Wearable MEdia studio
Wearing a piece of clothing that can detect the movements of asteroids seems like a concept straight from a science-fiction film, but the women of Wearable Media are making it a reality. As a female-owned fashion technology business, Yuchen Zhang, Jingwen Zhu and Hellyn Teng are changing the way we perceive women in tech, the clothing we wear, and the world around us.
This is our first interview with three Birds! Can we go around the room and introduce ourselves?
Yuchen: I'll go first. So I'm Yuchen, but I go by Chen. I was born in China, and moved to the United States about 10 years ago to study graphic design at the Maryland Institute College of Art. After graduating, I started working in branding and moved to New York. I always wanted to move to New York because we had a super hot art teacher in high school that was from here. [Laughs] He was the sunshine of our school!
I eventually got my masters degree at Parsons School of Design. I really wanted to understand how technology works and how I could work it into my design and personal work. I thought that would lead me to UX [user experience design] since that is what a lot of people did after graduating, but I really didn’t want to give up on the fashion side of things, either. Now I’m one part of Wearable Media Studio, where we create interactive fashion technology using data in new and interesting ways. We also work with clients who come to us wanting help with design prototypes.
Jingwen: I'm also originally from China. I moved to New York about three years ago to do a graduate program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts that was called the Interactive Telecommunications Program. So coming into Wearable Media, my background has been in e-textiles, physical computing and interaction design, where I would look at the link between hardware and software, all the way up to user experience. It’s about thinking of each piece of design as a whole.
Hellyn: I was born in Oregon and my parents are originally from China. We moved back to Taiwan for a little while but moved back to the US when I was 10. I spent a lot of time in San Francisco before moving to New York. I studied fashion design as an undergraduate, which is what I was working on while I lived in San Francisco. I’m also a musician, and was doing a lot of experimental sound work.
In terms of fashion, I was really interested in the technical aspects of engineering clothing for the body and how we could begin to incorporate new media into garment design. How can we explore the physical and the non-physical? When I moved to New York I got really into interaction design. I also studied in the ITP graduate program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where I learned programming and physical computing, and explored interactive sound projects. It always comes back to music! While I loved programming and all that, my real love is for tangible media and textiles, and bringing it to a new level of expression by intersecting technology, fashion and new media.
So how did you all meet?
Chen: We all met in New York. Hellyn and Jingwen knew each other from Tisch, and had worked on several projects together already. I had wanted to start a studio that focused on fashion technology, and was searching for partners and collaborators. I met Jingwen through another friend from Tisch. We started talking and submitted some projects together and then Hellyn came onboard. We’re a great combination of different skills. We started the company in November of 2016.
Wow, that’s so recent! It looks like you’ve worked on a few projects so far.
Chen: There have been a few sleepless nights!
Can you tell me how a project comes into being?
Chen: The process usually starts with us brainstorming what area we’d like to explore and what we’d like to build and work on. We start sketching, and thinking about how we can actually construct our concepts. We then look for open calls and grants, and then figure out if any of our ideas work. Then we submit! The first project we submitted and got approved was Ceres, which is a wearable garment that interprets near-Earth asteroids. It actually vibrates when the asteroids get closer to Earth.
Hellyn: It’s an environmental sensing garment. We want to explore the idea of turning the human form into celestial sensing bodies. What does it feel like for the wearer to be in touch with the movement of asteroids, feeling the vibration? There are also lights that illuminate the fabric, and the brightness relates to the closeness of the asteroids. It was created for a specific submission. Paramount Pictures, Yahoo and Tumblr were asking for submissions to accompany the release of their movie Ghost in the Shell. They wanted to explore what we would be wearing in the year 2034, which is when the movie is set.
It blows my mind that you can create something like that.
Hellyn: We're living in a really exciting and inspiring time. When I was in university studying fashion, none of these electronics or hardwares were readily available. You could have the ideas but there wasn’t an accessible way to turn them into reality.
Chen: The other project we submitted around the same time is called Project Reefstone. The initial idea came from our concern over global warming's effects on coral reefs. We decided to create a physical garment that represented the reality of what is happening. The data that shows the decrease in reefs is actually translated into how the textile is fabricated. We knew there were a lot of organizations that would be interested in something like this, so we sent our concept and designs to them and got a great response. For this project, we actually created a physical prototype and a video that we sent to each organization illustrating the concept.
Both these projects have a strong element of linking technology and fashion to the natural world. Is that an important part of what you are doing?
Hellyn: We’ve actually been talking about this. We really want to create emotional and empathic designs. We want to bring awareness of our environment through clothing and technology. That’s probably the core of these projects. We want to create a story that brings things that are imperceptible into your clothing, and in turn, your body.
What's been the biggest challenge in creating a company like this?
Chen: One of the biggest challenges is actually helping people to understand why we're doing this, why we’re trying to blend garments with technology. People understand smart watches and Fitbits now, but they are all objects that gather information from the person wearing it. We want to explore where else the information can come from.
So you’re getting information from the outside world, rather than internally from something like a heartbeat?
Chen: Exactly. So the garment itself becomes a channel for information. So it's helping the person who's wearing it tell a story, whether that is telling the story of the destruction of the coral reefs or the movement of asteroids.
If your garment starts vibrating like crazy, you know you have to duck for cover! [Laughs]
Hellyn: Another challenge is really just designing for the human body. Merging textiles and technology is a huge challenge. We have to think about how the technology works, but also how it fits and wears. We have to think about things like the comfort of the wearer. You don’t want to be wearing the equivalent of a bulky computer hard drive on your body. Seamlessly working these things into the garment can be tough. Considering how the garment is powered is also tough, because it has to work with a portable power source.
Jingwen: I’d agree these are both our major challenges. Getting people to understand why we do this is tough sometimes. We really want to create thoughtful interactive garments that tell a story, rather than just putting a voltage tag onto a jacket for the sake of making it light up.
You’re an all-female tech company. Is that rare in the field of interactive clothing design?
Jingwen: It’s getting more diverse, but there is still very much a division between designers and technologists. Most of the designers are women, and the technologists are men. It’s rare to have a company like ours where we all have both skills.
Hellyn: Initially when we all met, I didn’t even think about the fact that we were all women. But it’s kind of amazing what is happening, and we realized it is quite rare.
Chen: Most technology startups are dominated by male founders, but there is growth and change in the world of fashion technology. We do have a lot of women that we definitely look up to in the industry. It’s an amazing community.
Is it tough to have three co-founders? How do you work through conflicts when you are all creative minds?
Chen: Internally we do set boundaries based on projects. That’s how we’ve been approaching things so far. For example, Hellyn is the lead designer for Ceres. So we listen to her concept and vision, and then facilitate to make it happen. For another project I will be lead designer, or Jingwen. The role rotates depending on the project. But overall for the company we have official titles. Hellyn is the Creative Director, because that is her strong suit. I am CEO and Jingwen is CTO. We’re all creative people and also technical people, so of course this system doesn’t always work perfectly. [Laughs]
Hellyn: We check in with each other quite a bit to see what is working and what isn’t. I think we’re really good at communication. I also think we’re incredibly lucky to have found each other, because we have a similar way of working. Communication really is key.
What are you working on right now?
Hellyn: We’re working on building the final version of Ceres, using different fabrications and technology than the prototype we have here. Then we’re exhibiting both Project Reefstone and Ceres at Creative Tech Week in May here in New York. We’ll then be gearing up for an exhibition project for EdLab at the Teachers College, Columbia University, and for Miami Fashion Week later in the year.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Chen: Learn to find time for yourself. New York is amazing but you have to have a break from the city sometimes. I find it really important. Finding time for personal things, even if it’s just playing with my foster puppies, keeps me sane. The city will always keep going, so you have to know when to take a break.
Jingwen: Chen actually gave me this advice: be confident. Especially for women in a traditionally male industry. We are always challenged and have to prove we know what we’re doing. That can be confronting and make you question yourself. Be confident—you do know the answers!
Hellyn: If you have an idea and you have the passion, find the courage to go after it. There are going to be a lot of failures, and also successes, but you learn through those failures to go on to make slightly better failures. [Laughs] Don't get discouraged. When you pursue your passion, doors will open. Keep your eyes open because opportunities will present themselves.
What does New York mean to you?
Chen: Coming from China, New York is a place where anybody can come and make a home. There is so much diversity here. Also, New York is the place to be for fashion—there are so many brilliant designers here, always someone to be inspired by. You never know who you are meeting in New York, and you never know who you will be introduced to. The next person you meet could lead you to the best job or a brilliant project. I would love to stay here for a long time; I feel at home here.
Hellyn: I have a lot of heart for New York. I definitely consider it my home. It’s a global city, and you meet the most brilliant people. If you have an idea, and you need to find collaborators, you can do it here. It’s easy to find the right people to work with; the opportunities are endless here. People in New York strive to make really great work. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s the best city in the world.
Jingwen: New York is the city where I found happiness and passion in my career and life. I met amazing collaborators here. People in New York aren’t limited to one thing. So many people have interdisciplinary skills and they want to explore. There is so much life in New York.