san diego city beat

ART & CULTURE "Getting Lit - The illuminated outerwear of a bioengineer dropout"

December 1, 2004

by Joanne B. Cachapero

[full text of article]

Janet Hansen has made a career out of getting lit.

“I was at a resort in Mexico recently,” she recounts, “and some of the people were just horrified and offended. Maybe it was the way my girlfriends and I were behaving—we had a few drinks in us.

“But most people love it. They want to pose for pictures with you.”

What kind of drunken Girls Gone Wild behavior would prompt such a reaction from the mild-mannered turistas? She wasn’t flashing her breasts, although her breasts were flashing. There was plenty of voltage underneath Hansen’s sheer shirt to attract attention—not measured in D-size (which are too bulky) or even C-size, but 9-volts to be exact.

That’s how much battery power it takes to light up the most popular item from her Enlighted clothing line, the neon-colored, light-up blinky bra.

For this former bioengineer—a graduate of Harvey Mudd College and UCSD—the move from cubicle to full-time light-up clothing designer started as a hobby. She had sewn and done art throughout her life and, while in school for bioengineering, decided to start “combining the two, to make a goofy costume and just add some blinky lights to it. Then somebody said, ‘Hey, you could probably sell those.’”

Hansen’s first major piece was the Nerve Suit—a full-body, light-up replica of the human nervous system made from a silver Spandex bodysuit, LEDs and EL-wire lighting, microchip processors, battery packs and a clear plastic, brain-shaped Jello mold worn like a helmet. Simulating electrical nerve-impulse activity in the body, the rainbow-colored lights would scramble around the brain, down a spinal chord, around the torso and out to the arms and legs.

“The Nerve Suit was my signature piece for awhile,” Hansen says, sitting in her work-live studio in Leucadia. “I was drawing on my bioengineering background a little bit, but I took some artistic license.”

Now, after five years in business, Hansen has single-handedly created a unique blip on the fashion radar. Though lighted clothing accessories have been available for several years, Hansen takes fashion illumination to the next level with the ability to manufacture elaborate custom designs.

“I try to distinguish my work from novelty, light-up badges that tend to have a constant blinking,” she says. “I like things with soft glow that fade up and down, gently. I’ve also made lots of things that look like fire, with red and gold lights and I have those flickering almost randomly, and moving upwards at the same time.”

For lighting components, Hansen uses LEDs (light-emitting diodes)—the same type used in most digital display panels, such as a laptop. These LEDs come in single diodes, as well as in pre-manufactured blocks and strips that enable her to create scrolling text designs. She also uses EL (electro-luminescent)-wire—light-up, spaghetti-size plastic tubing similar in technology to the flat electro-luminescent panels used for glow-in-the-dark wristwatches or nightlights.

Using specialized coding equipment with her PC, Hansen is able to program sophisticated light sequences onto micro-controller chips that output the timing, brightness and color combinations of the lights, giving infinite possibilities for the light effects of her clothing. Some pieces are reactive to motion or sound, have scrolling text messages, or patterns that can be changed with the touch of a button. Each light is mounted and sealed individually for durability, with wiring hidden in the lining of the garment. Battery packs and microchips must be placed in a convenient yet inconspicuous location, like a hidden pocket or attached to a belt. Most items can be hand-washed.

Some of the ready-made items include shirts with light-up buttons, light-up ties, halter tops trimmed in sequins and LEDs, and, of course, the blinky bras. They sell for $65 and up. For custom-made items, Hansen charges $10 per LED or per foot of EL-wire, which means that full body suits can run into the thousands.

At haute couture prices for more elaborate costumes, “it’s usually professional performers that are buying these clothes,” Hansen says.

Her work has been featured on Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and, at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival, one of her jackets was featured in the documentary film, Flyerman. The title character, Mark “Flyerman” Vistorino, uses the jacket to promote his persona at concerts and other after-dark events. One of her loyal patrons, Vistorino sends the jacket and several other pieces to Hansen for regular refurbishing.

In 2002, Hansen collaborated with high-tech lighting designer Ingo Maurer for several performance-art installations shown in cities across Europe. For these shows, she illuminated a jacket by designer Issey Miyake and constructed a wedding dress and groom’s outfit covered in scrolling text displays. Requiring more than 1,000 lights per garment, the models wearing them were lit up like human signboards with Maurer’s conceptual messages.

The New Vision Cirque and Dance Company, which entertains at special events and corporate functions nationally and internationally, has used costumes created by Hansen in their performances for three years.

“The computerized LED-lighted costumes react in sync with fast and slow beats, enhancing our shows by creating dynamic spinning and cascading effects for a unique visual experience that is visually hypnotic,” says Cirque director Niekko Chin. “I must say that [Hansen] is a leader in the technology.”

There are also practical applications for light-up clothing. Hansen has designed light-up helmets for bikers who like to ride at night and promotional badges and baseball caps with lighted company logos for use at corporate events.

She is currently experimenting with new RGB (red, green, blue) lights, which are LEDs containing all three colors in one diode.

“It’s more work to hook up the wires, but you can make any light any color you want,” she explains. There are also possibilities for a new light-emitting fabric called Luminex, recently developed from a partnership between an Italian electronics company and a Swiss textile manufacturer.

“Research is going on, on a thing called an ‘organic’ LED or O-LED, which is actually a polymer that could be painted on something, or screen-printed,” Hansen explains, when asked about the future of her art. “[It’s] like paint you could apply to fabric—apply a voltage to it, and it makes the whole thing light up. Once you get into something you can spray on, that gets into more mass production.”

The next blinky bra Hansen would like to make will be a tribute to another, more famous Janet who isn’t shy at all about using her breasts to attract attention. It will have scrolling text, with the perfect two-word message.

Hansen says with a sly grin, “The words ‘wardrobe malfunction’ mean something totally different in my industry.”

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