Interactive garments transform our relationship with fashion and the environment as sustainability is linked with the individual experience.
Pauline van Dongen (b. 1986) combines technology and individuality to create pieces that respond directly to the wearer. This offers a provocative vision for the future of design that goes far beyond mere aesthetics. Rapidly becoming recognised as one of the most important practitioners in the field, van Dongen is now featured internationally in major exhibitions including the V&A’s, London, The Future Starts Here, and she has been awarded numerous accolades for her thoughtful, intellectually stimulating practice. Her radical and highly sustainable way of working places interactivity at its core, in a move that could have profound implications for the development of our long-term relationship with fashion.
The human form, its interaction with music and its expression through dance, was one of van Dongen’s earliest inspirations. She became fascinated by “the search for some kind of energy, rhythm or pace,” as well as by science and medicine. “There’s a kind of amalgamation, or mixing up of different influences, that comes with a fascination for the body. Really taking note of how humans move – how different physical beings interact with each other but also with space – feeds into the materials with which I work.” She still seeks ideas from these sources: “It’s the landscape that has a specific rhythm or architecture – where I see certain patterns that I can somehow translate into materials.”
In recent work, technological expertise marries with these natural, structural influences to make smart, responsive garments that offer new ways to interact with the world around us. The pieces remain, however, consumer-led, meaning the individual human experience comes first; technology is never used for design’s sake. Building on this, van Dongen explains that “fashion is a very personal experience, and we need to really understand what people would like to wear but also how they adopt clothing … there’s always this character, this profiling going on.” By contrast, in what she deems our technocratic world, it is increasingly tempting to long for the arrival of new capabilities and new systems.
However, she expands on this with a preface: “I think we always have to remain critical and not just want what is the newest, but also think about the human implications. Clothing is key because you can’t really pinpoint the garments down to one basic functionality. It does different things on so many levels – from the personal to the global.” In other words, simply making use of the latest technical innovations in clothing is not enough on its own. Instead, the pieces which she creates keep the individual constantly in mind, whether van Dongen is working with designers, engineers or with other cross-disciplinary collaborators.
That is not to say, though, that the clothing is devoid of agency in its own right. On the contrary, she says, “you can see that every single garment has a very active role … it encourages a specific type of behaviour. Even with non-interactive garments, if you go shopping and buy a t-shirt that costs £1, the kinds of actions or activities that it invites is very different from one made from a high-quality material or by an artisan, or which has a story to it.” This is where the concept of interactivity in its full scope becomes particularly important, as it alters our engagement even further, so “transforming the way we look at fashion.”
Even more provocatively, these current developments could change our interactions with the world. We are seeing a profound change and one in which, van Dongen believes, clothes possess a unique capability: “If you think about the fact they’re situated between our bodies and the world, integrating sensors that measure temperature or movement for example has great potential. I believe there is a whole world still to be explored beyond their quantified interpretation.”
Indeed, the Solar Shirt (2014) has built-in solar cells that harness energy. Thinking about her own experience from having worn the garment, she feels a stronger and more personal ecological responsibility. “You maybe want to go outside more often, so you can harvest more energy … I noticed when I was wearing it, I was actually often walking on the sunny side of the street. Very small things like that are important and can raise a lot of awareness about the environment and about reconnecting with nature.”
The Solar Shirt (2015), which is part of the V&A’s presentation of van Dongen’s work stems from the clear idea that our relationship with the sourcing of green energy can be far more engaged than it is; our clothing can be a source of power, whilst also serving to re-introduce the individual to the landscape. Indeed, The Future Starts Here poses similar groundbreaking questions about connection, with different strands of the exhibition asking Are We Human? and We’re all connected but do we feel lonely? Exploring the impact that objects may have on the body, the home, politics, cities and the planet, the show – like van Dongen’s practice – challenges the choices that we make on a daily basis – decisions of how we decide what to buy, and what to wear.
Ethics come into play here; van Dongen is aware that it is not always simple to assess a product’s footprint in terms of its effects upon the planet; there are wider elements to consider when it comes to production, such as how much of an impact it requires to make the solar cells themselves, and how long the piece of clothing lasts. There are still a lot of issues that need to be researched further. In fact, it is about far more than the easily quantifiable energy.
The designer points out the importance of the wearer’s attitudes: “Ultimately, creating responsible fashion is very closely tied to people’s relationship with a garment. If it’s something they would wear for a lifetime, that’s much better than a t-shirt made with organic cotton that lasts two years. Designers should examine how they can enhance the experience that people have with their clothes.”
According to this pragmatic mode of thinking, the notion of a lasting product also incorporates an understanding of personal value and is inherent in the very existence of fashion, which, the designer notes, is “by definition a social technology because it extends the reach of our body – it’s something manmade and which announces our human capability. We express something through it.” She mentions the example of Issho (2017) – an intelligent denim jacket that offers the wearer the feeling of a comforting hand on their upper back and says this encapsulates how different qualities – whether aesthetic or material – can be brought together through the context of the individual and in the creation of the product from start to finish.
Extending its lifecycle means tracking a garment through more stages. At the moment, this does provide some problems: “As soon as the product reaches the customer, once it’s bought, no one really knows how people treat it, how often it is worn and washed, what types of experience people go through whilst wearing the item. These factors are unknown.” The careful use of feedback mechanisms could transform understanding of this in the near future, as van Dongen observes: “Once we are integrating sensors and interactivity into our clothes, this will become data that we can suddenly reach.” Whilst data dissemination is becoming more prevalent – and indeed, is being reviewed for its ethical and psychological impacts – the information that will be gleaned from responsive garments can be used to shift the focus of the industry away from introducing endless amounts of disposable fashion into the world.
The V&A exhibition highlights this design issue, evaluating whether projects offer strategies for collective decision-making, and considering garments that blur the lines between humanity and technology. Important questions must be asked: should human activity be treated as a resource that can be harvested if the results contribute to sustainability? Where should the line be drawn between private and public worlds? How responsive should an item become before it encroaches upon personal information?
For now, van Dongen looks towards a more holistic view of clothing where its materiality has a deeper meaning; fabric is one of her greatest tools. “I love exploring and manipulating different properties.” For Issho, she collaborated with denim manufacturer ItalDenim, and made the fabric with conductive yarns incorporated into it from scratch. It was, she says, “an amazing opportunity, because you can choose your own yarns, a weaving technique, and explore the boundaries and capabilities of machines through a synergy between analogue and digital.” Branching out into using new and perhaps unprecedented materials comes into play through creative and collaborative models of working. It is an approach of seeking fluidity between industries – where, for example, fashion meets with medicine – pushing into a more resilient world of design. There are other available methods of working, too: through the use of 3D programming and generative models, the way that garments are cut can be reconsidered and transformed, making the production process even more efficient, sustainable and responsible from the offset.
Thus we come full circle; thinking about ecological solutions and shifting the focus of fashion simply from visual worth to a broader understanding encompassing materiality: “The concept of aesthetics has become too concerned with what we see. Our psychological experience of products is based on sensory interactions. If we want to design for longevity, then we should consider the impact of a fabric through an all-encompassing experience of life.” As Dieter Rams’ Good Design Principles state, items should be long-lasting, yet never appear antiquated.” Digital technology could be key to achieving this because it enables production to become increasingly personalised, yet also universally accessible. Furthermore, the existence of an enduring material harnesses humanity’s most basic emotional understanding of the world: through touch.
Showcasing a rigorous methodology, van Dongen’s collections have the potential to create a better planet, shaping not only what we wear but how we feel, raising personal and environmental awareness in an increasingly disconnected age. If the future of design is to meet the rapidly changing needs of the population, then these forward-thinking garments must be part of that tapestry.