We started the Roadtrip Series in 2016. It was a way of taking our readers on a different kind of journey that explores the person or people behind the accomplishments. Previous road trips have taken us to Hyper Island in Sweden, Holition’s digital creative studio in the UK, and Avery Dennison’s iLab in the Netherlands. Today we head to Cute Circuit’s London studio to meet Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz.
Getting To Know The Talent Behind The Brand
Stepping into CuteCircuit’s office was a definite wow moment. The workspace was modern and showed off the city of London like no other. Located on the 31st floor of a skyscraper style building, I was welcomed into an open plan space which included workstations and a lab that showed off some impressive machines. On entering their studio, my most favourite sighting was their wall of fame which revealed all the milestones that Francesca and Ryan have reached so far.
Launched in 2004, CuteCircuit founders have been recognised as pioneers of the fashion tech space due to how they challenged the fashion industry to rethink what it means to be a designer. I first met Francesca and Ryan at an Interlaced event many moons ago. Over a glass of something bubbly, we talked shop before moving on to Francesca’s Sparkle Booties, which stood out for all the right reasons. Since then we have remained in touch. So it was quite lovely that when we met again she greeted me with such a big smile and a hug before taking my arm and showing me around their place. As Ryan made me a cup of tea, we walked up the stairs to the second floor where she explained how they had found this jewel of a location. I learned that the two storey space conveniently doubles as both their workspace and living quarters. When I asked why they chose to do this, she simply confessed: “I hate commuting”.
Settling down opposite each other on soft white leather sofas, I took a sip of my white tea with one sugar and listened to Francesca reminisce about a time when people did not get so excited about the merger of fashion with technology the way they do today. “When we started there was very few people doing what we were doing. Now there seem to be a lot more people innovating and coming up with great ideas,” shared Francesca. It was an observation that led to us talking about what today’s startups are up too. “I think it is great that startups are coming up with great ideas, but there have also been problems with startups raising money on platforms like Kickstarter,” revealed Francesca. Asking them to elaborate, Ryan said: “Have you not heard? There are some companies out there pretending to have this amazing wearable tech products, getting people to invest and then you never hear from them again. The sad part is that those who invest end up losing their money”. Shocked, my instant response was: “That gives the fashion tech space a bad name”. Nodding his head in agreement, he continued, “That’s the problem. If consumers lose their trust in wearables, it will mean that if we want to try and raise money through such a platform, people will be less willing to support us because they have had a bad experience supporting other wearable tech products before.” We continued to talk about this problem, acknowledging how hard it already was for startups to build a relationship with consumers without these type of hurdles standing in the way. As we discussed further, I suddenly felt an urge to write an investigative piece on this topic because FashNerd supports a lot of startup brands and we would hate to think that we have given such companies column inches. That will definitely be an article for another time.
Collaborating With Luxury Fashion Houses
Moving on, the conversation shifted to how luxury brands are slowly adopting technology. As you might already know, Cute Circuit worked with Chanel to design a range of interactive illuminated handbags for their SS17 RTW collection which were sold in Chanel’s stores worldwide. “We loved working with Chanel. They were such a wonderful brand to collaborate with,” shared Francesca. Adding, “Karl Lagerfeld is open to technology. He always wants to do something innovative. After they saw a sample of our bag, Chanel contacted us and asked us to work with them to create something similar.” Then putting down her tea she asked me if I would like to see the bag they designed up close and personal. Naturally, I jumped at the chance of holding the Chanel x Cute Circuit bag, I mean who wouldn’t, right? Seeing my eagerness, she stood up and went to grab the sample from the wardrobe. Laying the box on the table she opened it up, unwrapped the bag and gave it to me. As I held it, I was first shocked by its weight. Francesca explained that the weight was due to the chain strap. Putting it on my shoulder, I glanced at myself in the mirror. I liked how I looked with Chanel on my arm, especially Chanel with CuteCircuit in its DNA. Handing it back, Francesca carefully wrapped it back up before both of us headed back to our spot on the sofa to continue our conversation on how luxury brands are adopting technology.
As we dove deeper into the topic Francesca said something quite interesting. She stated that brands like Chanel, Fendi and Dior all embrace innovations when creating their garments. “Some of the things that these luxury brands do, whether its how they sew on a button or create folds with material takes innovation. They might not have technology in their garments, but they use innovation to create those garments,” she said. I had to agree. Technology does not always have to be obvious. It can be a tool that is used to help the creative team do something that might not have been possible before. Taking a sip of my tea I asked the duo what label they would like to collaborate with next, and with a big smile, Francesca responded, “Dior”.
“Some of the things that these luxury brands do, whether its how they sew on a button or create folds with material takes innovation. They might not have technology in their garments, but they use innovation to create those garments.”
The Pitfalls Behind Innovation
Bringing it back to dodgy dealings, I wanted to talk about the role that technology plays when it comes to helping small companies like themselves prevent other companies counterfeiting their innovation. “This is a big problem”, declared Ryan. Carrying on, “We have had people pretend to have made things that we made. It gets frustrating but it is very little we can do. There are not really any regulations that protect us.” As he elaborated further, I started thinking about the Wardrobe of the Future which I curated for Munich Fabric Start. As you might know, we had various brands participating in the project including CuteCircuit. During the three day event, we had various individuals wanting us to share how certain products worked concerning the kind of technology and material involved. These were not the general we are curious kind of questions. They were instead questions that seemed to be more about the individual trying to figure out whether they will be able to reproduce the same product. Naturally, we did not share any kind of information that would have led them to be able to reproduce the products we had on display, but it made me realise that there are people out there who can easily take someone’s hard work and make it theirs. On this Francesca added, “I don’t mind someone being inspired by what we do and coming up with a product of their own, but to simply copy what we do and call it the first whatever is not correct.” It made me wonder, what can startups and small companies like CuteCircuit do to combat these types of problems? I guess now is the perfect time for some regulations to be put in place.
Wanting to switch to a lighter topic, I brought up Fashion Week and asked if they had ever participated in it. “We have done NYFW twice. It was great, but it was expensive, and they had too many rules,” stated Francesca. So I asked them whether they would consider doing LFW. They mulled over the question before sharing that they were not eager to do a runway in London. They explained: “All the buyers buy in Paris, so we would love to do PFW,” admitted Francesca. Ryan added, “London is great for press coverage, but it is not that great when it comes to getting orders.” I can imagine that the majority of buyers most likely wait for the last of the big 4, which is Paris, before putting their orders in. As we continued to debate whether fashion tech on the runways is working, their cat, who I nicknamed CEO, decided that he wanted a sip of my tea. So I decided distraction was the best offence, and took a moment to give the rather adorable cat some attention.
Excited to have spent the morning with Francesca and Ryan of @CuteCircuit. We talked fashion, technology, collaborations and everything in between over a cup of tea. Write up to follow!!! #FashionTech #Interview #MeetTheDesigners #RoadTrip pic.twitter.com/wtMNa9HBDY
— Muchaneta K (@FashNerdEditor) 2 November 2018
In The Beginning, There Was The Hug Shirt
As time ticked on our conversation moved to where it all began, the Hug t-shirt. If you are unfamiliar with the product, it was the world’s first haptic telecommunication wearable invented by CuteCircuit in 2002. Awarded as one of the Best Inventions of the Year by Time Magazine in 2006, the Hug Shirt was created so that people can send hugs over distance! “Embedded in the Hug Shirt are sensors that capture the strength, duration, and location of the touch, the skin warmth and the heartbeat rate of the sender and actuators that recreate the sensation of touch, warmth and emotion of the hug to the Hug Shirt of the distant loved one,” explained the inventors. What followed was what Francesca called the grandchild of the Hug t-shirt, the Sound Shirt. Wanting to show it to me, Francesca took me to rack that had various garments and among them was the non-traditional sound shirt designed to translate sounds into sensations. In a previous write-up, the founders explained: “The shirt works by different notes creating distinct feelings across areas of the garment. We mapped intuitively how we thought the music would map to the body.”
Glancing at my watch, I realised that we had been talking for over 2 hours. I couldn’t believe how time had sped by so quickly. Not wanting to keep them any longer, I decided it was time for me to be on my way. Saying our goodbyes, I thanked them for their time as I grabbed my handbag. They both walked me to the door, and we made plans to catch up again soon. As I made my way to the lift, I found myself looking forward to our next conversation, maybe we can have it on their lovely terrace, weather permitting, so we can enjoy the stunning views of LondonTown as we discuss the ins and outs of the business of fashion tech.
Founding editor-in-chief of FashNerd.com, Muchaneta is currently one of the leading influencers writing about the merger of fashion with technology and wearable technology. She has also given talks at Premiere Vision, Munich Fabric Start and Pure London, to name a few. Besides working as a fashion innovation consultant for various fashion companies like LVMH Atelier, Muchaneta has also contributed to Vogue Business, is a senior contributor at The Interline and an associate lecturer at London College of Fashion, UAL.