Geek designer wears tech well

Ousted "Project Runway" contestant Diana Eng wants to make the fashion-minded more interested in technology and the science-minded more interested in fashion. Photos: Geek chic

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
7 min read
If you one day find yourself strutting down the street in an inflatable dress or peeking out from beneath a hood embedded with a digital camera, you may have Diana Eng to thank.

The 22-year-old designer, recently featured on the popular Bravo reality television show "Project Runway," favors fashion that's influenced by math, science and technology. A geek's geek who discovered the joys of math by second grade, she wants to make the fashion-minded more interested in technology and the fractal-minded more interested in fashion.

Diana Eng designs

Her portfolio features, among other tech-influenced designs, garments designed using biomimetics, the science of applying the laws of nature to technology; a hoodie with a wireless heart monitor and an embedded camera that snaps pictures as a wearer's heart rate increases; and the gown, fitted with a hacked hand vacuum and a series of valves, that inflates and deflates according to the desired silhouette. Eng designed the garment with classmate Emily Albinski while a student of apparel design at the Rhode Island School of Design.

"Prior to inflation, it's supposed to be a kind of straight-fitting dress," Eng explained during a phone interview from New York, where she currently works as a freelance designer and is busy preparing for "Seamless: Computational Couture," a Feb. 1 fashion show at the Boston Museum of Science, where she will one of the featured designers. "It inflates and becomes bell-shaped."

It's this sort of vision that earned Eng a spot on the Emmy-nominated "Project Runway," where up-and-coming designers compete through a series of fashion-related challenges for prizes that include a mentorship with the Banana Republic design team and $100,000 to start a clothing line. During auditions, one judge declared, "Diana, we are very entranced by you."

So, apparently, were viewers, who anointed Eng a darling of the geek set soon after the second season of the show started airing, on Dec. 7. Eng was booted from "Project Runway" in January after losing a challenge that involved designing a day-to-evening dress for Banana Republic. But for anyone trying to crack the high-pressure, tough-to-tackle world of fashion, being on the show at all can open doors on Seventh Avenue and beyond.

"The show is an unparalleled opportunity," Tim Gunn, chairman of the Department of Fashion Design at the New York-based Parsons: The New School for Design and a mentor to the show's contestants, told CNET News.com. "Aside from the tremendous exposure...the show is a fashion boot camp that helps each designer learn more about their design philosophy, aesthetic point-of-view, and practical methodologies."

"Although we saw her struggle periodically, she projected a seriousness of purpose that was unfaltering."
--Tim Gunn, chairman, Department of Fashion Design, Parsons: The New School for Design

"Diana used the show wisely and strategically," Gunn added. "Although we saw her struggle periodically, she projected a seriousness of purpose that was unfaltering. Diana captured the attention of the fashion industry and viewers fell in love with her."

The young Eng, who beat out thousands of competitors for a shot at fame on the New York runway, says she gets recognized by strangers on the street up to three times a day--a semi-celebrity status she seems able, and determined, to take in stride.

"She's so deeply nerdy, I love it," one viewer wrote on the message boards of the Web site Fans of Reality TV, "and I appreciate the ambitious nature of her designs."

Wrote another, "I love her ideas; I love her self-described 'nerd fashion designer' vibe. I want one of those camera hoodies!"

No stranger to geekdom
In fact, many of the hundreds of mostly positive viewer e-mails she receives daily, Eng says, come from "geek girls" and "geek boys" seeking advice on technology, fashion or both.

Eng is no stranger to geekdom--and she wears the geek label as proudly as she dons threads by favorite designers like Issey Miyake, Junya Watanabe and Kenneth Cole. The daughter of an architect mother and a civil-engineer father, she was by second grade dreaming of a Ph.D. in math. In middle school and high school, she was a science fair devotee who spent five years studying spirolaterals, figures obtained by repeatedly drawing a basic shape (she later lectured Florida math teachers on how to use these as teaching tools). Last February, she traveled to Bath University in England, where she studied TRIZ--a Russian theory of inventive problem solving--in the mechanical engineering department.

A fan of Japanese animation and a gearhead who not only loves her gadgets but loves knowing just how they work, Eng always keeps

handy a box of random electronics that can be disassembled for fun or function. In the box is an 8-year-old laptop left over from her science fair days. "I've been meaning to take it apart and turn the LCD screen into some sort of visual display thing, but I haven't gotten a chance yet," she said.

The box also contains standard practical tools--an Exacto knife, for example, wire cutters and a cordless butane soldering iron that's Eng's been known to tote around in her backpack.

"I'm not sure gadget creators are aware of girls' needs. I think they're trying to be, but their solution seems to be just making things pink."
--Diana Eng

"It's easy because you can carry it your purse," she said. "If I'm working on a project and it breaks, (the iron) will be hot in 10 seconds."

Recently, Eng has taken her gadget-assembling know-how public by helping to launch Switchit.tv, an online do-it-yourself show for girls designed to teach them how to use everyday objects to make accessories and apparel that embed technology.

In episode one, for example, Eng and her co-host, Alison Lewis, create a picture frame that records voice messages. Push a button behind the frame to record the message; play it back by pushing a button on a little iPod-like case, made from a dental floss container, that's attached to the frame's front. In an upcoming Switch segment, Eng will show viewers how to rig a purse so it blinks when the cell phone inside is ringing.

Eng says she's passionate about turning girls on to gadgets.

"I'm not sure gadget creators are aware of girls' needs," she said. "I think they're trying to be, but their solution seems to be just making things pink. There's the pink Razr and the pink iPod...that doesn't necessarily make it more girl-friendly."

For one thing, she wants to see changes in the ways gadgets are marketed to girls. "They'll have a picture of the guy using the gadget and then the woman in a bikini or something," she said. She'd also like to see gizmos that can be used as accessories. "Girls are willing to spend a lot on fashion and jewelry," she said. "You can always have electronics that are jewelry and they would easily sell."

Fractals meet fashion
Some might have trouble imagining soldering irons, wire cutters and fractals as graceful complements to the glamorous world of fashion. Eng doesn't see a contradiction. She wants geeks to embrace fashion as an outlet for self-expression.

"I kind of think of fashion as the easiest way for people to express themselves to other people," she said. "When you see someone, the first thing you'll notice is their self-presentation, and that comes down to how they're dressed and how they're styled."

Currently, her tech-inspired garments are prototypes, which means Eng's far more likely to suit up in jeans and a T-shirt than overalls that double as a hard drive. She lacks the funds, she said, for the appropriately durable fabrics and smaller electronics that would make for more wearable garments.

But she can see such garb being widely worn down the road.

"As the components become cheaper and cheaper, we're definitely going to have them in more places," she predicted. "If you had a camera that was the same size as a button, wouldn't you definitely have one on your shirt so you could take pictures of things secretly? Or maybe it would just help you log your day."

Gunn of Parsons sees a similar future for the kinds of garments Eng and designers like her envision, but said those clothes won't come without design hurdles.

"The challenge for the designer is the customer's uncompromising position on looking good and feeling comfortable," Gunn said. "If a cell phone is stashed in a pocket in one's lapel, then it had better be invisible. The designer's challenge is to make technology be truly seamless."

Eng's specific challenge as a designer, Gunn said, will be to eschew the impulse to emphasize bells and whistles over wearability.

"Diana's strength is also her weakness: her conceptual ability," he said. "While it can propel her to unexpected and successful achievements, it can also derail her by being too ridden with gimmicks."

Eng said Gunn's feedback on the show made her far more attuned to the intersection between innovation and usability. To that end, she is currently absorbing her newfound "Project Runway" lessons, thinking about graduate school and imagining her ultimate gig: designing for Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs, whom she admires for making technology more user-friendly through products like the iPod.

"I would have a lot of fun designing an outfit for Steve that incorporates elements of technology, math and science," she said, "so that he can better express himself through the clothes he wears."