'Constrvct' Plays Dress Up

Three weeks after I signed up online and sent them my measurements, I received my new dress from Constrvct in New York, shipped here to Torino in Italy.

Italian Customs hit me up for 37 euros in duty fees, unaccustomed as they are to importing dresses from Manhattan rather than exporting them there. However, the sealed package was light and the blue dress arrived in fine condition. What excitement and happiness: a dress that is entirely personalized, computer-assembled, and even the pattern was generative art! I myself chose the fabric, the color, and the shape, and then some computer-governed devices sliced it up and stitched it out, for me and me alone.

Five years ago, when our theme at the Share art conference in Torino was "digital manufacturing," a prospect like this still seemed remote and futuristic. 3D fabrication machines were still the industrial monsters for cars and aircraft, not swift consumer gear for clothes, furniture, or kitchen gadgets.

It's still a bit dreamlike to order and manufacture personalized objects sent from New York to Italy, but in the time that passed, little hacker, Maker, and fabrication ateliers are springing up in Italy like mushrooms. They're mostly retailing simple curios in plastic, vinyl and rubber though: a real dress that comes from clicking a website still has a Cinderella quality.

With that said, the dress, which is a personalized version of Constrvct model #2385, "Spines" from "Nervous System," is a genuine dress, it's not some mere CafePress T-shirt. I threw the dress over my head like Cinderella, zipped it up, and went out to road-test it on the busy streets of Torino.

"Spines" is a pretty pattern, but it's not strange enough to stop any traffic. There's a Turinese vogue this season for hyper-active floral patterns, and the streets are full of women in wild elastic jeggings that make "Spines" look demure and even ladylike.

The fabric is polyester, which traps heat next to the body and had me sweating on a cold day. Despite my careful measurements -- I did my best, but I'm no tailor -- the cut was somewhat ungainly. The bustline turned out too big while the waist is too loose.

A sleeveless dress with a simple cut needs to be extremely precise to look elegant. Somewhere the data had slipped: was it me, the cutting machine, the stitching machine, the data entry process, who knows? My mother, whose generation knew a thing or two about hand-tailoring, would have sternly rejected such sloppiness from a dressmaker. She would have taken her tailored purchase back to the Chanel shop, or told her private seamstress to fix it. A lost centimeter here or there is the very soul of ladylike couture.

The dress is also too long, maybe an inch. The past-kneecap length is good for showing-off the unusual pattern, but all my overcoats are shorter than my dress. Who has the priority here, the fabric-artists at Constrvct, or the user's knees and calves?

The underskirt lining is too long (it's as long as the dress), so as soon as I sit, the lining shows itself. Try as I might, I can't drape the skirt in a way that conceals the lining. The stitched seams are visible, machine-made, of uniform width, too big and coarse, and not neat and tidy.

The dress also creases easily, while polyester cannot be ironed!

The beautiful mermaid-like sea colors, computer generated patterns from the well-known code-artists at "Nervous System," are shiny and cheerful, and all in all rather wonderful. The spiny, wavy patterns suit my curly hair, while the blue shades go with my blue eyes. A dress with a pattern this busy can be accessorized with all kinds of oddities.

For instance, the Constrvct "Spine" dress is perfect for my blue plastic computer-generated shoes from "United Nude." These angular Dutch shoes feature a low poly-count that makes them look like shoes off the set of Super Mario. I bought these "New Aesthetic" shoes mostly to irritate and intrigue Italians, who always notice people's shoes. However, with the "Spine" dress, these shoes become a low-key ensemble.

I walked all over the porticos and boulevards of downtown Torino in my computer-generated dress. Far from looking like a showboat Internet geek-freak, I looked pretty standard for the Turinese, who tend toward the dignified and somewhat upscale. I'm the only woman in Torino with this dress -- it even has my own name stitched into the collar, which gratifies one's vanity -- but no style-conscious Italian stared or took any critical offense. The dress has a simple, conventional cut. When it's worn with a sweater, a scarf, a hat or a bag, it's just another part of a wardrobe.

What is the victory condition for this unorthodox means of production? This is Maker-style disruption at work, no doubt about that. To have our dreams come true with mouse clicks, to encourage human creativity while avoiding the limitation and expense of human hands, to make it cheaper and more attainable, to be unique, to be pretty and comfortable... to be affordable and also adorable! To make Cinderella come to the ball with the magic of digital crafts, instead of the crude spells of her fairy godmother!

To give a woman everything she wants from a pretty dress is a tall set of orders for a new startup with a website and a few machines. I'm pleased and happy to wear Constrvct's alpha roll-out, but this garment isn't yet the gorgeous finery of the old regime. This is a rumble in the New York garment district. This is a street rebellion.

Photos authorized by Bruce Sterling