Body Talk: The Communicative Couture of Anouk Wipprecht

Body Talk: The Communicative Couture of Anouk Wipprecht

This article was written by journalist Amanda Cosco and was originally published in our print magazine.

Technology is enjoying its time in the limelight. If New York Fashion Week this fall was a sign of what’s to come, the stage is set for more attempts at fusing the devices we own and carry with the clothing we love and wear. While big-name tech companies like Google and Intel may have penetrated the fashion scene for a season, if technology is going to last longer than a passing fad, it must first learn an important lesson from fashion.

What we wear is our second skin. At a very basic level, clothing protects us. It shields us from the elements and provides a barrier between our bodies and the world around us. But beyond its utilitarian value, fashion is (and always has been) expressive. What we wear signifies not only our style, status, and role within society, but also our mood, aspirations, and alliances.

Up until this point, we’ve been stuck in the “information age” of wearables. Wearable technology—that is, technology worn on, near, or even inside the body—has focused on measuring our steps, counting our heart rates, and tracking our breathing patterns. This data-focused phenomenon (known as “the Quantified Self”) has been discussed since the early days of computing, but was coined by Wired Magazine editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2007. While “wristables” (think Fitbit, Jawbone, Misfit, etc.) have catapulted wearable technology into mainstream consciousness, they haven’t transcended into the realm of fashion. Even in headline-grabbing collaborations (Apple Watch X Hermès, for example), fashion seems slapped on top of hardware like an afterthought.

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As sensors get smaller and computers become thinner and more flexible, technology is crawling closer to the skin. In the last year, the conversation has shifted away from hardware and towards textiles. The importance of fashion-first design is being foregrounded, and a new industry is being born. It’s called fashion tech, and if you’re holding this magazine, it’s likely you’re in on it.

No artist is disrupting the conversation surrounding wearable tech more than Anouk Wipprecht. The Dutch designer innovates with 3D printing and micro-controllers to augment the body and equip it with new communicative capacities. Her “speaking” and expressive garments explore the relationship between inside and outside, between self and other, and between intimacy and technology. Ultimately, her work pushes back against a framework of thought that regards the body as mere matter and instead reframes it as intelligent and expressive.  

There are two truths about wearable technology products on the market today: first, for the most part, they are created, developed, and engineered by men—this despite the fact that women are equal consumers of wearable tech, according to Forrester Research. When wearables are created for women, they tend to be smaller, lighter versions of the same gadget (known as “shrinking and pinking” to industry insiders). Second, in their persistent focus on metrics, wearables today regard the body as mere matter—as something to be monitored, measured, and controlled.

This view of the body can be traced back as early as Western thought—to Aristotle and Descartes.  As body studies philosopher Susan Bordo puts it, “what remains the constant element throughout historical variation is the construction of the body as something apart from the true self (whether conceived of as soul, mind, spirit, will, creativity, freedom)”.

The implications of regarding the body this way have been scrutinized by feminists and modernists alike…

…who argue that Cartesian reasoning (the view that the body and mind are separate) has been a means of legitimizing patriarchal power and controlling women, who is more closely associated with the flesh (for more on this, see Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Bordo, and and Elizabeth Grosz). For our purposes, it’s important to understand that the Quantified Self isn’t a product of this decade, but a reflection of a long lineage of thinking that believes the body (matter) can be regulated through data and knowledge (mind).

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Unlike the wearable technology that has come before her, female designer Anouk Wipprecht’s creations are made for women. Her costume-like concept pieces are pioneering an unprecedented wave of electronic couture that bridge fashion and technology in seamless and unexpected ways. Rather than focusing on biometrics for the sake of optimizing or controlling the body, Wipprecht’s work leverages sensors to translate biodata into a language of the skin, into a kind of “body talk.”

At five-foot-eight, decked out in pastels and glitter tights, Wipprecht looks more like a kindergarten teacher than a technologist. She is small-framed with childish eyes and a dainty step. On stage at World Maker Faire in New York in September, she looks like a fairy princess next to her contemporary, Francis Bitonti. But do not mistake Wipprecht’s smallness for lack of substance; The thirty-year-old is arguably the most important designer working in wearables today, sought after by big-name tech and lifestyle brands like Intel and Audi.

Wipprecht began her education studying fashion design by day and interaction design by night in the Netherlands. In 2008, at the age of twenty-three, she had the opportunity to participate in an interaction study lab at Malmo University with David Cuartielles, one of the founders of Arduino. She packed her suitcases, moved to Sweden, and told her program in Amsterdam she was quitting for a year because she needed to learn more about fashion, technology, and the body. Here, she learned about Arduino, micro-controllers, and smart fabric concepting.

Her early creations demonstrate interest in media worn on the body. Infittables (2008) was created for a final course project at Malmo University. The design consists of inflatable garments that enlarge to create space around the body, a play on the idea of “the personal bubble” (think Little Red Riding Hood but with the signature hood puffed out to hyperbolic proportions). The effect is achieved with integrated motors and conductive materials.

While mainstream media asks women to aspire to take up less space, Infittables projects the body outward into the public domain and demands space for the wearer within. “Underneath the hoodie I want to show the persona of a fragile girl trying to build a wall around her” Wipprecht said in an interview with DutchDFA. “Instead of disappearing from society (not showing up for work, staying at home) [the wearer] shows her surroundings that she needs space for herself, as an unspoken statement.

In the future, our world will become even more crowded, and people will try to do everything they can to get their own personal space…to get a grip on their own bodies and belongings.

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Here, Wipprecht gestures to an inner language, “an unspoken statement” brought to the fore through fashion. She also hints at a fragile young girl struggling with bodily occupation, and suggests clothing can be a way of vocalizing needs and claiming space. Later designs will continue to attempt to articulate feelings of the flesh.

Pseudomorphs (2011) is a series of white dresses stained with ink transmitted onto the body via wearable medical equipment. Pneumatic control valves and a pressure control system enable ink to be pumped through the design and spread onto the absorbent garments, creating a bleeding effect. The design was worn by Britney Spears in her music video “Hold It Against Me” (2011), although rather than using the valves to drip blue ink onto herself, the pop artist uses it to project four strands of coloured ink all over a white wedding dress and the set around her. For context, “Hold it Against Me” was made four years after Spears’ public breakdown, and two years after her comeback single “Womanizer.” The video tells a story in which a mature Spears confronts and defeats her younger, manufactured self, and it is via Wipprecht’s design that she is able to achieve this creative and climatic mise-en-scene.  

If Infittables and Pseudomorphs position the body as an interface, other works regard the body as a site for interactivity and exchange. DareDroid 2.0 (also 2011) leverages the technology developed in Pseudomorphs for controlling fluids, but this time for serving drinks—a playful take on the cocktail waitress.

The drink-mixing robotic dress works with the human host to provide you with a cocktail in exchange for a game of truth or dare. Sensors around the wearer’s neck detect the presence of others and enables the technological system to dispense non-alcoholic liquid based on proximity.

DareDroid 2.0 relies on the rules of proxemics introduced by Edward T Hall in 1966, which measure the distance between intimate space (0 – 18 inches or 0 – 46 cm) and personal space (1.5 – 4 feet – 46 cm – 120 cm).  LED’s on the robotic dress indicate your distance to the wearer, and if you breach her intimate space the system shuts down, preventing any liquid from flowing through. But, if you remain at a respectful distance, you’re invited to play a touch phone-based game of truth or dare. If you complete the game to the host’s satisfaction, she can choose to add alcohol to the drink.

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“When I started to combine fashion and technology together I dreamed of an emotional second skin—something that is sensory, something we can use to breathe new life into fashion” Wipprecht tells me after her panel discussion at World Maker Faire. Earlier, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle she’d remarked that traditional fashion “felt dead to her.” She imagines a future of clothing that has a mind all its own. “When fabrics are combined with sensors, they become something we can express and communicate with” she says.

Fragilis (2008) shows clothing’s ability to communicate with other inanimate objects and the surrounding world. The project consists of a two-dress mini-series that react in each other’s presence. When the garments come into proximity of one another, one flashes nuanced light using electro-luminance wires (EL wires) while the second “breathes” (moves). An Arduino serves as a micro-controller to couple sensors and outputs. “I’m not necessarily out to create future fashion” Wipprecht says. “For me, it’s more interesting to create a dialogue with fashion.”

In 2010, Wipprecht was selected by V2_Lab and Daan Roosegaarde to collaborate on a garment that explores the relationship between intimacy and technology. Intimacy Black (2010) is the second in a series of Intimacy dresses produced at V2_Lab. The garment is made of e-foils (or smart foils) that are initially black, but become transparent. Later, she’d iterate on the project to develop Intimacy 2.0. (2011) is a dress that turns transparent based on arousal levels. Sensors throughout the dress detect accelerated heart rate and reveal what lies beneath when rates reach a certain point.

Intimacy calls attention to the role clothing plays in separating our naked, vulnerable bodies from the elements as well as from the gaze of others.

At the same time, the dress introduces a language of sensuality all its own. Where arousal is traditionally conveyed with a subtle smirk or the batting of one’s eyelashes, Intimacy 2.0. removes the mind’s ability to process and display arousal and leaves this communication entirely up to the body.

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“Speaking” or expressive garments have become a recurring theme throughout Wipprecht’s work. Smoke Dress (2012) was created in collaboration with Aduen Darriba and 3D printed by Materialise. The dress was commissioned as a series of designs created for Volkswagen to compliment the car company’s display at the Frankfurt International Motor Show. If someone encroachers on the wearer’s personal space, sensors are able to detect heightened stress levels, which trigger an internal smoke system which is integrated within. The dress releases a smoke-like substance to mask the wearer and to let those around her know her personal space has been invaded, not unlike the way an octopus releases ink or a skunk sprays to protect itself.

“Personal space is very cultural” she tells me. “As humans, we’re trained that it’s taboo to tell someone they’re invading our personal space, but what happens when you get in a cat’s personal space? They’ll immediately give you a claw.”

Despite the fact that her designs are highly technical, Wipprecht’s works seem to draw inspiration from the natural world. “Design can learn a lot learn from nature, including system behaviour” she says. Spider Dress (2012) includes an embedded protection system which keeps others at bay with animated robotic arms that look like the legs of a spider. If the wearer’s breath becomes heavy, sensors read she feels threatened, and in response the robotic arms extend to defend her. Once the wearer no longer feels threatened, the arms retreat and assume a softer form.

In addition to creating communicative clothing, Wipprecht aspires to use technology’s capabilities to help the body deal with the busy modern world. “Wearables today do a good job at reading the body, but they don’t help us” she says. “A device can point out that we’re stressed, but it doesn’t help calm us down. I try to envision how technology can move away from being the overwhelming force it is today so it can help us again. My designs ask: How can our clothes protect us? Set certain boundaries? Help calm us down?”

If her Spider Dress and Smoke Dress are attempts at protecting the body, her Synapse Dress is an attempt at calming it down, or at least understanding external stress factors. The digitally created and 3D printed dress runs on the Intel Edison micro-controller. The dress’ headpiece uses sensors to track the wearer’s attention levels and monitors for fluctuations. When emotions such as stress or focus peak, the dress’ internal camera captures the wearer’s observations so she can later review and understand what captivated her or stressed her out. Wipprecht imagines this kind of physiological “mood mapping” can be used for introspective or even therapeutic purposes.

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Although Wipprecht’s works are functional, they’re still highly conceptual and not necessarily destined for consumer closets. That said, her exaggerated outfits seem a perfect fit for the stage. In 2011, she created a costume for Black Eyed Peas member Fergie to wear for the Superbowl halftime performance. More recently, Wipprecht worked with entertainment company Cirque du Soleil to produce a set of technology-equipped costumes that interact with the changing sounds of the venue.

We may still be in the circus stage of wearable technology, but Wipprecht’s designs foreshadow where fashion tech is headed.

“I make my designs monstrous and big to at once draw attention to them, but also to point people in the direction of the future of fashion. I also want to inspire the next generation of makers to think outside the realm of what’s possible” she says.

In 2014, Wipprecht served as artist-in-residence at Autodesk Gallery in San Francisco. In 2015, she collaborated with Audi to create four dresses all themed after the new Audi A4.  She also iterated on her Spider Dress to create a new version that runs on the Intel Edison chip.

By 2020, she imagines technology will be small enough to be embedded into textiles. “I’m waiting for the chips to get smaller so we can have the smart fabrics we always dreamed of.If Anouk’s dreams come true, technology will become so integrated into our clothing it will not only shape our style, it will also tell us a new story of the skin.

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This article was written by Amanda Cosco and was originally published in our fashion tech print magazine Third Wave Magazine. Haven’t subscribed yet? Let’s change that! Click here.

Images courtesy of Anouk Wipprecht. Third Wave Fashion has been your fashion tech think tank since 2011. We publish the first ever printed fashion tech magazine, Third Wave. Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter to stay on top of the latest in fashion tech + wearables.