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Fashion Takes a Digital Direction

Posted Apr. 21, 2014

Benitez_profileMargarita  Benitez, M.F.A.

Research Profile: Margarita Benitez, M.F.A.

Assistant Professor, Fashion Design

Margarita Benitez can light up a room with the wave of a hand.

Benitez, assistant professor of fashion design, looks for ways to harness new technology in expanding creativity in fashion.

One of her digital fashion projects was to design a sleeve pocket that holds an iPod programmed with software to capture and project sound and imagery. Its public debut was in the costumes of Travesty Dance Group of Cleveland. The dancers projected to each other and audiences digitized versions of their movements as they danced, offering a light show to accompany their presence on stage.

The project, funded by a National Endowment of the Arts – New Media Artworks grant, required the design of a mobile application and collaboration with a graphic designer (Markus Vogl, an assistant professor at the University of Akron) and an app creator.  Ultimately, the technology that Benitez developed in the fashion project could find other uses – in physical therapy and medicine, for example.

Fashion that interacts with its environment is one of the ways that Benitez is finding to digitize, disseminate and develop her art. She describes herself as someone who is “always looking at new technology, whether software or hardware, to learn, explore and subvert.”

Born in Spain to Cuban parents, Benitez lived most of her life in Miami and started out studying new media, animation and art at Florida International University.

As a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned her M.F.A., she began to develop her interest in integrating electronics into cloth and soft products. She made her own 3D printer for under $2,000, using a design from a Cornell University lab. She joined the faculty at Kent State in 2010. She now uses digital textile printing in her freshmen classes, through the Fashion School’s new TechStyle Lab, introducing new students to the tools that are rapidly changing fashion design.

Fashion has always relied on collaborations between designers and technologists, she noted – the cotton gin expanded the possibilities for that fabric, for instance. Today, new digital developments and open source sharing on the Internet is pulling consumers of fashion into the design process.

“Co-creation tools and mass customization websites are making these ideas a reality,” Benitez said.

Her interest in open sourcing led her to design “OSLOOM,” or Open Source Loom. Once she publishes the documentation online, it will enable weavers who cannot afford a $60,000 floor loom to build their own thread-controlled loom from supplies they can find locally. Benitez raised more than $10,000 from Kickstarter, the crowd-funding site on the Web, to build the first version with the help of a mechanical engineer and a coder.

Such collaborations are essential, in her view, but they must occur naturally.

“Finding people with the right mindset, the right skillset – it’s great when you find someone with a common focus and a common vision,” she said. “It allows you to push a project forward.”

In 2013 Benitez was awarded a Fulbright grant to conduct research in Vienna, Austria on a movement of artists, architects, designers and craftsmen that flourished there in the early twentieth century – The Wiener Werkstätte. As a result of her research, she made a tunic and two skirt designs that incorporated the movement’s style, and she plans to make the patterns for them available on the Web.

“It’s lovely – people create these things, put them online and then other people can create things, too,” she said.

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