Interview: Pauline Van Dongen, Designer Merging Fashion and Technology

Margherita Olivo
September 17th 2016

Dutch fashion designer specialized in wearable technology, Pauline van Dongen researches the human body in relation to its surroundings.

Established in 2010, her studio is immersed in the dynamic intersection of fashion and technology and is dedicated to collaborative, cross-disciplinary work that enables innovation and experimentation to take the form of a truly wearable and desirable product. Van Dongen's vision is based on the belief that technology can add new value and meaning to fashion and can enhance the way we experience the world around us. To her, technology is not a mere tool, but rather one of aesthetics. The language and expression of the body give form to the garment establishing an intimate connection with the wearer and tuning technology in something intuitive.

We recently talked with Pauline Van Dongen about her work with solar cells, the integration of nature and technology in clothing and new developments in 3D printed fashion using body scanning and generative design tools.

My work is an exchange between our bodies and our surroundings

How do you define yourself?

I define myself a fashion designer and I get this question quite a lot: “Are you a fashion designer or an engineer?”. In principle I’m a designer, and I deal with the body and textiles. I don’t consider myself an engineer because I’ve been trained as a fashion designer, although sometimes I might think like an engineer and I love these challenges. When I first started dealing with electronics I worked with Daniel Schatzmayr, a robot hacker and a genius. I was sitting next to him while he was programming our circuit board and our custom-made software. I was looking at him wanting to learn and be able to do the same, but this happens to me with many different practices. The key for me is to develop a certain understanding and acquire the right language to communicate with these people on the right level and try to find a dialogue where we start pushing each other, in this way both parties can learn from each other. I love being flexible and very dynamic, which I think is an important thing nowadays in society. It’s good not to fit in a specific label.

How did you start working with technology, has tech always been a passion for you?

There wasn’t a specific moment when I suddenly started working with technology. For me it’s also not about the technology per se. It’s always been about an experimental and explorative approach, looking beyond what is in front of us or in our hands, looking for new materials, new forms of expression for the human body and also new types of interactions. In order to achieve this I had to go towards technology. Once I go outside of my own discipline and start to collaborate with people that have a totally different viewpoint, that’s when it becomes really interesting for me. That is also when a lot of surprising things start happening. Technology is a mean to achieve that. As a fashion designer I always deal with very intimate, personal sensations and experiences. It’s all about how we interact with the world around us through our clothes, because they are always between us and the space surrounding us. That’s what makes it such a powerful media, so interesting to combine it with technology.

With every kind of new technology we have new possibilities

Do you think in the future you will experiment with something else?

Naturally I am a very curious person, I tend to look for things that I don’t know or that I can’t really grasp. Then I try to dive into them and find people that can support me and with whom I can generate new ideas. So, I don’t exclude any other domain that I might look into. But I think technology is an interesting phenomenon because, just like fashion, it’s always developing, it’s based on change. With every kind of new technology we have new possibilities, that’s why it will always fascinate me.

In your Solar Shirt project you deal with solar panels. How was working with such a commonly unbendable material?

It’s a challenging material to work with. In the very beginning, in 2013, we explored how to work with it, how to integrate it with textiles. You can’t just start sowing it, you need to find a way to work with it and learn how to wire it, what kind of circuit, etc. You need to understand the optimal place towards the sun, but also think about the user comfort and the bendability. At first we were working with cells that are not made for textiles and learning how to place them in a totally new context. There wasn’t any kind of data we could look at, we had to experiment a lot. We used these super thin and bendable solar cells and still we had to make the cells more solid and flexible to combine them in a piece of clothing that is not just folding or bending, there are so many daily gestures that could crack them. We’re testing and constantly looking for new solutions. For instance, the cells we used are rectangular, so we’re thinking how to modify the shape to make them less breakable, it also depends on the access you have to the people who makes them.

How long does it take to make a piece?

It really depends on the intensity of the project, on the availability of the funds and if you develop something from scratch. For instance, to finalize the project we did for the Holst Center it took us half a year, which is pretty quick. Commonly speaking, the most innovative projects we do require at least a year of work. Now we’re working with nano-coating, it’s a process that takes place first in a lab, and then we need to see how to apply it on a more industrial level.

What do you consider to be your target group?

That’s difficult to say, I would say it varies from project to project. For the Solar Shirt we aim to reach a wider audience by making a t-shirt instead of designing a very high-end fashion dress. We want to make it accessible to show that these textiles are close to reality already. The solar shirt is for an urban environment, and our solar parka is more for outdoors, natural environment, going off-grid, being protected from wind and water, while producing energy. We also have a running shirt with lights. So we try to reach different audiences, genders and ages, and this makes it trickier of course.

 I try to make technology feel natural

In what market do you place your creations?

There’s a lot of growing and global interest, but the market is still niche. By now people are starting to see the real potential of what we do. They are also eager to move beyond and look for something practical that is also desirable, because that is what wearable technologies are still lacking, and that’s also why there is no clear connection to a specific market right now.

But you were able to build a bridge between these two worlds, fashion design and technology.

Most of the technologists underestimate the value of a good design or simply they don’t know how to approach it. On the other hand, designers are afraid of technology because it feels like they have to compromise too much. And this is true, sometimes I have to make some compromises but I think it’s important to see how both can inform each other in a positive way.

Pauline van Dongen

Clothing is a technology that, compared to others, has been still for a long time, do you see a turning point now?

It’s interesting because if we look around at all the developments that occurred, in comparison nothing really changed in fashion, except from the industrial production. That had a huge impact on how we consume fashion and how we perceive it. I think it is really time for fashion to start playing a role in this new domain, especially if we look at how things around us become more intelligent and more conscious, about what kind of materials we use and what is the life cycle of a product or of a design. The fashion industry has an interest in not playing a part in this change, but eventually they’ll have to face it and it’s important for people to understand and to be more conscious about what they wear, how it affects them and what impact it has on our surroundings.

Do you think it will ever go back to a small-scale production?

It’s difficult and it’s always very tempting for consumers to pay less and have a wider choice. It’s scary to see how much we started buying just to fulfill some kind of society need that is not an actual one. It’s a very social and cultural phenomenon that I don’t think we can easily turn around. Of course, there are ways to do this; look at the food industry, some things are slowly changing. I think people will start to realize that this is something that can’t continue forever. It’s unethical and it takes too many resources. Look at how cotton is produced, there are so many disasters and tragedies surrounding the fashion industry. We try to make people aware of that, it is already changing, some fashion brands are making more considering choices.

We buy clothes to fulfill a society

How do you see the fashion industry in a century?

What I hope is that through technology we’ll be able to produce in a different way, maybe also going back to tailor-made pieces by using digital tools. Leaving the work to machines and have less manual labor, to be able to produce in a more ethical way. If a machine could do the job, it would be more cost efficient.

Do you think designs are going to be more standardized?

Not necessarily. I think we will always have this sort of need for design and with digital tools we can keep on generating new ideas and very easily alter the settings or uploading a new kind of file. It’s easier to have a machine that creates the same design with three different versions than to have a person doing it. Technologies will be so advanced that making size and pattern changes will become very easy and cost-free. Producing with as little waste as possible while dramatically revolutionizing the production.

In your project Phototrope you interact more with the surroundings. How do you see the nature today through your designs?

I always find it very difficult to have a definition of nature. What I try to express through my work is first of all to abolish the separation between nature and technology, because in people’s minds technology is cold and distant, whereas clothing are intimate, soft, very personal. I try to bridge that by making technology feel more natural, because for me technology is what makes us human. Most of my work is an exchange between our bodies and our surroundings and it can take different forms. It can be nature in the very pure sense of the world, like the Solar Shirt, but at the same time what is part of our nature are also things like connectivity. We need technology, it became an essential part of how we live nowadays.

Phototrope

Do you think sustainability will play a role in fashion industry?

There is a lot of interest and a big paradox of course. Huge companies, like H&M or ZARA, have the eco-line, but at the same time the cotton they use is not really sustainable. It’s not only about the big brands, it’s also the responsibility of a designer, of the knitting industry and the distribution. There are so many different aspects and they all need to be responsible and find a common line to be more sustainable. A possibility I can think of are growing materials, Suzanne Lee works a lot in this area, bio-technology. It’s still a very far scenario and we cannot wear it yet, but at least the materials won’t have an impact on the environment and hopefully they will eventually become cheaper to produce. It would be a big start if we could bring the production back to Europe and have more local clothing. There are also things we can already change, think about how we wash our clothes and the impact this has on sewages and environment, we can start make a change in our customs.

We need technology, it became an essential part of how we live

You worked with body scanning and 3D printers, do you think this will change the figure of the tailor?

Yes, I think so. This requires better software and systems and right now the industry is not really open to adopt these new tools, because they are expensive, but I see it happening. It starts from a true need, for example designing clothing for disable people, and it goes into a custom-made piece of clothing, personalized. I think we’re heading towards a good direction.

Among your projects, which one is the most representative of your work?

It’s a difficult question. I don’t think I can pick one because they’re all my babies! Every project has its own challenges and its own ups and downs. It has been great to see how the Solar Shirt was developing since 2013, thanks to the accessibility to new materials. Mostly what I think is more representative is the whole exploration process we do here. I tend to get more excited by the process, being surprised and amazed by the results and the achievements than by the final product itself.

Thanks so much, Pauline, for sharing your work and viewpoints with us!

More interviews: Liam YoungBruce SterlingJason SilvaArne HendriksRachel ArmstrongAlexandra Daisy GinsbergFloris KaaykChloé RutzerveldNadine BongaertsMike Thompson and Susana Cámara Leret.

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