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

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 "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

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