Function, Fashion, and the Future: Q&A with Mary Huang
Mary Huang is a designer and futurist based in New York City who works at the intersection of wearable fashion and generative design, creating what she calls “Computational Couture." Her work ranges from traditional fashion design techniques to custom tools that allow users to create their own design to novel uses of technology to create clothing to jewelry and typography design, aided and shaped by computational processes. She studied design at both the DMA at UCLA and CIID in Copenhagen, Denmark, and now works as the fashion label Continuum Fashion as well as Rhyme & Reason. The following interview was conducted over email in May of 2011.
The Creators Project: I’m curious about how you started working on the D.dress, which is both a designed fashion item and an application that allows the user to create a bespoke dress from an interface. Broadly, D.dress is about democratizing couture and bringing bespoke fashion design to the digital age. More specifically, I was interested in how a fashion collection could be designed as software, and what that would mean. Could you create a design that defies being copied, even if you let people download the pattern? How much freedom do you give the user? How do you balance your role as a designer when you let people design their own dress?
Mary Huang: For me it was important to have the designs be cohesively recognizable even while allowing a great deal of variation, and reinventing the little black dress provided a suitable frame of reference. While there was one original “little black dress,” that matters far less than the concept of the “little black dress” as a design classic, which spans thousands of manifestations. And while it would be easy to add different color choices, I wanted the focus to be on form. There are existing mass-customization platforms that involve fashion (NikeID, Threadless, CafePress, Blank Label) but they tend to be more practical and more commercially driven. As a designer/coder, you have the opportunity to craft every aspect. I made the interface as well as the packaging, and sewed everything and did most of the photography too so the design is the whole system.
Can you tell me a little bit about your most recent project, a 3D printed bikini?
I started the bikini project shortly after D.dress, this time partnering with my friend and fellow computational designer Jenna Fizel. We were inspired by the material and the technology, but the larger purpose in doing 3D printed fashion is the possibility of creating clothing without sewing. With D.dress a computational design had to be realized by analog methods, and it is really hard to sew 300 triangles [together]. The difficulty in hand labor is an unfortunate limitation. The technology is not yet here for us to completely print dresses, but it actually works perfectly well for a bikini design.
The 3D-printed nylon has a pleasant texture reminiscent of seashells and the goal of the patterning technique was to balance flexibility and strength as well as visual appeal. Our self-defined challenge was to make a design that is functional and wearable. The top actually makes a great bikini, although it might still be too futuristic for most. I know that people don’t believe it is comfortable, but it actually is. Most bikinis are made of out Lycra, which isn’t really comfortable and doesn’t provide any support.
With the ideal technology, I would like to see a completely closed loop system: Put some plastic bottles into a machine, download your design to your size, and it prints out your dress on the spot, zipper included. Then instead of washing, just feed the dress back into the machine for a new design.
Is introducing computational techniques into fashion design fundamentally different than introducing them into graphic design?
It is not fundamentally different, but it is different in practice. In either case, it is something that is done best by a person that has a deep understanding of both design and technology. In recent years there has been an emergence of graphic designers who can code. But really, there are very few people who can do both fashion design and code. Fashion is a physical medium and computation would extend to physical processes derived from technology that does not necessarily relate directly to software. There is also another aspect to all of this: what does computation mean for the medium? You can see computation in graphic design that creates variation across a set of generated prints, reflecting on the days when people drew and lettered each page by hand; computation extends the artistry of the designer. With fashion, there is the heritage of designing and tailoring clothes specifically for the individual and computation, with its ability to create a design that encapsulates uniqueness, and also serve a practical function.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
I would consider Issey Miyake the fashion designer who has done the most influential work involving principles of computation. His work like Pleats Please, A-POC, and the recent 132 5 collection demonstrate a rigorous beauty derived from comprehensively considering the manufacturing process with the garment design. The product is not possible without the process. That is a key aspect of computational design.
There are several different approaches to integrating technology into fashion: adding hidden electronics, creating design tools, and finally aestheticizing electronics and making them wearable. How do you see each of these moving forward?
We could say that there are two general branches of practice: putting electronics into clothes (the more physical computing side), and using software and digital processes to create clothes (the more computational design side). It would be ideal to be able to combine the two… I imagine something like “smart clothing” that would have sensors and gather and store data that could be translated by software to create your next shirt or dress. Perhaps it’s one of those nano-tech dreams where the material itself is doing the computing and is programmable and transformable. Right now I think the field is more divided by intent rather than technology. Some work is theatrical in context, as in designs suited for stage and performance. There are specialty gadget-based designs, work done in military and NASA research and for the medical field and there is work that aims to be fashion in the more common sense, i.e. designs are to be worn by everyday people. I am most interested in the last category as it is a design challenge to create easily understandable products.
Do you think that there is a real future to making clothing or garments that actually communicate with buildings or environments? I think this is really interesting, but I’m not sure whether that’s my interest in ubiquitous computation or whether it’s something real.
I think this is the “spacesuit” approach, where embedded electronics monitor bio-physical data and feed it to other systems. Or maybe we could call it the “Iron Man”—a suit that augments your abilities and turns you into a superhero. I’m not that much of a believer in introducing ubiquitous computing into wearables. The problem is not just collecting the data, but then how to intelligently parse and apply it. For instance, if my shirt could tell my house that I am warm and then adjust the air conditioning, is that really that impressive or useful? Maybe it would be great to have GPS embedded into my jacket but is that really that much more functional than having an iPhone? I think the theoretical applications have to be balanced with practicalities. We do not just own one jacket or one shirt like we own one phone.
I think most people have a pretty clear idea of how the aesthetics of computation tend to manifest themselves in architecture or other forms of visual design, the repeatability, pararmetricization, experimental modeling. Do you think those same aesthetics will play out in fashion?
Certainly, the “generative aesthetic” has been well established in architecture, and we see that influencing fashion and product design. Hussein Chalayan has said that his alternative career choice would have been architecture. Futuristic shoe label United Nude’s founder has an architecture background. Jesse and Jessica Rosencrantz of generative jewelry label Nervous System also studied architecture. It is interesting to see how a stylistic movement is comprised of individuals, who all came to certain conclusions from their own backgrounds and interests.
I’m curious how you see technology enabling users to make their own customizable design, an automated fitting process, judging process, an algorithmic eye. What does it actually mean for us to be able to make our own things with the aid of a program? I’d like to think it makes it easier to be who we are and get things made just for us, which is a seriously interesting trend: creating personalized services, objects, and experiences. How do you see the idea of a service and the object created from it tying together?
Design came of age during the industrial revolution, when suddenly you could make 1,000 copies of an original and the development of design was very much tied to emerging manufacturing technologies and systems. Now, we are at the doorstep of the new industrial revolution, which is governed by rules of software and has the potential to automate the manufacture of unique one-off products. The practice of design evolves and the relationship of designer to consumer to product changes.
Designing a physical product as software allows you to design at a more conceptual level. Traditionally, the design process involves iteration on a governing theme until a set form is achieved and decided on. Really though, the design is not contained in any one form, but is expressed between the entire set of iterations. You can see this in the evolution of a product line, for instance, the design of the iPod over many years or across the hundreds of versions of the Chanel purse.
On the practical side the end goal is to better serve the public, and be able to deliver to people what they want. In the old model, that meant design sought to make something that a million people would want. In the new model, design seeks to let a million people find and create what they want. It’s as if you’re searching for a desk and you like the legs on one and the drawers of another. Of course you can’t leave people to just start with a blank page, and the challenge lies in creating an intuitive way for people to create their personalized product. It’s about sharing the experience and joy of creating, and inspiring a sense of ownership in the object.
The service aspect becomes intriguingly like a bridge of old and new. It used to be that people went to a shoemaker for shoes, custom made. You can still do that now but people don’t. If you have an interface, or some form of digital experience, you can inspire people to take part in the practice again. The service is invisible; the digital component makes it feel like you are interacting with the product directly.