HOW FASHION GRADUATE SCARLETT YANG’S DIGITAL BIOMATERIALS FUSE NATURE AND TECHNOLOGY

At 24 years of age, Central Saint Martins womenswear BA graduate Scarlett Yang has achieved a First class honours, been interviewed by a plethora of media publications including Vogue, Dezeen and The Future Laboratory, and exhibited her work in four countries. In October alone, Yang’s work was showcased at virtual Dutch Design Week and Kyoto Design Lab Gallery’s Alternative Futures exhibit. This is a considerable feat: the former is the largest annual design event in Northern Europe, while the Kyoto Design Lab is considered to be an incubator where traditional Japanese makers and tech startups join forces to innovate design and architecture. So why all the buzz?

A self-described multi-disciplinary designer and creative technologist, Yang stunned virtual audiences with her final collection online showcase on Central Saint Martins’ digital platform, titled Decomposition of Materiality and Identities. Themed around nature and driven by a desire to create “a circular ecosystem where garments grow, decompose and shape-change throughout time and changing environment,” Yang’s collection raises the industry’s ambitions for sustainable, ecological design. In response to the college’s post-lockdown digital submission requirements, the designer presented a showcase animation film. In this, Yang simulated how her biodegradable dress- made from a 3D printed algae biomaterial (any material that is wholly or partly made from biomass, such as trees, plants or animals)- would change shape and disintegrate when exposed to varying humidity and temperature levels. After her innovative showcase, Yang, who is originally from Hong Kong, was awarded the LVMH Maison/0 Green Trail 2020 Prize and The Mills Sustainability 2020 Prize

Matryoshka Wadhwani models Yang's glass-like biomaterial dress at the seaside for the lookbook photoshoot  ©Scarlett Yang, 2020
Matryoshka Wadhwani in glass-like biomaterial dress ©Scarlett Yang, 2020

But what does Yang’s combined digital/biomaterial approach to design mean for the future of sustainable materials and the fashion industry at large? Is her glass-like biomaterial a feasible alternative to traditional natural and synthetic materials for making physical clothes? If so, what would it take to get these pieces into our wardrobes? And on the digital side, is Yang offering us merely a window into her process and the circular life cycle of the proposed products via Decomposed Materiality, or is she also offering us digital fashion that we could download and consume in virtual, online realms?   

Your idea to combine biomaterials and digital fashion design for your final collection was motivated by your awareness of the vast quantities of textile waste generated by the fashion industry. When did you first encounter this?

Holistically, it was during my first year at Central Saint Martins when I discovered the different kinds of waste generated by the fashion industry. Textile waste is a huge problem, but I’m also concerned about the labour and energy waste that is a by-product of this industry. The system feels a little outdated and lacks crucial innovation. 

You researched and developed a biomaterial which you aptly coined as serpentine lace. Is this a new, original material?

The algae-based biomaterial already exists; the recipe is all over the internet. However, as far as I am aware, my method of casting it into a lace structure using a 3D printing mould and use of silk cocoon protein to make it hydrophobic (resistant to water) is original. 

©Scarlett Yang, 2020

In your interview with Dezeen, you said your biomaterial could also be used to make interior products and packaging materials. Are you planning on developing it further during your MS, Innovation Science Engineering at Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art? 

Yes, I have begun the research journey of developing a multi-purpose biomaterial, and I am using my Master’s degree as an opportunity to establish a new, streamlined system of designing with lab-grown materials. The goal is to invent an efficient production system that combines the materials, software and machinery necessary for this modern, hybrid method of design. 

What was your process of designing the silhouettes for your final collection? 

At first, I drew sketches by hand, but I quickly realised that the digital way of sketching was more appropriate for my concept. My collection is themed around nature and its chaotic behaviour, so pencil drawings felt too conscious and predictable. On Cinema 4D, (a 3D software for modelling, painting, rendering and animation) I created 3D simulation sketches using biomaterials from my archive of work as a Sustainability Designer. I made hundreds of duplicates of a 3D female model which I positioned side by side, and then dressed with randomly different simulated fabrics of varying texture, shape and properties onto each model. When I clicked the simulate function, Cinema 4D would simulate hundreds of different results based on the different properties of each of the fabrics. Then I ended up with hundreds of different shapes, which formed the foundation of my silhouettes. I did this design and development stage on Cinema 4D as opposed to CLO3D because I feel that the latter’s linear functionality results in mediocre design.

“I did this design and development stage on Cinema 4D as opposed to (using other software whose) linear functionality results in mediocre design.”

SCARLETT YANG

What software did you use to create the animation film, and what was your process?

I created the entire animation film on Cinema 4D. I used the sculpting tools and cloth simulation the most, as well as the physical engine generating wind forces onto the textiles. Personally, I prefer three-dimensional draping directly on mannequins in physical fashion design, so that translated well to virtual fabric sculpting with digital tools. 

To reference biological growth and decay processes, I engineered randomised factors to mimic and generate textile shapes. I then programmed collisions between the fabrics and simulated bodies to create unexpected draping and silhouettes, with various texture qualities (density, weight, size, elasticity, etc.) Afterwards, I selected a handful of design drafts from over 700 generated simulations. As my final collection was half digital half physical, I frequently switched between design with bio elements and algorithms. In a way, this dual design method informed my final 3D video presentation as the decomposition aspects were iteratively being tested in real life, and then simulated onto virtual versions of the garment in the film. 

©Scarlett Yang, 2020

Do you think that your Asian heritage and upbringing in Hong Kong encouraged your interests in technological innovation and your approach to design? 

Definitely – modern Chinese culture encourages the use of technology to improve quality of life. Over there, people are not afraid to take risks and introduce new methods of thinking or working. I am mainly referring to Shenzhen, China mainland – a city I spent time in during my teenage years. It’s known as the ‘Silicon alley’ of China; innovations are constantly happening in the city, in electronics, manufacturing, software and more. I grew up around a culture of reflection, speculation and critical thinking with regards to existing infrastructures, and I’m sure that has fed into my own approach to design and fashion.

Before the United Kingdom went under lockdown in March 2020, did you intend to stage a live metamorphosis of your garments on the Central Saint Martins BA Fashion catwalk akin to Hussein Chalayan’s One Hundred and Eleven Spring/Summer 2007 show?

Definitely, at the beginning of the year, I told my tutors that I wanted to create a biodegradable collection that would completely decompose during the runway. That was the point; to prove that a physical collection was unnecessary. However, due to the school admin system, this would have meant that my collection would not have been graded and I would not have graduated! 

If you had a role in the fashion industry working with global brands, what would you do and what would you change?

I would mainly see myself working towards bridging the traditional fashion industry and other disciplines. I would push to collaborate with other innovators and researchers (particularly in science and technology) to improve current processes and ways of working. Learning from a different discipline brings perspective and questions which can inform your own practice, and sometimes an ambitious idea or raw concept requires a scientific method to realise. I think multi-disciplinary initiatives should definitely be encouraged more in the fashion industry to enable more people to access techniques, skills and knowledge that would otherwise be difficult to obtain. I would also push for more experimentation with the aspects of virtual fashion I explore in my practice, and finally, I would encourage these global brands to be fully transparent about their processes.

Biomaterial Development Process ©Scarlett Yang, 2020

In a turbulent year in which it took a pandemic to force and encourage many established fashion designers to think of virtual ways to showcase collections during fashion week, it is vital to recognise the ambitious fashion students who have since developed novel, self-taught sustainability solutions using 3D design and animation, artificial intelligence and augmented reality tools. Fellow Central Saint Martins alumnus Paul Aubrey Parnell and Birmingham City University graduate Shannon McGowan are part of a growing number of fashion graduates who turned the lockdown to their advantage. They saw it as an opportunity to integrate 3D digital design practices in their final collections as an alternative to traditional craft and garment making techniques, many of which were impacted by government restrictions. Their self-directed, small scale developments make the fashion industry’s rate of innovation and digital transformation look somewhat glacial by comparison. What makes Yang’s practice so appealing is its potential sustainability implications beyond fashion; if her Master’s degree goes to plan, we could expect to see the designer innovating materials that could transform product design and architecture too. The challenge that Yang and like-minded designers face is ensuring that their clothes balance the urgent need for sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel-derived and non-biodegradable materials with longevity and scalability so that having them in our wardrobes is a real possibility.

By Dayna Tohidi