Pauline Van Dongen, 28, is unassuming: Chic, well-spoken, and maybe a little sleep deprived, the designer heads up a small women's wear label in the little-known city of Arnhem, Holland.
After graduating from ArtEZ Academy of Arts with a fashion degree, Van Dongen decided to launch her own concept -- with almost no business experience under her belt.
"I started on the one hand because of curiosity," she tells Inc. by phone, speaking from her studio. "I wasn't trained or educated to become an entrepreneur."
Most clothes these days, it would seem, are made to address more than one human need. Van Dongen was specifically inspired by the prospect of marrying technology with art, because "fashion is so intimately connected to our bodies," as she puts it. Could scientific answers to pressing social issues (i.e., the depletion of our environment) actually be translated into a sweater or shirt?
As it turns out, they can -- and you can use the final product to charge your iPhone.
The solar shirt.
At a SXSW presentation this year, Van Dongen unveiled her first solar-powered women's shirt. The garment features thin, laminated panels which can capture energy from the sun, and then charge your smartphone, GPS and MP3 player via a palm-sized 3D-printed box. When worn for two hours, the shirt generates sufficient energy to fully charge a typical device.
To create the shirt, Van Dongen partnered with Holst Centre, an R&D organization that develops technologies for wireless sensors. The shirt, made of double-knit jersey fabric, includes plastic cells that are malleable and laminated with heat. The shirts aren't available for retail quite yet, but Van Dongen says they're coming soon.
"Working with technology makes you come up with new design choices," she explains. For instance, while the designer often makes garments from multiple fabric panels, she found that using a single, big pattern piece for the solar shirt makes it easier to laminate all of the cells at once.
Though Van Dongen wouldn't disclose her revenues or cost of labor, she anticipates that 3D printing will soon make it that much more efficient for her to produce her shirts to scale -- especially when the business is ready for the mass retail market. The smaller details of the solar shirts, like the casing on cells, are already being 3D printed.
A booming industry.
Solar energy isn't the only new thing in fashion technology.
During New York's most recent Fashion Week, which wrapped up last week, models sported "responsive" garments, including bra sensors and smart dresses, made by the upstart fashion label Chromat, in partnership with Intel. Items can do things like gauge your heat level and open vents to lower your body temperature.
Beyond, interactive rooms let shoppers try on clothes virtually, and drones populated the runways (or at least, the air above them,) providing access to real-time videos and photography.
Don't forget that at last year's New York Fashion Week, Tory Burch launched a jewelry line for Fitbit devices. And Diane von Furstenberg had previously teamed up with Google, in an ambitious (and ultimately, failed) attempt to mass produce smart glasses.
Certainly, the wearable tech industry is fraught with manufacturing headaches -- and no one knows this better than Van Dongen. Nabbing the right partner, which is to say, one that isn't obsessed with quantity over aesthetics, is challenging.
"It's difficult to find the company that can really make the time to specialize in that area [wearability,]" she says. The key is to hone a material so agile, it can actually stand the wear and tear of daily use.
Aside from the solar panel shirt, Van Dongen's team has been hard at work on an LED running shirt, which glows in the dark, as well as a cardigan for the elderly that can sense body movements.
Earlier this month, Van Dongen unveiled a solar panel parka, designed specifically for the Wadden Sea World Heritage Site, where reserve workers can actually grace the bottom of the sea. That's an ideal place for the garment to capture sunlight.
For now, Van Dongen's concepts are prototypes, and her profits come from design partnerships with third-party companies.
She says that she'll continue with the trend of e-clothing -- perhaps, by leveraging 3D body scanning to design more "personalized" garments.