Many of the brave new companies trying to integrate fashion and technology have largely missed the mark. By trying to re-create functions computers already did efficiently, they forgot about the basic purpose of clothing: to express personality and start conversation.
Legacy fashion companies haven’t fared much better, largely rejecting the tech industry’s idea of wearable technology as ugly and impractical. Technology companies don’t seem interested in fashion either, opting instead to focus on rubbery, unisex dongles like the Nike Fuelband. But after 10 years of prototyping, one savvy fashion design company called Cute Circuit is about to release its first ready-to-wear collection with fully animated, computerized garments. And they are awesome.
Even if you haven’t heard of Cute Circuit garments, you’ve probably seen them. On September 30th this year, Katy Perry closed the London iTunes Festival in a Cute Circuit dress that made headlines. While she bounced and jump roped around stage for her final number, ROWR, her skirt displayed dynamic tiger stripes, lyrics, an eye of a tiger, and an abstract animation of a tiger roaring, its mouth enormously stretching, echoing the crowd’s roar for Katy.
"We are trying to create new functionalities," says Fransesca Rosella, one of Cute Circuit’s cofounders. "It’s all about people communicating with each other and choosing their body as the interface."
The Cute Circuit ready to wear collection will debut in Japan at the end of October, and the company says the new garments to be available on their online store by mid-November, where consumers can buy skirts with functions like the one Katy wore for the iTunes Festival.
Until now, Cute Circuit tailored outfits only for special events and celebrities, since its garments used to take weeks to construct. Here’s how they made the transition between one-off prototypes and mass produced wearable electronic womenswear.
Culturally, clothes have always served as a form of communication. Whether they indicate an ethnic background or give off signals of eccentric personalities, at the most fundamental level, clothes are just another way people talk. They tell others how to perceive us and reflect the world around us.
But back in the late 1990s, no one seemed to care about tech in clothing. In those days, Rosella was working for Valentino—designing purses and traveling around the world.
Once, in a meeting with other designers, a consultant announced a new electromagnetic thread. Rosella was quick to see potential. "I was like ‘Guys! Why don’t we make a bag with a GPS built in, and if you lose it, it’s going to give you a code and then you can go and find it!’" Rosella recalls on the phone.
"They were basically like, ‘Well... the previous purse that you designed was just black leather, and that one sold all over the world. We don’t know if this will really work.’ They all just looked at me like I was plain crazy. Inside, I was like ‘Oh my God, I am giving you this great idea!’"
That’s how it went for a while. When she pitched a black lace evening gown with electromagnetic thread, she observed the same apprehension form everyone—one that would drive her to follow her own creative trajectory.
For the last six months, Cute Circuit has worked with Magnum on the Pink and Black collection for a new ice cream line. The campaign took place in 10 different countries with celebrities in each market wearing their collection. The buzz came from the audience’s ability to change the celebrity’s outfit. The color of the star’s dress was enabled from a fan’s tweets. By using the hashtag #makeitblack or #makeitpink, the red carpet became interactive and the line viral in social media.
In the 1920s, Coco Chanel launched the jersey revolution. In a society of corsets, bustiers, and oppression, women often fainted due to an inability to breathe. Chanel designed her collections by dreaming of comfort. Outraged, people accused Chanel of wanting to send women out on the streets naked. Today, most people don’t walk out their door without a piece of jersey on their body.
One day, Rosella came across an ad for the Italy Interaction Design Institute at Ivrea where they had faculty from MIT, Stanford, the NYU ITP program, and the Royal College of Arts. They were looking for 15 researchers to pair with professors.
"I had this amazing job, doing all this travelling around, designing shoes and little bags, and I left because I said: Yeah, I want to do strange things with clothing,’" says Rosella. She resigned her position and a week later she was at Ivrea.
Rosella met her Cute Circuit cofounder Ryan Genz at Ivrea, and their creative styles clicked. When they graduated in 2001, their professors advised them to start their own company, so they did.
At the beginning, there were no materials readily available for them. Most of what existed was not meant for wearing. "The first time we decided we wanted our circuits to be shaped like hearts to honor our name Cute Circuit, we were back in Italy, and we thought ‘Oh we’re going to find an engineer and we’re going to get him to design a circuit for us!’" says Rosella. It wasn’t that easy after all.
"When we approached [one engineer] he was horrified. He spoke about ‘true whole components,’ and I said… ‘I think we need a new circuit, these are too ugly.’ I always think if people decide to disassemble one of our products, and they find something ugly inside, they are going to make so much fun of us for having a ridiculous name. We are Cute Circuit."
Genz, an autodidact with an art and anthropology background, decided to learn how to design circuits on his own seeing the lack of cooperation from other engineers. Now, eight years later, he designs all of the company’s technology.
Today, Cute Circuit is one of the only startup companies working in wearable technology that is doing the whole development process in-house. They design all the products, all the textiles, and all the conductive fabric. They manufacture everything down to the radio protocols, their own processor software, and the apps for the outfits.
Genz believed strongly that wearable interfaces shouldn’t be like those on your computer or a website—it should be a physical interaction allowing people from any culture to communicate with another person. The team set about building a prototype for something the likes of which fashion had never seen.
In 2002, Cute Circuit released a shirt allowing two people to send each other hugs in different places. After getting a notification on their phone, the hug-receiver, who is ideally always near his hug shirt, puts on the garment. When they put on the shirt, the hug is awaiting them. The shirt then begins vibrating warmly, tightening around them. Each hug is personalized by the hug sender’s grip and the amount of time they held on to their own hug shirt.
At a conference in Spain in 2006, Cute Circuit displayed their creation and invited people to try it on. They were awarded one of Time’s best inventions that year.
"After [the Spain conference] everyone was like: Oh my God! Wearable technology! It looks so cute and you can hug people!" Rosella says. "This is basically how it all started. Someone saw us, and we became this strange entity that suddenly appears and wants to hug you."
Imagine sitting there and watching your shirt change colors and patterns because I tweeted you. No need to text or call , I could subtly let you know I am thinking about you by enabling your outfit to change designs with a hashtag.
In a world where people are so plugged in, Cute Circuit saw an opportunity to reduce the friction in an aesthetic and subtle way by taking communication to the next level.
One of the features on their Pink and Black collection is an iPhone app, where a person can change the setting on their dress to "network update." This enables the dress to change patterns or colors based on tweets from friends. They can also change it themselves. The idea was to make communication visual and aesthetic.
Previously, they had designed the Twitter dress, where real time tweets displayed on the garment, but this time they wanted the communication to be more subtle and symbolic.
In fact, this was a secret function in the Istanbul fashion show for Magnum’s new ice cream line. Cute Circuit launched this campaign in different countries including South America, Mexico, Hungary, Singapore, and Turkey—the largest ice cream market in the world. "People would be rooting like crazy to win a battle to change the color of their dress," says Rosella.
When the model walked down the runway, not only did her dress turn pink, the most voted color, but the audience saw the entire city’s skyline turn to pink in real time. Light installations for the buildings were secretly waiting for the final color to be announced.
"The whole skyline, all the ancient buildings! It was amazing watching everyone getting together to work for a common objective. The power of thousands of people all voting trying to do make something light up. This was what we dreamt of years ago—communicating together. There was this openness of sharing and feeling with other people," says Rosella.
"When people think about wearable technology, they think about recreating the function of a computer on your body—but you don’t really need to replicate that because computers already work pretty well."
Instead of trying to make a new photo-copy machine so you can wear it and print copies, which is extremely impractical, why not enhance the original purpose of what we throw on every morning? "If you want to have some sort of technology on your body then you really have to use it and wear it and make it into something new and unique," says Rosella.
Back to your closet for a second, think of your classic pieces. Do you have multiple versions of the same shirt? Maybe you like the fit and cut of a certain brand, so you have it in every color. Now imagine you own just the one shirt, but instead you can download the different patterns and colors.
When Rosella was a girl, sketching Fashion shows for her Barbie dolls, she daydreamed about a color-changing fabric.
"Back then I had the idea that if I were to go for a walk, and I saw clouds go by, or flowers, my outfit would change accordingly. I used to come up with so many ideas. And that’s what it became—a more interactive and challenging process for me as the designer. I wanted to take 20 photos of a garment and have it be 20 different garments. Not one photo would be same," says Rosella.
Cute Circuit’s downloadable patterns allow you to own the plain white t-shirt and change it up accordingly. It takes the normal logic of "No, I just want to sell you one T-shirt and then you can download all of these patterns and enjoy it," says Rosella.
At the same time though, this function allows you to change things up. It will never be the same outfit. Ideally, you would log on to your library and think up a million combinations. It would also allow you to interact with friends over distance, and go from a day to night look in seconds.
Cute Circuit is working to make these technologies possible. "In the beginning, nobody was willing to try and see the bigger picture with us. But now people know us a little bit better and they are more willing to take the risk. There’s been a shift in attitude. And I am rejoicing, saying ‘Finally! Finally, people can see how wearing technology is so cool!" says Rosella.
[Images courtesy Cute Circuit]