Fashion as an encounter with time: Ying Gao’s robotic dresses react to what they see

In Flowing water, Standing time, the Montreal-based designer interprets Oliver Sacks’ The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat through robotic clothing. Ying talks us through her early inspirations as a child in Beijing, and how she became interested in new technologies and design as a result.

2 December 2019

For Ying Gao, the Montreal-based fashion designer famed for her concept-driven robotic garments, “fashion is a sort of ‘encounter with time’.” Though her work may appear to be “futuristic” at a first glance, in fact “these are not clothes of the future,” the Chinese designer tells It’s Nice That. “For me, these objects represent the here and now. The ideas I express through these objects reflect the questions and the uncertainties that we are already experiencing today.”

The design of the objects turned garments extensively reflect on a “conceptual and aesthetic ‘life’, corresponding to their technological mission.” They are not electronic gadgets, but design objects injected with life through its programming. In Flowing water, Standing time, the former head of fashion at HEAD-Genève interprets Oliver Sacks’ The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat through robotic clothing. Inspired by the prominent neurologist, the 1985 book documents the peculiar case of Jimmie G, a 49-year-old former sailor with neurological conditions. He still believes he is 19-years-old having lost any sense of temporal continuity, but whenever he is presented with a mirror, Jimmie is shocked by his own reflection. As soon as his gaze leaves the mirror however, he reverts back to his 19-year-old self, in turn, “oscillating between a presence to the world and a presence to self.”

In a similar vein, Ying’s robotic garments – made of silicone, glass, organza and various electronic devices – reflect Jimmie’s varying mobility. Astonishingly, the garments, which can move chromatically, are able to recognise the colours in their immediate surroundings and react accordingly. “Liquid and chameleon-like,” the fluid folds of the highly designed garments adapt to the rhythm of the environment. In short, they “react to what they see” much like Sacks’ patient whose reality changes depending on its external factors.

Ever since she was a child, Ying knew that no matter what it took, she would accomplish something different. She recalls a particularly meaningful experience that shaped this ambition, taking us back to 1985 when she was a child living in her birth city of Beijing. “My mother took me to the first exhibition of Yves Saint Laurent at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Beijing. China was still a country where all dress conformed to social and political norms: blue and grey uniforms, which I found rather beautiful, especially since I’ve always loved sobriety.”


Ying Gao: Flowing water, Standing time, photography by Malina Corpadean

However, the young Ying wasn’t taken aback by the French couture’s style, fabrics, colours or silhouettes. Instead, the collection spoke to the budding designer in a more elemental way. “His work commented to me a much more essential quality, which influenced me for many years – the concept of the foreign, the dissimilar and the different.” She came away from that day, struck by a difference in culture and world vision that she’d never seen before. This powerful, alien emotion spurred her on to do something different in design, and when she became interested in new technologies during her Master’s degree 19 years ago, Ying came to realise that “the future belongs to those who use the technologies of their time.”

The current professor at the University of Quebec continues poignantly: “Both technology and fashion embody the most fragile and ephemeral aspects of our culture, insofar as to what is cutting edge today, will be old tomorrow. Fashion designers have known for a long time that they are working with a fleeting material that will never be timeless. The integration of electronic technology seems to modify that creative process.”

Frequently turning to literature, auteur films, philosophical essays, medical stories and documentaries to inform her practice, she cites Raymond Depardon, Sophie Calle, the Moomins, Issey Miyaki, Naomi Filmer and Melissa Mongiat, as just a few of her influences. And along with her own unique vision, Ying’s work asks her viewers to take a moment to reflect and observe. “The key element is neither technological nor organic,” she adds, “rather, it is intangible.”

This integral notion is seen through Ying’s usage of light-as-air fabrics and the immaterial elements that stimulate the garments. Activated by the sound of a voice, a burst of light, the stimulus of a look for example, “the intangible is manifested through the idea of mutation.” Like us humans, the one constant throughout Ying’s creations is change, flow and non-fixity. With this, her designs fundamentally mimic nature and can change and metamorphose in the most unpredictable of ways.

GalleryYing Gao: Flowing water, Standing time, photography by Malina Corpadean

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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