Many guests at the fashion show at the Liberty Hotel last week didn’t realize they were watching research come down the runway.
But that was the point.
Organizers of Descience, a Cambridge-based competition that partners scientists with fashion designers, unveiled the project’s 15 finalists at the Oct. 23 Fashionably Late show including the winning look called Cytocouture, which translated MIT biomaterial engineer Laura Indolfi’s cell therapy research into dress form.
Cytocouture was a draped unisex garment with brightly textured silk set against a black fabric. Boston designer Carlos Villamil, who works as a senior graphic artist for Whole Foods and hopes to launch his own apparel line, designed Cytocouture using a zero-waste “clothing system” that, like the cells that Indolfi studies, adapted depending on who was wearing the garments.
The look was one of the night’s most accessible — even as it called to mind avant-garde Japanese fashion greats Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. But others showcased dramatic plays on proportion — think bulbous skirts and cocoon silhouettes — and showed an occasionally overzealous affection for LED lighting.
A judging panel that included Nobel Prize winner and Harvard Medical School professor Jack Szostack, MIT Media Lab architect Neri Oxman, and Tiffany and Co. design director Francesca Amfitheatrof whittled down the finalists from 61 teams of two at a first showing last month in Cambridge. (The teams came from the United States and Europe, but organizers hope next year’s show will expand to Asia).
Research topics ranged from the DNA of quinoa to how bacteria can attack cancerous tumors, and Boston’s fashion community was well represented with Revere’s Isabel Lopez, Boston’s Candice Wu, and Rhode Island School of Design student Chaz Aracil. The 21-year-old Aracil teamed up with Constanza Vasquez Doorman, a graduate student at Northwestern University studying the regenerative capabilities of planarian flatworms.
“I work with biology at the RISD nature lab,” he said. “When I heard about this project, it was a dream come true.”
The process of slicing the flatworms inspired Aracil’s iridescent jumpsuit in blue and green that matched Vasquez Doorman’s research slides. But the focal point of the piece was the “regenerated” arm fashioned from fabric as well as art materials and plastics.
“These are worms that can grow back anything. That’s the mystery,” he said.
The riddle Harvard doctoral student Camilla Engblom has set out to solve is whether bone marrow cells can impact the progression of cancer. Engblom, who works next door to the Liberty at MGH, admitted some initial pause at the idea of turning her research into clothing.
“It sounded totally out of the box,” she said. “It was so frustrating at the beginning to visualize.”
But designer Nicole Markoff “asked the right questions” and her energy was infectious. The resulting creation, aptly named Marrow and Thread, ended up convincing Engblom that scientists and artists share lots of common ground.
“We have to be creative. Sometimes the work is really intense,” she said. “Slow fashion, slow science. If you rush things, you don’t find the truth.”