Wearable Instagram: Can Two Designers Revolutionize Photo Printing?

The Lumi Process brings photography printing into the sunlight, and let's people print on any natural fabric.

These days many avid photographers don't really think about printing their work, content to let it live on their phones, external hard drives, and social networks. But a new textile printing method that lets photographers, designers, and craftspeople print directly onto any natural fiber could change that mindset.

The Lumi Process is the creation of Los Angeles dye manufacturer Lumi. Their chief product is a water-based, environmentally friendly dye called Inkodye, that develops photographic images direclty on fabric with sunlgiht. "We're working to bring photogrpahy out of the dark room and into the sun," says founder Jesse Genet, who's been at work researching and building a company around the dye for the past eight years.

A short video on Lumi's site explains how the process works. First, take a photo and print out a negative on transparent film. (Lumi's new app Lumityper lets iPhone users quickly turn their phone images into black and white negative.) Then, apply a layer of Inkodye across a natural fabric of your choice, pin the negative to the fabric above the dye, and leave it out in the sun, where the print develops. Finally, wash the print with Lumi's textile detergent to make sure the image stops developing. The result is a high quality photographic image permanently affixed to a cotton t-shirt or leather bag, without the hassle of screens or expensive equipment.

In July Lumi rounded out its second Kickstarter campaign to give the company the funding it needs to begin production on a $35 kit that includes most of what you'll need to do the Lumi Process: three bottles of dye in red, orange, and blue, a stencil, a test negative, and instructions. (Film and detergent cost extra.) GOOD recently caught up with Lumi co-founder Stéphan Angoulvant to talk about how the dye works, the ways customers are using it, and what it's like starting a business over Kickstarter.

GOOD: Tell me a bit about the Inkodye. What's it made from? How'd you come up with the "recipe?" Does someone on your team have a background in chemistry?

Stéphan Angoulvant: Inkodye is part of a family of dyes called vat dyes. Vat dyes are often used in coloring military and service uniforms that need to withstand frequent washing and prolonged wear in outdoor environments. They're best suited to coloring natural fibers like cotton, linen, and leather. The breakthrough with Inkodye is making these dyes reactive to sunlight so that you can print with them photographically. Inkodye is almost colorless in the bottle, but reaches its full saturation when developed in sunlight.

The original chemistry of photosensitive vat dyes dates back to the 1950s, but never entered the market as a fully-formed product. While still in high school, Jesse had been doing extensive research on printing methods for textiles and came across a reference to dyes that develop in sunlight.

Over the course of years, she was able to sleuth out the last remaining person who knew how to formulate such dyes. When she finally met him, he had a hard time understanding why a teenager had such eager interest in what he perceived as failed product.

After having experimented with the dye and eventually bringing me into the fold, Jesse and I acquired the outdated formula and began to modernize it.

Neither Jesse nor I have a background in chemistry, but being scientifically-minded and assisted by several great people we were able to revamp the formula with modern ingredients, making it safer and more accessible than ever.

Since then we've been producing Inkodye in Los Angeles, using it to create printed goods and developing a whole system of tools around it. The dyes have been selling on our website for about a year and our production volumes have grown very quickly as people in over 70 countries have bought our products.

GOOD: What are your backgrounds? Fashion? Photography?

Angoulvant: My background was originally in science. I got a degree in biology from Colorado College. After graduating, I transitioned into industrial design and attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where I met Jesse.

Jesse grew up in Detroit where she spent much of her time playing at her step-father's industrial workshop, helping him develop new technologies in various fields of science and engineering.

She started her first business in high-school designing t-shirts, which led her into her research on textile printing. Both of us have had a great interest in photography all our lives, which of course has had a lot impact on Lumi.

GOOD: Do you have day jobs or is this a full-time hustle?

Angoulvant: When we met at Art Center, Jesse and I became quick friends and I started helping her develop the Lumi Process. We worked on it between classes until Lumi grew into a business. It's been our full-time job for about a year. We're now a team of 7 and have great advisors helping us take the business even further.

GOOD: What's your favorite fabric to work with? Would you say some fabrics are better suited for printing on than others?

Angoulvant: We love a good challenge so our favorite materials are usually some of the harder ones to print. Lumi prints look incredible on leather, for example, but it's a technique that requires more care and know-how than cotton.

The easiest to print are the fabrics that can be put through a hot washing machine. Cotton, linen and silk come to mind. You have to remember that Inkodye only works on natural fibers—either vegetable or animal fibers.

GOOD: Who is the typical customer for your dye? What are some of the more interesting applications you've seen?

Angoulvant: The customers and applications are amazingly broad. We see a lot of designers but also people who are involved in darkroom photography, crafts, fine art. There's also science teachers and summer camps using Inkodye. It's quite amazing.

One of the most exciting things for us is to see young teens who have been brought up in the digital world playing with Inkodye as their very first experience with printed photography.

GOOD: Your first Kickstarter announced that your goal was "to turn the fashion world upside down." What's the response been like from the fashion world? Have any designers experimented with the dye in their collections?

Angoulvant: When we say upside down, we really mean it. As one of our Kickstarter backers put it, Inkodye is "democratizing fashion". We're helping people personalize their clothing and express themselves.

I think we're seeing the benefit of two big trends. On one hand, smartphones are allowing people to take and share pictures more readily than ever before, on the other, we continue to see the rise of inexpensive ready-to-wear fashion from H&M, American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, etc – mainly based on basics and plain colors. The Lumi Process allows people to make those garments their own. Simple clothes become a canvas for self-expression, and our tools make that easy to do, with high-quality results.

That said, we're also excited about seeing Inkodye emerge as a tool for professional fashion designers too. Last February, Junkfood Clothing made an entire collection for NY Fashion Week based on Inkodye.

GOOD: So far you've had two very successful Kickstarter campaigns. Your most recent one was funded at more than 250% of its goal. What's you opinion on building a business through Kickstarter?

Angoulvant: Kickstarter is an amazing platform and it keeps getting better. Running a project on Kickstarter is a very good way to find out whether you're on to something or not. To be successful you'll have to communicate very clearly and answer all kinds of questions you had never considered. It challenges you think the idea through. The money helps, but what's most valuable is the process Kickstarter puts you through and the people who become your customers. Our backers are some of the most powerful advocates of the Lumi Process.


Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

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