Fashion Nerd: a whole new kind of DIY

With a new book that brings tech-savvy to the fashion set, designer Diana Eng takes another step in her quest to unite science and style.
Diana Eng. Grayscale.
Diana Eng.

In only four short years since graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, fashion designer and self-proclaimed nerd Diana Eng has appeared on the hit game show Project Runway, co-founded the Brooklyn-based hacker collective NYC Resistor, and studied biomimetics at the University of Bath in the UK. Now Eng has released her first book, a DIY style manual called Fashion Geek. sat down with Eng to talk about the intersection of fashion and technology, the future of interactive clothing, and the difference between “nerds” and “geeks.” Anyone who has seen how scientists dress knows that science and fashion rarely mix. How did you get interested in fashion?

Diana Eng: Originally, I wanted to be a mathematician. I was a huge science nerd, I did international science competitions, and I was sure I was going that way. But I found myself drawing in calculus class more than I was paying attention; so I figured I should probably go into art instead. Besides, there’s a lot of math in fashion. Trends are just statistics. Style is just proportion. How does style come from proportion? Do you use math to help you design the clothes?

DE: I used to make a lot of knitting patterns based on math. I guess I still do. I did some stuff with the Fibonacci sequence, and I thought it might work with random numbers. But the random numbers just looked ugly. It was the Fibonacci sequence that made it look good, which I thought was really cool. And there was a lot of engineering when I worked Victoria’s Secret. Really? Bras require a lot of engineering? What did you do at Victoria’s Secret?

DE: We were creating new technology for bras. Bras are very complicated. Sportswear has maybe 15 different components, and a bra has maybe 30. It has to perform all the time. Breasts can weigh as much as 20 pounds, and a bra has to hold its shape and survive in the washer. We were looking at new materials, and structural changes. On the tech side, what’s your favorite toy? What’s the tool you use the most in your designs?

DE: Conductive thread. That’s made a huge difference. Before, it was “Oh, where do I hide the wire?” And with wires, sometimes the voltage gets too high to do what you want to do. That’s tough; it’s bad to electrocute the model. Conductive thread lets you do what you want. Also, button switches, so electronics can be turned on or off by opening and closing a jacket. What haven’t you worked with that you want a chance to use? What technology do you want to try out?

DE: I’d really like to experiment with different chemicals. I guess conductive ink is a chemical, but there’s so much more. In Japan, they have these vitamin shirts. Rather than taking a pill, you wear this shirt that is fortified with vitamins that you absorb through your skin. Most of the clothing and accessories in the book are for women. Was that a conscious choice? Did you deliberately try to use the book to help get girls interested in science?

DE: I’m really going after the young girl demographic. One of the things that got me out of wanting to go into math was when my dad took me to a math conference, and I didn’t see anyone like me. Girls don’t see that you don’t have to be a stereotypical nerd if you major in computer science. Makeup companies always need chemists. A lot of girls I knew growing up really liked makeup. If they knew that they could design makeup all day, they would have paid more attention in chemistry class. But even though you said you don’t have to be a stereotypical nerd to study science, that stereotype seems to be very “in” these days. Is the message really, “You don’t have to be a nerd to study science”, or is the message “It’s cool to be a nerd”?

DE: I actually tried to persuade them to call the book “Fashion Nerd”, but the publishers told me that “geek” is cool, but “nerd” isn’t. Being a geek is definitely cool now, though. The big thing was the iPod. Apple made the Shuffle an accessory, and now its fashionable to have an iPhone. I used to not be able to dress myself, and I had several big makeovers in college. But I still used to go to fashion events and be the only person there with glasses. Now I have hipster friends who wear glasses as accessories. I’m like “Why are you wearing those? You can see fine!” [laughs] So you’re saying you’re a geek, not a hipster?

DE: I’m not a hipster. I’m not wearing the right boots! [laughs] Your book is very DIY. Do you have any advice for readers who will try to make some of this stuff at home?

DE: Buy a voltmeter. A lot of times electronics don’t work, and you want to be able to measure them. Things go wrong all the time, and you need to know why.

Diana Eng’s new book is Fashion Geek, is available from North Light Books.