Slouchy hoodies, unforgivably baggy jeans, and various shades of brown and grey: Silicon Valley is mocked frequently for the unofficial uniform worn by the majority of its well-paid tech workers.
Some of the region’s more sartorially enlightened residents are trying to change that stereotype, though. Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in a San Francisco mortuary-turned-nightspot, a makeshift catwalk protruding into an ornate room called The Chapel. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. (One guy I met lining up for the show was eager to demonstrate his motion-activated, glow-emitting technomancer hoodie, flailing his arms wizard-like as he exclaimed, ‘Man, I never get to show off this thing!’)
Silicon Valley’s residents are aware, more than any outsiders, of how unstylish the region truly is. The three-night show opened not with a bang but with a very audible groan as the first group of models shuffled inelegantly onto the catwalk, dressed in ill-fitting sweatpants and hoodies; a few of the models even whipped out their smartphones, feigning boredom as they scrolled through their Facebook feeds right up there on the catwalk. This unstylish status quo was seemingly established purely so that it could immediately be ‘disrupted’ by the designer wares that followed.
Despite the glossy cyborgs photoshopped into SVFW’s promotional material (see main image), the show retained a flavour of awkwardness. Silver-suited showrunner Mustafa Khan’s style of presentation was unrefined, something he seemed to play up (at one point he walked out onto the catwalk wearing a virtual reality helmet and told the crowd: ‘I’m kinda nervous right now, so I’m using this to look at all of you in your underwear’). A ‘model from the future’ opened the catwalk one night, her face beamed onto a screen that wheeled itself jerkily on stage as she delivered a speech peppered with maniacal laughter and the threat of robots taking over.
The promised drones (above) were certainly a novel method of closing each night, but their appearances onstage felt somewhat ungraceful: each ‘modelled’ a piece of clothing for only a few seconds before falling back to the floor so that its human handlers could rush forward to swap out its outfit. (Facebook friends were quick to point out how this new generation of ‘models’, amusing as they were, actually played into the size debate. ‘Size minus one,’ said one friend in response to a drone video I posted, while another joked that he now knew what the clothing would look like ‘on a ghost’.) Still, I appreciated the awkwardness. It felt like a celebration of the brilliant, introverted nerd-minds who have built the valley into what it is today.
Some designers, particularly on the first night, evinced purely utilitarian approaches to fashion design. There was an emphasis on commuters; a line of gear designed for cyclists didn’t resemble much more than glorified visibility vests. Motorised skateboards, fancy bikes, and $3000 electric scooters were brought onto the catwalk as if they were accessories. A clutch designed to organise and charge iDevices felt like a little too obvious and amateurish a concept. One smartly-cut men’s jacket, capable of storing a laptop in a hidden zippered compartment in its back, caught my eye – but even that seemed to err more on the side of useful than stylish.
Things naturally got more engaging when more fashionable, quirky uses of tech in wearables were demonstrated. The second night’s show featured LED lights galore: they were built into handbags, onto sunglasses, and in one case an iPad was used to control the shifting patterns on a fluffy, LED-studded jacket. The crowd sighed rapturously at a dress whose subtle flare was lined with fibre optic cables.
One of the featured designers, ThreeForm, had made body scans of its models to outfit them in perfectly fitting, android-esque 3D-printed armour, glistening like gladiators from the future. It’s a cool idea in theory, but I wondered who would wear plastic white boob plates outside of an event like this – and why the technology wasn’t instead used to demonstrate how it could eliminate the niggling fit issues from more wearable, everyday-ready clothing.
By the end of the final night, my feelings about Silicon Valley Fashion Week? had solidified. Fashion, technology, and wearability: pick any two. These three elements hadn’t been brought harmoniously together by any of the designers whose work was shown. The audience was audibly impressed by the flashier outfits, but it’s clear that wearable, technology-fuelled clothing is territory that designers are only just beginning to infiltrate, and we’re still in the thick of the novelty of it. Visually enhancing hoodies with fibre optic cables is really not the revolutionary act of fashion that it seemingly hopes to be (especially given that we were expected to jeer at the first fleet of models and their Zuckerberg-esque hoodies-and-jeans outfits). We’re yet to see fashion, tech, and everyday wearability combined in any meaningful, life-changing way. That we even have an event starring drones and dotted with LEDs indicates headway is being made, but it will be some time yet before we see the true fruit of the seeds that Silicon Valley Fashion Week? has planted.