Katy Perry has worn a watermelon romper, a dress with a carousel skirt, and a dress with eyes on the bust. She’s worn plenty of bizarre creations but isn’t viewed in the high-fashion world as truly stylish—or avant-garde, like Lady Gaga. So she wasn’t supposed to be the most talked-about person at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute Gala. But Perry sauntered onto the red carpet wearing what looked like a standard silk-chiffon ball gown. Moments later, after she pressed a button nestled in the bust, strips of 3,200 LED lights began flashing through the fabric, like she was a crazy bioluminescent undersea creature. The next day, Women’s Wear Daily put her on its cover. Fortuitously, Lady Gaga had to skip the red carpet (she had to prepare for her performance) and wasn’t in the unusual position of being possibly upstaged.
The dress is the brainchild of a small London-based outfit called CuteCircuit. It’s the nerd fabulous: Perry’s stylist suggested she wear something by the label after seeing one of its light-up creations on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Designer Francesca Rosella said she tried to make Perry’s Gala dress “more romantic.” The exposure has helped legitimize the label. “There is press in every continent about her dress,” Rosella said. “And it’s very fun to see because there are polls on every website asking people, ‘Did you like it?’ And a majority of the people liked it.”
But high-fashion people didn’t seem as enthusiastic about it as the Internet’s vox populi. WWD sneered, “Guess no one told [Perry] there’s a difference between dressing to stop traffic and dressing like a traffic stop.” (To be fair, she kept the dress powered down during dinner.) “I am trying to lighten up the party,” the singer said on the red carpet. “Because sometimes fashion can have a stick up its ass.”
The industry has taken a shine to light-up clothes before. In 2007, Hussein Chalayan showed a well-regarded LED dress at Paris Fashion Week. This season, Jimmy Choo created $2,495 platforms with flashing lights inside. (Perry’s worn them, too.) Janet Hansen, another science-based light-up-clothing designer, who has put on a fashion show in partnership with MIT, has put Kanye West in flashing sunglasses, Daft Punk in light-up helmets, and illuminated M.I.A. with a technology called “EL-WIRE.”
Though Rosella says she received requests from about 30 celebrities within two days of Perry’s debut, she believes technologically enhanced apparel is the future of dressing: “It’s not just to do something strange for one time.” After studying architecture, she began her design career at Valentino, which was cool to her light-up dress ideas. In her next job, at Esprit, she suggested embedding GPS devices into handbags. Esprit also said no. So she started CuteCircuit in 2004. Her current collection of machine washable and dryer-friendly LED ready-to-wear ranges in price from about $135 to $450.
“Sometimes you see some experiments in fashion technology and everybody looks totally geeky,” Rosella says. “But we really didn’t want to do that.” And Perry traded up, not dressing like a piece of fruit—one of her favorite gimmicks. “I feel a bit like a terrorist, I won’t lie. Probably not a good time to say that,” Perry mused at the gala of the switch between her breasts. “When Anna [Wintour] walks over and says, ‘Turn that crap off,’ I’m like, ‘Okay, it’s off—I won’t be annoying anymore, until you leave.’ ”