Using Technology as a Medium of Fashion with Pauline Van Dongen at SXSW

Tech Features Wearables
Using Technology as a Medium of Fashion with Pauline Van Dongen at SXSW

At a panel at SXSW entitled “Beyond the Interface: Designing Wearables We Love,” designer Pauline van Dongen was showing off new concepts at the very interesting intersection of technology and fashion. We got to sit down with her after the panel to get her perspective on the future of wearable technology.

Pauline started off her career firmly on the fashion side of tech, and is currently wearing her “intelligent denim jacket” called ISSHO, at a coffee shop on Congress Street in downtown Austin. The windows let in bright, Texas, sunlight that highlights the classic character of this jacket—a deep blue interspersed with lines of conductive thread on the sleeves. It’s a fashion statement that fits in well with the current street style on showcase at SXSW this year.

Pauline studied fashion at an art school called Artez. Her style as a designer is minimalist, in the tradition of the “more Nordic countries,” who she explains share a more simplistic style of design than some of their more southern neighbors. Her designs revolve around more square cuts and shapes that organically drape around the body to allow a free sense of movement. There is a certain amount of self-evidence that emerges in the clarity of her design visions.

Her vision is for the technology of her wearables is to have the tech more closely integrated into the garments. She tries to have the technology concepts designed early on so that the process constantly works with and around the technology, so that the tech in the final project is a more “integral part of it,” which she describes as being crucial to her vision.

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Pauline describes fashion and wearable technology as part of the same continuum—warning that you might need to change your perceptions here and there—but, in the end, the technology must be viewed as “another medium.” In a way, fashion is already technology, especially performance wear that has functional intentions and advanced fabric technology, yet “we don’t put that in the wearable tech corner because we take it for granted what it allows us to do.”

Her intention with wearable technology is to make garments that fit into our lives with greater ease. The denim jacket project was started as part of that approachable vision, because she sees that it’s not that far away from what we are already wearing.

“I was interested in denim because it’s not dependent on age or social background or location, so I thought that would be an interesting material because I thought that people could identify with it,” says Pauline.

The material also serves the function of the jacket because denim, according to her observations, is a durable material that’s strong enough to protect the electronics. The way it works is that the jacket responds and reacts to the behavior of the wearer. It was designed around the metaphor of denim as a familiar friend.

Pauline explains that the jacket registers social interactions like “meeting people” or “being hugged.” If the user is constantly removing their smartphone from their pocket, the jacket counts that as well. The jacket is “autonomous,” which Pauline explains as non-reliant on smartphones or other external technologies. It uses conductive yarns integrated with industrial weaving threaded throughout the garment. They enter through a cable to a small micro-controller and a small rechargeable battery—wearable for up to a week without recharging. It deactivates itself when not in use.

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In response to the behavior of the user, Pauline explains that the jacket gives feedback in the form of “gentle stroking” from four vibration motors located on the upper back of the jacket. They rise slightly, like an exaggerated impression of the spine. Pauline describes a moment when she was wearing the jacket on the bus and it activated, producing its programmed reassurance. She describes how “it felt like the jacket was talking to me.” The intention of the jacket is to remind the wearer of living in the moment, being present in exactly where they are right now.

Pauline looks quite at home in this coffee shop. The warm afternoon sun filters in and adds a rich depth to the deep blue hue of the denim. This friendly jacket is a simple statement in an ambitious direction. In this moment, she appears quite at peace with her present. Perhaps the jacket has helped.

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