Talking to Fashion Tech designer Anouk Wipprecht is a roller-coaster ride for tech lovers. The Dutch-born designer has been living in the United States since 2009 and is famous for her Spider Dress, Smoke Dress and her new Synapse research for a dress that responds to brain activity. She travels the world to speak at events, curate exhibitions and collaborate with companies like Intel , Audi , Microsoft , Google, Materialise and even Lego. Anouk has an amazing collection of work and she has quite some unique and inspiring views on the evolution of fashion technology.
With such an impressive background, we were excited to be able to sit down with Ms Wipprecht to discuss and debate on how can we push our favourite industry forward. We also talked about how one can deal with engineering challenges if they are dreaming of a career in fashion tech. So here goes…
Anouk, you are a trained fashion designer. Why did you start making fashion tech pieces in the first place?
I’ve always thought that fashion should be able to change, according to our mood or needs . Clothes are not at all in tune with how we feel. Besides that, technology has entered our lives to make our lives easier, but it doesn’t. It causes stress because it’s not in tune with how we feel either. It would be great to have a phone that senses that you’re too stressed to take the incoming call, so it saves it for a later moment.
I want to make clothes that know what we want, physically and mentally, and have them respond accordingly so we will feel better. The Spider Dress for instance is about anxiety and social issues. If people come too close and enter your personal space, it can respond in different ways to protect you. This is all programmed, you don’t have to push a button, the dress ‘reads’ your feelings. I think it’s very interesting to design with these basic human needs in mind.
What’s currently the biggest obstacle when it comes to the merge of fashion and technology?
That’s the lack of collaboration between fashion houses and engineering departments. The technology industry is really trying to pull strings but the fashion industry is not showing that much interest. Even though it’s clear that we need good conversations about topics like washability, energising and the maintenance of electronic designs. Also network and bandwidth are topics that need to be solved. And of course there’s the basic communication problem. Engineering and fashion are very different. Regular fashion designers find it hard to work with engineers, because getting into technological stuff can be difficult – as coding, programming and math is more abstract and less ‘physical’ and ‘visual’. On the other hand engineers sometimes don’t really care about the shape, look and feel of things.
Products that are both engineered and designed well, will sell better. You can’t have one without the other to succeed in an innovative way. You may have well engineered design without on-the-spot aesthetics or a good-looking design without any functionality; they would both be nothing more than half-products of a narrow mind.
What should change in the fashion industry to be able to adopt fashion technology?
Fashion companies need to open up to discussions with the fashion tech industry. At the moment, wearables and concepts about future-tech infused garments are being well adopted by technology companies: they are willing to make changes, discuss with designers and add the concept of style to their processes. But the fashion industry is hesitant, because this will disrupt their whole system. The system’s based on whats ‘hot’ and what’s ‘not’ and designs need to change every few months or even every few days. A new generation of designs arises, one that only needs digital updates and upgrades . Furthermore, tech infused garments that adapt to the wearer will not be thrown away. These garments will start to ‘live’ with you and travel with you. It’s comparable with the concept of a good leather jacket that ages with you through time and becomes part of your life. These tech garments will reduce our wardrobes and free them from cheap clothes that cause tremendous damage to factory workers and to people working in the heavy polluting cotton industry. And with this new generation, of course, the catwalk system needs to be reconsidered as well. My dresses will not act right if you send them down the runway where sensors cannot correctly ‘read’ what’s happening. They need interaction with the environment.
What advise would you give young creatives who want to work in fashion tech?
First of all, there are two types of starters and they have different paths to follow. There’s the engineering mind who wants to go into fashion and there’s the fashion mind who wants to add technology to designs. They have to learn each other’s language and that’s hard. I would advice them to study interaction design or to search for a fashion education that is open to experiments with technology, or, for engineers, to find a university that offers the possibility to work with design as well. If you know you want to work with micro controllers or 3D-printing, start exploring it. Websites like Instructables and Thingiverse are places where people share their processes and tutorials on how to build stuff.
“The technology industry is really trying to pull strings but the fashion industry isn’t showing that much interest”
So, how did you learn the language of technology?
I learned my stuff by trial and error. I have been embedding technology into my designs since 2005 and I started with Arduino, an open-source micro-controller platform. With that, I started programming for example little LED lights and made my fabrics move with little motors. That’s how I discovered all about controlling things using code. I still use Arduino and I currently also program with Python, it all goes very playful. Or I collaborate with people on C++ and other levels. To me, working on projects is more about the learning process than about the production itself. And I also reach out a lot to companies who make the technical parts I am interested in. I ask them if it’s open source and if it’s not I ask them if they can show me how it works. That’s why I love the clients I work for, they offer me all access to those developments. Most companies know me now, so it’s pretty easy to get the information I want, but of course that wasn’t always the case. I used to hack things, open everything up to find out what exactly was inside.
How do you stay up-to-date of the latest sensors, scanners and other hardware for your work?
I learn the most by collaborating with cool people from other fields, like my buddies in architecture or witty technologists that I am connected to. We play together with a design and that’s a great way to learn new things. Besides that, I go to events to discover new things. At CES for instance I saw this amazing flexible display by LG. I wanted to find out everything about it and started looking online. That’s what I love now, everything is online. So I do a lot of research on the internet too.
It’s great to see so many female designers paving the way in fashion technology like yourself, Pauline van Dongen, Lisa Lang, Iris van Herpen. What has been your experience with the infamous gender gap?
Often when I am about to start a presentation or lecture, I bump into male attendees or fellow speakers that ask me if I’m in marketing or P.R. I like to tell them ‘yes, I am!’. When the presentation is over they get back to me, totally surprised. Well, think twice, girls can do cool stuff too! These encounters can be funny sometimes, but at the same time it shows women are still ‘new’ in tech. You surely have to have a strong attitude to deal with prejudices, but things are getting better for women. It is now much easier to work with manufacturers and tech companies than it was a few years ago. That’s because the number of women in tech companies is increasing. A company that’s working hard to promote women in tech is tech-frontier Intel. I work a lot with them and they motivate women to work in technology and invest millions in attracting and educating female engineers. Their goal is to have 50% women and men in their company by 2020. They will reach this most certainly. And not by favouring girls because they need to, but because the girls that they work with, are badass specialists in what they do. In the end the gender simply shouldn’t matter. It all boils down to the difference you can make in this world.