A Business Suit Inspired by an Octopus

Shenkar College's fashion exhibit on biomimicry gives a new twist to designs derived from nature.

What does the rap artist who covers himself in giant chains have in common with a peacock fanning his resplendent tail? Both are strutting their stuff. In that sense, they are not far removed from the extravagant fur-studded parka coat, designed by Rotem Segev, now on display at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan.

Ordinarily, the function of a peacock's tail as well as various animal defense mechanisms such as camouflage are the stuff of biology research or natural history museum displays. But in a new exhibition called "Itut" ("Signalling") they have become the province of fashion. The unusual exhibit by Shenkar students is devoted to biomimicry, the effort to explore a natural phenomenon so that it can be imitated and applied in another setting. The goal of the exhibit is to go beyond a look at current fashion trends to explore other principles that can be applied to fashion.

“The initial instinct of the fashion designer is to seek out what is beautiful, but instead here we are dealing with a process from a different perspective that is not purely fashion, “ says Rachel Berman-Hadari, who taught a course in the fashion department at Shenkar in cooperation with a counterpart from the Esmod fashion school in Berlin. It was that course that provided the basis for the current exhibition. “I wrestled with myself and the students due to our automatic attraction to aesthetics," she admits.“This is a modern interpretation of our way of looking for inspiration from nature,” notes Ilan Lior, a product designer who taught the course with Berman-Hadari. “Biomimicry is indeed an innovative field, but is not new. Actually, designers and inventors — from the fields of medicine to agriculture to architecture — have always drawn inspiration from nature. We live in the same environment of flowers and animals,” and can learn how various characteristics of theirs helped them survive, says Lior. “Design involves developing new things out of a desire to improve, to solve problems. We have tried to teach how one needs to look for solutions that nature has already developed and apply them to the field of fashion.

“People in fashion already make use of the field to a considerable extent," Lior adds. "Sports product companies like Nike develop new materials that are similar to nature; Speedo has swimwear that emulates fish scales — all of these are biomimicry. Brands that produce work clothes or equipment for professionals and the military use biomimcry from textile development to how the fabric is cut. The British military has a biomimicry department, and it developed clothing inspired by the pinecone. If [the pinecone] can open and close according the humidity, then clothing too can be ventilated or closed and sealed based on the weather.”

Lior also notes that Velcro was developed by a Swiss engineer who invented the synthetic adhering fabric strip after being inspired by a hike in the Alps from which he returned with plants and thorns stuck to his clothing. “He tried to understand what caused them to adhere and replicated this natural mechanism. His revolutionary invention was introduced for use in fashion and other fields and made him a millionaire. Nature is a rich and surprising source of inspiration,” Lior says.

The visitor to the Shenkar exhibition, which closes on November 21, will find works headed in various directions, the start of new fashion developments that have not fully come to fruition. And that at times is the power of what is on display. Hagar Roth, for example, chose to focus on how plants and seeds disperse through thorns and spikes that allow them to adhere to furry animals. The fashion result is seductive and erotic. In this case, nature inspired her to design a motorcycle jacket and a desert jacket in military style, which when opened up reveals a built-in colorful, erotic corset. Roth’s fresh approach is a reminder that inspiration does not have to come from the fashion designers’ familiar visual world.

On the other hand, Inbar Ben-Shabat, focused on camouflage used by the octopus and from there gravitated to cells of pigment. Ultimately, she came up with a suit that turns darker or lighter -- for the woman who needs a monochromatic business outfit for work and something more colorful for other times. The design attempt may not be complete, but the idea that a piece of clothing can change colors and adapt to its environment sounds fascinating.

Another interesting piece was designed by Noy Goldstein, who researched how cacti adapt to their surroundings through the use of cavities that produce a microclimate inside the plant itself. She discovered a similar mechanism in thorns and attempted to design a new kind of fabric with a possible functional microclimate layer of is own.

For her part, Shir Mishal looked at how migrating birds move, particularly the decisive role of the lead bird. She translated this movement into a hot fashion field involving the placement of dress patterns on fabric so that optimal use can be made of a single piece of cloth.

Golan Taub and Danielle Sasi did research on a fish that creates patterns on the floor of a body of water both to lay eggs and mark its territory and from there the pair developed a sculpture technique for fur along with the use of laser cuts and fabric layers. Noa Sancho researched the choking feeling that animals experience when they are in danger. She sculpted clothing from pipes that she heated.

In an effort to underscore the connection between nature and the work on display, each item is accompanied by a sketch book and video clip showing the process that was undertaken to achieve the final result and the problem that was solved by reference to nature.

“Many pieces of clothing in the exhibition are part of ongoing research …. They are not necessarily wearable but perhaps in the future they will be able to be put to use,” Berman-Hadari notes. “If [visitors to the exhibit] are looking for the beauty or tradition of wedding dresses, they will be disappointed. This is almost the opposite. The main focus is on the process, the study, things that I hope will reverberate in the future.”

Amir Yohel