harvey mudd college bulletin

"Solid-State Softwear: Janet Cooke Hansen '90 Combines Fashion and Technology"

Summer 2002 Issue

by Stephanie L. Graham


[full text of article]

When Janet Cooke Hansen '90 of San Diego, Calif., wore lighted butterfly wings to a staff Halloween party, her employer was quick to notice the irony. Of course she had given them a hint several years earlier during her interview when they asked her what she saw herself doing in five years. She replied, "Running my own business."

After four years working as a project engineer for a research laboratory, Hansen decided to wing it and pursue her lighted clothing business. Now a full time fashion engineer for Enlighted Designs, Inc., Hansen says she has never regretted her move into entrepreneurship.

Hansen learned to sew at the age of seven, not realizing how important this would become later in her career. She was an engineering major and art minor at HMC where she met and married Mark Hansen '90. Although now divorced, the two remain business associates. It was through Mark that Janet met her current collaborator, Ingo Maurer, a German lamp designer and artist.

"Ingo had been putting glow sticks inside jackets to wear at his art receptions and he liked my idea of using light emitting diodes (LEDs)," Hansen says.

Maurer is now collaborating with Hansen to produce "wearable illumination." The two recently completed shows in Milan, Italy, and New York that featured Hansen's bride and groom outfits containing flexible circuit boards with surface mount LEDs. "I love you" scrolls in English on the bodice of the wedding dress and in German, Italian, French and Spanish on the skirt. The dress features over 2,000 lights, "by far my most sophisticated design," says Hansen.

Hansen says she got a good background in electronics, programming and mechanics at HMC, where she graduated with high distinction and with honors in engineering. She received a Ph.D. in bioengineering at UCSD and went on to work at Structural Dynamics Research Corporation in San Diego, where she performed finite element analysis of aerospace structures. While there, she worked part time on her light up clothing business. After four years at the company, Hansen decided that her work had enough potential to allow her to become a full-time entrepreneur.

Her first big break came when designing two full-body suits for a California Institute of the Arts wearable tech fashion show. The suits change color in response to motion.

"I saw that I was the only person who did the artistic and technical side of the costume design," says Hansen. "Some of the other costumes didn't work as well together. Either they worked technically but were not aesthetically pleasing, or they looked good but didn't work."

She was inspired by this experience and even got a few jobs as a result of the fashion show, which led to more work. Word of mouth and orders from her web site (www.enlighted.com) have created a steady wave of clients and a new dilemma: As a one-person business, Hansen must decide which jobs she should do herself and which she can hire others to do. She recently turned to HMC's Entrepreneurial Network for help.

After presenting her business plan and dilemma to a group of fellow entrepreneurs, Hansen says she received some useful advice and made contacts with people who are interested in continuing to advise her.

"They asked me if I wanted to be a CEO or an artist," says Hansen. "I was advised to let go of some of the CEO-type tasks if I wanted more time to do the creative work."

As a result, Hansen is currently looking for a business manager, a difficult task in itself. "It's a challenge to find someone who is qualified and whom you can trust." In the meantime she is reducing her involvement with sales and marketing by allowing distributors of the ready-made items to do more of that work.

The advice from her colleagues may have come none too soon as her lighted wear is receiving a surge of publicity, which could spark new interest in her designs. The TV show "Ripley's Believe It or Not" taped a segment on Hansen and her lighted clothing line that is set to appear in late summer or early fall.

One of her Las Vegas clients, "Flyerman," who wears a black, vinyl tuxedo jacket and pants with over 200 super-bright white LEDs, has completed an autobiographical film in which Hansen appears delivering his outfit and "running amok with [him] in Las Vegas."

Flyerman is one of Hansen's more eccentric customers. Another, who calls himself "Burgh Man, the reigning superhero of Pittsburgh, Penn.," wears a customized light-up cape, shirt patch, helmet and shoes. Other clients include DJs, performers, and "night clubbers," and companies wanting to promote products to this clientele, like Baileys (Irish Cream), for whom Janet is producing lighted logos for bar and night club promotions.

In addition to requests from her steady customers, Hansen will continue her work with Maurer promoting her designs as fine art works. She is also investigating having some simpler items mass produced, like her popular light up bras and tank tops. She says she thinks of something new every week.

"As far as I know, I'm the only person doing this as a full-time job," says Hansen of her unique profession that combines all of her favorite hobbies-sewing, electronics and art. "It seems like this is what I'm supposed to be doing."

Reprinted with permission. Harvey Mudd College Bulletin, Summer 2002

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