Janet Hansen didn't get a Christmas tree, and she doesn't need one. Her front window boasts rainbow Christmas lights year round and, as you step into her home, past bright geometric paintings popping off walls, through glowing vines and 4-D Escher designs, up the stairs and to the left, you enter Hansen's studio—the home of Enlighted Designs Inc. and the place where Hansen's bright ideas become even brighter.
It's hard to believe that the pretty, soft-spoken woman who inhabits this Oz-like home is the president and chief fashion engineer of Enlighted Designs, a business that specializes in making body parts glow. Hansen spends her workweek designing and constructing clothes that are illuminated by light-emitting diode (LED) lights. Self-employed for eight years now, sewing and fashion are no longer hobbies for the former aerospace engineer who's managed to find a niche in a world where art and engineering rarely meet.
Hansen learned to sew when she was 7 and installed miniature lights in her own dollhouse, but the business of lighting people wasn't conceived until many years—and a few science degrees—later. It all began in December 1997, when a friend who knew she was as interested in art as she was in physics encouraged her to participate in a “Wearable Technology” show put on at California Institute of the Arts in conjunction with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Hansen was surprised to find that among so many clever minds, hers seemed to be the only one that could fuse art with technology while still remaining fashionable.
“That,” says Hansen, “was the big ‘A-ha' moment for me. It's when I realized this is the kind of design I wanted to do.”
But how, exactly, does one transition from NASA to Narciso?
“I had to live a double life for a while,” admits Hansen, who was using her doctorate degree in bioengineering by day and spending her nights and weekends building light-up bras. Back then, Hansen used her free time to assemble chains of LED lights into various colors and patterns, challenging herself to combine the advanced technology of LEDs with clothing that people might actually wear. She remembers wearing a homemade costume with LED-lit wings to the office one Halloween and believes that was the day her co-workers knew they'd soon lose her.
Calls started coming in for club wear, Halloween costumes and even more frightening orders, like a set of blinking logo shirts for the parents of high-school cheerleaders.
The first designs were definitely “trial by fire,” Hansen says, but as sales and the quality of her work improved, she realized that she'd created her dream job. After two years of Jekyll-and-Hyde, Hansen quit her day job and went full-time at Enlighted (www.enlighted.com). It was around that time that she caught her first big break.
Mark Vistorino—otherwise known as “Flyerman,” thanks to a lifetime gig passing out flyers—was a Toronto entertainer trying to make it big. He contacted Hansen in 1999 with a commission request for a bold, blinking suit that included his name flashing across the back. That same year, Canadian filmmakers began documenting Flyerman's dejected search for fame and it was their documentary, Flyerman, that landed Vistorino—and Hansen's jacket—in the Toronto Film Festival.
While Flyerman's quest proved unsuccessful, his flashy suits—he commissioned several more—were another story. The suits gave Hansen the opportunity to show the public what she was capable of, and people responded by asking Hansen if they, too, could get lit.
Thousands of orders and several years later, Hansen can proudly say she serves all ends of the spectrum. Kanye West, Incubus and Korn are among those who wear Hansen's designs on tour and, in 2002, she collaborated with renowned German lighting designer Ingo Maurer for a show that was featured in Frankfurt, Milan and New York. While Hansen is flattered that celebrities have found her, she gets a real kick out of the not-so-famous people who seek her out. A tap-dancing family in Missouri, a violin player in Dubai, a belly dancer in Japan, even a Christian pop singer—all have commissioned Hansen to design illuminated garments specially for them. However, sometimes for us civilians, the “off” button is preferred. Since Hansen is test-pilot for many of her designs, she gets used to hearing lines like, “Hey, baby, can I turn you on?” and “Are those C cells or D cells?” Hansen laughs at such reactions, adding them to a list of comments she's compiled on her website.
Still, it's not all giggles in her whimsical Encinitas studio. She's just finished laboring over an improved version of the light-up antlers worn by the Radio City Rockettes. The old lights, she explains, weren't nearly as durable as LEDs, which generally last about 100,000 hours and go out only if their sturdy wires are broken or crushed. The upgrade required exactly 120 LED lights in each set of antlers, which, when multiplied by 80 Rockettes, means there were almost 10,000 lights in all, each of which had to be worked in by hand and then integrated into the fabric of the antlers.
Despite the extensive labor her job requires, Hansen insists she wants to grow her business only in a way that'll allow her to do most of the design work herself.
“I really like the experience of working for myself,” she says.
To Hansen, every day is about learning something new, whether that means slaving over failed experiments or hearing from a client that his light-up underwear was a hit at the panty party (true story).
“I spend about half my working time actually building things,” Hansen says. “I also do all my business and administrative work. I go to conferences to learn more about materials. I work with clients. I'll watch awards shows to see what people are wearing—that all counts as work, right?”