Interview by Rachael Yeung @RachaelYeung21
Kenzie Housego is an interdisciplinary artist interested in the crossroads between art, fashion, and technology. She is constantly seeking methods and media that engage and empower cultural participants through technology.
In 2013 Housego partnered with artist Stacey Morgan and technologist Sophie Amin to join MakeFashion, a Canadian wearable tech organisation making waves nationally and internationally within the innovative “Maker Culture” movement. In the last 3 years Morgan, Housego and Amin, now branded as “Phi: Illuminated Design”, have had the opportunity to showcase their fashion tech collections at the Rome MakerFaire, MakerFaire Bay Area, California, Xiamen Fashion Week, China, CES Vegas, and at a two-week art residency in Shenzhen, China.
Kenzie Housego completed her Bachelors of Fine Art at the Alberta Collage of Art and Design and recently in 2015 an Arts and Cultural Management program from MacEwan University. Her practice is based out of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
What does your current job role entail?
I am one third of a fashion tech collective called “Phi: Illuminated Design”.
Since 2013 we have designed and created a variety of custom commissioned fashion tech pieces and three tech contour collections that we debuted at the MakeFashion Gala in Calgary from 2013-2016. Designer and artist Stacey Morgan and I head-up the design and fabrication while seasoned electronic technician Sophie Amin takes on the programming and hardware development. I also oversee the collective’s project management, online presence and PR responsibilities.
I see that you used to study fine arts and computer engineering, has this helped you in your current job role?
I think of myself as an artist. Working in fashion tech was just an extension of my art practice. I think about it in terms of exploring and using a new art medium. I currently do not have a computer engineering degree, although I had the pleasure of learning a great deal about programming and electronics over the past 3 years from Sophie. I am also a part of a fashion tech Makerspace here in Calgary called ArchLoft where I have had the opportunity to access multiple 3D printers and a laser cutter. I feel pretty proficient at laser cutting now and love the possibilities it offers for textiles and fashion design.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges? Has your gender ever stopped you?
I think this is such a new industry… it was relatively easy to sign up and get involved but we worked very hard to prove we belonged… I don’t feel as if my gender has stopped me, although Sophie, coming from the more technical male-dominated field, may have some other input on this. It’s still a lot of work to be an artist and entrepreneur. I feel like you really have to love it and want it, and it will likely involve many late nights and some financial sacrifices. In Canada, funding for the arts is always an issue and something we need to stay on top of. Also it’s hard to always define the line between art, tech, and fashion. Fashion tech is such a new innovative medium, where does it all fit into traditional funding models?
Where did you get the inspiration for your latest ‘Gamer Girls’ collection? Has it improved dramatically since the first ‘Illuminated Vintage’ collection?
With ‘Gamergirls’ we focused on interactivity. The two identical sleek-structured feminine dresses allow the wearers to play an arcade style video game together, using one another’s dresses as the screen display. This retro style 8-bit video game is controlled by paired smartphones, which are connected via Bluetooth. Game scores are represented by light diffusing 3D printed shoulder crystals that light up and change colour indicating to the player how their opponent is performing in the game. Also these garments were fabricated using laser cut reflective fabric, giving them a retro yet futuristic sensibility. ‘Gamergirls’ is a playful and visual exploration of the “gamification” of garments, the influence of video games on popular culture, and the feminine within gamer culture.
We’ve absolutely improved since ‘Illuminated Vintage’. That year was our first big exposure to working in wearable tech and collaborating with engineers, who might not always approach things as an artist might, which is wonderful while at the same time makes communicating clearly a learning process. In 2012 -2013 we were still learning the possibilities and limitations of using technology in clothing, and we still are of course, but the skill and complexity of ‘Gamergirls’ is leaps and bounds beyond what we attempted with Illuminated Vintage. All that being said, in the beginning we wanted to emphasise good design. Beautiful design is still important to us. We want to draw from beautiful cuts and shapes to make women look fabulous and feel beautiful. This is almost just as important as the tech capabilities.
What has been your greatest achievement with Phi: Illuminated Design?
Since 2014, “Phi : Illuminated Design” has had the opportunity to showcase our performative wearable art/tech collections nationally and internationally in places like Beakerhead Festival in Calgary, MakerFaire Rome, MakerFaire Bay Area, CES New York, CES Vegas, CES Asia in Shanghai, Xiamen Fashion Week China. Most notably we participated in a two-week fashion technology residency in Shenzhen, China, with Seed Studios, one of the MakeFashion sponsors. During the residency we produced two new garments for a runway show at MakerFaire Shenzhen.
At CES in Vegas we connected with the lovely Ziya Tong co-host of Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet. She wore our ‘Origami Dress’ in an on-air segment. She also stayed in touch and we had the opportunity to dress her in our ‘Shooting Star Cocktail Dress’ this summer in Toronto for a World Wildlife Foundation fundraising event she was hosting.
Throughout these opportunities to showcase internationally, a highlight has always been meeting other international designers and fashion tech enthusiasts along the way. I would never have dreamed of being able to travel so much in the last 3 years, and I hope to continue to have these amazing experiences.
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you?
When we go to events like CES, as a woman it’s easy to feel like a minority. At the same time I am proud and excited to be a woman in this industry. I am happy to advocate for more women artists venturing into the world of wearables.
What do you see for the future of the wearables tech world? Do you think more people will wear it?
Fashion tech in the last year has become more visible in mainstream media, especially with Claire Danes debut at the Met Gala in a Zak Posen design which used fibre optic fabric and other dresses. As you know Chanel also showcased a new fashion tech handbag on the runway this fall. I think these are early signs that fashion tech and wearables are something people will wear and we are possibly in an early adopter phase. I think the real transition will come when wearable tech design catches up aesthetically … fashion plays a huge role in self expression … and fashion tech is another way self-expression can be showcased, explored, and supported.
Who are your top three wearable technology designers? Can you name any prominent women in the industry that you admire?
Can I pick 4?!
Iris van Herpen
Anouk Wipprecht – The Netherlands
Erina Kashihara – Tokyo, Japan
What advice would you give to young girls that aspire to work in wearable tech industry?
You don’t have to know everything. Collaboration is a powerful way to work. Drawing off the skill sets of others can only enhance what you do and promote shared ideas. In my experience more heads are better than one. For me this process ensures quality and innovation, and it leads us to constantly challenging ourselves, ensuring we put the best work out there. Community is also a positive way to collaborate. Here in Calgary we have a fantastic fashion tech community with MakeFashion. Through this group we have each other’s backs and we share valuable lessons learned and experiences.
Is there anything we can support you with?
Phi is currently looking for more opportunities to showcase our collection, especially in European markets where there are amazing things coming out of fab labs and maker spaces. I think all three of us in Phi would also love the opportunity to share our knowledge and experience working in wearable tech: residencies and educational mentorship opportunities would be very appealing to us.
We are also debuting a new piece called ‘True North’ at the 2017 MakeFashion Gala in Calgary. ‘True North’ is inspired by our northern Canadian landscape and the common fascination with the night sky. It will explore the human relationship to the earth, magnetic fields, and Canadian climate in a delicately visual way. When the wearer is facing north the front skirt panel will light up, as the wearer turns away from north the light will fade with a delay. Visually the skirt should completely glow followed by a sequenced panel slow fade when the wearer spins in a circle. If you’d like to know more about this piece or keep tabs on us during the creation process that would be lovely!