, for Dina, it could be a sad night alone.

    But all is not lost.

    She suddenly feels a tickle from the phoneband on her arm: she clicks her fingers to make the connection, puts her fingertip into her ear to provide an earpiece - and she's delighted to discover that it's an old friend who's just arrived in town.

    This scenario does not belong in the distant future.

    Indeed, the blouse and dress are already here, albeit as prototypes, and the "digital" phone, which sends small vibrations down one's arm and through one's finger to provide the sound, is being developed right now by Japanese telecommunications giant NTT DoCoMo.

    They are simply the vanguard of a promised revolution where fashion and science meet, fusing into so-called intelligent clothing.

    'Functional clothing'

    "In five years, functional clothing will be widespread. That's my hope, anyway," says Alexandra Fede, an Italian fabric scientist who is one of only two or three designers in this new field.

    "We need to have a garment that is active and provides other functions"

    Alexandra Fede,
    Italian fabric scientist

    "Life has changed with the new millennium. To have fashionable clothes is not enough. We also need to have a garment that is active and provides other functions."


    A small exhibition of intelligent clothing, running in Paris until this Sunday, showed that these novel garments fall into roughly two categories.
    The first are garments made of normal fabric that incorporate tiny electronics, such as computers, radios and phones, which are secreted in discreet parts of the clothing and connected by hidden cables.
    One such item is a jogging outfit made by Infineon Technologies AG, based in Munich, Germany, which has an MP3 player in the sleeve, activated by voice command through a microphone imbedded in the collar.

    Sports and medical market

    Other firms are focusing on the sports and medical market, with sensors incorporated into garments that capture temperature, perspiration and heart rate to monitor athletic prowess, or the position of one's spine while at work, something that is important
    for back sufferers.

    Another German company, Merhav AAP GmbH has invented a "portable airbag" for horseriders and motorcyclists, which inflates in 30 milliseconds to provide a cushion for the neck and the spine, the areas most at risk in a collision.

    The finger is the earpiece for the
    future digital phone

    The second category - more ambitious and longer at getting to market - is the realm of "intelligent fabrics": novel textiles that in themselves provide a function.

    They include an ultra-thin jacket, called No-Violence, made out of the latest type of carbon fibres, that has been tested to withstand .45 bullets, and Absolute Zero, a jacket made from a light, insulating compound called Aerogel, which keeps the body warm in temperatures of up to -50 C (-58F).

    The shape-memory blouse is made by Corpo Nove, of Florence, Italy.

    Its fibres are nylon interspersed with an alloy called nitinol, about the thickness of a hair, which can be deformed and then returns to its original shape when heated to a certain temperature.

    That means the blouse's sleeves can be programmed to shorten as soon as the room temperature becomes a few degrees hotter, said Stefano Carosio, an engineer with an Italian company, D'Apollonia, which scouted out Corpo Nove as a partner to commercialise the fruits of European Space Agency (ESA) research.

    "It also means you can 'iron' the shirt just with a hairdryer," he said.

    The cost, though: 2,500 euros.

    However, the price will plummet if shape-memory plastics, still in the lab, will also work.


    Fede says she has been overwhelmed with the interest in her JoyDress, a dress made out of hi-tech Lycra T400 fabric, manufactured by Du Pont de Nemours of the United States.

    The dress has tiny vibrating pads, programmed by a computer the size of a packet of cigarettes, that give the wearer a gentle back massage.

    "The biggest problem I have is not having ideas or in finding new prototype materials, it is to find a company that is willing to take the plunge and make the fabric and make the garments," says Fede.



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