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Alumni Updates - Ryan Genz

When stars want to make a splash on the red carpet, they usually call in the heavy hitters: Oscar de la Renta, Chanel, Versace.

For the holidays, the London department store Selfridges commissioned CuteCircuit to create the K Dress, inspired by Katy Perry’s gown. The silk chiffon frock is decorated with a band of LED lights.

But for the 2010 Met Costume Institute Gala, pop star Katy Perry wanted to light up the night. Literally.

So her stylist called in Ryan Genz and Francesca Rosella of CuteCircuit, a London-based company that designs high-fashion wearable technology. The result — a floor length confection of pink and white silk, striped with thousands of LED lights — made international headlines.

For Genz, a Caribou, Maine, native who graduated from the University of Maine in 1998 with a double major in studio art and cultural anthropology, it was a watershed moment.

“We didn’t really know what the reaction would be,” Genz says from his London studio. “In a way, it validated our feelings about merging new technologies and fashion. We do think it’s exciting and fun.”

As a result of all the publicity, Genz and Rosella have received several high-profile commissions, including one from the London-based department store Selfridges. The retailer asked CuteCircuit to design a scaled-down version of Perry’s frock for its 2010 holiday offerings. It retails for about $2,000 U.S.

Genz and Rosella met in 2001 while studying at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, on the edge of the Italian Alps. The institute offered the world’s first master’s program in interaction design, and faculty included professors from Stanford, MIT and the Royal College of Art, as well as representatives from industrial design powerhouses such as Microsoft and Whirlpool.

The research-intensive course called on students to quickly develop and prototype new products for clients — and the sky was the limit.

“We were working with types of technology that weren’t in existence yet,” Genz says. “These were ‘Wizard of Oz’ scenarios.”

At the time, one of those scenarios involved computer processors that were small enough to wear, but the only people who were working with this technology were using it for practical purposes, such as using sensors to protect firefighters or others working in hazardous environments.

But Genz and Rosella had other ideas. They immediately connected because of their mutual interest in the intersection of technology and fashion. The couple saw the potential for real innovation in a field that hadn’t changed much since the introduction of synthetic fabrics.

“Film, technology, medicine, all of these have been revolutionized over the last 100 years, but fashion has not, so it’s time,” says Genz.

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