A Deep Dive With Fashion Tech O.G. Pauline van Dongen

An in-depth conversation on the merger of fashion and technology with Dutch designer Pauline van Dongen.

Earlier this year we had a sit down with the talented Dutch designer Pauline van Dongen. For those who do not know who she is, allow me to educate you. She is the woman behind the Solar Shirt, a smart garment that successfully brings high tech and high-street fashion together and ISSHO, a project centred around an intelligent denim jacket that learns the wearer’s behaviours by responding to intimate touches.  

Pauline van Dongen
Pauline van Dongen Photo Credit: Thijs Adriaans

Whenever I have a sit down with someone of Pauline’s calibre, I make sure that I have a large mug of tea in my hands because I know that the conversation is most likely going to last longer than planned. So after a few minutes of pleasantries in her native tongue with Mano ten Napel, who is also Dutch, I eagerly asked Pauline, in English, to start from the beginning.

The Exploration of Materials

Trained as a fashion designer, Pauline’s experience began with the exploration of materials which included manipulating material and using unusual, uncommon material. Technology did not play a role until later on when she was working on her Masters. “I wasn’t working with technology per se, but I do believe that every technology is a material, and it is hard to make a separation,” explained Pauline. 

“Every technology is a material, and it is hard to make a separation.”

Looking beyond her profession at the time, the designer turned to electronics and new processes. “When I founded my studio, I started working on my own collections, which involved a lot of research. But I soon realised that the pace of making at least two collections a year meant that there would be no time for innovation or R&D.” Nodding in agreement, I understood where she was coming from. From a sustainable perspective, what she said made sense, why do we need to put out so much when we are trying to change how people shop? Explaining further, she added, “I cannot find myself in the current fashion system, so that is when I started working on projects and exploring electronics which opened my eyes”. 

Fashion’s Slow Adoption of Technology

As our conversation delved deeper into why the fashion industry has been slow on the adoption of sustainability, Pauline made a point that gave me pause for thought. She identified that “We are still coping with a mentality issue”. Continuing, “The Fashion industry wants to be innovative, but it is reluctant to change because of the pressure on the system”. 

Pauline van Dongen
Niraxx headband, developed by Pauline in partnership with Holst Centre for a US startup “Niraxx”. It has integrated infrared led’s to provide light therapy, which reduces symptoms of stress. IMAGE CREDIT: Pauline van Dongen

Understanding her points, I asked her to elaborate further. “The pressure is on the system. Manufacturers only have time to supply the things that they have been supplying for years. There are not many incentives to create time or financial resources to really push through with these innovations”, explained Pauline. She had a point. Mentality does play a key role. Companies and brands might want to innovate, but very few are willing to put down the resources in terms of time and money. 

“The Fashion industry wants to be innovative but is reluctant to change.”

The thing is, most budgets go-to marketing, so instead of innovation being invested in, we are instead seeing amazing ideas and products that do not end up going to market. “This all has to do with the business models,” said Pauline. Adding, “If we keep thinking of fashion in terms of product the only way for companies to sustain themselves is to sell more and more of it, but if we start thinking about fashion in terms of services then we can develop different business models that do not require us to sell new products continually; instead we can create experiences”.

Exploring Something New

Moving onto what she is working on now, Pauline was not shy about sharing what she is up too. Having explored many different areas, it was quite clear from her work that she does not limit herself. “I am a curious type of person, and I want to explore many things that I can get my hands on. Not only in terms of technology but also when it comes to the types of garments and textiles, whether it be knitting or weaving,” admitted Pauline.  

Pauline van Dongen
Solar Shirt by Pauline van Dongen. Wearable Solar Collection (2015) Photography: Liselotte Fleur

Admitting to taking a holistic approach, when it comes to her work, Pauline mentioned that she went from couture-like pieces to everyday clothes. This change of direction was because she wanted to show people how things can impact how we think about clothes and what we wear today. When it comes to her focus “Today I am wearing my own designs, I am wearing the Solar Shirt and ISSHO because I think that it is important that we experience these things and that we don’t consider them as some futuristic Sci-Fi product”. She continues: “If we give clothes a futuristic design sauce, then people won’t be able to engage with it in the present.”

Besides championing wearable tech fashion to be worn in the now, Pauline also shared with us her passion for creating products that have a social value. “I like to develop products that can empower people with a certain disability and see how wearables can contribute to human vitality and resilience,” she said.

“Knowing that everything is becoming connected, we need to consider that besides all the benefits it can also be a drawback and a distraction.”

There is no denying that as technology develops, we will continue to be overloaded with information designed to continually divert our attention. In the long run, this could be a bad thing. It could affect our overall health. On this Pauline told us: “It is important that you (the designer/maker) consider that the thing you are creating and that is being worn is not the only thing that the wearer will be interacting with. So you will have to be considerate about the type of engagement, involvement, impression that you are going to be demanding from that person wearing it.” 

Pauline van Dongen
A sweater called “Mysa”, which Pauline developed with Holst Centre and Maxime Dassen an industrial design student of TUe. The sweater guides the wearer during breathing exercises through a vibration pattern along the spine, thereby providing stress relief. IMAGE CREDIT: Pauline van Dongen

It makes sense because clothes are always on your body; they do hold some power. I mention this to Pauline, and she shares “This is why I am focusing on the sensory experience of clothing. It is all about discrete interactions that we can create through haptic technology, which is the use of touch to control and interact with computers, in different ways whether its vibration or inflation”. Taking a slight pause, she continued, “In the last couple of years the field of wearable technology has been all about sensing, I think now it is time to think about how we can subtly speak to the body”. The dialogue between the wearer and everything else in the environment is becoming an essential factor when it comes to creating garments. 

Sustainable Fashion & Being Part of The Change

On the subject of sustainability, it is evident that this is an area that Pauline was not only knowledgeable about, but that she wanted to be part of the change. “We need a holistic solution, but I am also aware that we are still far off from this.” Going back to what she previously said on the fashion industry’s unwillingness, she added: “We need to think about services, or else we are going nowhere”.

Also Read: 7 Wonder Materials That Could Clean Up Fashion Industry’s Act

When it comes to the integration of electronics and its overall effect on sustainability Pauline said: “If we start integrating electronics that we sell on a large scale, the electronics need to be viable enough so the product can withstand years and years of use, and it needs to be made in a way that it can be repaired. We also need to design the garment in such a way it engages the consumers over a long period so we can overcome the issue that once you buy a wearable after a couple of months of use, it ends up in a drawer”. The discarding of wearable tech devices that offer quantified data after short use is a problem that has been going on for a while now. Pauline hit the nail on the head. It is crucial that people can continue to use it even if the added value of technology is not there. 

“My future scenario is that we should develop bioelectronics.”

On designing with empathy, Pauline said “It is important that we do not focus on the technology only because if you do you are missing the point. If you think it is only about technology and its functionality, then you are completely missing the point. In the end it is all about how the wearer engages with the whole of the garment and not just with whatever the interaction it gives them.” I had to admire Pauline’s straight-talking manner, it was refreshing, but I did wonder that for someone who works with electronics is sustainability at the forefront of her mind.

“We do consider the end of life of products. So for example regarding printed electronics, something I am doing now at the Holst Centre we are researching how these electronics can be delaminated and separated from the garment and what this means for recycling processes,” she said. Continuing, “My future scenario is that we should develop bioelectronics, but that is still in a speculative state. We are definitely not there yet, but it should be high on the agenda.”

Pauline van Dongen
ISSHO moves away from focusing on quantifiable data and look at the way technology impacts and shapes the relationship between humans and the world in a rather soft and embodied manner. Photography: Sharon Jane D

Bioelectronics? Well, now that is a conversation starter. “I realise that to engage industries to develop bioelectronics we have to show them what the potential of it is otherwise we won’t create any movement”. Her optimism made me realise that we are only scratching the surface and when Pauline admitted that her Solar Shirt, was designed with the idea to provide a more sustainable relationship with the environment, declaring, “Technically, I can’t say that the shirt itself is sustainably produced. I cannot guarantee that it will cost less energy and resources to create the shirt compared to the energy it will deliver in its lifetime.” But again, there is more to the shirt than the functionality of the cells. By embodying the sun’s energy you inevitably develop a different relationship with your surroundings.

Designing Thought Provoking Products

As our conversation progressed, it became clear that we need to do more than come up with fashion tech products for PR purposes. We need to bring to market clothes that solve a problem and connect with the wearer on an emotional level. So far, this has been accomplished through concrete examples of research that supports various schools of thought. Staying ahead of her game seems to be Pauline’s strength. “I go to fairs and conferences to stay up to date and follow material focussed blogs. I also like to look at research coming out of academia,” shared the designer.

Also Read: Would You Get Equipped With a Sixth Sense?

Pauline continued, “Textile fairs, such as Munich Fabric Start and Techtextil in Frankfurt which is quite technical. When it comes to conferences, I like IDTechEx where I can find out what researchers are looking into. Dutch Design Week, there is always innovative stuff, especially from students.” As I listened to her explain her approach, I realised that her method should be adopted by those looking to be game-changers in the merger of fashion with technology. 

Making Time for Research & Development

Making a difference and standing out in a challenge, especially when the fashion industry is not in the business of investing in research and development (R&D). True, that for some companies there isn’t any money to invest in research, but it would be wonderful if those with the spare cash would pave the way for smaller companies to follow. Sharing my take Pauline said: “There is no real incentive to push through with innovations.” 

Another challenge worthy of a mention is the temptation to not come up with a product that only has PR value and nothing else. Creating products that are more clickbait than useful is something that many brands have done. Sure it has given them column inches, but the thing is their investment in this space provides nothing long-lasting for the consumers whose curiosity they have aroused with the innovation behind the product. On this, Mano added that we can’t put these PR driven endeavours in a headlock either because they serve a purpose in the imagination business, helping consumers imagine and understand how technology can be of added value. As we talked about this hurdle a little further, Pauline shared: “In my opinion, it depends on how soon we can achieve a transformation of mentality in the fashion industry. The understanding of technology and the attitude towards innovation processes need to change.” 

“The life-changing value will follow from approaching technology as a material that can speak to the body through the delicate and intuitive language of touch.”

Her point was valid; we do need to change our mentality and also understand what technology could mean overall. She continued: “The life-changing value will follow from approaching technology as a material that can speak to the body through the delicate and intuitive language of touch. Only then will designers experience that these technological materials cannot be defined by their functionality only; they have all kinds of properties and qualities, including aesthetic ones”. 

Pauline van Dongen
The Solar Windbreaker by Pauline van Dongen – Photography: Roos van de Kieft

What it comes down too, explained Pauline, is that the opportunity technology brings is not about producing more and more items, but instead it helps to consider how the same item can be changeable by activating different digital layers. “Now that the first hypes have passed I think we’ll be seeing some critical changes in the field of wearable technology in the next five years, but I expect that it will take another five years to facilitate the necessary mentality change“, said Pauline. 

5G Network, Opening Up New Possibilities

Before wrapping up our conversation, Mano brought up 5G, a subject that he likes to discuss. Sharing his thoughts on this much talked about network technology, he asked Pauline whether she sees development in this space, having any influence on future projects. Taking a pause to think, she then replied: “Of course data processing and storage is an essential aspect of pretty much every wearable tech project. The 5G network will open up possibilities for applications that require a lot of computing power and that before may not have been feasible in a wireless system”.

Also Read: How to Implement Artificial Intelligence in Fashion Retail

With more to add on the topic, she continued: “We tend to anticipate such improvements of enabling technologies already, so I don’t think it will change my approach that much. But of course, it will have its effect on the design of the system architecture. At the same time, these developments also encourage me to consider what it means to delegate a lot to the cloud.”

As the conversation between the two continued, I took away two critical points from their back and forth chatter. The first one being that it is not always a necessity to connect to the cloud and that designers need to consider both the benefits and risks.

The Impact and Relevance of Transparent Fashion

As we brought our conversation to a close, we decided to end it on voice technology. This is an area that is not only being seen as the next big thing, but some insiders have predicted that it is going to impact the fashion industry in many ways. Personally, I am not sure how, so I asked Pauline her thoughts. She responded: “I think we’ll start to see that screens are not the only type of interface anymore”. 

“Our clothes can contribute to societal challenges related to vitality, human resilience and empowerment.”

Adding: “Our clothes connect us to the world. They are not a surface we interact with; they are embodied and become an intimate part of us. Since they are such a prominent part of our everyday practices, our clothes can contribute to societal challenges related to vitality, human resilience and empowerment. They enable us to explore the soft, emotional and subjective sides of technology”. 

“Project J” Video featuring Pauline van Dongen, Leonie Tenthof van Noorden, Troy Nachtigall, Stephan Wensveen, Oscar Tomico, Lilian Admiraal Industrial Design and the Eindhoven University of Technology

With her wisdom shared, I felt like we had had more than just a conversation with Pauline, we had an in-depth discussion where no stone was left unturned. Thanking her for her time, we said our goodbyes. Moments later, I refilled my mug of tea and cracked open my laptop to write about FashNerd’s conversation with Pauline van Dongen. I definitely look forward to our next chinwag on the ever-changing fashion tech space.

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