what can fashion learn from science?

Could the hard science and fashion worlds ever truly collaborate? New groups like Descience say yes.

by Douglas Main
02 April 2015, 3:50pm

"I have no dress except the one I wear every day," said famed scientist Marie Curie. "If you are going to be kind enough to give me one," she asked a friend, "please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory."

Curie was a two-time Nobel Prize winner who made some of the most important early discoveries about radioactivity, besides discovering two elements, radium and polonium. We can all agree she was a badass, but she wasn't known for her fashion sense. I don't raise this point to critique her — quite the opposite. I mention it because it illustrates a certain stereotype: that science and fashion might seem to have little to do with each other, or even exist in some sort of opposition to one another.

But it's perhaps time to rethink this relationship; there is more cooperation between the two fields now than ever before. At SXSW this year, MoMA's senior curator Paola Antonelli devoted much of her talk to the importance of collaboration between science and design/fashion.

"Some of the most interesting bridges between biology and design are happening now," she said.

Antonelli referenced a few examples, like a 3D printed dress MOMA recently acquired from the Nervous System design studio in New York, a piece which is printed from a single piece of nylon. She also talked about the creation of small jacket of "victimless leather" made from stem cells--instead of being taken from live animals--by an Australian company called SymbioticA.

But no group has taken seriously the fusion of fashion and science quite like a Boston-based group called Descience.

"There's this perception that scientists wear white coats and that science is boring, or that [one] can't easily understand what researchers do," says Descience founder and neuroscientist Yuly Fuentes-Medel.

While attending a friend's fashion show, she found herself musing about the creative process, and how it must be fundamentally similar across disciplines. She got an idea: what about a runway event that combined science and fashion? Would it be possible to merge the two fields, showing the merits and similarities in each while bringing "research to the runway," as she phrases it?

The answer: yes. Fuentes-Medel's organization put on a fashion show in Boston last fall involving teams that each included one scientist and one designer, who collaborated to make dresses. The response was tremendous: 45 duos, from countries around the world, signed up and created a bevy of fascinating creations.

And people have taken notice. Several of the dresses "will be exhibited in shows around the world, including upcoming events in San Francisco and Boston," Fuentes-Medel says.

The contestants picked up on what she was trying to do. "Many of the attributes that drive a scientist to explore the world are similar to those driving a designer to create art: curiosity, creativity and imagination," writes British cancer research Esther Baena in The Guardian.

Baena teamed up with designer Arielle Gogh to create a dress inspired by the colors and textures associated with tumor growth — but which (somehow) turned out to be attractive rather than repulsive. The garment featured an arm accessory representing how cancer can spread, or metastasize, through the body. And their entry, Team Transmutation, was one of the four finalists in the competition, held Sep. 29 at the MIT Media Lab.

Another finalist was Team Cryptic, who created a delicate white and black dress, adorned with a large, silvery necklace. This accessory was inspired by the shape of tiny structure which helps transfer genetic material out of the cell's nucleus, where it is usually stored, says Sean Speese, a neuroscientist at Oregon Health and Science University. Collaborating with British jewelry designer Ana Thompson, the process helped both of them better understand 3-D printers, they said, which they used to create the necklace. The project also helped Speese see his research in a different light, and to better understand the creative method of design Thompson brought to the table, he says.

And it also gained her a new team member. Industrial designer Julianne Gauron had heard about the show from a friend and was sitting in the audience in September. "I was totally blown away by it," she says. So she decided to join the organization, and now her and Fuentes-Medel are planning the next phase of Descience.

To that end the group is planning on figuring out how to bring certain garments to the market, although that work remains ongoing. "We have a place where people are creating something completely unique," she says. "That doesn't exist anywhere else in the world, and the market needs it."

Besides exhibiting garments around the world, the group is also organizing an event this fall (along with Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the MIT Enterprise Forum) which will "explore how science, technology and design are evolving clothing into extraordinary products which are so much more than aesthetic draping in the near future," she adds.

The competition also had lasting changes on many of the contestants. Many "designers became Descientists," Fuentes-Medel says, and "they are now looking for ways to experiment and feel comfortable with new scientific related adventures."

For example, designer Julie Kontos -- who worked with a malaria researcher in the competition -- is now designing a mosquito-proof garment for people to wear in areas where this insect-spread disease exists.

Gauron explains that the fusion of science and fashion works because, if for no other reason, it leads to the creation of amazing products. One of Gauron's favorites was made by Team quorum 54, which was painted with a type of (harmless) bacteria that actually glows in the dark. It's inspired by the work of Tal Danino, a researcher who reprograms fluorescent bacteria to attack cancer cells. When they reach cancerous cells they grow and emit light, and this can be used to find and treat tumors.

"To me that's a really compelling example of a solution. It's absolutely gorgeous. And it truly utilizes the science, literally; the material is in the textile printing," she says.

The dress, glowing like it's something radioactive, elicits a certain curiosity and rasies questions. Why is it glowing? What is this technology used for? The answers trace back to another dedicated researcher toiling in a lab, like Curie so many years ago. But these questions, and their answers, wouldn't come about were it not for the fusion of fashion and science, the spawn of their marriage on the runway.

"A successful product is something you want, but if [you're] also compelled by the story," Gauron says, "you've got something special."

Meet the world's firs 3D Printer for clothing here on The Creator's Project


Text Douglas Main
Photography Niki Lazaridou, courtesy of Descience