Claire Smith, a 20-year-old Parkville resident, modified her prom dress to make it illuminate. Now, thanks to the dress and a GoFundMe campaign, she'll participate in the World Maker Faire. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)
Over the years, Claire Smith has worked on a number of tech-related projects, from robots to 3-D printing, but it wasn't until she decided to rig her prom dress with multicolored lights that she started winning awards, attracting national media attention and catching the eye of the tech community.
"I used to get all right reactions like, 'This is nice.' But when I made the dress I got 200 likes and people said, 'This is awesome,'" said the 18-year-old Parkville resident, whose prom dress design was inspired by a gown Claire Danes wore to the 2016 Met Gala. "I never thought it would get this much publicity."
Smith, a student at the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex, will showcase her dress this weekend in New York at the World Maker Faire, where tech enthusiasts, educators, students, artists, families and commercial exhibitors celebrate creative projects. Smith raised more than $1,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to pay for expenses related to the conference, which attracted 90,000 people last year.
Smith, who is the youngest in a set of triplets, explained that living in a household with three college students means that finances are fairly tight.
"There was no way we could afford it," said Smith's mother, Irina.
Smith cut her teeth participating in several Hackathons, taking a variety of tech-related classes and participating in tech-centric programs at the Digital Harbor Foundation and the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program in Washington, D.C.
Her mother was also quick to point out that her daughter's accomplishments are extra impressive because math is not her forte.
"She wasn't very 'techy' to begin with. But she really enjoys it," Irina Smith said. "It's been a real exploration for her. It's kind of neat when you think about it — someone who struggles with math and falls in love with tech."
Smith, who has been a fan of "Project Runway" since she was 5, said the reality-competition series has played a big role in her appreciation of fashion.
"The show has definitely inspired me," she said. "It's really inspired me to do something with a tech outlook."
In fact, she modeled her prom dress after a design by "Project Runway" judge Zac Posen.
"The day after the Met Gala, Claire Danes' dress designed by Zac Posen appeared all over the Facebook feeds. I thought it was magical. Having some background in coding, I wanted to figure out how that magic happened," she said. "The more I searched, I realized that the magic was really the tech, and I was hooked."
Smith modified her dress — a pale pink strapless sweetheart top with a full tulle skirt by LeGala — with a wearable electronics beginners kit.
A selfie session marred by bad lighting inspired celebrity stylist Ty Hunter to develop one of the newest forms of wearable technology: "Ty-Lite," a protective cellphone case equipped with three light settings that allow users to snap photos with paparazzi-like precision.
Smith sketched out a design to insert the technology in the underskirt, which would enable the dress to glow in various colors. She then used a specialized needle and thread that allowed her to insert six LED lights, a battery pack and micro-controller into the dress.
"It was all done by hand," she said. "I turned on my computer and watched a whole bunch of 'Project Runway' reruns as I sewed."
The end result was a princess-like gown that "magically" morphed into different colors under dim lights.
"It was a 'make it work' moment," Smith said, referencing the "Project Runway" catchphrase.
On the night of the prom, a dance for homeschoolers, her peers gave her their seal of approval.