Couture in Orbit: Future wearable tech from ESA’s space-inspired fashion show

Stretch sensors, printable antennae and smart fabrics at the Science Museum
Couture in Orbit: ESA's space fashion
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It's after hours at the Science Museum and the European Space Agency's fashion show is about to begin. The ESA teamed up with the museum to stage last week's space-inspired catwalk show as part of the Kensington institution's 'Lates' series. Its ambitious Couture in Orbit project, which was two years in the making, featured talented young designers from top European fashion schools in Paris, London, Milan, Copenhagen and Berlin.

"I was at a meeting at the Science Museum to discuss Tim Peake's mission and thought it was a good opportunity to do something different," Rosita Suensen, ESA's human spaceflight and operations communication officer told Wareable. "Each ESA astronaut works on an educational project outside of their mission objectives – for Tim Peake it's STEM [encouraging tech and science education], for Italy's Samantha Cristoforetti, it's health and nutrition".

Each fashion school was asked to take inspiration from the research and experience of an astronaut associated with their country and to produce space-inspired designs using integrated wearable tech from a range of sponsors.

Read this: The NASA wearables that made it back to Earth

After a welcome video from Tim Peake and an on-stage intro from presenter George Lamb, the models took to the runway to show off their galactic designs – some more sci-fi in style than others. "It's a project, not a competition. We didn't want Star Wars or Star Trek style clothes or gimmicks, but clothes that were actually wearable," explained Suensen.

As part of its Technology Transfer Programme, the space agency works with startups that develop products for use on Earth based on innovations that have been made in space. Some of this tech was included in the fashion show, while for other sponsors who donated products such as super-absorbent material, the event opened up the opportunity to provide products for use in space in the future.

"We're always looking at new tech for future exploration and we will see if we can introduce any of the tech that we're seen today," said Suensen. "The objective was to get the students enthusiastic about space and wearable tech. In future, fashion designers will have to embrace technology."

Leap Technology

Students at the Fashion Akademiet Copenhagen incorporated Leap Technology sensors into their quirky designs, inspired by Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen.

Dubbed 'artificial muscles', the rubber-like strips of electroactive polymers – or EAP – created by a Danish startup can be used to measure stretch. Precise stretch data, including movement within a tenth of millimetre, can be collected using bespoke software.

While uses for the sensors range from rehabilitation to engineering, the technology has already been used on the International Space Station (ISS). A stretch sensor for the neck was used by Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti to measure blood flow from the brain to the heart as part of the 'Drain Brain' experiment. In future, the sensors could also be used in smart clothing to measure posture.

Printable antennae

Inspired by the ideas of 'preparedness and physical and mental wellness in space', and the mission of Cristoforetti, students at Politecnico di Milano in Milan came up with a range of useful designs.

With a nod to starman David Bowie's big-trousered Rites of Spring costume created by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto, one of the stunning outfits featured a metallic pattern printed with conductive material from Italian firm eXtreme Material.

The idea is that these patterns could be incorporated into clothing to act as antennae for GPS positioning.

Johan Sports trackers

Inspired by French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, outfits from the ESMOD fashion school in Paris incorporated tracking pods from Dutch startup Johan Sports. Worn in specially made vests by pro football, hockey and rugby teams in Germany and the Netherlands, the trackers were developed using satellite navigation tech from ESA.

The trackers, which are similar to products from brands like Catapult, measure location, speed, distances, acceleration and orientation, collating all of the stats into online data stores that can be used to analyse performance.

This is a great example of how space tech can be adapted for use here on Earth, while the Couture in Orbit show has opened up the potential of a whole new fashion-led market for the tracker company.

Scent-releasing garments

An interesting concept from students at the Politecnico di Milano, this outfit emits relaxing scents aimed at maintaining the wearer's wellbeing through 'brain circuitry hacking'. It's a similar idea to the eScent concept being developed by Jenny Tillotson, with a fashion twist.

The space-age garment features an improvised wearable circuit incorporating a modified air pump. This allows the wearer to whisper into a microphone sensor in order to release the scent. The outfit featured in the Science Museum show was designed to release an orange scent to match the orange-coloured piping.

Smart fabrics

The fashion students were equipped with a range of high-tech fabrics to work with, including material made from recycled plastic waste gathered from ocean shorelines. This was provided by Bionic Yarn, a NYC-based startup co-founded by Pharrell Williams.

The space-flavoured designs, including a impressive homegrown lineup from London's Ravensbourne fashion school, also made use of Super Absorbent Fibre or SAF from UK-based firm Technical Absorbents. The tech has a range of uses including food packaging and healthcare and can also be blended with different fibres to produce various ultra-absorbent fabrics.

Another smart fabric that was used in the designs, including those from Berlin's ESMOD fashion school, was from US-based 37.5, named after the optimum core temperature for the human body. This uses particles embedded at fibre level to capture and release moisture vapour and maintain a perfect microclimate next to the wearer's skin, in order to improve athletic performance. The company already works with a number of big names including Adidas, pro athletes in the NHL and MLB, and even the US military.

Omega Speedmaster Skywalker X-33

While not designed by the students in the competition, some of the models were sporting Omega's Speedmaster Skywalker X-33 watch. First worn in space by astronaut Alexander Gerst in 2014, the watch is tested and certified for use in space by all ESA astronauts.

Invented by veteran French astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy, the Skywalker isn't strictly a smartwatch but it has lots of cool features including hands coated with Super-LumiNova, which emits green light, plus the ability to track the elapsed time of each space mission.

All images: Science Museum/Barry Macdonald