Eco-friendly concrete dress cleans as you go

By Mike McKimm
BBC NI Environment & Science Correspondent

Image caption, The bottom of the 'working' cement dress

Our man has tracked down what could be the first concrete dress in the world that also cleans the air as you wear it. But why?

It wasn't quite the floodlit catwalks of Milan. This was the back of an industrial estate near the centre of Belfast.

There was a fine layer of dust on the door handle - cement dust.

People seemed to glance nervously about as I arrived but I might have imagined that bit.

I'd been invited to an exclusive meeting about state-of-the-art haute couture and this was very secret stuff.

I was about to explore the sharp edge of fashion technology at the Tactility Factory.

No scissors in sight

It was inside a cold, dusty warehouse where the boundaries of dressmaking and concrete engineering were being blurred for ever.

Not a sewing machine or pair of scissors in sight. But there was a chap mixing concrete in one corner.

I wandered over to see what was going on. Much like someone protecting their answer sheet at the desk beside you in an exam, he shielded the ingredients with his arms as I got close.

"Sorry, you can't film this".

"Ah, stop please, you can't film that"

A team from the Tactility Factory, a spin-off from the University of Ulster along with the London College of Fashion and Sheffield University, had spent a long time perfecting the project to make a "working" cement dress.

They weren't about to give the secrets away easily, not even to an invited BBC correspondent.

This isn't just a concrete dress. It's made in such a way that it even purifies the air as its worn.

But its real purpose is to create public interest and debate about fashion, textiles, the media and the built environment.

"The way to achieve this was to make a concrete and textile dress," explained Trish Belford, senior research fellow at the School of Art and design at the University of Ulster, "pushing the boundaries of what would be possible in terms of bringing materials with polarised characteristics together and showing them in a beautiful and provocative final form.

Image caption, The dress purifies the air when it is worn

"Existing technology, used in sunscreens and glass cleaning, was diverted towards the development of a textile that could potentially deliver a solution to air pollution."

Trish isn't new to concrete. One of the creators of the Tactility Factory, she and her colleagues have long experimented with textiles and concrete and manufactured finished products like wall panels.

She and her colleagues started with the brand "Girlie Concrete" and never looked back.

The dress is the coming together of many skills. One of them is getting the concrete to stick to the material, a devored velvet.

"The final recipe was determined by aesthetics, wearability and a dress that would keep both the material and narrative link with concrete together with the delicacy of a couture garment", explains Trish.

"The final agreed formula was a cloth splashed with concrete (bead-like) on the inside of the devore velvet.

"The patterning of the lungs was dark and polluted at the base of the dress, while the upper part of the dress remained clean, signifying the purification of the lung area."

Trish would liked to have seen more concrete on the dress. Not a comment many women would ever be heard making!

"But," says Trish, " it ended up being much more beautiful than I ever thought it could be. It is more dress than concrete though, and if we were to have another shot at it I think we would really have to try to get our concrete in there a little bit more."

The dress will be revealed to the Northern Ireland public in June. Until then it's hidden away.

I had to make do with photographs and some scraps of material.

And a man mixing secret concrete in a drum.