“I am seeking a solution to program fashion as a human-made object to coexist with nature.” London-based designer Scarlett Yang proposes a synchronicity between the organic and artificial elements of fashion with her Decomposition of Materiality project. 
With the aim of reflecting material waste within the fashion industry, the Central Saint Martins graduate utilises a biodegradable material made with algae extract alongside 3D digital rendering to fully conceptualise a dress that reflects life cycles through growing and decomposing in reaction to its environment. Today, we speak with her about this project and the value of merging scientific and artistic practices.
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How did you first become involved in the fashion world? What inspired you to study and pursue fashion design further?
I have been fascinated by ideas surrounding the human body since I was young. I was very into anime/manga and cosplay as a teenager, and this led to my passion in investigating how we dress up to express our identity, later translating to the medium of fashion design.
Where do you tend to draw your inspiration from when deciding on a new design concept or project? How do these muses manifest themselves within your fashion?
I am quite open to getting inspired in different ways, either from conversations with friends, reading literature and theories, emotional responses from personal incidents or case studies of other art/design projects. These can then be further articulated into a concept to express through design or a problem to be solved by design.
Your Decomposition of Materiality project presents an alternative solution to the vast amount of material waste that is created by the fashion industry by using biodegradable materials in garments. Why did you feel it was important to highlight the problem of material waste?
I have always had an interest in speculating the core of design in general and its material concepts, so during my exploration in the fashion field, I began to question the contemporary entity of a garment or clothing. Whilst working in the Central Saint Martins fashion studio, I came to realise how much material waste is generated during a traditional fashion design project development, as garment toiles (mock-up models) are made repeatedly before the production process even begins.
The vast majority of textiles on the market are non-recyclable, which means we as young generation fashion graduates/students are also contributing to the pollution issues if we continue to do things the traditional way. When Central Saint Martins briefed us with a sustainable-focused project, I took the opportunity to spend time researching biomaterials and exploring case studies of existing material and technological innovations.
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Do you believe that more designers should be using recycled or biodegradable materials whilst experimenting with fashion?
Personally, I do think more designers should join the movement to use design and research to discuss, develop and improve our current fashion system.
Your work often presents nature and technology together as two complementary and coexisting concepts, yet the two are often thought of as oppositional. Do you believe that technology and nature are intrinsically connected to each other, and how do you perceive their interactions with one another?
I like exploring the idea of contradictory duality and correlation between polarizing elements. By referencing nature and traditions for innovating new methodologies, I aim to reflect on how we can incorporate digital technologies to discuss our current and previous realities. Since the beginning of the project’s design research, I intentionally invited the idea of chaos and entropy from nature to collaborate in this project and to inform my design decisions.
In Decomposition of Materiality, you initially utilised digital rendering to create 3D simulations of the collection. What was the intention behind exploring the idea of biodegradable garments through digital simulation before materialising the concept physically? What were the advantages of this working method? Does your use of digital rendering stem from your desire to minimise material waste?
3D modelling and rendering were used to accurately and efficiently simulate visual outcomes for this project, but also enabled a significant reduction of excess material, energy and labour waste. I first created the casting moulds through 3D modelling and fabricated these with 3D printing and laser cutting before going into the bio lab. Through adjusting subtle details on 3D rendering software, such as the cutting details and depths of casting moulds, I was able to manipulate the material textures and other qualities of the final physical biomaterial. So actually, the 3D rendering technique is a ‘catalyst’ that effectively helps me experiment on a large variety of embodiments and expressions of materiality.
Using 3D animation as a final presentation medium may seem paradoxical to a project that explores materiality, however, this use of digitisation means the final product is transformed and elevated from decomposed biodegradable textiles into an everlasting digital reality. Once the physical material vanishes, its soul is uploaded into a new, virtual life that is not only sustainable but also significantly more accessible.
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This project presents a blend of both physical bio-design and digital fabrication in a way that collaborates with both nature and technology. How did the juxtaposition of the physical and digital elements help to develop your concept of fashion textiles as a means of ‘designing life cycles’, as you described it?
I am seeking a solution to programme fashion as a human-made object to coexist with nature. With the aid of digital technology, I aim to bridge the two polarising elements together on the medium of garment, through simulating the idea of ‘growth’ and ‘biological entropy’ accurately with the physical garment.
As science and technology advance, the arts and creative industries are sometimes neglected, being viewed in society as superficial. Do you believe that science and technology should be utilised to advance and develop fashion and other artistic disciplines? Why is it important to merge scientific and artistic practices?
Innovation often comes from cross-disciplinary collaborations, and I think great things can happen when science and art/fashion inform each other. Learning from a different discipline brings perspective, new questions and critical thinking, which can inform your own practice. Sometimes, an ambitious idea or raw concept requires a scientific method to realise.
I think multidisciplinary 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 access. I believe that fashion technology can be a type of catalyst to manifest more amazing artistic projects.
You also explored the physicality of biodegradable materials in your project by researching and developing a biodegradable textile made from algae extracts and silk protein. Can you elaborate on the science and process behind developing your own biodegradable textile?
The initial material exploration started over a year ago while I was still in my placement year at Central Saint Martins. Spending five months in a bio lab in Amsterdam, I experimented through creating a range of biomaterials. The final outcome of Decomposition of Materiality involved developing a biodegradable textile made with silk cocoon protein and algae extract. Silk cocoon protein – sericin – as a biowaste is commonly discarded in industrial wastewater from textile manufacturing.
Regarding the design process, 3D technologies were used throughout the process to fabricate the material and produce 3D models. Then, producing a casting mould with the digitally designed patterns before using this as a replication mould to cast biomaterial liquid on. After the biomaterial incubation period, the material solidified with the designed texture and I further applied the silk cocoon protein selectively to engineer how the garment creases and shrinks regionally responding to change of humidity/temperature.
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In this project, you utilised digital fabrication to exhibit the way in which the final garment will change alongside the environment it finds itself in. Can you explain how the material and the garment itself are affected by the outside elements, such as temperature shifts or exposure to water?
The environmental settings are variable. For example, the bio-garment degrades much faster when soaked and can be easily reused after filtering out the non-toxic residue if desired. I did numerous trials with different environmental settings and decomposition time duration because the conditions vary on each geographic location and local season. When the season changes from humid summer to dry winter, the garment stiffens and appears to be more sculptural, and vice versa. During a curated live performance event or a showcase where the indoor conditions are controllable, the garment would expand, shrink, grow or decompose as intended. So, its change of states can be infinite.
The final physical garment looks glass-like and fragile to the observer. Did you design it to present a modern interpretation of organic materials?
The aesthetic comes from observations on the movements of organic shapes/forms. Since the beginning of the project’s design research, I intentionally invited the idea of biological entropy from nature to collaborate in this project and to inform my design decisions.
Do you believe that today’s designers should incorporate more natural elements and materials into their designs?
There is a lot to research on the aspect of nature and materials for sure, and considering the sustainability challenges we have now, I do think it would be nice if designers look in-depth in design circularity. Like many of us already do, we should question how our designs leave traces and impact our environments and society.
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This project has sparked a lot of media attention for its innovative use of biodegradable material. Are there any of your lesser-known projects that you are particularly proud of? If so, can you elaborate on the project itself and the concept behind it?
My past projects have been quite diverse in terms of mediums – they span across materials, digital/virtual realities, sculptures, fine art visuals and performance art.
Crossing of Shibuya was a media art project I completed for an exhibition in Tokyo in 2019. It was an experimentation on computer-generating infinite numbers of vivid avatars with virtual skin clothing. In this project, I developed a virtual platform where our post-humanised identities can be curated through wearable assets.
Are there any designers that you have admired or worked with whose fashion has influenced your own design aesthetic or technique?
Hussein Chalayan. His poetic juxtaposition of the body, wearables and technologies influence the way I embody and approach contemporary fashion. Recently, I have also been very inspired by the art x science projects done by innovation labs around the world, such as the MIT Media Lab. They work beyond fashion, however, their cross-disciplinary design research and rigorous creative experiments made me realise the urgency to push forward this direction within my own current discipline.
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