First published in VAULT magazine, November 2015.
For Dutch fashion designer Pauline van Dongen, technology, science and form are irrevocably intertwined.
The digital age often miscasts the practical and the beautiful as polar opposites as if an accessory’s usefulness makes it intrinsically ugly or an object’s elegance confines it to your coffee table. Our resentment of the Apple Smartwatch is rooted less in its clunky interface than the way it chirpily summarises our health lapses while those who’d choose their Kindle over a first edition forget that the book – an invention that allows us to start or stop a story without so much as flicking a switch – is wildly innovative, even today.
Pauline van Dongen is a rare exception to this theory. Since 2010, the acclaimed Dutch fashion designer, who’s currently preparing for Dutch Design Week, has been conceiving garments that combine sartorial discipline with a futurist’s ambitions. Such as a dress, created in partnership with robot hacker Daniel Schatzmayr, that uses flip dots – the electromagnetic technology that powers bus displays – to turn the wearer’s body into a canvas for hypnotic patterns and mimics the way light glitters on the water and stars flicker in the sky. Or a shirt, embellished with 120 thin film solar panels, that charges your smartphone while managing an off-the-cuff glamour that begs to be paired with your favourite denim and worn to cocktails.
“I’m interested in how technology can have aesthetic value,” smiles van Dongen, who’s Skyping me from her Arnhem studio where she often finds herself consumed by design research until well into the night. “When you’re working with wearable technology, you have to look at things like wiring, the way the designs are constructed, the type of interactions a person would have with this garment … But I try to explore how a circuit can work as embroidery or how it can shape the construction. My Wearable Solar Shirt incorporates a prosthetic foil and an interesting construction that I wouldn’t have considered if I hadn’t been working with technology. I like to look at these functional requirements as if they are aesthetic opportunities. The design is informing the technology and the technology is informing the design.”
For van Dongen, who was born in Amsterdam, thriving in the creative tension that’s a consequence of disparate interests has long been a way of life. “When I was younger I wanted to study medicine and take after my dad, who’s a doctor, so I was always fascinated by human biology, physics and science but at the same time I was really into arts, studying to get into The Conservatory, drawing and dancing a lot,” she recalls. Although she attended the Artez Academy of Arts in Arnhem, a prestigious art school whose alumni includes fellow experimental Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, stumbling across 3D printing, a process that draws on digital fabrication to create three-dimensional objects, during her Masters Program at the Fashion Institute of Arnhem, that shifted her path. Her graduate collection, Morphogenesis – a series of cocoon-like, polyamide dresses along with a 3D-printed shoe, developed alongside product design company Freedom of Creation – sealed her vision as a designer as well as the collaborative way she approaches her work. The pieces, whose playful, shifting outlines trouble notions of inside and outside and invert the relationship between a wearer and their surroundings, also cemented her belief in the fact that fashion can help us better understand how bodies behave in space.
“Looking back, I think going into fashion was very intuitive and because it involves working with body, constructing materials, working with imagery, video and photography, it’s the accumulation of so many different things,” she explains, in her considered way. “I’m inspired by Hussein Chalayan as well as Issey Miyake’s pleating techniques and the fact that his materials play when you start moving. The British sculptor Anthony Gormley shaped my way of thinking about the body and the negative and positive spaces that we inhabit. But now, which I could never have forseen, I’m working with scientists, engineers and people in biology and my work has a scientific angle. Although I come from a traditional fashion background, I was always exploring and I have an inquisitive nature. I liked to stretch my own boundaries right from the start.”
Over the last few years, van Dongen has made it her mission to prove that radical things happen when you pair fashion design with scientific inquiry and that technology and nature aren’t as adversarial as we’d like to think. In 2013, the designer showed Wearable Solar, an ink-black coat and dress featuring nipped waists and shoulders that resemble dorsal fins, at London’s Wearable Futures exhibition. The pieces, which were designed in partnership with Christian Holland from the Han University of Applied Sciences and solar energy expert Gert Jan Jongerdon, incorporate solar cells that store enough energy to charge an iPhone if worn in the sun for an hour. And last year, van Dongen previewed Phototrope, a running shirt that incorporates LED ribbons, couched in TPU foils the colour of quicksilver, at Austin tech conference South By Southwest. The light-refracting garment, which was prompted by van Dongen’s own experiences as a runner, turn the wearer into a shimmering part of the nightscape while improving their visibility when the sun sets.
“These days, we are so dependent on connectivity but at the same time, we’ve become these modern nomads with this “always on mentality” and I think it’s a really interesting notion that we can carry our own energy with us wherever we go,” says Van Dongen, who believes that innovations such as 3D printing and generative design can tackle fashion’s sustainability issues while reimagining traditions such as tailoring for the modern world. “I started thinking about ways to generate energy on the body and had come across these really thin film solar cells that could be integrated into clothing and designed the coat and the dress to show to people that this could potentially become a reality. It’s opened up a lot of conversation with manufacturers. I’m focused on solar right now, but I also think that thermal and kinetic energy is really interesting. People always tend to think that nature and technology are opposed because there’s this idea that technology alienates us from the world. But when you look at what fashion is, it’s already a second skin, a human extension of our physical capabilities. It’s not a strange thing to be developing this further.”
Van Dongen, who’s increasingly swapping catwalk shows for exhibitions and lectures, says that her practice is becoming more rigorous and that she’s ready to bring her ideas to the world. “As a designer, my approach is becoming even more research-based and if things are done in a certain way, I’ve never stopped questioning them,” she says, her face lighting up. “My ambition for the coming years is to bring some of my designs to market because I think that customers can really respond and benefit from them. I’m also very interested in collaborating with larger brands. I want to facilitate this exchange between technology and fashion because I’m always in the spaces in between.”