Walk into ElektroCouture’s headquarters at Factory Kreuzberg and you’ll see sewing machines sitting on tables, platformed shoes lining shelves and ethereal forms hanging off mannequins. It looks like a standard fashion designer atelier until someone switches a plug on. That’s when the back of a jacket begins to blink incessantly and a piece of washable leather lying on the cutting board lights up, as if coming alive. And the black-and-white houndstooth jacket that’s flickering? It has a phone number you can text in order to change the colours of the light in real-time, Lisa Lang, ElektroCouture’s founder and CEO—tells me enthusiastically.
Welcome to the radiant world of fashion tech where coats are connected to SIM cards and dresses glow in the dark. Founded in 2014, ElektroCouture is a startup aiming to bridge the fashion and tech industries with its bespoke collaborations, consulting services and workshops. Since then the company has grown into a team of 22, moved into a bigger office and is now cash-flow positive.
We recently caught up with Lang to speak about transforming an interesting idea into a full-fledged business, the importance of collaboration and how she envisions fashion tech evolving in the next decade.
Can you talk about where the idea for ElektroCouture originally came from?
It really started out of frustration. I have an an engineering and arts background, and have been working in the tech startup field for many years, surrounded by many men. As a woman in engineering, fashion was kind of a protection for me. When I had my first executive job, it was very much like putting on an armor every morning – I wanted to look good, not too sexy, but not too frumpy. Over the years, I got more and more frustrated with this typical techie uniform of jeans and a T-shirt… especially because I never wear jeans and a T-shirt.
Around the time I was feeling all of this, I discovered FabLab—an open-source workshop concept—where I learned laser cutting, 3D printing and soldering. Since I grew up in a craftsman family, I was used to being surrounded by machines and people working with their hands and I enjoyed working in that environment. There, I developed my first two concepts. Back then, I was still working on the marketing team at Twilio, a very technical product, and my boss asked me to explain the API in a way that non-techies would be able to understand it for marketing concepts. So I was at a workshop at FabLab and I created a cute black-and-white jacket and put 36 LEDs into. I thought it’d be cool if I integrated the Twilio API so that you could send the jacket text messages – that was the first thing I built. A jacket with its own phone number, which you could text in order to change the colours of the LEDs.
Why were you so drawn to wearable tech and using light in your garments?
When I was walking around with this jacket on, and glowing, I noticed that people responded emotionally in a very positive way to the light. That’s when I thought there must be something special about light. Afterwards, I developed my first product, a 1920s-style necklace with three LEDs. I made 10 iterations of it and was always wearing it around at networking events. Back then, there was no consideration for a business but I noticed that I got a lot of attention because I was glowing at these events. People actually sought me out in a crowd and would ask me what it was and where I got it from. It became a kind of ice breaker. I’d tell them I made it myself and was surprised when people said they would pay money for the necklace. That’s the interesting thing about fashion. It’s very emotional and when you trigger that emotion, it means price becomes secondary. Fashion can communicate the power and emotion you’d like to have, it’s there to protect you and make you feel strong, even when you’re nervous.
When did the idea for ElektroCouture transition into a business?
That happened in 2014. Before that, I was working as a freelancer for Twilio, helping them launch in Germany. On the side though, the little baby known as ElektroCouture was started. Because I had a job, I could cross-fund it to the point where I had more product ideas and customers. At a certain point though I thought, ‘I really need to do this full-time,’ because I knew something fascinating was going on. I had enough savings so that I could survive for a year and I have an MBA so I assessed the market. I noticed something was happening within the area of the Internet of Things and hardware. Also, fashion as an industry itself was struggling and needed new ideas. Of course, I didn’t know what it was exactly, but I knew something was there. I mean, I could convert interest into an actual business. So I founded ElektroCouture in September 2014 and in May 2015 I decided to quit my job in order to work on it full-time. I told myself I’d run it for a year and see what I’d be able to do with it.
In July 2015, ElektroCouture launched its first ready-to-wear collection on ASOS Marketplace on the eve of Berlin Fashion Week. How did that come about?
That’s an interesting story. I knew I needed a platform and was considering my own online shop – but having an online shop in Germany and dealing with legislation is a pain. There’s also Etsy, but I wanted to create ready-to-wear fashion technology pieces for the everyday woman. Basically, I did some reverse engineering and thought about platforms that were established in fashion and also open to other designers having a collection on them. And that was ASOS. I’ve also spent a lot of money on ASOS in the past couple of years [laughs].
While working on our second collection, I found out that one of the senior buyers from ASOS Marketplace would be on stage at an event in London so I packed my bags and flew there. As she was speaking on stage, I waited patiently in the corner wearing one of our pieces. When she got off stage, I immediately approached her and said, ‘Hey! I just flew in from Berlin and I’m here because of you.’ And bam, that got the conversation started and I showed her my glowing coat. We spoke about ready-to-wear and fashion tech and then I heard the one sentence that I’ve been hearing over and over again: ‘We know we have to go into fashion tech, we just don’t know how.’ After that encounter, we had a three-month Twitter direct message ping pong about working together, where I learned so much about doing photo shoots, manufacturing and developing the product. Eventually we got approval from ASOS to go ahead – 48 hours before Berlin Fashion Week. Since then, I’m a big believer that nerves are like muscles, you can train them.
ElektroCouture often collaborates with artists and designers on collection items. Can you talk a bit about the process of working with these creatives?
The first collaboration we did was with Mia Manu—a designer from Poland. While I was in Poland for a conference, which was held at a huge shopping center, I had walked by her shop a couple of times and really liked how powerful and simple her pieces looked. I thought it’d be fantastic to add a line that glows in the seams in one of her coats and essentially approached her about it. The collaboration kind of fell into place and went really well, she even went on to win a design award from the Polish-American Fashion Foundation in New York.
Nowadays, I’m headhunting people when I see something interesting or people approach me. We also just established a design-in-residency program, where designers come in and pay with their creativity. With that and through other initiatives, we’ve built a network and system around fashion and tech. At the end of the day, I realized that I understand design and understand technology and even though I’m not a designer nor a technologist, I’m really good at bringing these people together because I love and respect them both – and they can feel that. When you establish a relationship based on trust, both parties can open up and are more willing to experiment and have fun with it.
How do you see the future of fashion tech developing in the next decade?
I’m totally convinced that in the next 10 years fashion technology will be as widespread and accessible as a T-shirt at H&M. Until then, we’ll have to find a manufacturing solution for that, which is still a problem right now. We have wheeling machines and electronic machines but we don’t have a machine that brings them all together. That’s why fashion technology is still craftsmanship, which is also nice because it means it’s couture.
On the one hand, I think it’s an amazing opportunity for old established firms regardless of whether they’re in technology or in fashion to reinvent themselves and do something new, but they’ll also realize that they’ll have to do it in collaboration. For me, collaboration is the key. Just look at Google and Levi’s, who worked together on a ‘smart’ jean jacket, or Ralph Lauren and OMsignal, who developed a polo-tech shirt. I think we’ll see many many more collaborations like this between technology and design firms.