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Soft, Smart, and Well Connected : Designer Profiles
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Soft, Smart, and Well Connected
How designers in the world of fashionable technology are taking wearables from geek to chic
by Lincoln Phillip
A Meeting of Minds
Think of wearable technology and electronic textiles as a marriage between Thomas Edison and Coco Chanel: two revolutionaries from different worlds forming a union and changing how we perceive clothing and technology.
Clothing is a communicative form of identity, social status, and basic protection. Applying technology to a garment boosts clothing's functionality and adds an element of fantasy. Wearable technology and electronic textiles answer the kinds of "problems" posed by researchers, artists, and designers who pursue a scientific platform - the solutions to their questions are garments, accessories, and art pieces.
The wearable technology revolution has yet to hit mainstream, but it is breaking new ground throughout the world. Montreal designer and researcher Joanna Berzowska suggests that "the clothing and electronic industries are looking for the next big thing that will introduce wearable computing to a mass market."
New York designer and researcher Despina Papadopoulos has already made forays into the consumer market by introducing MOI, [www.moinewyork.com/] a fashionable accessory in the form of a wearable light. "MOI in its simplicity has proven to be a real challenge. How can you distill an idea down to its most basic iteration?"
Like anything new, it will take some time before everyone catches on, points out international designer Elise Co. But she is confident that, once the technology becomes smaller and more convenient, wearables will become as prevalent as the wristwatch: "Small wearable devices are useful, can look good, and just make sense!" she enthuses.
Animated Designs: Barbara Layne
The conventional structure of cloth, a series of tightly woven threads on a loom, is reinterpreted by Barbara Layne, [http://collections.ic.gc.ca/waic/balayn/balayn_e.htm] a Montreal-based artist, Concordia professor, and founding member of Hexagram. [www.hexagram.org] "I am primarily interested in developing versatile fabric structures for artistic applications," she explains, "while considering possibilities for innovative clothing, architectural/environmental fabrics, domestic applications, and spectacular costuming."
Layne's fabrics incorporate microcomputers and sensors to create surfaces that are receptive and responsive to external stimuli, which heightens our awareness of how we interact with fabric through sight and touch. "Since 2001, Hexagram, the Institute for Research and Creation in Media Arts and Technologies, has supported my research into interactive textiles, specifically the embedding of LEDs and microcomputers into hand-woven cloth structures," she explains.
Layne's recent research project Animated Textiles [http://www.hexagram.org/hexengine/projects.php] involved the creation of dynamic textiles by integrating LEDs and electronic circuitry into her fabrics. The result: grid patterns of LEDs quite similar to the gingham pattern one might find on a western shirt or tablecloth. The products generated through the project (described by Layne as more "technical experiments" than "art pieces") can be used as installations, or as suspended fabric displays. Layne's aim is to address the nature of communication in a changing world, and create performance textiles for costume and stage. Eventually she hopes to achieve the commercialization of a wearable wireless system.
Layne is currently interested in producing expressive and intelligent textiles by inserting micro-controllers and LEDs into woven cloth to create a flexible message board. "At this point," she says, "numerous prototypes have been created, and projects are in development."
Fashion that Clicks: Despina Papadopoulos
Like dressing to thrill? Then you will love Despina Papadopoulos' designs for Studio 5050. [www.5050ltd.com] Papadopoulos creates jackets that chirp like crickets, and sneakers that "click" like a new pair of Manolos.
Papadopoulos wants to break the thread of everyday flow through her creations. "I am mostly interested in forms - forms of communication, and solutions of some sort," she notes. Her intent with each design is to create "an evocative item that gives people another dimension on [its] use and relationship to themselves and their environment."
Papadopoulos' creations include The Love Jackets, [www.5050ltd.com/loveRedux.php] a pair of jackets that broadcast and respond to (and only to) their "other half" via wireless signals. Once the pair "find each other" (they must be less than ten feet apart and facing one another to make contact) the two will respond by emitting a pattern of LED blinks and a sound similar to crickets mating.
Another Papadopoulos creation, The Hug Jackets, [link no longer active www.5050ltd.com/hugJackets.html] demand a deliberate act of union. An embrace between the two wearers activates a pattern of LED lights and a "bombastic" sound. "If the Love Jackets begin the courtship," notes the designer, "the Hug Jackets consummate it."
Click Sneaks, [link no longer active www.5050ltd.com/clickSneaks.html] a pair of seemingly normal sneakers, emit the familiar "click" sound of stilettos as the wearer makes her step. Papadopoulos created this high-heeled fantasy using surface mount technology to fit the necessary components into the sneakers: the "click" sound is recorded on a voice chip and transmitted via a speaker and amplifier. A sensor acts as a "switch" on the sole of each foot, so that when you walk the sweet sound of your fave designer stilettos resonates!
Sweet Smelling Success: Jenny Tillotson
Ever had a moment of dress hesitation while getting ready for a night of dancing? Wearing your best frock to make an impression is sometimes overruled by the thought of smelly cigarette smoke and body odour sullying your designer goods!
Jenny Tillotson [www.smartsecondskin.com] knows that smelling good is just as important as looking chic, so she created The Smart Second Skin Dress, [www.smartsecondskin.com/main/smartsecondskindress.htm] which provides a woman with the best of both worlds. "After reading Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume and developing an interest in NASA's liquid cooling suits, I became increasingly interested in designing responsive, scented clothing," says Tillotson.
Her aim is to create scented garments inspired by the mechanics of the human body; clothes that enhance mental and physical well-being. Tillotson's Smart Second Skin Dress is a medium for communicating thoughts or emotions through smell, our most ancient and primitive sense.
The Smart Second Skin Dress is a sheer organza sheath dress with a series of micro-tubes (medical I.V. tubing) fastened by pinch clamps that create a network pattern similar to our human circulatory system. A micro-pump, which represents the "heart", is integrated within the design of the dress, while the tubes represent "veins and arteries". The tubes are filled with fragrant liquids of different colours which represent an "aroma rainbow", or spectrum, of scents. When the micro-pump starts palpitating, the liquid begins to move. The fabric then begins to emit a selection of scents to create an olfactory experience.
Luminescent Retro: Elise Co
Elise Co's [http://acg.media.mit.edu/people/elise/] personal love of fashion shines a light on wearable technology. Prior to her graduate studies at MIT's Media Laboratory, [www.media.mit.edu] Co designed a small line of non-tech knitted accessories under the labels Sputnik and Mintymonkey, carried at a few select boutiques in Paris, Basel, New York, and L.A. "I was interested in fashion long before I ever decided to try to apply computation or electronics to my designs," she notes.
It wasn't until Co started at MIT and began working with the Aesthetics and Computation Group [http://acg.media.mit.edu/] - a division focused on intersections of technology and design - that she decided to "wire up" her creations. "I started to investigate how technology could be applied to fashion in an expressive, aesthetic way," she says.
Co's shining attempts at merging technology with fashion include The Puddlejumper, [http://acg.media.mit.edu/people/elise/glow/index.html] a luminescent raincoat reminiscent of the retro-futuristic designs of Pierre Cardin and Andre Courreges during the Sixties. Co has created hand-made silk screen designs overlaid atop electro-luminescent lamps arrayed across the front of the coat. These are wired to interior electronics and conductive water sensors on the back and left sleeve: when water hits one of the sensors the corresponding lamp lights up, creating a flickering pattern of illumination that mirrors the rhythm of rainfall.
Co also partnered recently with Nikita Pashenkov to create Lumiloop, a modular system of small LED matrix display panels that can be chained together to form a reactive bracelet. An embedded software module containing an accelerometer registers and interprets the wearer's wrist movements and generates illuminated patterns in response.
Intelligent Education: Central St. Martins, London
The shift from pretty frocks to intelligent wearables is happening as you read this article. The 21st century is here, and Central Saint Martins [www.csm.linst.ac.uk] College of Art and Design (CSM) in London, UK is presently busy surveying the industry's most innovative wearable technology and intelligent textiles.
In particular, the MA Design for Textile Futures [www.textilefutures.co.uk] course directed by Carole Collet [http://www.textilefutures.co.uk/research/carole.htmhttp://textilefutures.co.uk/exchange/bin/view/TextileFutures/CaroleCollet] provides a "think tank" where students can cultivate ideas, reflect on individual practice, and challenge the boundaries of textile design and new technologies in printed and woven fabrics.
Industry forerunners like Susan Jenkyn Jones have guest lectured at CSM, inspiring students about the possibilities of wearable technology and intelligent textiles. "I have run short projects to raise consciousness about these issues," explains Jenkyn Jones, citing menswear and knitwear as two areas of special interest. Reputed for producing innovators in the fashion industry, CSM supports "textile designers with the potential to shift existing design boundaries, re-shape how we live, and create textiles of tomorrow." The school clearly intends to stay at the forefront of the new textile revolution.
One of the student-led projects taking part in this revolution is Smart Wallpaper by Hsueh-Pei Wang, an "interactive home textile" that uses temperature-sensitive and electron conductive inks to poetically "re-decorate" a living space's walls in sync with the dweller's physical and emotional states. Another project, just a curtain by Monica Auricchio, uses printed metallic fabrics to cloak the bedroom with an attractive shield against cell phone microwaves, or "electro-pollution". Both of these "furnishing textile" projects, and many other innovative student creations, were recently featured online as part of the Textile Futures MA Design Degree Show, 2004. [http://www.textilefutures.co.uk/exchange/bin/view/TextileFutures/WebIndex]
Shimmering Fabrics: Joanna Berzowska
If Joanna Berzowska [www.berzowska.com] ever turned her textile project Shimmering Flower into a fashionable wearable, think of all the fun you would have donning a garment that can change colour! "I develop hardware and design electronic fabric applications that focus on aesthetics and the idea of play," she says, "as opposed to the prevalent utilitarian focus of wearable technology design on universal connectivity and productivity applications."
A pioneer in the field of wearable technology and intelligent textiles in Canada, Berzowska is an Assistant Professor of Design Art and Digital Image/Sound at Concordia University in Montreal, and founder of XS (extra soft) Design Studio in Montreal. [www.xslabs.net] Berzowska is also co-founder and Senior Design Advisor of International Fashion Machines [www.ifmachines.com] in Boston, where she developed the first "electronic ink" wearable animated display, as well as the colour change textile Electric Plaid, [www.ifmachines.com/eplaid.html] before leaving the company to start XS in 2003.
Berzowska's work laces together conductive yarns and fibres for power delivery, communication, and networking, as well as new materials for display that use technologies such as electronic ink, [www.eink.com] nitinol (a shape changing fibre), and thermochromic pigment (which changes hue according to temperature). Berzowska also employs traditional techniques such as weaving, knitting, embroidering, and sewing to create her textiles.
The International Fashion Machines technology Electric Plaid combines woven electronic circuits, colour change inks, and electronics to add time and motion effects to textile patterns and designs. It was created for interior design uses, architectural surfaces, and large-scale dynamic signage. Shimmering Flower [www.xslabs.net/shimmer.html] is a more recent art project featuring a woven animated display created with a Jacquard loom. It uses more complex technology and weaving techniques, allowing the designer to move in a more artistic and personal direction.
World Wide Wearables
Intelligent textile innovators across Canada and the planet are continually researching and developing consumer-based products to enhance our everyday lives. Check out these Web sites for more smart companies, designers, and artists joining the fashionable technology revolution:
Clutch / Medulla Intimata
link no longer active http://www.thisisclutch.com/medulla.html
Fashion Institute of Technology, NYC
link no longer active http://www.fitnyc.suny.edu/html/dynamic.html
Lucy Dunn / Smart Jacket
No Contact Jacket
link no longer active http://www.galtglobalreview.com/newtech/shocking.html
Pattern Language exhibition
Reima Smart Clothing
Sabine Seymour / Moondial
link no longer active www.thinkingmaterials.com
Topological Media Lab
Wear Me exhibition
whisper: wearable body architectures
Calgary-based writer Lincoln Phillip is devoted to promoting those who bring beauty to the world via art, fashion, and interior design. He is the current Real Style columnist for the Calgary Herald, as well as a contributing fashion writer for Fast Forward Magazine and Outlooks Magazine. Phillip's fashion work also frequently involves fashion styling and working with models and photographers on photo shoots. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations included in this interactive essay are based on interviews with the author.