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The Tech Team Behind Billy Porter’s Incredible Opening and Closing Grammys Hat Told Us How it Works

5 minute read

The 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, a star-studded event, was a perfect opportunity for today’s biggest celebrities to show off the latest fashion trends, from the everyday to the truly wild. The Grammys are where haute couture gets its moment to shine, and where your average viewer can gawk at outlandish and usually cumbersome outfits they’ll probably never own.

This year, it was impossible to ignore Pose star and actor Billy Porter’s look, styled by Sam Ratelle: a Scott Studenberg-designed turquoise jacket-jumpsuit combo, topped off with a head-turning wide-brimmed hat with a remote-controlled privacy screen of crystalline fringe. “Get on my nerves, and the curtain closes!” tweeted Porter after his red carpet walk last night.

The hat itself was made by milliner Sarah Sokol, whose clients beyond Porter include pop star Janelle Monae, actor Emilia Clarke, and rapper Cardi B.

Smooth Technology built the hardware behind Porter’s moving fashion piece, a feat of engineering designed to open and shut under less than ideal conditions. The Brooklyn-based creative tech company’s work has appeared “on pop stars, in museums, at festivals, and anywhere else people need something that has never been done before,” according to co-founder and engineer Dave Sheinkopf.

TIME spoke with Sheinkopf about the company’s part in Porter’s show-stopping look, and what the future of fashion and technology mean when the planet doesn’t care about your finery. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

TIME: While Billy Porter’s outfit was, of course, fantastic, I’m more curious about the matching hat. Can you tell me about the genesis of that “curtain” idea and how it was received by Porter?

Sheinkopf: We were approached by the milliner Sarah Sokol. We worked with her and Christian Siriano on Janelle Monae’s outfit for the 2019 Met Gala. Sarah had been asked by Billy’s stylist Sam Ratelle to bring this hat to life, so she asked us to design the mechanical and radio systems.

How does it work? Did you tuck an Arduino computer in the brim or something? Does it come with an app? Is it remote-controlled?

Great guesses! This hat uses a microcontroller that is similar to an Arduino. The custom circuit board runs the motors and handles radio communication with the transmitter. The transmitter and receiver are a system we created and have used on tours for Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, and in any other situations where we need to send data wirelessly and reject a lot of interference (i.e. a stadium full of iPhones). The battery can run for hundreds of cycles.

Porter’s outfit, as well as Janelle Monae’s blinking dress, show there’s a new generation of fashion out there that’s combined with technology, yet I’m still wearing blue jeans that don’t do anything but sit on my legs. Why can’t I buy sunglasses with automatic rotating shutters? What’s the hold up when it comes to smart fashion?

The sunglasses are a good idea — you should patent that. But do you really want to plug your blue jeans in every night to charge? Practicality gets in the way of a lot of it. Clothes also go through a lot of wear and tear, so they’re hard to fit with any complex electronics. Making it usable by everyone is going to be key. Fashion technology as a whole is definitely getting closer to that, and it’s something we enjoy working towards.

A lot of today’s gadgets look bland. They’re blocky, made up of a single color, plastered with logos or fine print, or simply just don’t fit in your pocket. Do you think these bland-looking devices are dulling our appreciation of aesthetically appealing technology?

It seems like there are also a lot of devices that do actually look pretty cool. Either people are going to buy the nice-looking ones and those will take over, or they’ll buy all the ugly ones and we’ll eventually think those look cool. Look at Memphis design — 10 years ago people thought it was so corny and now it’s everywhere. Tastes ebb and flow. The original NES console was about as blocky and bland as things get, but it’s still iconic.

While people argue about technology bringing people together or pushing people apart, Porter’s hat is clearly designed to keep the outside world out. Do you think with the increasing rapidity of climate change, we’ll see outfits designed with the idea of protecting us from our increasingly dangerous environment?

People don’t have fur, so we need clothes to survive. We also use them for social interaction, just as birds use colorful feathers. The history of fashion has been this interplay between form and function, so it’s safe to assume that the changing environment is going to have an impact on what clothes we design and wear. As technology is integrated into our daily lives more and more, it’s only natural that our clothing starts to include tech that makes us feel safe.

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Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com