Pauline Van Dongen: Designing Fashion Tech Fit For Philips Electronics & Skyn Condoms

Thought the $5.8 billion global wearable technology market was all about wristbands? Wrong.

Pauline Van Dongen is one of Europe’s leaders in the field and says the future is about so much more than your smartwatch.

Apple fans may be “stuck in a device paradigm”, but cutting-edge innovators are all about the potential of smart clothes, the designer explains.

“The next transition is to embed technology into textiles, like we do in our studio, and to look at the materials from a material and aesthetic point of view, not only from a functional perspective.”

Photo courtesy of Pauline Van Dongen.

Pauline Van Dongen in her design studio.

Big brands are climbing on board

In Europe, fashion houses like Britain’s CuteCircuit and Berlin’s ElektroCouture have forged ahead of this curve. Now, big tech businesses have started taking note too (in recent years Google has made a smart jacket with Levi’s, while Samsung designed its own NFC suit).

And it’s Pauline Van Dongen’s studio in the Netherlandsthat’s breaking boundaries for some of the world’s most prominent brands.

It has worked with everyone from the $28.9 billionelectronics giant Philips to fast-growing non-latex condom company Skyn, a line that belongs to the $600 million Lifestyles Healthcare—and many publically undisclosed brands too.

Van Dongen projects typically cost from €2,000 to €100,000 (around $2,500–$123,000), with many often being run at the studio at the same time.

“By creating these projects, we generate a lot of value, whether that’s actual products partners can sell, insights into new materials and processes, or PR value,” says the designer.

Photo courtesy of Pauline Van Dongen.

The Issho denim jacket can give you a hug.

Transforming fashion

As you might expect, some of Van Dongen’s many groundbreaking designs have sprung from partnerships with existing fashion innovators.

For example, last year, the studio worked with Italdenim, a sustainable jeans pioneer founded in 1974 in Arconate, a small village near Milan.

“I particularly wanted to work with denim fabric because it’s a material that everyone can identify with – everyone has a piece of denim in their wardrobe,” Van Dongen says of the collaboration.

Motivated by a desire to make technology “more human” and “mindful”, the studio developed Issho: a jacket that uses senses if you’re constantly reaching for your phone, and gives a physical response back to the wearer.

“The jacket talks to you by giving you a gentle stroke on your upper back, inviting you to be more in the present moment,” Van Dongen explains.

The studio has also worked with sustainable Dutch fashion retailer Blue Loop Originals to create a solar-powered windbreaker. It’s today worn by tour guides of Germany’s Wadden Sea Society to help them stay charged and better assist their visitors.

“It invites you to go outside and be in the sunshine to harness your own energy,” says Van Dongen.

Photo courtesy of Roos Van Der Kieft.

The SolarWindbreaker.

Embracing technology

Quite evidently, technology brands also have much to offer to the booming wearable textiles scene too. And it was Philips’ understanding of the world of electronics that supercharged Van Dongen’s Mesopic and Phototrope sportswear designs.

Disappointed by her own experience of running at night with a “ridiculous” light-up bracelet, the designer worked with Philips to come up with a savvier solution.

In its latest form, the studio’s light-up jerseys even include interactive controls to allows sports trainers to alter light colors and enable specific games and activities.

“Our tops integrate lighting from a functional perspective, but also as a new type of aesthetic, just like we’d use any other kind of material,” Van Dongen explains.

“It creates playfulness,” she adds.

Photo courtesy of Pauline Van Dongen.

Pauline Van Dongen’s Mesopic light jacket was developed with Siemens.

Choosing collaborators

With such a wide range of companies keen to explore wearables, choosing who to collaborate with can be a challenge, but the Pauline Van Dongen studio won’t be “misled” by money, says its founder.

And—as long as Van Dongen believes in the creative integrity of a project—no area is off-limits.

Indeed, the studio jumped at the opportunity to work with condom company Skyn, where it explored how the business’s latex-free materials could benefit athletes.

“Of course we wanted to avoid created a ‘condom suit’,” says Van Dongen. “That was one of the bigger challenges, not to make something that would look silly and make people laugh.”

The designer succeeded, instead creating an impressive outfit with aerodynamic flaps that open to give long jump athletes extra time in the air.

Photo courtey of Pauline Van Dongen.

The Skynfeel suit developed by Skyn condoms.

Partnerships that empower

Many more of Van Dongen’s projects are socially-motivated.

One collaboration with the Dutch wearable business Elitac saw the creation of the FysioPal top: a garment that not only records data around back posture, but uses small vibration motors to give haptic feedback to correct it.

Similarly, the studio’s Vigour cardigan—a collaboration with Technical University Eindhoven, Martijn ten Bhömer and Textile Museum Tilburg—is about empowering the elderly.

Made of soft Merino wool, it has sensors that help those with Alzheimer’s or Dementia convey their activity levels to healthcare workers.

“Our garments are already on our bodies, what’s a more intimate way to communicate that via skin?” Van Dongen asks.

Photo courtesy of Pauline Van Dongen.

The Vigour cardigan.

The future of fashion

Today, if you’re dreaming of slipping into one of Van Dongen’s posture correcting cardigans, light-up tops, or solar-powered coats, you might struggle to track one down: at present, the studio largely relies on its partners to bring Van Dongen concepts to market.

But that could be about to change. And Van Dongen says her studio may set up its own sales channel “in the near future.”

To really move the market, however, far greater cross-industry collaboration is needed between designers, manufacturers, brands and technologists, says Van Dongen: “Otherwise we’re all stuck on our own little islands without building upon each of our expertise.”

Are you ready for futures wearables without a wristband in sight?

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