From 22-23 February, FITC Amsterdam was an event held “on the future of innnovation, design and all the cool shit in between.” Girls in Tech NL had the opportunity to attend an inspirational and eye-opening two days, with 40+ International speakers, innovating topics, and conversations geared towards creativity and professional topics in digital media. This is the third in a series of interviews that Girls in Tech held with some innovative speakers at the event.
Anouk Wipprecht, Curator, Designer and Engineer.
How did you get into this field?
I started in fashion when I was fourteen. Just like everyone else in the course, I started with traditional fashion – cutting patterns, making clothes. Eventually, I moved into more haute couture, but quickly became a little bored.
From around the age of sixteen or eighteen, I became interested in robotics and later on discovered that I could combine those two interests. I first looked at how I could make fabrics move and make them listen and interact with me. In order to do this, I needed to learn how to program. At that time, they had an Arduino, basically an open-source platform that I could use to build micro-controllers; then the possibilities just opened up to go even further! I played around with things like ink and smoke and all sorts of media that could be projected onto the body.
Do you have formal education in robotics?
I just mashed things up! I actually wasn’t that attracted to engineering from the start. It is often very ‘dusty’ or old fashioned, but I liked the possibilities it could create. I looked around for more ‘creative’ ways to get into tech when I took a course one of the creators of Arduino. What I learned there was that, in engineering you need to know everything – chemistry, mathematics, etc… – which takes up so much time. I just wanted to build things, and these guys from Arduino introduced that time  a super cool open source platform board with an simplified way to code your projects. They also created an easy going community with it. They told us to fetch anything 5-volt or battery powered, and hook it up to the Arduino. They created a new way of engineering and made it really fun. It’s a lot of experimenting and just embracing curiosity to see how things work and to make them yourself.
What are some of the initial reactions to your work?
Well, resistance in the beginning was really strong. In the beginning a lot of my designs were quite bulky and my fashion school didn’t know what to do with me. I even got kicked out of an art class because they said, “This is not the future, this is never going to happen!” As I had to put my tech back in my locker. I was very focused on programming and coding, since that was all new to me and I had to get into this new discipline, but the school wanted me to concentrate on fashion. I had to program my microcontrollers after school and sneak them into my designs.
Both fashion and technology are full of gender stereotypes, how has your experience been with preconceived notions of who you “should” be?
I’m in an dress or high heeled in front an audience talking about microprocessors and programming and all things badass, and people think, “Okay, this is different.” I think the key is to just be yourself and not conform to any kind of expectation. The more people refuse to conform, the less it will be an issue. As long as you’re doing cool things, it shouldn’t be a question of gender. I work really closely with Intel, who has made it a mission to have a more gender-balanced workforce. This means that they treat everyone like a human; if you’re qualified, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a girl or a boy, just that you’re dedicated to doing cool things. Gender balance shouldn’t be forced either – I have been on panels where I have been the only woman just because I’m a woman, and this isn’t right either.
The funny thing about the fashion world is that girls dominated the school and classes, but the haute couture world is about 70% men, and I never could figure out why this was. Nonetheless, there are different conversations happening, and with fashion tech, the worlds are starting to collide.
What are some of the challenges you foresee for fashion tech?
A couple of problems that are facing fashion tech, and these are the things that are preventing me from wearing these concepts now and today.
1) Washability – it is very difficult to wash technology in the same way you do traditional clothing.
2) Energizing designs – how to provide energy to a design that is also part of the design.
3) Customer care/maintenance – if something breaks down, what is the process to fix it, taking into account both time and expertise.
People of our generation are trying play the role to connect the dialogue between fashion and tech so that these problems can be solved – I’m hoping within not too long. There is a lot happening in the lab and in research right now, but I’m not allowed to talk about some of the cool advancements that are not ready for the market yet.
You feature a child in your presentation, who seemed to really embrace this idea of fashion and tech. Are children more on the pulse of what’s happening?
I think kids adapt to new technologies really easily, as long as it’s presented in a playful and exciting way. A lot of kids aspire to build cool things when they are given the possibility and opportunity. Nowadays we live in a world with all these wireless devices, it’s hard to see how everything is connected, so when I teach children, I introduce an item like an electronic car and show them that there are wires inside that have a direct relationship to each other.
With girls in general, we ask ourselves a lot of questions and there is a lot of insecurity. There are a lot of poetics surrounding this field – the possibilities are endless but where do you start? You need to start with your own fascination and curiosity. We do things because we disagree with the current state or situation. For me, it was fashion that I disagreed with – there were ways to make fashion much more expressive and interactive than it was, and this was my starting point; I also disagree with robots, because they live next to you, not on you. My advice for anyone young is to start with the things that you are unhappy with and figure out how to make them better.