What if our skins morph and change texture in response to the weather? What if our clothing is made with ephemeral waves of the ocean? These are the very questions that prompt young designer and all round-creative maven Scarlett Yang to conceive her future-facing garments.
Fashion's past may be somewhat murky when it comes to sustainability, but the industry is slowly waking up to a collective change, with a greener legacy being carved out by activists in recent years. It's work that has paved the way for designers like Scarlett Yang to blossom, an innovator who is undoubtedly one of tomorrow's leaders of the eco-revolution.
So, what makes Yang different? Unlike the rest of the fashion pack, the ikon-1 designer's work seeks to extend the possibilities of technology when used creatively, building a long neglected bridge between fashion and science. Some have managed to break through in their mission to meld these two industries together - most notably Iris van Herpen, who's pushed the boundaries of sculptural creation in the realm of science season after season. Yang's mission is to create an entire ecosystem in which design, fashion, technology, innovation and the future combine to steer the future of sustainable creation. The artist's wide background has seen her work span from couture ateliers to bio labs and digital fabrication studios.
'Everything I do is connected to an ecosystem network; that's what I'm about, using different mediums to create ecological designs that positively impact the climate. This Christie's project has been one facet of the ecosystem that I'm trying to imagine,' Yang told me over a call. The Christie's project in question is the latest chapter in this ecological revolution of which Yang's fashion is an intrinsic part of. Titled Ephemeral Materiality, the piece Yang created sat in a line-up of other exhibitions, live performances, workshops and more unveiled as part of a 'Christie's Lates' held to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit earlier this year.
Exploring a minefield of endless innovative possibilities, Ephemeral Materiality uses nature's own data to create fashion for the future. Whether the outcome takes shape as a biodegradable dress made of couture materials or an interactive screen that monitors the temperature of all those who stand in front of it, reacting through different patterns and textures just as her work shown at Christie's does, essentially focusing on the idea of our clothing changing to protect us against the weather, rather than the current solution of us changing into different outfits for different weather systems.
As the audience approaches the digital screen displaying the artwork, the visuals change shape and texture based on the audience's movements, forming nature-like digital skins around the silhouettes of the audience. From a distance, the digital visual looks like turbulent ocean waves iteratively splashing on human skin. On closer inspection, the water-like fabric material weaves itself into an intricate second skin of its own. 'When people see the Christie's work in the flesh, they probably won't imagine this is something to do with climate or laboratory. You would never think that. It's fascinating because when I explain to people a lot of the time that my work carries much more depth than they may think, it really is a great conversation every time.'
Of course, Yang is part of a larger generation that - due to previous neglect - has had to adapt their output so they are not tarnished with the same polluting brush their predecessors have been. But there's something about Yang's dedication that makes you realise her efforts go beyond just wanting media attention, which she has also received in an abundance of late. After having attended three of the world's most notorious universities (Royal College of Art, Central Saint Martins and Imperial College London), the industry has started to wake up to Yang's efforts, which has led to the designer collaborating with the most exclusive museums and brands around the world, including the V&A, London Design Biennale, Dutch Design Week, Paco Rabanne, Rolls Royce, NOWness and The Fabricant. The designer was also included in our own seminal NFT ikon-1 project launched at the tail end of last year. Her multidisciplinary approach to exploring the life cycles of fashion textiles has certainly made her a one-to-watch in sustainable design, and she has also been invited to speak at the United Nations COP26 Climate Conference.
Yang's work is inherently intricate and complex in nature, commanding many different facets to create such digitally-advanced design. 'It's obviously not a one-man job, and it can sometimes be really challenging communicating these ideas with this vision and the technology', Yang explains. However, the problem isn't with Yang's interpretation; more about her audience and those with whom she speaks about her work. Armed with a background in fashion, design research and science engineering, Yang admits her diverse educational background has helped in her own understanding of different people's perspectives, strengths and weaknesses combined. 'When I explain, there are many people - particularly from a traditionally creative background - that don't understand, so it's quite the challenge sometimes. Yet, when they see and experience it... et voila', Yang laughs. 'They suddenly get more of the narrative of the concept and breadth and depth of vision and research behind knowing how these two (fashion and science) can marry.'
In terms of technology, Yang's process relies heavily on many different components creating a sort of chain reaction, with the Christie's project being no different. 'We extracted climate data from satellite,' Yang informs. 'We then visualised this data so that scientists and technologists can actively see it.' It's this specific extraction that has formed the basis of Ephemeral Materiality, allowing the artwork to change around as the audience as they come in and interact with the piece. It's important to note that without the audience's participation, Yang's work would only be half complete; they are as much a component as she is in the coming together of her own ecosystem. 'Any slight change in your gesture and presence will have a result and effect on this piece', Yang clarifies, certifying that it's a reactive composition to our environment; this aspect also helps, in Yang's words, 'to enhance and tell a story between the machine and a human; to humanise this technology.'
It would be fair to say that we are on the cusp of a digital revolution, one that has been brewing for well over two decades. Despite the feeling that this technology - including everything stemming from AI to 'Human–computer Interaction' - is coming at us full throttle, Yang's work does everything to promise its benefits, especially when it coexists with the human mind and talent rather than overpower it. 'Because there are so many different facets to this project, different people are going to pick up different things, depending on who they are, what they do and what they love,' Yang reveals. 'I really want this project to break the stereotype of "dystopian, cybernetic, future, blade runner style"' (although, don't be alarmed, Yang quickly asserts she is a lover of Blade Runner but admits it 'offers too negative a connotation of what the future will be like if it was digital'). Essentially, Yang's work exists so people realise technology, when used correctly, isn't anything to fear. 'There are quite a variety of potentials and possibilities that could happen if we really use this the right way', Yang affirms.
Admittedly, the old school institutions are hesitant, but unlike some artists who have incorporated this technology into their work without reason other than experimentation, Yang is armed with many examples of how her efforts are helping carve a more sustainable future - not only literally but metaphorically in terms of how we approach technology.
I can't help but piece an overarching theme together that's rooted in participation above all else. Not only does Yang demand audience interaction, but her own efforts in experimenting with technology to carve out a more sustainable future for herself, her peers, and millions of others to come places her in the category of activism. Her carefully thought-through designs allow us to question why fashion continually churns out endless mounds of stuff under the guise of 'keeping on trend'.
By supporting the young designer, you are supporting the future of your children and grandchildren. Yang's commitment to forward-facing sustainability-minded design is infectious and evident in any conversation she has, no matter which way it's steered, so say goodbye to fashion's love of greenwashing for now, Scarlett Yang's ecosystem is coming and its here to help us all.