Monday is what for many in the fashion-Hollywood-business-celebrity nexus is considered the highlight of the social season: the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala. Before guests like Sarah Jessica Parker and Johnny Depp run the flashbulb gantlet to get to their Champagne and canapés, however, they will have to air-kiss the co-hosts Anna Wintour, Miuccia Prada, Taylor Swift, Nicolas Ghesquière, Idris Elba and Jonathan Ive, and at least pretend to pay attention to the nominal reason they are there: the opening of “Manus x Machina,” the Met’s annual fashion blockbuster exhibition.
A meditation on the assumptions we all make about what constitutes value in clothing, the show features 150 garments made between the 1880s and last February by names like Chanel, Iris van Herpen, Lanvin and Hussein Chalayan, and is meant to draw attention to the increasingly meaningless standoff between hand and machine. Why do we believe a dress that took one seamstress thousands of hours to embroider is worth more than a dress that took thousands of hours to 3D print? Can you even tell the difference?
“Technology is eroding the difference between haute couture and ready-to-wear,” said Andrew Bolton, chief curator of the Costume Institute, who wants the show to convince viewers that “we need a new paradigm for thinking about creativity.” Not to mention, he added, to raise the question of what wearables really means.
The implication being that, despite the fact that Apple, maker of the Apple Watch (a.k.a. the poster object for wearables), is a sponsor of the show, the answer is not necessarily a gadget you strap on your body.
Rather it may have something to do with what is going on a few miles to the south of the museum, across the East River in a cavernous old industrial building in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
That is the headquarters of Manufacture New York, a fashion incubator, factory and research facility housed in a landmark building that was once Storehouse No. 2 of the United States Navy Fleet Supply Base (so noted on a plaque by the entrance) and is now the wearables epicenter of a Brooklyn waterfront reinvention that has been taking place over the last few years.
Forget Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach. Welcome to the land of the Silicon Schmatte.
Incubator hubs in former factories have begun to dot the river’s edge and the uplands like pearls on a string: Aside from Manufacture NY, there is the Greenpoint Design and Manufacturing Center, a complex of old brick buildings originally built for the textile industry, and New Lab in the Brooklyn Navy Yard (which concentrates on prototyping and structures), to name just a few. Then there is the Brooklyn Army Terminal, just a few blocks down from Manufacture NY’s home, and a million-plus-square-foot center for “advanced manufacturing” (including biotech), in the words of Maria Torres-Springer, president of the New York Economic Development Corporation, which will manage the space.
Thanks to an unexpected collision of circumstances — a borough with a surfeit of unused industrial spaces; city planning (the realization on the part of the development corporation, among other agencies, “that there is enormous economic opportunity in encouraging this identity,” according to Scott Cohen, one of the founders of New Lab); the rise of the maker movement, with its emphasis on small businesses thinking in a local and custom way; and the city’s legacy as a fashion capital — New York, especially Brooklyn, has become “the natural home of the greater wearables movement,” said Francis Bitonti, a designer who runs a namesake studio and whose primary tools are algorithms and 3D printers.
“The West Coast has a lot of software talent, but not really a strong fashion culture,” said Mr. Bitonti, who has collaborated on dresses for Dita Von Teese and Chromat and shoes for United Nude. “They take a very engineering-led bottom-line approach to their start-ups.”
Manufacture NY has a somewhat different approach.
The 21st-Century Garment District
Manufacture NY was founded in 2012 by Bob Bland, 33, a redhead with stints at Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger on her résumé, who was inspired to “create the 21st-century garment district” after struggling to run her own label, Brooklyn Royalty, and source production locally. Now the group aims to focus on the points where design intersects with technology, and how together they can alter the supply chain.
To this end, the 10-person executive team includes a chief technology officer named Amanda Parkes, a 41-year-old computer scientist and mechanical engineer with long blond hair who talks at warp speed, has a thing for biofabrication, and tends to pepper her sentences with words like “density mapping,” “voxel” and “hacking interfaces.” Together, she and Ms. Bland are the sharp point of the wearables spear. They function a bit like “Charlie’s Angels,” if the angels had thrown off the patriarchy and gone out on their own.
“We want to create a whole new genre of company that will have the instincts and design skills of fashion and the back end of research and I.P.,” Ms. Parkes said, pointing out that current fashion start-ups exist in one sphere and tech start-ups in another, and, generally, never the twain do meet.
But, Ms. Parkes said, “If you are making a clothing line, you need research facilities for the hydrophobic nanotechnology that’s going to make it special, and you need to know what it takes to create a private label so you can actually bring it to market.” If you are Dan Steingart, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Princeton and an energy specialist who is researching how to make fabric into a battery, “You need to know who can actually scale the fabric you make, or who can actually make clothes out of it. Who can design them.”
You need to be in the same ecosystem.
Or at least on the same floor — all 160,000 square feet of it, with washed concrete floors, giant mullioned windows and curving pillars nearing completion. (Manufacture NY is in a temporary home on a lower floor.) There will be space for 30 or 40 companies, a denim lab, digital printing, laser cutting, 3D knitting, weaving, chemistry and biology labs, and a working sample room. At the moment, 15 are in the temporary site, with another 50 or so linked into their network. Not all of them are product-centric. But all of them embody, to varying extents, this new kind of thinking and function somewhat as a circuit unto themselves.
Dropel, for example, was co-founded by Simardev Gulati, scion of a textile-factory-owning family in India, who studied international trade and finance at Oxford. He and the co-founder Bradley Feinstein, a former consultant, have patented a nanotechnology process that bonds hydrophobic polymers with natural fibers on the molecular level to make them water- and stain-repellent, a process that can be licensed by clothing brands. Translated it means that a linen or cotton or denim shirt looks and feels exactly like linen or cotton or denim, but if you spill cranberry juice (or soy sauce or wine) on it, the liquid beads right off.
Recently they were in the “office” hanging out near Jae Rhim Lee, an artist and TED fellow, who first became known for her “burial shroud,” an art project she created at M.I.T. that combined biological material (mushrooms) with textiles to help achieve perfect physical decomposition after death. “But I’m not a designer, so it didn’t look that attractive,” she said.
Ms. Parkes introduced Ms. Lee to Daniel Silverstein, a Fashion Institute of Technology graduate who had interned at Carolina Herrera before going out on his own, and who has a space in Manufacture NY denoted by a gold velvet vintage chaise, a silver bowl of apples and two rails of clothing. Mr. Silverstein redesigned the funeral shroud into a neatly tailored funeral suit, and now Ms. Lee plans to sell it for $1,500.
Mr. Silverstein, meanwhile, spends most of his time creating sweatshirt-like tops, for his label ZWD (Zero Waste Daniel), that are painstakingly and personally collaged from scrap fabric left on the cutting-room floor at local factories, so that within its basic contours no one garment is the same. His goal is to connect with a company using visual algorithms that allow robots to identify and manipulate the scraps, which would allow him to automate the process and produce at scale (and use up ever more textile ends that would otherwise end up as landfill).
“If you put designers and engineers really close to the manufacturing process, what happens is they realize they do things the way they do because they are working with machines that were made a long time ago,” said Mr. Cohen of New Lab. “Suddenly they say, ‘Why not just make a new machine?’ And it transforms the process.”