Creative forces Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz don’t really need an introduction in the fashion and technology space. In fact, they are two of the first designers to ever start working in the field of what we know today as “fashion tech”.
Having met in 2001 at the prestigious Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, Rosella and Genz started working together due to their common interest in amplifying the body's senses through technology. “We spent two years there coming up with crazy ideas about what the future will be in 10-15 years from then. That’s where we came up with t-shirts that hug you, ideas about how data is distributed, what people do with their data, clothing as something that connects people,” says Rosella. “And now, 17 years after, people still talk about wearable technology as an emerging field.”
CuteCircuit’s first creation from 2002 - The HugShirt - a shirt allowing people to share touch over distance through haptic feedback, is still one of the most advanced haptic telecommunications devices that is actually wearable. “People talked about wearable technology as an emerging field back then but it wasn’t actually emerging because no one was doing it,” says Genz. “The very first pieces of wearable technology that I saw were the ones we built ourselves. These were things that you could actually wear. I don’t think of some earlier creations as ‘wearable technology’ but ‘strap-on technology’ and those are two different things.”
Since they set up CuteCircuit in 2004, the fashion tech masterminds have been breaking records in interaction design and fashion, all while showing that wearable technology can be beautiful, comfortable and easy to take care of. “Sometimes people ask us “Do you do the technology or the design?’ And, you know, we do everything. We are in the 21st century and as designers, we know the tools we need to achieve the right result,” says Rosella.
“Design is technology. There is no such thing as design without technology,” adds Genz. “If someone is designing a poster they have to know about the ink and the CMYK separation, if someone is designing fabrics they have to know how looms work. For someone to say ‘Where does the technology end and where does the design begin’... It doesn’t happen. It’s one process.”
So why don’t more designers thing of design and technology as part of one holistic process? “It’s hard to learn how to do it. We’ve been doing this together since 2001,” admits Rosella.”It has to be fun, it has to be comfortable and wearable. If you design something that’s super high tech, that’s great but the garment has to have some emotional value. Sometimes people forget about that. But you see a lot of gadgets that work but that’s not enough. People don’t care about it. You have to create something that makes them feel something.”
Getting the technology and fashion combo just right has earned the designers fans all over the world, including celebrities like Katy Perry, Nicole Scherzinger, U2, Faithless and Laura Pausini, among others. Years before the Manus x Machina MET Gala theme, the I Kissed A Girl singer turned up to the 2010 MET Ball in a CuteCircuit gown that glowed in a rainbow of colors, thanks to its 3,000 built-in MicroLED lights. And in 2012, the duo created the first ever twitter dress for Scherzinger with 2,000 LED lights and 3,000 Swarovski crystals that displayed fans’ tweets in real time.
But it’s not just high profile individuals who can get part of the magic. Anyone who wants a little sparkle in their wardrobe can purchase CuteCircuit’s clothing and accessories straight away, at prices starting from £250 for their beautiful unisex twirkle tshirts [see them in action in our video feature] through to £3,500 for their gorgeous LED-embedded Stripy Dress.
“We approach technology from a point of view of design. So whenever we’re adding technology to a garment, it’s not something for the sake of technology or even to try and give specific capability to people, but to create a product that is designed well and it does the function that it’s supposed to. And when I say function, it’s not just something that lights up,” says Genz. “Fashion has much more subtle functions, like, it makes you feel cool or elegant or gives you confidence. These are really important but they don’t necessarily sit on the surface of the product. When we approach technology, materials or designs, it’s always from that point of view.That’s one of the most exciting parts of our design process, for me personally.”
One of the designers’ most recent inventions include the world’s first Graphene Dress. The garment captures the breathing pattern of the wearer and changes the colour of the dress’ LED decoration depending on the depth of the breath. Another standout creation is The Sound Shirt - a haptic wearable device that allows deaf audience members to experience a symphony orchestra [see it in action in our video feature]. The garment earned CuteCircuit a spot in 3 categories at the Fast Company’s Innovation By Design Awards: Experimental, Fashion and Beauty, and Social Good.
And it seems like they’re only getting started. The designers’ Creative HQ in London’s Canary Wharf brings together a diverse team of software engineers, technologists, fashion designers and textile experts, where they all work collaboratively. “We always pick people with multiple skills who can see and solve problems from many different sides,” says Rosella. Beyond a diverse team, the studio includes a creative and lab section, which lets the group go from brainstorming to creating a prototype in a matter of hours. “In the lab part, for example, we have 3D printers, heat pressors and laser cutters. We can do prototypes and show them to the factories that work with us so they know exactly what we want and how things should look like,” says Rosella. “It’s nice that it’s very quick because we can try different things. Our studio is like a smaller version of a factory.”
So what are the pioneers most excited about going forward? “It’s the biggest cliche, but I’m always most excited about our next collection because that’s where we’re putting all our energy and ideas and there are so many cool things coming,” admits Genz. “Everyone now seems to be talking about VR but actually what we’re excited about is augmented and mixed reality,” adds Rosella. “The garments we create are about engaging all those senses and still connecting people over distance. That’s one of the things that we’d really like to do: connecting people. We’re like Nokia, but 20 years later.”
For more on CuteCircuit's story, check Ryan's keynote at INTERLACED 2015 here.
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