April 22, 1997: This is the first time in two years I have sat down to design. The voice is back with me – ‘the first hundred ideas are always crap’. It’s a familiar feeling. I gradually lose a sense of self, outside stuff fades and the inside takes over. It’s always been something I crave and dread.
The difference between starting primitive streak and any collection that has gone before is that beauty is the only objective, that and the life event I am trying to explain: the development of a human form. In any other fashion collection the preoccupation would be whether it can be profitably manufactured.
April 28: If I had to pick a day when this project really started, it would be today. Spent four hours blasting information with Kate in the lab in Oxford. The unsaid agenda was to see if the gist could be caught in a day – it can’t. After three hours I couldn’t take in any more: gastrulation, cell division, prophase, metaphase, teleophase, neuralation, primitive streak, fibroblast, blastocyst and more.
Spent the evening deciding on what level to pitch the understanding of the project. We decided that if our children can begin to understand the basic phases of our embryonic origins as a result of the collection, then we will have got it about right. One of the key recurring problems of the project raises its head for the first time: how to represent the science fact without the wearer looking like a total prat. The day ends with a nasty kitchen table design of what looks like a red life-vest gone wrong.
April 30: Went to the Wellcome building to raid the library for more images. Back in London I can start to make sense of what I’ve seen down the microscopes in Oxford. Some apparent truths have hit home early. There are clearly moments in Kate’s work that defy re-interpretation – i.e. if you make the substance that surrounds the egg during much of its development solid (as you must if a body is to wear it), you have already lost an important part of its world.
May 7: Working with my sister for the first time I am starting to notice and acknowledge things about her and, inadvertently and by comparison, about me too. How she introduces me to her colleagues at the lab – ‘this my big sister, older sister, by one year’ – but I still feel the younger. How her eyes glaze over when she is not talking about science, and mostly when recounting our childhood. But most of all it’s her smile, the way it curls down at the corners. For years I have never settled it in my mind, yet when I think of her it sums her up: some days it smacks of cynicism, on others an apology for her greater intelligence over mine. It’s probably neither of these.
I know now that she herself has feelings about not being recognised as ‘creative’, when in both our differing ways it is, at snatched times, all that we are. For all this observation, old and new, she is still as hard to read as others say I am.
With a knot in my stomach I have shown Kate the first draft of the collection. Her reaction will be vital to my confidence to carry on. Have I lost something? Misunderstood? Have I made symbolic that which must be blatantly clear? Most important of all, have I fallen into the trap of over-simplifying the science and losing the fashion?
As we go through the sketches I lay them out, from single cell through to the development of the thorax. Her eyes light up at giant and magnified sperm on the sleeves of a jacket, and the word ‘brilliant’ pops out at the sequence of neurulation. The beginnings of what I wanted to achieve have started to emerge, there is some hope that my way of designing might be able to explain a scientific event in cloth and on a moving female body.
May 15: Suddenly there is no time to design. It reminds me of running a company again – all to do with raising the finance to fund the collection, sponsor the show and back the exhibition.
Sent down a full set of the collection drawings to Oxford for Kate to show to a number of different scientists. The design side is still not worrying me, in part because it’s a change to be designing a collection that hasn’t got some form of autobiographical root to it. As hard as the brief is, as much as it must produce itself, it is by far the most electric project I’ve ever touched.
June 6: Kate arrived from Oxford at 7am, and we went straight into the collection. Both of us stare down again at the floor of sketches. Mugs in hand, these silences are full of negotiation, a process of teaching, learning, translation and agreed ‘artistic’ representation. From Kate to me and back again.
What art can really do for science may be misguided, for art does not have to be exacting. Its purpose, then, in a project like this may only be to raise awareness, to act as a magnet to those who might not normally go near it. Not so much explanation as an attempt at communication.
June 14: I feel at the moment that I am less a designer and more an illustrator, my instinct on constant stop-start as the need for accuracy on the science halts me at virtually every pen stroke. Appreciating what I don’t know puts me in a rage; moreover there is no time to learn more than the basics – it’s like painting without being allowed to look at the colour.
Kate feels I have to be satisfied with the collection from a fashion point of view and that if I am not then we will have lost the power of communication – in which case the collection stinks, it’s a piece of self-conscious stodgy shit. I want to start all over again.
July 6: It doesn’t get any better. I feel out of control, the money is not certain, the show doesn’t exist yet, I’m not designing, I’m taking visual dictation, the restraints of the science don’t need an artist to interpret them, an artistic secretary with half a brain would do.
August 12: Kate came down to look at the collection’s progress. Apart from her interest in how the sketches have been translated into 3D, she seemed as interested in my work environment, and in a joint interview made her first-ever verbal observation of my little world. She seemed pleasantly surprised at the similarities between how a lab is run and a workroom.
In the past I imagine that her perceptions of my professional life have been based on the image the fashion industry can’t help but perpetuate – that it’s all glamour, kisses and hysterics over things that at the end of the day don’t matter. What she saw was that there is order, precision, trust, a shared vision and a lot of hard work.
August 24: I am now in personal debt as all the funds available are paying the team or buying the materials to take the collection forward. I have to choose between paying myself in order to buy a pair of trainers for my son or cancelling the prototype molecule shoes designed for the collection.
September 4: Strange feelings after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Even good news for me doesn’t have the impact it should. I can hear myself reacting how I ought to to the timely news that the Royal Society/COPUS have given us a grant of £20,000 – I can finish the collection and climb out of personal debt – but still the day is not real and not much is getting in or out.
September 11: At the photo shoot for this article, six months of experimentation come together. This is the first opportunity I have had to sit back and see the work as others might. It’s a good time to consider whether you’ve pulled it off or not, as it’s too late to do anything about it if you haven’t. The model is so important. People don’t credit the models who do have intelligence, but when you work with one who has it can make all the difference. She can embody the first thought you had, and with Lana, within minutes and after some explaining of the collection, she began to look uncannily like my first sketches all those months ago.
This shoot also marks the time when you have to let go, when the judgement and criticism starts on whether science and art, or in this case fashion, have anything valid to say to each other. I think we are still in the process of finding out: we haven’t finished with each other yet.
April 28: Helen’s first visit to the lab, and our first day on our Wellcome Trust Sci/Art project, ‘Primitive Streak’. We aim to elucidate ten key events in embryonic life, beginning with fertilisation and progressing as far as the recognisable human form – two arms, two legs, a head, a face – through Helen’s medium, fashion design. We talked and drew developing embryos for three hours. I tried to describe why these events were important. It was exhausting. Too much to take in for Helen. Hard for me to translate into layman’s terms. It is surprising, discovering this other Helen, who wants to know everything in such detail. It is great to be working with someone so committed and full of ideas.
April 29: Helen had her first experience of living chick embryos (which at early stages of development look very like the human embryo). I showed her two stages: a primitive streak stage embryo (12 hours’ incubation) and a later one in which the simple heart tube had formed (30 hours incubation). She was amazed by their translucence and colours and by their depth. We discussed why the primitive streak is so important, why we should use it as the form of the collection: it is the site of gastrulation, the process by which the crucial third layer of the embryo is generated, and it is the source of many of the tissues of the body. I think I got across the fundamental idea that the embryo consists of cells that are constantly dividing and moving to generate its overall form. She seemed finally amazed, like all developmental biologists, by the precision with which cells become the right type (nerve or skin or muscle, etc) in the right place.
April 30: Met up with Helen for an interview in London. I thought it odd that they didn’t explore why we had ended up in such different careers. Of course we went to different schools, but I think the major difference is the way in which we responded to having such a perceptive yet dogmatic father. I felt a strong need to find an area of life that he knew nothing about.
Had lunch with Helen and looked through the first prints and sample materials she was trying. The project seemed suddenly to be rising from the paper and acquiring its own identity.
May 5: Woke up worrying about the early cell division designs. We are going to represent these first divisions of the fertilised egg as a series of spheres within spheres suspended in a hoop out of the side of the dress. Will they look cancerous? How three-dimensional should they be? Is Helen happy with them? Perhaps we need to develop a style of look for the whole collection.
May 17: Cambridge. Visiting our friends Maggie and Dennis Bray. Dennis is an eminent cell biologist and one of the authors of The Molecular Biology of the Cell, an essential text in our field. He also has an artistic eye and is therefore an ideal person with whom to discuss Helen’s latest designs. To begin with I think he was surprised by what we were attempting to do, but quickly saw how some of the designs were working. In the end he was more enthusiastic than me: ‘if anyone comes away with “primitive streak” tripping off their tongues it will have been worth it…’
May 20: I showed the collection to a number of colleagues. Professor Gillian Morriss-Kay (an embryologist), Dr Helen Skaer (a developmental biologist) and Dr Marco Lee (a clinician). They were all enthusiastic about the idea and they were all put off by the same things – by incidentals they couldn’t place, such as earrings or hairstyles. They commented very much on specific details like this. Perhaps because they were shy of commenting on the wider concept? They each focused on a few drawings that they liked, for aesthetic reasons, I think, or because they were familiar images. They seemed genuinely embarrassed by the boldness of some of the other designs, such as the sperm strapped around the model’s thigh with a symbolic coil of mitochondria.
Helen and I drew the changing shapes of the developing heart. This kind of interaction is more demanding than I expected. Maybe it is because it involves both teaching and the creation of symbols that correctly represent the developing embryo. I had thought that this part would be easy, that it would be a relief to be free from the exacting process of science, which is full of checking and refining, but in fact it is harder. If we are to get it right it has to be exact in both an artistic and scientific sense. As Helen keeps saying, ‘That will look like someone with a dinosaur hair piece or a sausage roll on their heads.’ ‘Not,’ I suggest, ‘the neural tube finally closing?’
July 24: Meeting with Philip Treacy to discuss the heart developmental hat. My first real encounter with Helen at work in her world. Treacy is young and sure of his designs, which helps a lot. He listens to Helen, who seems strangely unsure, perhaps because I am there. Treacy appears disinterested in the science or symbolism of the hat and gives me a look which suggests he left school to avoid science, and particularly teacher, which he perceives me to be. We end up drawing together in a notebook, all three sitting on the floor. Helen and I communicate best on paper.
August 12: The most wonderful part of the day was seeing how Helen’s sketched designs have translated into cloth. The black and red implantation dress is ready, all but the hem. It works so well as a dress. I am am amazed. This final translation step, the final creation of the garment from the abstracted scientific image (Helen’s sketch) is astonishing. Will all the designs work as well? Helen has decided to add a twist to our adoption of the ‘primitive streak’ as our title. She is going to include some primitive/ethnic textiles in the primitive streak stage dresses.
August 16: Surprised and dismayed to learn from Helen that at times she feels she has lost touch with the design process and has been taking ‘visual dictation’. If this is all the project is it is very disappointing, a castrating experience. With hindsight we should have spent longer at the early stages, just looking at images and embryos, building up Helen’s confidence with the sequence of development and with the terminology. I think this is a problem with communicating science; it is believed to be a series of unquestionable facts and non-scientists are afraid to explore it. I had hoped to be a conduit through which she could gain access to a new world.
August 17: We have reached a real low, even though Helen has been saying the collection is coming together. I sense she is physically and emotionally exhausted, but cannot give up now. I have tried to stand back from it, let her make it work as fashion. I feel a parent-like responsibility for her in one mood and amazed by her in another. I am beginning to feel what I had previously only observed, that Helen’s world is all about vulnerability, while science is less personal, buffered by objectivity and better experiments to come. Perhaps that’s why I went into it; science is less painful and its substance more tangible. Maybe the project simply doesn’t work because it is the phoney, pretentious rubbish Lewis Wolpert would have us believe – or will it bridge a gap?
August 24: Helen has just faxed through the latest version of the heart development sequence. It looks fantastic. She has given the final heart form, sitting on the diaphragm, a set of tail feathers. The whole thing looks like a robin with a red breast. The feathers perfectly balance the rather monstrous heart in front. Helen has made the heart her own.
September 4: A smile from Helen as we part in the Tube beneath Baker Street quashes my anxieties. She has found so many ways of expressing herself through the project that it must surely work – at least in terms of fashion.
Originally published in The Times Magazine, 27 September 1997, p.35-45