Grado Zero Espace
A working fashion and technology partnership provides solutions for Space travel and opportunities for Earth-based endeavors.
Survival in Space is a major challenge for textile and apparel designers as they look to develop materials and technologies to help humans travel, live and work in its extreme environment. Space industries such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) provide technologies for material scientists, fashion and sportswear designers through technology transfer and commercialization programs. Equally important is the inspiration that Space apparel provides for designers to imagine what we might wear in the near and distant future.
What is emerging are visionary companies and individuals that work with the Space industries in America and Europe to develop the clothing of the future for terrestrial use. Grado Zero Espace (GZE) are leaders in the field, working both with NASA and the ESA to produce clothing that is transformative and inspirational.
The name Grado Zero Espace (GZE) is taken from the book Writing Degree Zero by Roland Barthes, with the addition of ‘Espace’ a clear reference to the importance of the space industry as their source of inspiration and technology. Barthes’ book looks at the transference of speech, and GZE has adapted this to form its philosophy to make technology easy for people to understand. Co-founder Giada Dammacco puts it simply that “our mission is to make technology understandable for everyone, not just scientists.”
Inspired by Space
GZE is a small independent company established by Filippo Pagliai and Giada Dammacco in 2001. It emerged as a spinoff from a well-established fashion company and is based in the heart of the Italian textile and fashion industry in Florence. Both admit to a personal passion for space technologies and science fiction as Dammacco describes how they “bring technology from Space and are inspired by Science Fiction because of their vision of human life.”
Though deeply immersed in fashion, their main interest is in social impact and innovation, bringing Space-inspired products to a wider market. Design and aesthetics are a means of achieving this through conceptual work, prototypes and, increasingly, production and collaboration with the fashion industry.
NASA and ESA have both worked with GZE through their commercialization programs. The first technology they worked with was also one of the most challenging—aerogel. The material is prized for being highly insulating and extremely lightweight at the same time. These attributes make it ideal for use in Space applications but also incredibly difficult to work with, particularly with the increasing scale necessary for production.
When the material was first launched it was commonly referred to as “liquid smoke.” Dammacco says they started working with aerogel because they were interested in its being used by NASA for insulating the space shuttle and the Mars robotic spacecraft, the Pathfinder. Fascinated by the possibilities, GZE set out to find a way to put this into clothing for thermal insulation.
The first applications
Absolute Zero was the first jacket produced using aerogel; the project allowed them to better understand the complexity and challenges of using the material. The research process began by analyzing all aspects, such as manufacturing processes, flexibility and the dust generated. Working both on the textile production process, as well as the garment, gave them a unique insight into the technology.
Developing a blanket using aerogel took a number of years and is now covered by a pending patent. NASA was excited to see the company’s work combining aerogel and textiles and invited them to show prototypes in America, while in Europe the ESA invited GZE to work with them. The fashion industry was also excited by what they were seeing and Absolute Zero went on to be produced for Hugo Boss in the limited edition Autumn/Winter 2004 collection.
The challenges faced by people living and working in Antarctica are extreme, and offered a good environment to further test the possibilities for aerogel in clothing. GZE produced Absolute Frontiers with Adventure Network International (ANI) especially for use in Antarctica’s climate. The Utah-based service, which offers private expeditions to Antarctica, had contacted GZE because ANI saw an opportunity to provide field testing for the technology with different techniques of encapsulation.
This was followed by the development of Quota Zero for a Mount Everest expedition. Dammacco says there is a need for constant refinement and development in different environmental conditions. Ultimately, she says “the driver was the user,” and discussions with the people wearing the clothes is an essential part of the R&D process.
GZE sees four key trends that will impact the design and development of new materials and end uses. The first is sustainability. For smart materials and technologies much will revolve around reuse and recycling. This can be accounted for at all levels, right from the beginning of the concept development.
Living materials is a growing field of design and development; it also has the potential to make a significant impact on sustainability. Bio-inspired materials include both biotech and biomimicry where good design is inspired by and extracted from nature.
In the early days of the space industry, luxury fashion houses such as Balenciaga and Paco Rabanne were inspired by the aesthetics of Space apparel. Luxury can now bring together both aesthetics and technology to offer clothing that provides a new level of exclusivity.
Bespoke (custom) design will continue. From luxury to big-box stores, consumers will start to see a greater level of personalized garments that offer health-giving, climate control and other benefits.
Being based in Italy affords GZE the benefit of a huge tradition of textile manufacturing and artisan skills. The company acknowledges that the influence of China’s textile industry does impact cost, but because they are working with complex technologies their preference is to work with local manufacturers and the highly specialized artisans in the Prato region.
Where skills in the textile and garment industries have been lost it is a challenge to reintroduce them. Dammacco sees their base in Italy as not being strongly linked to mass production but instead benefiting from the micro and smaller companies that provide great value for innovation companies such as GZE, as well as bigger companies. And it’s worth protecting and developing.
GZE has a project under development in 2016 that specifically focuses on handcraft skills to produce customized high technology materials. As to the future of companies like Grado Zero Espace and their relationship with the Space industry, Giada Dammacco hopes that these forms of cooperation will become more widespread. The broader the reach of these collaborations, the greater the audience and cultural impact.
Marie O’Mahony is Professor of Digital Futures at Ontario College of Art and Design University, Toronto. She is also an advanced textile consultant to the industry and regular contributor to Advanced Textiles Source.