There are no rules on “Freaky Friday” at Smooth Technology’sBrooklyn studio. Accompanied by a robot bartender that, through facial recognition software, remembers your drink preference, a light-up demon babydoll, and a boatload of tools, the team gathers to spitball ideas. The wilder the better. And while freedom to explore the freaky is chicken soup for the innovator’s soul, it’s “Meticulous Monday” that keeps the team grounded in their fast-paced and pioneering ventures.
Smooth Technology designed the mechanics behind Taylor Swift’s LED costume on her 1989 World Tour, Janelle Monáe’s blinking eye Met Gala dress, and Billy Porter’s opening-and-closing motorized fringe hat at the Grammy Awards that set the internet ablaze. In addition to electronic livery for pop culture icons, Smooth Technology creates interactive exhibits that push the boundaries of motion and lighting, inviting its audiences to engage with tech in unfamiliar ways.
I met up with part of the team to discuss the challenges of integrating tech into fashion and capturing its audience’s weary attention spans through subtle engagement.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
It’s hard to make wearable tech functional yet fashionable. Your designs seem to be geared toward one-time “showstopper” use, almost like a performance piece, versus being built to function out in the real world.
Sachem Arvidson (lead engineer): A lot of what we do is more about presenting concepts that could one day trickle down into the mainstream.
David Sheinkopf (co-founder and lead engineer): But isn’t that true of fashion, in general? Runway shows aren’t showing something that’s going to be on a department store rack, but they set a precedent and define the collective vision of where fashion is going. Some version of that vision eventually makes it to the store. We make stuff that will eventually be in stuff.
Have you noticed any aspects of your work trickling down to the mainstream, for us average Joes who weren’t invited to the Met Gala?
DS: Not that we can take credit for this, but at Taylor Swift’s concerts, a lot of people bring wearable LEDs. I’m not sure whether it’s to get Taylor’s attention or whether it’s a reference to her wearing LEDs, but there are a lot of people all over the world who are making their own wearable LED costumes. So it’s not crazy to think that people would wear something that had to be charged and had to be separated and cleaned and things like that.
So let’s talk about Billy Porter’s Grammys hat. What was your process for creating that piece?
Dylan Fashbaugh (co-founder and lead engineer): The project always starts with an idea. In the case of Billy Porter’s hat, [headwear designer] Sarah Sokol reached out to us to discuss adding mechanical elements to Billy’s hat to move a fringe. We then brainstormed several ways to make everything work and prototyped a few of them.
Once we knew how we wanted to make it, we dug in deep to make it look good, feel good, and run well. At this point in the project, usually everyone on the team is involved. We have mechanical elements, aesthetic design decisions, wireless radio systems, software to make it run smoothly, and fabrication. Once we stuck all those parts together, we had our finished design. Then we got it over to Sarah where she integrated it into the hat, and then it’s onstage for everyone to see! This whole process is frequently as short as a week or two.
SA: One of the main things that everyone wanted to convey was drama, which I think is part of why it was so successful as a meme. We spent a bunch of time perfecting the timing of the fringe motion. It couldn’t just open up very businesslike. It had to be a very slow reveal that added to that dramatic air of the moment.
The full article read on the The Verge