From Knitwear Technology to Lighting up Embroidery

I was very excited to see the sustainability section of Keyhouse, being that my first love has always been the Earth. On the first day of Munich Fabric Start, I had the privilege to meet Yevheniia “Jane” Luchko, a knitwear designer studying with HTW in Berlin. I had seen her designs during our preparations, and I had been waiting to see the human behind them.

Jane’s obvious passion for her knitwear dresses inspired me in less than a second, as I watched her quietly weaving on a knitting machine. I could see she was in her “flow”, as positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say.

HTW is one of the largest universities in Berlin, with a well-attended fashion program offering bachelors and masters degrees. I reached out to Thu Thao Nguyen, a professor at the school, to learn more about what HTW offers their design students. She told me, “The combination of traditional craftsmanship and innovative technology in an interdisciplinary way is a huge benefit which our students value a lot. Further, we provide them regularly with newsletters about job offers, fashion events and fashion competitions.”

From Knitwear Tech to Embroidery

Jane’s interpretation of Marco Polo 2067: Model: Lucie Plaumann Photography: MS Designer: Yevheniia Luchko

Jane’s embroideries are an exploration of color, with her Ukrainian heritage spilling out from the details. I asked her about her design process, and what inspires her to create her knitwear by hand. Jane said she takes the approach of late designer Alexander McQueen, who famously once said, “I never look at other people’s work. My mind has to be completely focused on my own illusions.” Jane takes inspiration from within herself, and within the Earth around her. She goes hiking often and illustrates a wide range of flowers and plants in intricate detail. She then replicates the drawings into her embroidery, mimicking nature as she knits and sews.

Next, she’s looking for embroidery thread that glows. The Munich Fabric Start Keyhouse gave her the perfect place to talk with contacts from the recent collaboration between StatexMadeira, and Zsk. She plans to dabble in conductive yarns, to give light to the delicate details of her embroidered flowers and leaves.

We also spoke about the creativity found in university collaborations such as HTW and Marco Polo’s 2067, which was being displayed at Munich Fabric Start. I was captivated by the light in her eyes as she spoke about this opportunity. There is something to be said about the passion students feel when they’re surrounded by innovation and pushed to problem solve. There’s a feeling of having the world literally at your fingertips, and you feel as if your brain could open up at any moment and the entire universe could pour in.

Nguyen weighed in on this too by saying, “Young designers, although still students or already alumni, will always benefit from their very versatile education at HTW Berlin where they got the chance to gain practical and creative skills, always up-to-date. That prepares them for the fashion industry and highly increases their chances to get a job as a young designer. The positive feedback from cooperation partners and employers of the fashion industry prove that. Networking is essential to us.”

I’m excited to see what Jane’s imagination creates next using glowing or conductive yarns, with the knitwear knowledge she’s gained from HTW’s program and resources. As the space for conductive clothing grows, I’m confident her designs will continue to inspire others with the passion she’s knitting into each piece.

Connecting Innovators and Industries at Munich Fabric Start

While at Munich Fabric Start, I had the opportunity to talk with a lot of people and I noticed a common theme, the lack of communication between traditional fashion industries, and wearable technology innovators. The thing is long-standing fashion houses have yet to embrace technology implementation into their age-old designs. They typically claim that their heritage doesn’t support it. Maybe they feel adding technology to their collections would be too far outside their brand identity, and they’d lose their core clients.

Even if they do allow one or two devices within a collection, it’s never new enough for the wearable tech space to care. Likewise, wearables innovators are so far ahead of the fashion houses of the 20th century; they aren’t looking back. Doris Hofmann, a freelance designer under her brand Design Mob who I met at the Keyhouse, on her frustration with these big brands, said it best when she said, “Communication between innovators and these brands are stuck in a Snow White slumber.”

A Better Cycle for Connections

Unaffected, the sustainability, alternative materials, and technology spaces have continued to merge. Maybe mainstream fashion houses are beginning to feel guilty about the amount of environmental degradation brought on by their obsession with fast fashion, so they group these spaces and cast them off collectively. I see alternative material innovators, like MycoTex, actually being the closest replacement for fast fashion brands. The idea behind MycoTex is to replace our traditional fabrics with mycelium-based textiles, which of course do not last forever. Opposite of the slow fashion movement, the idea is to integrate more sustainable materials with fast fashion consumer behaviour, whereas most other sustainable brands are trying to change consumer behaviour. The concept of using mycelium will most likely seem absurd to many large corporations, but the actual return on investment would be very high if they could wrap their brains around the idea.

“IF A COMPANY DOESN’T HAVE A DEPARTMENT FOR INNOVATION, WHO IS IN CHARGE OF THIS TOPIC? CHANCES ARE, NOBODY!”

I don’t want to point the finger at these mega brands for their lack of trust in the startups creating new ways to think about fashion. For every successful startup, there are a thousand more that have lost their way. Investors need a great deal of return to be enticed. There must be some amount of proven results from the beginning of any partnership. So the majority of European fashion investors are not looking for wearable tech designers. But the fact is, many luxury brands are greying, and losing touch with the reality of the state of fashion.

In America, Ralph Lauren is trying to remain relevant by promoting sportswear, and relaunching their “preppy chic” look, which hasn’t changed since women started wearing pants. Their new iteration of the Ricky handbag featuring an LED light and USB cord for charging debuted in 2014. We haven’t seen much in the way of technology on the retail level since. (In fact, they still want us to rave about it nearly four years later.) However, they do supply USA’s Olympic team with some pretty cool tech-infused, overly patriotic gear, but sadly they never provide an iteration at the retail level. Hofmann also noted this point by adding, “If a company doesn’t have a department for innovation, who is in charge of this topic? Chances are, nobody!”

How to Make Change

We as innovators must take it upon ourselves to bridge the gap between the traditional fashion mindsets and alternative materials researchers. Wearables are more central between both schools of thought and have a better chance at impacting the fashion industry as a whole. More channels of communication need to be implemented between these industries for sustainability ever to become mainstream. Only through cooperation, will we be able to shift fast fashion to use alternative materials that are better for the environment. Less demonizing of fashion is necessary to do this. Of course, as a long-time promoter of sustainability and an environmentalist, it’s hard for me to write this perspective. Yet I believe it is partly the cause of the lack of connection between wearable startups and the deep pockets of the fashion industry.

When any industry is divided, it will never be as successful as it could be. For the sake of the Earth, we just don’t have the time to get stuck in the politics of these industries. Our days here are numbered. It’s up to everyone in the technology space to facilitate this communication for everyone’s success. Only with collaboration will we create lasting change, to impact generations to come.