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Interactive design: where fashion, technology and art meet and mingle

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Designer Younghui Kim sits with her Hearwear bag (designed by Kim and Milena Berry) which lights up in response to Manhattan's noise levels (Photo by Marc Vose)


The HearWear skirt designed by Younghui Kim and Milena Berry lights up in response to noise (Photo by Kate Kunath)

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Di Mainstone's Skorpions collection, designed together with XS Labs, intersects performance art, technology and fashion (Photo courtesy Di Mainstone)

Younghui Kim, 38, floated in the dark waters of Bio Bay in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. Tiny flashes of light went off around her, as tiny water creatures called dinoflagelletes lit up at the slightest friction, like stars on water.

“It was a very peaceful moment,” said Kim. “And I thought, ‘Ah, I’d like to make a skirt that lights like just like this Bio Bay.”

And she did.

Her Stir-It-On skirt, the latest piece in her interactive wearable collection, is made up of layers of deep blue fabric. Within its folds, light-emitting diodes light up with the gentlest of touches detected through a sensor.

Kim laughed as she thought of wearing it on the New York subway.

“It’ll be like Bio Bay,” she said. “People will bump into each other and light up. Sometimes I think about these things and smile because I can see it in my head.”

Kim’s creations are simple but point to a new era in design, often labeled smart fashion. At its forefront are young designers who grew up on the creations of Hussain Chalayyan, a runway designer who has inspired a new generation of interactive design.

But these clothes are not of a metallic-cyborg-meets-Spock variety. They are high fashion couture that has consistently made appearances on runways since 2001 when wearable technology first burst on the scene.

Some are more art than high fashion, but they hint of a future where clothes are more than just a covering, when they become performance pieces that promote social interaction.

Di Mainstone, 33, who calls herself a “future fashion researcher,” is at the forefront of this field at the Eyebeam gallery in New York.

Her journey started four years ago in a shared studio space in London where interactions with architects, dancers, filmmakers and engineers launched her into interactive design.

Soon, she made the Skorpions kinetic garment line in collaboration with XS Labs in Montreal.

The heavily quilted Skorpions dress moves on the skin, parasite like. Flaps lift slowly as the garment breathes and molds itself to the human body beneath. It is a creature that lives on the skin, a second shell independent of the wearer.

“We treated the dresses as living sculptures that breathed and moved of their own accord,” said Mainstone. “It was an exploration into performance, creating dresses that had their own behavioral patterns.”

Mainstone’s clothes are interactive and modular, part of the aesthetic movement that promotes social interaction and play. She experiments with these ideas of interpersonal connectivity through clothing at the Eyebeam gallery in New York.

“We are so reliant in today’s society on the Internet,” said Mainstone. “We are missing out on true face-to-face connectivity. As a child, we play, we move, we touch each other. As we get older and more immersed in urban society, this becomes difficult to access.”

But with a new crop of designers like Mainstone, interactive fashion that creates new avenues for social interaction may become the norm. By combining the latest in materials and technology, these designers create fluid pieces that border on the edge of performance art.

Her inspiration, as for so many others in the field, is Chalayan, a U.K.-based fashion designer who has experimented with the intersection of fashion and design.

In 2007, Chalayan placed 15,000 light-emitting diodes inside a dress to create an ethereal glowing garment. His 2008 collection had dresses embedded with Swarovski crystals. A laser light illuminated the crystals to create a breathtaking array of light and color.

Wearable technologies have existed since the 1970s, when Dr. Edward Thorp, a mathematics professor, embedded his shoe with a computer to help him cheat during blackjack.

At this point wearable technology “just seems inevitable,” said Zack Eveland, 29, an adjunct professor at Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program in New York City. “You are already seeing it.”

“People are carrying around sophisticated technologies—cell phones, iPods—and the idea of wearable technology is getting closer and closer.”

Eveland said that works like Mainstone’s will have a future in the performance arena. And in the short term, less interpretive and more do-it-yourself designs, like those of Alison Lewis, 34, will dominate the market.

Lewis is a self-described “romantic technologist,” a blond-haired, shoe-loving, techie diva who sees a future for do-it-yourself wearables in a wavering economy.

She wrote Switchcraft, a book that instructs crafters on how to create, among other things, a cell phone-embedded pillow and a motorized voodoo doll.

Smart fashion of the future is likely to promote physical interaction, because it is currently missing in our society, according to Lewis.

“We need to get back to making things again,” said Lewis, who comes from a long line of crafters. Her grandmother Alice Driver Merriman’s work is displayed in the Smithsonian.

After Lewis displayed her wearables at a recent event in New York, people gathered to stick a metal pin into the gray voodoo doll. It writhed.

“Whenever I teach somebody, the first thing they do is create something that connects them with someone else in their lives,” said Lewis. “It is something innate to human nature that we are still trying to figure out.”