Model: Tatiana Slepova
Thirteen fashion designers were invited by the San Diego Mesa College Fashion Department to collaborate with scientists from the prestigious Salk Institute for Biological Studies to create runway ensembles inspired by a variety of research. The scientists selected their own designer by looking at our respective fashion portfolios. I was selected by Cindy Liu, who is working towards a combined MD/PhD through UCSD School of Medicine and the Salk Institute.
I met with Cindy at Salk, who gave me a tour of her lab, as well as the iconic building designed by Louis I Kahn built in 1965. Cindy introduced me to Satchidananda Panda, Ph.D., Professor and Principal Investigator of the head of the Regulatory Biology Laboratory, colloquially referred to as the "Panda Lab". Cindy's research goal has been to understand how mRGCs (melanopsin-expressing retinal ganglion cells) in the retina of blind mice communicate with other cells in the neural network to regulate a mouse's circadian rhythms. This image is a 3-D single mRGC and the inspiration for the hat.
My challenge was to interpret and translate Cindy's research and software-reconstructed and hand-traced 3-D images of the mRGCs into a couture runway gown. This image is of multiple mRGCs, which reminded me of Dr. Seuss' creatures. Coincidentally, "Cindy Lou Who" is a character in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, who phonetically shares the same name as my scientist, "Cindy Liu" -- hence the design team name "SeussScience".
This is an image sent to me early on in the design phase by Cindy of a 3-D reconstruction of three mRGCs of the eye with the branching neural network. Each color represents a different mRGC. My first association to this image was of a Jackson Pollack painting, but I thought this image was too busy to translate to fashion. At our first meeting, I asked Cindy if she could greatly magnify the image, and if you scroll forward you will see the result.
This magnified and hand-traced image by Cindy looks like free-motion embroidery with neon thread, and I knew immediately that this was the perfect the textile design for the dress. I decided to stitch this design with fluorecent thread upon black silk organza, with the plan to have it illuminated with a UV blacklight during the fashion show. The black silk on which I free-motion sewed represents nighttime, blindness, and circadian rhythms.
Some tests swatches under blacklight!
After practicing on paper, muslin, and scraps of organza, I sewed three cell lines in three different colors using fluorescent thread -- tightly hooping each sewing area while stabilizing the silk underneath with a heavyweight water-soluble "fabric" called Solvy to prevent the occationally overlapping thread work from puckering. I sewed one color of the mRGC cell line at a time to create a 3-D effect similar to the scientific images Cindy had drawn to map the mRGCs in her research study.
I cut away as much Solvy as possible without cutting the two layers of pre-hemmed silk organza, and them gently washed the silk to dissolve the Solvy stabilizer, leaving the free-motion embroidery and fabric. The skirt fabric was ironed using an organza press cloth.
My original concept was to make the blouse white, but it was too stark when illuminated by blacklight, and distracted from the skirt, so the top was redesigned in black organza. A friend loaned me her vintage Sally Stanley Smocking Pleater and taught me how to use it. We wound one layer of black silk organza around what looks like a rolling pin used to make pie crusts, and then cranked the fabric through two crimping metal rollers as seen in this photograph. The threaded needles held the tiny pleats tightly together. We made a second pass with the fabric to create sufficiently pleated fabric for the blouse.
To set the pleats, I placed a vinegar-soaked towel between the fabric and an ironing board, and I held the iron several inches above the fabric while blasting it with shots of steam. The acetic acid in the vinegar "denatured" the protein by breaking the hydrogen bonds which held its tertiary (3-D) structure. This caused the silk to "relax" into the pleated textured textile that I created. Later, once the fabric was completely dry, I removed the pleating support threads inserted by the pleating machine.
I created my own pattern for the top. I made 6 muslins and met multiples times with my delightful model, Tatiana Slepova, to get the correct fit. I hand-basted two pieces of white silk organza on top of a cotton base. The two layers of white silk organza under the black pleated organza quietly fluoresce under blacklight, which was the subtle illuminating effect I was seeking.
During the final fitting, the original neckline design was altered to take advantage of the unexpected architectural quality of the pleated organza. The black and white top represent the night and day cycles of our circadian rhythms. The tight pleats pay homage to the layered nature of the retina, the 3-D quality of the mRGC reconstructions, and our pleated brain.
Tiny black seed beads were sewn onto the blouse, and also function to hide the stitching of the black to the white organza layers. Some of the pleats were invisibly restitched with fine black silk thread to create a curvy pattern to the fabric, not unlike the non-linear-appearing mRGC cell lines, and this holds the neckline in place. The seed beads represent the synaptic vessicles in the axons of the mRGCs.
After several meetings at the Salk Institute with Cindy, and several fittings with Tatiana, my husband and I hosted a Sunday brunch in our home for the members of our team to get acquainted; husbands were included. I served mimosas, and my dear husband made pancakes and pulled shots of espresso. Tatiana modeled the outfit-in-progress, and Cindy Liu demonstrated her fabulous sense of humor in my art studio.
Earrings were stitched on black tulle fabric to represent mRGC cell bodies.
The water-soluble stabilizer was washed out and gold chains and hooks were added to complete the earrings.
After taking a summer millinery class through San Diego City Adult Education program with the renowned Diana Cavagnaro, I learned how to make a professionally finished hat. I made the base hat in the class, and finished it at home. My goal was to add a tall structure to the top of the hat to represent a single mRGC.
Many "experiments" were conducted in my kitchen, including: 1) making mRGCs out of hot glue extruded from a glue gun; 2) melting 20 hot glue gun sticks in a Pyrex baking pan in the oven and dipping wire into it; 3) torching wire coated with dipped hot glue with a propane torch to sculpt it; and 4) spray painting curly willow with orange fluorescent paint.
Not liking the results of any of my experiments, since the image of the single mRGC that Cindy provided me resembled a sea creature, I ordered a large sea fan off ebay, which I spray painted with a fluorescing clear lacquer made in Germany. Under blacklight, it has a beautiful subtle bluish glow -- the perfect effect I was desiring. Moreover, the fractal architecture of the fan resembles the vasculature of the retina.
To create the hat upon which the sea fan would attach, I used a dome of friable styrofoam strengthened with Mod Podge, which I covered with a recycled black t-shirt, using tiny nails to hold the fabric in place. I screwed the foam down to the hat base using washers to support the screws. The t-shirt fabric was stitched down along the circular edge to hold the foam down securely using a long, sturdy doll-making needle.
A slit in the black t-shirt fabric was held open with pins, similar to retracting skin during surgery, and the hat masked with masking tape. The base of the sea van was inserted into the carved out hole in the styrofoam base. Since many glues and adhesives will dissolve styrofoam, I used a construction adhesive that set in 20 minutes and cured in 24 hours, and it worked beautifully for imbedding the sea fan securely into the hat. The masking tape and pins were removed and the black t-shirt fabric was drawn back together and hand stitched. Black beads were sewn over the t-shirt fabric to camouflage the seam. More beads were added so the beading looked intentional.
I am delighted and excited to be part of the first ever Women in Science Runway Show fundraiser at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California to be held on October 4, 2017. Hair, make-up, and styling decisions are next, then professional photographs and runway practice. Special lighting, including blacklights for my creation, will be required for several of the 13 garments designed and created for the fashion show. What a great privilege and learning experience this has been for me, having made many new friends in the process.


Created with images by Stacy Spensley - "salk institute" • Jun Seita - "Salk Institute"

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