Silver and palladium are essential components within the Glitterati collection, but the eye won't detect their presence — or purpose.
Tiny bits of precious metals cling to the fabric of a hooded denim jacket and dress to provide the wearer with protection against flu, airborne pollutants and costly dry-cleaning.
"I love the idea that something so functional can also be fashionable," said Olivia Rachel Ong, a Cornell University apparel design student who collaborated with fiber scientists at the Ithaca, N.Y., school to create the 10-piece collection. Its look was inspired by the underground club culture and glam-rock era.
Silver has natural antibacterial properties and the formulation in Ong's dress is similar to the colloidal silver spray used in Hong Kong's subway system to kill germs on grab poles and straps. It can eliminate 99 percent of bacteria such as E. coli, according to Juan Hinestroza, an assistant professor in Cornell's fiber science program, who worked with Ong.
The silver particles are very small, measuring just 10 nanometers. (The width of a human hair is approximately 100,000 nanometers.)
Using germ- and odor-fighting silver fibers in apparel is not entirely new and can be found in sportswear and in the military, where laundering opportunities are limited.
"The novelty of our work is that we provide color without dyes," said Hinestroza. The silver bits act as optical filters of light to produce lavender, brown, yellow or black, with the color dictated by size and positioning of the particles.
"Since color is produced by the interaction of the particles with light, the color will not fade out and the garments will always look new," he added.
The other piece in Ong's Glitterati collection using nanotechnology is a hooded denim jacket infused with particles of palladium that oxidize smog and neutralize other airborne irritants. The germ- and pollution-fighting benefits of silver and palladium come at a price: specially treated fabric can cost $10,000 a square yard.
Ong, who graduates in December, acknowledged that such nanotechnology fashion designs are not ready for the mass market today, but said that could change in the future. "My honest opinion is it can be marketed commercially, once science improves and they find better ways and cheaper ways [to marry metals and textiles]," she said.
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A Stella McCartney sketch of a custom dress made from protein-based silk in partnership with biotech lab Bolt Threads. The dress will be displayed at The Museum of Modern Art's upcoming design exhibition, "Items: Is Fashion Modern?"