Designing Tech Couture For Katy Perry: A Q&A With CuteCircuit
Katy Perry’s MET Ball dress with silk chiffon and over 3000 color changing LEDs
CuteCircuit is a wearable technology and interactive company that creates innovative designs that seamlessly integrate technology with fashion. Their designs, incorporating LEDs, telecommunications, and smart textiles, bring a sense of style and colorful fun to wearable tech. Bold and forward-thinking, they merge the intricate detail and craftsmanship of high fashion with the emerging field of bespoke sartorial technology. The result is a perfect union that treats the materials, the design and the technology as a gestalt whole rather than disparate entities clumsily stuck together. Implicit in this is a sense of play and whimsy, creating a hybrid of sophisticate geekiness.
The founders are Francesca Rosella, a fashion designer, and Ryan Genz, an interface designer, who together have created custom-made dresses for Katy Perry along with a ready-to-wear line that includes sparkling T-shirts, mobile phone silk jerseys, and LED-laced chiffon dresses.
We went and met with the pair at their London studio to discuss their collection and how the large fashion houses have yet to catch on to this burgeoning industry.
The Creators Project: How did you get started in the wearable tech industry?
Francesca Rosella: The first job I ever had out of school was at Valentino, back in 1998. I tried to have them do light up dresses because it was when the EL [electroluminescent] wire had just come out, and one company from Israel was making it and they came and presented it and I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing, we should use it. We should make a black lace dress that has this embroidery in it.” And everybody thought it was absolutely insane. We [CureCircuit] finally managed to do that in 2004 with the KineticDress, so it took us like [laughs] six more years after I was trying to get Valentino to do it.
After Valentino, I was working at Espirit, which is more like sportswear and everyday wear, and I was designing accessories. So I thought, we should make a purse with a GPS inside, so if someone loses it, it will give you a call and say, “Come pick me up.” And they were like, “No!” And it was this sort of fashion industry struggle, where I thought we should use more technology but they didn’t want to. And then in 2001 I was reading this magazine, it was about design, and it had this whole article about this new institute called Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. And they said, “Oh you want to merge fashion and technology? Maybe you should come and do a Masters course here.” So, I resigned as a designer and I went to Ivrea, and I met Ryan there.
The Creators Project: So that was 2001?
Francesca Rosella: The 1st of October, 2001.
Ryan Genz: A lot of the researchers at the Interaction Design Institute at Ivrea came from different research institutes in the United States. There were some from MIT Media Lab, and some from Stanford, and there was an important research group that lasted only five years in the 90s called Interval Research [that eventually] disbanded. One guy from Interval Research was a guy called Bill Verplank, and the research he was doing there was looking into this idea of wearable technology. So he brought this inspiration to Ivrea and he sort of threw it out there to everybody, saying: “Is there an opportunity within wearable technology for future products and services?” And Francesca and I both thought that was exciting because I was interested in fashion but had worked in interface design, and she was working in fashion but interested in technology. So we began to collaborate almost right away. We spent two years developing wearable technology concepts and then, after leaving the institute in 2004, we founded CuteCircuit. First in the US, then in Rome, and then here in London.
KineticDress: sensors capture the wearer’s movements and interaction with others and display this data through the electroluminescent embroidery
The industry’s grown quite a lot since you started, hasn’t it?
Francesca Rosella: Yeah. It’s good because we sort of made it popular, I think, with more emotionally focused projects, like the Hug Shirt. So everybody has started to think that wearable technology is something that could actually be nice and fashionable, and emotionally fulfilling—not something that’s just for geeks. All of a sudden people are saying, “Oh, we’re gonna buy it!” Wearable technology is something you can wear and it makes you happy because you can reach your friends. I think it’s because, first of all, it’s easier to find the material, and also because people have changed their mindset. It’s not the scary cyborg with the goggles anymore.
How does the Hug Shirt work then?
Francesca Rosella: Basically, imagine you’re here and your best friend is in Tokyo and you want to send them a hug. You put on the Hug Shirt and give yourself a squeeze. And there are sensors in the front of the Hug Shirt where you are touching, [that interpret] how strong and for how long a time. The data goes [via] bluetooth into the mobile phone and is transferred into the hug message, and your friend in Tokyo receives the hug message. Of course, he’s wearing the Hug Shirt 24/7 and he gets the message on his phone saying “There is a hug for you. Do you want to feel it?” And it goes into the shirt and it gets warm and sort of vibrates so you feel like someone is touching you. It’s not like super strong. In the beginning we had it super, super strong, we had pumps inside, and it would make a noise and people would get so freaked out. So now it just gets warm and vibrates, it’s much more friendly. And actually, if you send hugs to yourself, which you shouldn’t be doing, but you can do, it’s got a sort of healing massage. It’s very relaxing.
Is it quite expensive to get the tech materials?
Ryan Genz: It is more expensive than, say, regular fashion but, you know, if you take a T-shirt and add a button to it that adds price to it. Anything you add to anything adds a little premium, but hopefully the design aspect and the features it will bring to fashion are worth the extra cost. But technology always gets cheaper. I mean, the things we can do now with technology would have been ungodly expensive just five years ago.
And it’s only going to get more integrated, really. You said that the big fashion houses, they don’t embrace it too much, or they didn’t back then?
Francesca Rosella: The problem with the big fashion houses is that you have your line of products, and you know that you sold a million black handbags last year. And you just want to sell a hundred thousand or a million more, you don’t want to [add] something strange and new that nobody has ever seen before that doesn’t sell. So that’s what their mantra is, because they have to deal with shareholders, and they have demands they have to meet that’s more about internal financial management than creativity.
Instead, since we are a very small company, we can just come up with crazy stuff and then sell it to people. It’s much more simple because we make our own decisions and we do not have a board of directors that we have to give feedback to and say yes we sold them. Plus, you really have to get more training to try and involve design and technology, otherwise people come up with stuff that either looks absolutely horrible, or doesn’t make sense, or lacks an integrated design perspective. I mean, it’s not that we are doing clothes with technology because every piece of clothing has to have technology. We’re doing some clothes with technology because we want to add value, because we want to say you can express yourself, you can touch your friend over distance, you can communicate. It’s not that we’re just putting technology in there for the sake of it.
Your dresses are very decorative, so this must be a major appeal as well as the technology?
Francesca Rosella: We did a dress for Katy Perry, for the Met Gala last year. And then we were asked if we could do a similar dress, but for girls to go to cocktails or whatever. So we designed the K-dress, it’s all chiffon and silk taffeta with embedded LED lights which change color. So it’s fun, I mean there were some girls who were trying it on and were like, “Oh my god, it’s pretty! I just wanna have it!” Because, you know, it’s just playful. It’s visual and interactive because people are like “Oh, how’s your dress made?”. So I guess it sort of breaks the ice. It makes people just more social.
Ryan Genz: It lets you adapt to different environments, different situations. It’s not like you’re stuck with these decorations either.
Francesca Rosella: I mean, if you switch it off it just looks normal.
That’s one of the key things really, isn’t it? That it looks great as well as featuring technology.
Francesca Rosella: The thing I think is really cool is working with these museums that want dresses for installations, so we can do something with a very large budget and make something spectacular. Then we can study the technology, learn it, and then we come to what our consumers can wear. To me, the dress is more exciting than the technology.
So what are your favorite things to work with?
Francesca Rosella: Sensors. We do a lot of sensors. But we do a lot of serious research into them. We research how to make sensors that are interconnected with the smart fabrics and electronics, and how to make stretchable textiles. So we do our collection and our crazy projects for things we want to know and research. It’s like sportswear development. That’s why everything we do is washable and something you can wear normally. Because I mean, if you have to stretch fabrics, it’s not like everybody’s going to wear a dress and then sit still. So we do everything to be more wearable. In the beginning, we had to develop all our stuff, like materials and circuits and things, because factories that made interesting materials didn’t want to try making what we wanted. And so we were like, “OK, we are just gonna have to build it.”
So you’re breaking new ground really with this technology. Would you ever allow other people to use it in their garments?
Ryan Genz: It’s not like you can just remove one bit and stick it in another thing though. You have to design around the technology. Like to make a collar, for instance, you have to use the right fabric for it to come out right.
Galaxy Dress: with 24,000 full colour LEDs, it’s the largest wearable display in the world
Your clothes have a sense of fun about them, is that important in fashion?
Francesca Rosella: Yeah, otherwise it would be too boring. I mean fashion sort of hasn’t changed in the last hundred years. After Coco Chanel introduced jersey suits to the masses, nobody else came up with something great. I mean, yeah, we got zippers and velcro and all these things, but in a hundred years we could have done much better things. We were in Milan and we went to this conference that was called “Fashion and Technology,” and we heard there’s gonna be all these big brands Gucci, Prada and all that, so we were like, “Wow, maybe they did something we don’t know about.” So we got there and they spent three hours discussing this new technology for fashion, and what this thing was, it was RFID tags to track a skirt from the manufacturing plant to the store and to track how many you sold and if you need to refuel your stock. And I was like, we took a train from Rome to Milan to hear you say this? The world is full of RFID tags in stores, everyone has them.
Why did they think it was so special?
Francesca Rosella: Because it would make them make lots of money if they knew where the stock was at all times, which is great, but I was like, “Yeah, well with the same RFID tag maybe you can make it see something really cool and when I’m walking down the street and I meet another person who has the same fancy Gucci jacket, we can blink, and meet, and exchange something?” I don’t know.
So where do you think the future lies for all of this? Where do you think tech fashion’s heading?
Francesca Rosella: Mmm, I think it’s gonna take over the world! I think right now it’s just making more intelligent sensors. I just wanna design things, and if people like it, then I’m happy.
Ryan Genz: I think that the future is more what you wear. Like this shirt I’m wearing, there’s nothing in this shirt that could have existed 500 years ago. But what we’re doing now is actually using modern materials for fashion purposes basically, for the first time. So I think that’s part of the designer’s job—to show opportunity for objects and other things we have in our lives.
Francesca Rosella: I really think it’ll come slow to design. Because I mean if you design something to look beautiful, it also means you have to engineer it to work well. We wouldn’t make [our clothes] look so pretty and seamless and beautiful if we didn’t spend a huge amount of time designing the circuits to make sure they did the right thing, that they didn’t get too warm and they could also be washed. So the more you design it, the more you alter it, the better it gets. So I think we have to just keep doing it. Because I mean probably the first time we did something that lit up, years ago when we were first studying, we used these huge LEDs. And of course with those ones, if you stick them in the washing machine they’re not going to come out alive. Now you can actually mistreat these things and step on them and do things to it. So it’s a massive jump from years ago to now.