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We visited the studio that puts high-tech fashion on Billy Porter and Janelle Monáe

Smooth Technology has made wearable tech for concerts and red carpets

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62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards - Arrivals
Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

There are no rules on “Freaky Friday” at Smooth Technology’s Brooklyn studio. Accompanied by a robot bartender that, through facial recognition software, remembers your drink preference, a light-up demon babydoll, and a boatload of tools, the team gathers to spitball ideas. The wilder the better. And while freedom to explore the freaky is chicken soup for the innovator’s soul, it’s “Meticulous Monday” that keeps the team grounded in their fast-paced and pioneering ventures.

Smooth Technology designed the mechanics behind Taylor Swift’s LED costume on her 1989 World Tour, Janelle Monáe’s blinking eye Met Gala dress, and Billy Porter’s opening-and-closing motorized fringe hat at the Grammy Awards that set the internet ablaze. In addition to electronic livery for pop culture icons, Smooth Technology creates interactive exhibits that push the boundaries of motion and lighting, inviting its audiences to engage with tech in unfamiliar ways.

I met up with part of the team to discuss the challenges of integrating tech into fashion and capturing its audience’s weary attention spans through subtle engagement. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

It’s hard to make wearable tech functional yet fashionable. Your designs seem to be geared toward one-time “showstopper” use, almost like a performance piece, versus being built to function out in the real world.

Sachem Arvidson (lead engineer): A lot of what we do is more about presenting concepts that could one day trickle down into the mainstream.

David Sheinkopf (co-founder and lead engineer): But isn’t that true of fashion, in general? Runway shows aren’t showing something that’s going to be on a department store rack, but they set a precedent and define the collective vision of where fashion is going. Some version of that vision eventually makes it to the store. We make stuff that will eventually be in stuff. 

Have you noticed any aspects of your work trickling down to the mainstream, for us average Joes who weren’t invited to the Met Gala? 

DS: Not that we can take credit for this, but at Taylor Swift’s concerts, a lot of people bring wearable LEDs. I’m not sure whether it’s to get Taylor’s attention or whether it’s a reference to her wearing LEDs, but there are a lot of people all over the world who are making their own wearable LED costumes. So it’s not crazy to think that people would wear something that had to be charged and had to be separated and cleaned and things like that.

Left to right: David Sheinkopf, Sachem Arvidson, “Funnie” the Fun-Droid, and Mia White. Not pictured: Dylan Fashbaugh and James DeVito
Left to right: David Sheinkopf, Sachem Arvidson, “Funnie” the Fun-Droid, and Mia White. Not pictured: Dylan Fashbaugh and James DeVito

So let’s talk about Billy Porter’s Grammys hat. What was your process for creating that piece? 

Dylan Fashbaugh (co-founder and lead engineer): The project always starts with an idea. In the case of Billy Porter’s hat, [headwear designer] Sarah Sokol reached out to us to discuss adding mechanical elements to Billy’s hat to move a fringe. We then brainstormed several ways to make everything work and prototyped a few of them.

Once we knew how we wanted to make it, we dug in deep to make it look good, feel good, and run well. At this point in the project, usually everyone on the team is involved. We have mechanical elements, aesthetic design decisions, wireless radio systems, software to make it run smoothly, and fabrication. Once we stuck all those parts together, we had our finished design. Then we got it over to Sarah where she integrated it into the hat, and then it’s onstage for everyone to see! This whole process is frequently as short as a week or two.

SA: One of the main things that everyone wanted to convey was drama, which I think is part of why it was so successful as a meme. We spent a bunch of time perfecting the timing of the fringe motion. It couldn’t just open up very businesslike. It had to be a very slow reveal that added to that dramatic air of the moment.

What was the rhythm you settled on, and how precise did you go on the timing?

DS: Slow clap.

SA: I could go into the program and show you some numbers, but it was really just the feeling we were going for. It closed a lot faster than it opened, which is what gave the hat so much drama.

Was there a remote control hidden somewhere? Because it didn’t really look like Billy Porter had one.

DS: No, his stylist, Sammy, had the control. We use a super robust radio system that allows us to control stuff remotely that we’ve developed over the past five years. So that’s our little secret sauce. It’s the same one we used for Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry. So we know this system can reject any interference because it’s been tested in concert stadiums. With Porter’s hat, we just needed to send one message to open and one to close, so it was a much lighter task than usual. 

How do you imagine the future for wearable tech?

DS: It’ll probably happen slowly and practically. I mean, there’s a lot of experimentation happening right now. Columbia tried putting electric heaters into their jackets and boots. That was a huge brand taking a chance. It’s so cold in our studio, we were even researching how to make heated shoe insoles.

The limit of a lot of technology right now is that you have to charge it, and you have to plug it in. How many more things do you want to charge before you go to bed every day? You’ve got your Apple Watch, your phone, your laptop, and all these different things that you’re already paying attention to. We got asked recently, “When are jeans going to do something more than they already do?” Do you want to have to charge your pants?

Have you gathered any insight into the call and response between humans and tech?

SA: People have a short attention span for interaction. If it doesn’t do what they’re expecting — for instance, if they wave their hand in front of something or push their hand into it or it’s not an obvious reaction — they give up. We’ve done a lot of projects with subtle interactions that end up being completely unnoticed. 

“Arthur the robotic bartender was an idea from Freaky Friday,” says Sheinkopf. “This was just for fun, but it turned into one of the hardest and most time-consuming projects we’ve worked on in a long time just because we just kept leveling it up and leveling it up.” Arthur has its own personality, with speech control, machine learning, and a facial recognition camera.
“Arthur the robotic bartender was an idea from Freaky Friday,” says Sheinkopf. “This was just for fun, but it turned into one of the hardest and most time-consuming projects we’ve worked on in a long time just because we just kept leveling it up and leveling it up.” Arthur has its own personality, with speech control, machine learning, and a facial recognition camera.

Can you give us an example of a more subtle interaction that your audience missed?

DS: We did an immersive experience at Hudson Yards with a bunch of hanging LEDs. There were all types of things you could control, like the lights and a bunch of different visuals that were being displayed. But ultimately, people just liked to walk through and take selfies, and we weren’t really trying to control any of the lights.

Mia White (studio manager): No one even knew or tried. Or if they noticed, they were like, “Oh, that’s cool,” and then kind of went on their way. 

If you are able to usher your audience beyond that first hurdle, what kind of experiences do you hope to generate? 

SA: A sense of wonder for something totally unexpected to happen. Like walking into a room that you think is one thing, but then you get to an interaction point, and it turns into something else.

DS: If people could have an experience where they slow down a little bit, I think that would be meaningful to us. It would allow us to use more subtle elements. If we could get to a point where we’re creating an environment that allows you to slow down and hear or feel or see minimal changes in it — the changes that are a little more subtle, like an actual brushstroke of a painting — then we would be getting more into a deeper interaction with people.

Is there anybody you really want to work with?

MW: Missy Elliott.

SA: Yeah. When the new Missy album came out, we were like, “This is it. She’s going to go on tour, and her lighting designer is going to call us.” But we’re still waiting, Missy!

Smooth Technology’s Brooklyn-based studio.
Smooth Technology’s Brooklyn-based studio.

What about Missy Elliott makes her a nice match for your creative vision?

MW: She’s just been doing a lot of cool robotics and lighting in all her videos and tours for forever. So it would just be a really cool collab. Also, it’s Missy Elliott, so it would just be really awesome.

SA: She’s been doing futuristic stuff for like 20 years. And her vision of the future is still futuristic. If you look at stuff from the early 2000s, it’s still fresh. 

On that note, you’ve been working with a bunch of different Afrofuturist artists like Sun Ra’s Arkestra and Janelle Monáe.  

DS: Sun Ra was for a performance that Red Bull Music Academy was putting on in Greenpoint with Sun Ra’s Arkestra, Pharoah Sanders, and Kamasi Washington. So it was a triumvirate of awesome Afrofuturist musicians.

We created these rotating lamps that were inside huge, hollow wooden cubes with holes on the sides. And there were two lamps that were rotating, and the effect of the lamps going through these patterned holes created moray interference patterns on the wall. It was a reference to Otto Piene Light Ballet from the ’60s. The twist was that it was triggered by the keys played in Sun Ra’s Arkestra, which is similar to the interactive keyboard and light pieces Sun Ra used to use. There were 10 gigantic and really bright lamps, so they created these incredible interference patterns all over the place. It was a cool support act.

How did Janelle Monáe’s blinking eye dress come into fruition? 

SA: We got a call about that like one week before the Met Gala. “We’re doing this outfit. We want to do some crazy mechanical thing. Can you guys do it?” So it was a very quick spitballing idea.

What does your creative process look like when you’re engineering something that hasn’t been done before and with not a lot of time? 

SA: It always starts with a 20-minute roundtable. “What about this idea?” or “Would this work?” And someone’s like, “No, that wouldn’t work. Let’s try this.”  

DS: Everyone essentially just one-ups the next person’s idea. We usually don’t even draw pictures. We just describe our idea. At this point, we all speak a pretty similar language. A lot of times, we’ll just come up with a number of different approaches. In a case like Janelle Monáe’s dress, which is similar to the hat for Billy Porter, we came up with a couple of different iterations, and each of us started designing and assembling one part of it. And we’re like, “Okay, this is really close. You change this, I’ll change this.” And then we try again. And within two or three iterations, we have something that works.

You mentioned timing with Porter’s hat. What was your thought process on the rhythm of Monáe’s blinking eye? 

SA: One thing we always pay attention to is the personality effect of very simple electronic interactions, be it lighting or motion or anything like that. Just thinking of what that conveys, coming down to something like the speed of something opening and closing. Or like, when we did the blinking eyelashes, those being a random thing — sometimes they’d flutter, sometimes they’d slowly open and do something kind of coy. 

Smooth Technology’s shop cat, Gumbo.
Smooth Technology’s shop cat, Gumbo.

DS: Yeah, the rhythm dictates a sense of humanity, which is a great example of the psychology of art and technologies. We can have these human experiences through tech by emulating the rhythm of humanity.

What have you tried but haven’t been able to achieve because the technology is just not there yet?

DS: A lot of things are really rigid. Batteries are rigid, LEDs themselves. Even though they might be on a flexible substrate, the LED itself is a rigid piece. So any time you’ve got rigid and flexible interacting, there are failure points. That’s a big thing for us.

Once you start putting it on the human body, it’s going to always be changing shape. That’s the bottom line. Especially if it’s on a dancer, that’s changing shape in a crazy way that you can never predict.

The limitation on the human form is just flexibility. Because you also change length, your arm literally stretches, things like that.

What’s an example of something that could make or break wearability?

SA: Going back to when we did the Janelle Monáe blinking eyelashes. The first version we had was just like, “All right, let’s test this motor and see how it works.” And it was just very robotic, opening and closing. We’re like, it’s fun for a second. But then, especially if you’re the one wearing that, if you just had this monotonous, every exact half a second, this thing is opening and closing, it’s just going to slowly drive you insane. So we spent some time making it super randomized, where it would just be this never-repeating pattern, sometimes it would wait five seconds and flutter. And then each one would be its own thing, where you’d kind of forget about that more and have it as more of just this personality, kind of filled thing that was happening, versus just a pure robotic motion.

Have you ever had a breakdown, like an epic malfunction when it was showtime?

DS: Yes, actually. It was on the very first big tour of the Taylor Swift dress. The tour, they did the first two dates in Japan, and then they came back to do the US tour, and on the opening night in Japan, the dress, part of it wasn’t lighting up, like two hours before showtime. Which was 4AM, New York time. So I remember being on the phone with the lighting designer in Japan, without seeing it, trying to troubleshoot over the phone blind.

And we were able to figure it out. It was like one wire had been soldered the wrong way or something like that, or maybe in shipping, it had been flexed in the wrong way. And that was a really scary moment because it’s not like it’s one of the dancers. It’s the main center attraction person, and the front of the dress that the whole thing is about is not lighting up. That was a scary moment, but we got over it.

Any rituals that you guys have around your creativity and imagination?

DS: We definitely let our minds go wild. That’s the first step. Think of every possible way you could do something and then think of every possible way it could break. Those are pretty much the two steps. Start out with a really long leash, and just let anything you want come into your mind, and then pick apart each one, and be like, “No. That would crush someone. No, that would burn someone.” And then go through, figure out where it would get derailed, and then figure out how to address those problems creatively. 

SA: Every new thing that we’re having to think about, we try to think about it in the way of “How can we solve this problem, not just for what we need to do right now, but in a way that builds something that will then solve this problem every other time this comes up in the future?” Let’s build it for every future case. So the next project, we don’t have to think about this part. We’ve already done this. We have this tool. Then we can get really creative with whatever the next phase, like the things we haven’t thought about yet.

Photography by Avery White / The Verge