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Make It Wearable | The Concepts: Pauline van Dongen's Solar-Powered Fashion Designs

In our new wearable-tech series, The Concepts, The Creators Project investigates the various innovators at work designing wearables that evolve art forms and practices, as well as how these creatives imagine the future of wearable tech. In our first Concepts episode, we zoned in on SubPac, a device that lets users feel sound. In our second episode, we spoke with 16-year-old, DIY inventor Joey Hudy about wearables and their relationships to the Maker movement. Our third episode features bionic chef Eduardo Garcia, who uses advanced mechanical prosthetics to continue the pursuit of his passion: food. Today, we're sharing a documentary on a fashion designer at the cutting edge of wearable technology. 

After graduating from the Academy of the Arts in the Netherlands, in 2010, Pauline van Dongen began a womenswear label under her own name. Nearly five years (and five collections) later, van Dongen stands at the forefront of a synthesis of two seemingly disparate, but equally creative fields: fashion design, and solar power. Integrating circuits and solar panels into her textiles, van Dongen represents a fashionable and energy-efficient future for wearable technology.

Inspired by her intrepid artistry (as well as her haute couture), The Creators Project visited Pauline van Dongen at her studio in Arnhem, the Netherlands, and produced a documentary on this promising pioneer. 

Like many designers, Pauline van Dongen wasn't inspired by croquis and silhouettes alone, but by the possibilities presented by textiles. "Solar technology is developing and is becoming more thin and flexible," she told The Creators Project. "This really gives new opportunities for fashion. [...] There are so many surfaces out there in the world that we don't use in an efficient way. Textiles have a lot of properties that other materials don't have, like the flexibility, bendability. So this is something that could be further explored." 

On her website, Paulina explains her design philosophy: 

There is nothing natural in nature; technology makes our humanness giving form to our surroundings. [sic] The human habitat reveals a techno-morphed structure that can no longer be hidden behind the vestiges of a natural world: technology has to be naturalized.

When the young designer discovered wearables, she knew she had found the proper place to exercise her ideas and bring them to fruition. "Wearable technology is able to connect different industries that were not connected before. I'm being connected with people in the solar energy industry, and we look at what we can mean for each other to advance our idea of what fashion is, or could be in the future." She's currently at work on Wearable Solar, a labor of research and development that seeks to maximize the surface integrability of solar cells into her designs.

As of now, one of van Dongen's dresses is able to fully charge a smartphone after only two hours in the sun. "We're all addicted to our smartphones, and we want them to be constantly powered," she explained in our video profile. "Our garments are something we always have together with our smartphones, so this was quite an obvious connection. You would never need a battery again, you could just be sustainable and generate your own energy through your clothing."

A large part of her efforts are geared towards bettering the sustainability of the garment industry, currently rated as the world's second-most wasteful. "We can't just rely on batteries forever," she warns. "Looking at how the wearable technology market is rapidly growing, we need to come up with a more sustainable solution for that." The Holy Grail of solar-fashion sustainability, she explains, would be a solar cell that exists as a yarn. This could allow the energy storing and transport processes to become effectively invisible on the body, creating wholly sustainable garments that work from inside-out.

While issues of washability have provided formidable challenges for van Dongen, she sees them as means to collaborate further with industries outside her own. "By adding technology to fashion, we can return fashion's value to people so that they will cherish their garments for a longer period," she stated. "Wearable tech definitely invites more people to enter the fashion world, and to help us create new innovations that make the system better." The forward-thinking designer is already at work with solar companies to develop "encapsulated solar cells" that would allow her garments to be washed more easily.

It's a labor of love and long-term commitment, but if van Dongen's progress is any indication, she'll make an impact on an industry that perpetually seeks revolutionary thinking, but operates on dated, older models. "Fashion is all about the new, but the industry itself has been the same for decades," she explains. "It's really time that something changes."

See more of Pauline van Dongen's work, over at her website: http://paulinevandongen.nl/

Related: 

Make It Wearable | The Concepts: Creating Wearable Sound

Make It Wearable | The Concepts: 16-Year-Old Inventor Joey Hudy And The Maker Movement

Make It Wearable | The Concepts: The Future Of Cooking With Wearable Tech

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