Why STEM subjects and fashion design go hand in hand
Mark Liu is a PhD Fashion and Textiles Designer at the University of Technology Sydney. As a fashion and textile designer, he explains how the future of fashion requires science, technology, engineering and mathematics more than ever
The fashion industry evokes images of impossibly beautiful people jet setting around the world in extravagant finery. Like a moth to the flames, it draws many of our most creative young minds. Often, the first instinct of high school students who want to work in creative industries is to drop all their math and science subjects to take up textiles and art.
As a fashion and textile designer myself, I would like to explain how this is a bad strategy and how the future of fashion requires science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM skills) more than ever.
Beneath the glamorous façade, the fashion industry is undergoing disruptive changes due to rapid advances in technology. We take it for granted that you can use your Iphone to watch a fashion runway show on YouTube, Google the garment to find an online retailer like Net-A-Porter, pay for it using PayPal and then upload a selfie onto Snapchat. None of these services even existed 20 years ago.
Materials that were theoretical thirty years ago have become pervasive. So when you buy yoga clothing from Lululemon that are “anti-bacterial” you are actually wearing fabrics that are coated in silver nano-whiskers. Sportswear companies such as Nike and Adidas engage in a technological arms race of materials and technology. The reason why their latest shoes look like something out of science fiction is because the technology is truly cutting edge science.
In 2011, Parisian High Fashion forever changed when designer Iris van Herpen was invited as a guest member of La Chambre Syndicale de La Haute Couture. Van Herpen, who makes liberal use of hi tech materials such as magnetic fabric, laser cutters and custom developed thermoplastics which are 3D printed, was embraced by the oldest establishment as “Haute Couture”.
Even the supermodel Karlie Kloss advocates the importance of STEM skills for future careers in the tech industry and has a scholarship program Kode with Klossy that teaches young girls computer coding.
Fashion is a unique blend of business, science, art and technology. It requires a polymath, a person who can understand all of these skills. The most compelling reasons to learn STEM skills is because technology and rapidly changing business models have made surviving in the business more competitive than ever.
If you are running a fashion label you will probably need a business loan or have to justify what you are spending your money on. No matter how brilliant your ideas, the people who control money are only swayed by arguments based on sound financial reasoning. Rates of return, accounting and interest rates are all ideas that can only be well understood using mathematics.
Mathematics is mandatory for financial literacy. It introduces ideas such as optimisation, understanding statistics and problem solving and forms a language that allows designers to talk to scientists, engineers and business people.
If you are going to study fashion in college, you will need to learn about fabrics, which are material science. No matter how advanced the school syllabus in textiles, by the time you get to college there will be new materials and technology that did not exist before you got there. If you learn chemistry and physics you will understand the underlying scientific principles on a deeper level, making new material science really easy in the future.
Learning chemistry in school introduces you to lab protocols, taking measurements and accurately recording experiments. These are the exact skills you will need when working with dyes and pigments in textiles.
Using dyes to change the colour of textiles is essentially carbon chemistry. To do this a designer must change the acidity or alkalinity of the fabric - known as the PH level. This allows the “chromophores,” which are the parts of the dye molecule that create colour, to embed into the fabric. The PH scale in chemistry is a logarithmic scale and this is one place where abstract mathematical ideas are actually used in practice.
Maths and creativity
Mathematics can also push the boundaries of creativity in fashion. Designer Dai Fujiwara collaborated with legendary 1982 Fields Medal winning mathematician William Thurston to create radically different garments inspired by geometry and topology.
In his 1 32 5 collection Fujiwara collaborated with computer scientist Jun Mitani to create mathematical folding algorithms generating innovative clothing. My own PhD research explores the underlying geometry of how clothing is made and has even been used to teach abstract mathematical concepts through making fashion garments.
For a socially minded designer, STEM skills are essential to understanding environmental sustainability. Fashion used to have seasons, but now with fast fashion companies such as Zara and H&M, new clothing is coming into stores in each week. Fast fashion companies are often criticised for being unsustainable and exploiting workers.
Sustainability in the fashion industry is an extremely complex issue. It requires an understanding of the underlying science, economic behaviour and business practises of the fashion industry and their environmental impact.
The fashion industry is full of “Greenwash,” fake sustainable marketing which has no scientific basis. STEM skills allow you to navigate these complex issues and try to address them for yourself.
The future of fashion is uncharted territory, but STEM skills make a budding fashion designer smart and adaptable.