Trendsetters: How Cute Circuit brought the magic back to fashion

We speak to Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz about blending tech with fashion

Cast your mind back to 2004. Facebook barely existed, the iPhone was still three years away and we were still texting on T9 keypads like chumps. The Brits named The Darkness Best British Group and "wearable tech" meant a calculator watch and a Discman.

So when Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz started Cute Circuit, a company intent on marrying tech with fashion, they faced opposition on all fronts. The fashion world didn't want to know about their ideas for imbuing high fashion with interactive tech features, and the tech world thought it was just fluff.

But Rosella and Genz knew what they were doing. In 2001, the two had met at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy. They were in the first group of researchers at the lab and the course was varied, with professors from academic stalwarts like Stanford joined by lecturers from the Royal of Art.

(Image credit: theglassmagazine)

"We were there for two years doing research about what people would do with new technologies 5 to 10 years in the future," Rosella explains. "And so we would come up with all these crazy ideas and start building them. When we finally left the institute in 2003, we realised that some of the things we'd designed were a bit too ahead of the curve for the time, so we just started our own company in 2004."

Cute Circuit is internationally renowned now, with their three lines of garments taking in everything from an affordable t-shirt, to Katy Perry's American Idol costumes, but it wasn't always plain sailing. When Genz points out that Cute Circuit was the first wearable technology fashion company in the world, it quickly becomes clear that being first isn't easy.

"For the first few years nobody understood what we were talking about," Rosella sighs. "The fashion world is very conservative. I used to work for really big fashion brands and I tried to make them do things that were interactive or maybe embroidered with luminescent threads or something - and they were just horrified. Horrified and scared. It took us a while to change people's mindsets."

The technology industry wasn't much more welcoming, according to Genz. "People asked what we were doing and we'd say 'wearable technology' and most of the time people had no idea what that was; that was a term that meant nothing to them. So it'd end up being that the technology industry didn't see any examples of it in the market so they assumed it didn't exist; and the fashion industry did the same.

"For a long, long time people didn't understand our approach or our products."

It's little wonder that the tech world found it hard to get to grips with Cute Circuit's approach when it hinges on something that's often missing from pure tech design: the emotional connection.

It's something that Rosella feels very strongly about. "Sometimes products have no personality; they try to standardise everything and so instead we are trying to bring back mass customisation - you can change the colour of your garment an infinite amount of times and then you just have your personal contribution to your fashion statement.

"I think sometimes people in the technology world are like, 'Why does it have to be beautiful? It just has to work!' But humans are going to use it and humans like beautiful things - they don't want to use some piece of wearable tech that looks really ugly and is just like a box strapped to your wrist."

The genius of Cute Circuit's products is that they don't feel like technology at all. The clothes are lightweight and stylish, made from "magic" fabrics that Rosella and Genz invented and patented.

There are no wires to worry about, and the tiny battery packs are rechargeable and removable so you can chuck the clothes in the washing machine rather than laboriously hand washing them or shelling out for dry cleaning. Tops can display patterns of LED lights, bags have tweets scrolling across them, miniskirts change colour with your mood; and it all just works.

"The way something works, the way it looks, the way it feels, is all part of the experience of using it," Genz adds, taking a leaf out of the Steve Jobs Book Of Tech. "It has to be beautiful in its method of use and the experience of using it."

That Rosella paraphrases both sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke's and high-class designer Christian Dior to sum up the company's ethos is a perfect illustration of Cute Circuit's two strands.

"We have a really normal design process, but we always try to make it do something really magical on the side. When technology works really well, it is like magic," she says. "And it's one of the things Dior used to say: 'I design to make women happy.'

"When you wear something that makes you happy, it makes you stand in a different way, it makes you behave in a different way; I think it's really important that clothes still have this really awesome digital function but then at the same time make you feel good."

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