Fashion may be going high-tech

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Kai Ryssdal:Technology's where it's at, right? It's this gizmo or that gadget. An app for almost anything you can imagine, wireless internet almost anywhere you go. Clothes, too. And that is not as nutty as it sounds. There are new fabrics out there that can light up your t-shirt, brighten up a ball gown and/or power up your smartphone.

Janet Babin reports from North Carolina Public Radio fashion is getting smart.


Janet Babin: High-tech fashion hit the red carpet this spring, at one of the industry's biggest events: The Met Ball. Pop sensation Katy Perry wore a silk gown covered in thousands of tiny LED lights that changed colors. You know Perry. Her song "California Gurls" features the rapper Snoop Dogg.

Snoop Dogg rapping on "California Gurls"

That night, the paparazzi complimented Perry on her gown.

Katy Perry: Thank you, this is a company called CuteCircuit, they're from France...

Well, actually Katy, the company's based in the UK. Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz of CuteCircuit designed her dress.

Ryan Genz: The whole thing ran with only three small batteries about the size of what you'd have in an iPod or a phone.

Francesca Rosella: Like one inch by one inch.

Rosella has long dreamed of melding fashion and technology. She first floated the idea of an LED dress as a young designer at Italian fashion house Valentino. They were not impressed. She also tried to incorporate technology into fashion as a purse designer at Esprit.

Rosella: Why don't we put the GPS into purse? And then, like, if you forget your purse somewhere, or if someone steels it, you can just give it a call, and the purse is going to tell you where it is. And they also thought that was completely insane.

So Rosella started CuteCircuit. She's working on Bluetooth-enabled jackets and clothes than can power your iPod. The company just began selling what it calls "Twirkle t-shirts" on its website. The tops light up and change color as the wearer moves, just like Perry's dress did.

CuteCircuit co-owner Ryan Genz explains.

Ryan Genz: They have lights embedded into the fabric, in a way that you don't even notice that there's technology there. So if you wear it, it feels like a normal shirt, there's no, for example, wires.

The shirts start at about $125. Genz imagines club kids will buy the washable shirts to wear on the dance floor. But they may be slow to catch on. For an industry seemingly obsessed with the new, designers and buyers often cling to uniformity.

Jenna Sauers blogs about fashion for Jezebel.com.

Jenna Sauers: Fashion is an incredibly old-fashioned industry in a lot of ways. It's fundamentally quite low tech.

Sauers says sewing machine technology has been the same for decades. Designers still pull their collections together six months in advance.
And fabrics haven't changed much either, until recently.

MIT materials science professor Yoel Fink creates new fabrics in his lab.

Yoel Fink: The latest fibers are fibers that emit sound, that detect sound.

Fink's new fabric could also emit smells. Imagine, perfume built into a dress. Fink says the idea's attracted the attention of recession-weary clothing designers who aren't usually interested in his work.

Fink: A very large French fashion company just visited our labs a couple of weeks ago. Turns out that the materials themselves are very beautiful.

Beauty aside, Jenna Sauers with Jezebel thinks there's still only a limited market for such products.

Sauers: Take Katy Perry's dress, her big, pouffy, light-up dress. I don't think I've seen any other starlet wearing light-up dresses since then. It hasn't exactly set a trend.

Then again, it took time for other fashion trends -- the corset, the bikini -- to catch on too. Maybe smart fashion just needs more time.

I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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