Welcome to the FashTech Form, a fifteen-part questionnaire for the makers and shakers of fashion tech. In this series, we extract solid advice from leading thinkers, entrepreneurs, and creatives at the crosshairs of fashion and technology. And aren’t we lucky that our first respondent is none other than Francis Bitonti?!?
Designer Francis Bitonti is ushering in a new manufacturing paradigm through his blend of computational design techniques and emerging manufacturing technologies. Blurring the line between design and technology, Bitonti’s trademark process merges cutting edge digital design and manufacturing technologies, aimed to transform industrialized production systems.
Looking to the future of manufacturing, mass customization, Bitonti sees computational design methodologies and additive manufacturing processes as opportunities to create new aesthetic languages for our built environment.
Francis has pioneered a number of techniques for 3D Printing cellular textiles and has made advancements in the field of multimaterial printing. His vision is pointed towards a manufacturing future for the information age. The work he has done with Francis Bitonti Studio pushed additive manufacturing to it’s material limits. Applying that vision to every project his self-named design studio takes on. “My design process is a collaboration with artificial intelligence,” Bitonti explains. “We’re transposing these ideas from digital design methodologies to tangible consumer experiences and products.”
Francis Bitonti’s work has been published internationally in many prestigious institutions including the Smithsonian CooperHewitt National Design Museum and the Museum of Arts and Design and has recently has garnered media coverage for the 3D printed gown created for fashion icon Dita von Teese, which received numerous accolades and a great deal of public attention when it was debuted at Ace Hotel in New York City. His work has also been published internationally including publications such as Wired, The New York Times, Fast Company and The Wall Street Journal. Francis Bitonti currently lives in New York where he runs his design practice.
1. Describe your work and how it sits at the intersection of fashion and tech?
The work I do is mostly focused on materials. I’m less concerned with user experience and applications and more focused on production and manufacturing processes. My work asks, what can materials make? What new tools enable us to create?
2. What led you to the career you’re currently in?
My path was a winding one. I started in CGI, and then I went back to school to become an architect. After that, I worked as a civil structural engineer, and then after that I started doing industrial design. Through industrial design I started working in Vito Acconci’s studio doing everything from large public works to architectural projects. A lot of the works were focused on the body—they were wearable pieces. I started to become interested in wearable art, and at the same time I also made a lot of connections in the fashion industry as a result of this work. When I started my own practice, wearable artworks were some of my first commissions because I’d spent so much time in this space.
3. What do you find most rewarding about your role? Most challenging?
They’re the same thing. The most challenging part is that a lot of the times we’re coming up against a company’s manufacturing processes— huge, expensive infrastructures people aren’t exactly aching to change. But the gratifying side is when we do complete projects, there’s nothing in the world that wants them to happen; We’re up against economics, emerging technologies that aren’t necessarily ready to be commercially deployed—you name it. It’s a soup of everything working against you, but when you’re able to push through, there’s something gratifying in that.
4. What does Fashion Tech mean to you?
I’ve always been grumpy about the term “fashion tech” because everything is fashion tech. We’ve always had textiles and technology, so I don’t know why all of a sudden it’s a word. A needle and thread is technology! Technology can be anything that augments your body or affords you the ability to do new things. For me, fashion is technology. I don’t like to make the distinction.
5. Describe your style in one sentence (can be anything from your personal style to your design style or aesthetic).
To describe my aesthetic, I like to use the world complex. It’s not necessarily that I’m drawn to randomness or opulence, it’s that I like creating the feeling when you look at something where you know it’s computed. You can tell it’s not crafted or artisanal, but it’s just beyond the reach of human capability. I like making things that are at the threshold of what we understand a human could create. It’s almost like a fearful aesthetic, because it’s that moment where you’re uncomfortable with something—like when a robot responds to you emotionally.
6. What’s something in your closet that you’d never give up and why?
I actually don’t keep anything. I throw everything away every six months. I always buy everything black, and I wear the same thing all the time. I don’t like keeping things or having things. My life is so busy, and I have so many other things to worry about, that I’ve come up with a system for simplifying my wardrobe, and it works.
7. What’s the most compelling or exciting piece of fashion tech you’ve discovered or worked on recently?
What’s most compelling in fashion tech to me right now is what’s happening on the software side of things. I think it’s great to put sensors in clothing and collect data, but from my perspective, I’m more interested to see how we’re going to find meaningful ways to process and apply that data. The less fashion tech becomes about the quantified self and the more it becomes able to give me meaningful feedback on data (for example, making lifestyle recommendations) the more useful I think it will become.
I’m also really excited about batteries right now. I’ve been seeing some research where you can run systems off multiple batteries that are engineered to perform different parts. The battery problem is still huge, so anything I see happening around it is exciting.
8. Where do you draw inspiration from?
I don’t really. At my studio, we don’t sketch, we don’t do mood boards, or anything typical design studios do. We design systems first, and then see what we can do with them; We design tools, and then see what our tools will allow us to make. I get annoyed when people say “it looks like coral”, or “it looks like this or that,” because we didn’t have this intention. We have an ongoing research project of generating formal effects (making geometry, changing colors, etc.) and at this point our toolkit is elaborate and we can select which effects to employ, but I don’t think we get “inspired” by anything. In fact, the more personally attached I get to a project or idea, the less I’m able to work with a brand. I don’t really consider myself an artist, I consider myself a designer, and I believe there’s a huge difference there. My projects aren’t about me or about what I want.
9. Describe how technology has changed your work or impacted your role?
I would’t be doing anything without technology. I wouldn’t be a designer if it weren’t for technology. My love was always technology, not necessarily design. Technology has always been the real motivating factor in my life.
10. How can design help us be more human?
Everything in our life is a designed experience. Humans would not be the dominant species on earth if it weren’t for design. Biologically we’re not that great, but we’re good at making things, and thankfully, we can make things that help keep us alive. Design is central to the human experience and vital to humanity, and fashion tech is a part of that.
11. What do you think fashion can learn from technology?
A lot of things. The fashion industry is very stagnant, and they have pretty much zero engineering culture. They have no understanding of the value of intellectual property within a company, and they’re completely dependant on very old manufacturing and business models. If some of the big fashion houses don’t make big leadership changes fast, I think they’re in for a pretty rude awakening.
12. What do you think technology can learn from fashion?
The fashion industry is successful because it casts a wide enough net to appeal to diverse audiences. The biggest problem in fashion tech is that everything looks like Apple made it and everything seems to be riffing on modernism, but people have varied tastes. We’re not going to have the iPhone of wearable tech, because fashion is about diversity. Fashion is about incorporating moods, textures, patterns, aesthetics. It understands how to get emotional purchases. It understands how to create aspiration, environment, and how to plug into a cultural history. There’s a very restricted material palette that people are working with when we look at the fashion tech coming out of Silicon Valley, and it’s not really effective.
13. What’s the most exciting element of the fashion tech industry to you? Most challenging?
Both fashion and technology provide tremendous value, and both are really great at what they do, but the two worlds need to talk to each other. I feel like fashion and tech both resent each other on some level, and maybe it’s because they just don’t understand one another.
14. What’s the future of fashion IYO? (in your opinion)
Fashion is always going to do what it has done: It’s going to be a great cultural signifier; It helps people express themselves; It expresses our time, and it helps us show who we are. Another layer of that is being added now, and it’s an interface. These things we put on our bodies are becoming the new UI.
15. Who would you like to see featured in the #FashTechForm?
Amanda Parkes, Becca McLaren, Sabine Seymour.