Fashion-forward future

IU fashion design students and UITS staffers team up to stage the Wearable Tech Fashion Show at this year’s Statewide IT Conference

Marley Isaacson affixes a microcomputer to light up her design.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, IU junior fashion design student Marley Isaacson hunched over a white crocheted blouse. She fingered the yarn and placed a microcomputer against a fiber flower, trying to find a good spot to sew the electronics into her garment.

“I want to have pulsing lights throughout the top, kind of like festival wear with lights and technology, but not too showy,” she said. “Taylor Swift did something similar at her concerts this summer."

Isaacson and about 20 other intermediate fashion design students are part of senior lecturer Deb Christiansen’s fall 2015 course in the Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design. The class was preparing for the first-ever Wearable Tech Fashion Show, which took place October 19 in the Indiana Memorial Union.

The show was a featured event during IU’s annual tech conference, Statewide IT. Each year, the conference brings together more than 800 colleagues from all eight IU campuses to learn about new technologies and initiatives, plan for the future, and share ideas with their counterparts on other campuses. This year marked the 20th consecutive Statewide IT, and organizers celebrated the milestone with the tagline, “20/20: Reflecting on our past, focused on our future.”

The fashion show was the brainchild of Nitocris Perez, UITS emerging technology analyst and member of UITS Applied Technologies Lab Wearable Technology Working Group. Perez works to familiarize IU students, faculty, and staff with cutting-edge technology and maintains the Tech Showcase in the Cyberinfrastructure Building where people can test drive devices such as Google Glass, Oculus Rift, and smartwatches.

I spend a lot of time interacting with wearable tools, but many of them are clunky and unappealing. The desire to wear just isn’t there.

Nitocris Perez, UITS emerging technology analyst

“I had a feeling things could be better, and at IU we’re poised to take a stab at it. We have the School of Fine Arts, the School of Informatics and Computing, and the Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design — I knew that if we could get our students thinking about wearability, they could do cool and innovative things.”

Perez and her colleague Josh Conway, also a member of the UITS Applied Technologies Lab Wearable Technology Working Group, teamed up with Christiansen and set the plan in motion. Perez and Conway visited Christiansen’s class for a few weeks to teach the fashion design students about computer programming and circuitry.

Fashion tech

Perez works with Isaacson to add a pulsing light effect to her project.

The programming would come in handy when students needed to command their microcontrollers, which are essentially microcomputers with their own processors and memory. They learned the basics through Arduino, an open-source programming environment.

Since the students would be using conductive thread to build the electronic devices into their designs, it was important to teach them the circuitry basics, so that threads wouldn’t touch and short-circuit.

Conway was integral to the students’ tech learning. “Josh was a hugely invaluable part of this,” said Perez. “He’s a brilliant programmer and very involved in the local maker space community."


Allyson Pruitt models her design, which featured LED strip lights on the dress and shoes.

After weeks of preparation, it was time for the students’ high-tech designs to hit the runway. About 100 friends, family, and Statewide IT attendees packed the fashion show in the IMU Frangipani Room. With a party-like atmosphere (loud music and strobe lights), the models showed off the creations. Think strappy stiletto heels with LED lights, the classic little black dress with vertical stripes of rainbow illumination, an umbrella with LEDs running down each spoke, and skateboarding sneakers with light-up pressure sensors.

If you ask Perez, this is the future of fashion — and technology. “As far as wearable tech goes, we’re already seeing a lot of Bluetooth headsets, smartwatches, and fitness trackers,” she said. “I predict we’re going to see a huge rate of growth in more integrated tech clothing, like tech fibers to track fitness and health. Someday, we’ll be able to track all that data in really great ways to improve our lives.

And in the meantime, Perez and Conway are happy to continue their work empowering non-techy IU students to become interested in engineering and computing.

Want more? Watch the WISH-TV 8 "Indy Style" segment on IU’s Wearable Tech Fashion Show.