Anouk Wipprecht’s Fashion Tech

Anouk Wipprecht is yet another fashion designer fascinated by contemporary technology “What does fashion lack? “Microcontrollers””, she says.

Hmm. I’m not sure I agree, but lets see what she makes. (Making is so much more important than talking about making, don’t you think?)

Wipprecht is experimenting with sensors, LED’s, and processors to create garments that, if not exactly comfortable, are literally flashy. Her “Synapse” has a strange mish mash of features. Sensors monitor breathing and other signs, to detect “attention” and tension. These readings are made visible by embedded LED’s, which make the wearer’s privat feelings very public. A camera snaps pictures linked to these arousal measures that is supposed to let the person retrospectively examine their feelings. And, in a somewhat contradictory vein, the garment detects someone very near, and flashes very bright “go away” signal. (I don’t get the “tell everyone what I’m feeling” combined with the “don’t get close to me”.)

Another 3D printed garment is more purely “defensive”. The “Spider Dress”  features crab-like spikes that retract when the wearer is calm, and extend when she is tense and/or someone comes close. This is only partly under conscious control—sometimes your dress acts on its own. This looks rather uncomfortable, andis certainly not practical. (Wear it on an airplane? I don’t think so.)

In these two (and also her “Smoke Dress) we do see an unfortunate pattern here: Wipprecht is certainly concerned with overly grabby geeks. Hands to yourself, boys!

Something a bit less dramatic, and way more social is her “Particle Dress” the “Open Source Element Dress”.  This project invites people to modify and design pieces that will snap together with everyone else, to create a sort of charm bracelet vest/dress.

Going another way, “Intimacy 2.0” is constructed of “smart fabric” that becomes transparent in response “close and personal encounters”, whatever that means. Basically a sheer nightie that goes peekaboo all by itself, I guess, when it thinks you want it to.

Looking at this, dare I say it, body of work, what is Wipprecht up to?

If fashion is a personal statement, she is clearly saying, “talk to me about Arduinos and 3D printing!” 🙂 If this is the conversation you want to have, that’s cool, but not for everyone, or for every situation.

I note that to the degree that people are look at these contraptions, they are not seeing the woman.  Even more that conventional clothing, these garments with lights, sounds, spikes, smoke, draw attention away from the wearer This may or may not be desired by the wearer.

Wipprecht’s clothes give off very mixed messages about “intimacy”. Several of her garments are defensive armor, with active defensive devices, including extremely scary spines. These garments clearly say, “look but don’t touch”. The wearer is an object for admiration but not for conversation or touching.

But her garments also include “come hithers” that beckon another to come closer. Intimacy 2.0 reveals interest by revealing skin, other garments signal with lights or by their retracting deadly talons. These behaviors signal that the wearer wants you to come close (though possibly to abduct you into her waiting saucer).

Presumably, these “approach” and “avoid” signals are supposed to be selective, triggered somehow by the sensor data. The public information is vague about how this works or is supposed to work. It is said to sense if the wearer is “tense” (deploy defenses”) or relaxed (“retract spikes”), and attending to something (“glow and take pictures”).

From my own experience, I would guess that these triggers are pretty vague, basically general levels of tension and attention. Mapping them to meaningful social interaction is pretty iffy. I.e., will the spikes extend and retract in ways that make sense to the people? Not consistently, would be my bet.

Overall, this is very interesting because Wipprecht seems to be exploring interesting aspects of self-revelation and self-regulation, though she is all over the map, in my view.

“Synapse” displays light patterns that publicly reveal the alleged emotional state of the wearer. Smoke and Spider trigger according to inner state, and, of course, Intimacy is all about revealing the hidden self. In these cases, fashion is used to reveal rather than conceal the inner self.

At the same time, these revelations are semi-autonomous, as the onboard intelligence algorithmically adjusts your raiment. However good these algorithms may me, this abdicates control of self presentation to the machine. You can call this symbiosis or whatever you want, but it is definitely not full personal autonomy and control.

The point is, of course, that the point of fashion is to craft an image, and to conceal and decorate your real inner self, in favor of the desired presentation. Fashion is all about the art of building a façade and hiding behind it.

These semi-autonomous, algorithmically equipped, garments go against this basic goal, revealing the wearer, and doing so without her control. This seems like the wrong idea to me. (Not that I’m really into fashion in any way.)

Wipprecht is, of course, exploring these concepts, not trying to make practical stuff. Stephen Cass reports that “Wipprecht is now beginning to explore using machine learning so that her clothes can react in intelligent and subtle ways to the wearer’s social experience”. Cool! This is certainly an area I’ve been thinking about myself. (Imagine wearing outfits that not only coordinate (passively) but actively coordinate to show the world and each other that “we’re together”! What would that look like?)

As she enters this social dimension, I encourage her to think about some serious experiments, to see how these technologies affect people and interpersonal relations.  Think about the corrosive effects digital technology has had on conversation and social relations.  How can we make clothing that improves human relations, and helps us be more human?

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