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Alumni Profiles - Ryan Genz

Yes, hemlines rise and fall with the seasons, but pants are still just pants. Skirts are still just skirts. And shirts are still just shirts.

But what if a shirt could be more than a shirt?

That’s exactly the question Genz and Rosella set out to answer when they designed the Hug Shirt, which Time magazine named one of the top inventions of 2006. Using sensors, Bluetooth technology and mobile phones, the shirt can replicate the feeling of a hug from afar.

The sensors track the strength of the wearer’s touch, heart rate and body temperature. The data are transmitted via mobile phone to the recipient (who also needs a Hug Shirt — it takes two to tango), and he or she is, in essence, able to download a long-distance hug.

“It may be silly,” Genz says. “Why do you need a hug? But there’s that unfulfilled desire when you’re away from home. It’s not necessary. No technology is necessary. We can still plow fields with horses and avoid zippers and only use buttons, but the role of the designer, the role of the artist is to show what is possible.”

By combining the fundamentals of traditional fashion design with cutting-edge technology, CuteCircuit has redefined what a garment can be. It started with the Kinetic Dress, which Genz and Rosella created for the “How Smart Are You Dressed Tomorrow?” event at the NEMO science museum in Amsterdam in 2004. They embroidered a black Victorian lace dress with electroluminescent wire, which was connected to five motion sensors. When the wearer moved, the wire glowed.

From there, they created the Galaxy Dress, commissioned in 2008 by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago for its “Fast Forward: Inventing the Future” exhibit (it is on view alongside the Hug Shirt). The floor-length silk gown is embroidered with 24,000 full-color LED lights, which run off iPod batteries, and 4,000 Swarovski crystals so the dress looks good even when the lights are off. The LEDs are flat and small, and the wires and circuits used are incredibly fine so as not to weigh down the fabric.

Katy Perry had seen photographs of the Galaxy Dress online, and her stylist, Johnny Wujek, wrote to CuteCircuit asking if she could wear it. Genz explained that the dress is in a museum, but told Wujek to keep CuteCircuit in mind if Perry ever needed a custom light-up dress of her own. Last April, Wujek let Genz and Rosella know that Perry did. In two weeks.

At the same time, they were commissioned to design a dress for Safura, a contestant in the Eurovision Song Contest. Her dress not only lit up, it displayed streaming video.

“We had to work on both of these dresses at the same time,” Genz says. “I’ve never not slept so much in my life. Sometimes, we do stuff just for the adrenaline.”

Image Description: Ryan Genz wears a Twirkle Shirt, featuring LED technology that makes the design — a stylized eye — glow and twinkle when he moves.

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The University of Maine
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469
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