In the era of laser cutting and 3D-printing, this year’s Met Gala fashion mega-event aims to definitively interrogate the divide between man and technology in fashion. Titled "Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology," the annual event, according to Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton, is purposed with "unraveling the hand-machine conundrum" that sets handmade and machine-made fashion in opposition. Apple is the Institute’s partner in that project, making this more of a tech event than any Gala before it. We were made to expect disruption. Instead, this year's event will likely represent more of a celebration of technology’s place in fashion than a challenge to the status quo.
The preview ahead of the May festivities is big enough that Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour sits front row. (Where else would she sit when the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center is named for her?) In opening remarks, museum director Thomas Campbell extolled the virtues of this year’s gala: inspired by Fritz Lang’s sci-fi classic Metropolis, the ethos behind the exhibition is the belief that "the mediator between the hand and the machine must be the heart." The collection, therefore, includes future-forward pieces from the likes of Chanel and Christian Dior that combine hand craftsmanship with, say, motors and radios — artful designs that subvert what it means to make a dress.
Apple evidently cares deeply about this, and, thanks to the Apple Watch, has the opportunity (and the raw thirst) to push its way into the fashion world. "More than ever, we believe that it is fundamentally important to personally work with materials as a means to truly understand their physical nature and to design authentic objects," chief design officer Jony Ive said in an official statement. Ive is serving as Gala co-chair with Wintour, alongside actor Idris Elba and fashion icon / musical superstar Taylor Swift; though he wasn't at today's unveiling, it’s clear he’s positioning himself and Apple as masters entering a new discipline. "Far from being mutually exclusive notions, we believe that technology and craft go hand in hand — much like beauty and utility — and become all the more powerful in combination."
"We believe technology and craft go hand in hand."
With all this in mind, the exhibition will examine materials in a way that will suggest fashion has reached a point where it must embrace technology in order to innovate. We’re entering a new age, full of promise and discovery. The results on display today were undeniably beautiful, and there was a certain sense that the event was trying to upend conventions that uphold the hand-machine dichotomy.
And it’s true. Working with machines is traditionally denigrated in the fashion world, with bespoke couture often fetching a much higher price than factory-made outfits. However, designers have long been employing technology in their work — a fact the Costume Exhibit doesn’t attempt to hide. Take Issey Miyake’s "Flying Saucer" dress:
That dress, unveiled in 1994, was machine-pleated, machine-sewn, and is an avant garde icon. Meanwhile, Yves Saint Laurent’s haute couture evening dress was also machine-sewn and hand-finished. That was finished in 1969.
In other words, the blurring of the line between craft and technology isn’t especially new. If the raison d’être for the exhibition is to show how technology is changing fashion in the present moment, the same conclusion could have been drawn decades ago.
Racked’s Julia Rubin found the looks on display at the preview visually stunning, but the exhibition’s conceit seemed forced. "The tension between the handmade and the machine-made has existed in fashion for 100 years," she explained. "So, the distinction feels pretty arbitrary. More than anything, this is a way for them to tie their archive to Apple within a frame that makes sense for a technology company, and they can show off their most impressive pieces whether it’s couture or avant garde ready-to-wear."
"The tension between the handmade and the machine-made has existed in fashion for 100 years."
That's not such a bad thing, though. Apple is absolutely committed to making the collisions between its industry and the fashion world plain. As for the Costume Institute, collaborating with Apple is a shrewd move, and art that engages with technology is worthy of celebration. We expect to see as much at the Gala; this year's event will almost certainly be defined by the looks celebrities and entertainers wear that line up with the theme. Rihanna made headlines last year for her jaw-dropping fur cape, a look she found to celebrate last year's Chinese couture theme. With this year's tech focus, the fashion world has an incredible chance to be daring when things kick off this May.
But Apple’s entering fashion doesn’t make for a new era of couture meeting technology. Fashion met tech a long time ago.