Wearing The Wonders Of The Invisible World: Q&A With Elaine Young

<p>Hong Kong-based biotech fashion designer divulges the passion behind her brand, LAByrinth, and her mission to use fashion as a means for discussing science.</p>

The aesthetics buried deep within the world’s essence are the source of creative inspiration for fashion designer Elaine Young. Elaine founded her biotech fashion brand LAByrinth in 2005, with microscopic images and DNA being her main design elements. Her products range from the signature DNA necklace collection “AMULA” to “Host”, an original graphic series created from images taken with advanced imaging technology—the same technology used in research laboratories the world over to reveal a microscopic world invisible to the naked eye.

Elaine is now working on her debut women’s wear collection, premiering online in July 2011 on her website. When asked what inspires her, she talks about the effects of technology in creating massive shifts that reshape the way we live in and perceive the world. She uses her observations of this phenomenon as aesthetic inspiration for her clothing and accessories, using fashion as a way of reconnecting people to these facts. Fashion, a medium that allows self-expression and hedonism, is quick to change and challenge people’s perceptions, but in Elaine’s case, she’s also bringing scientific development and social change into a wearable everyday lifestyle.

Originally majoring in philosophy and political theory, but undeniably driven by her passion for the arts, Elaine changed her major to fine art while at college. She explored various fine art disciplines like painting, dancing, performance art, installation, and film/television, until she realized that what fascinates her the most is the search for beauty within the microcosmos. Since then, her works are mainly based around this theme.

We spoke with Elaine about her biotech fashion brand, LAByrinth, and the various ways technology influences her creative process.

The Creators Project: How did you come up with the idea of combining biotechnology and fashion?
The whole project came about as a result of trying to find a way to incorporate all my interests. Although I began my university studies in philosophy and political science, in the end I surrendered to the fact that my home is in the arts, that it’s the most natural and preferred output for my thoughts.

My main focus was in painting and for a long time I was painting in fluorescent acrylics—violently bright, toxic colors. It wasn't because I wanted to be some sort of art school rebel, it was the fact that I was just painting with colors I liked (so it's no surprise to me that all my prints are vivid electric colors).

During something like my fourth critique, after my professor had seen some of my work, he asked me why this was my palette of choice. I hadn't really thought about why until that point, but I said that I liked the fact that these colors were impossible to be documented, that you have to see the work in person to really have an authentic experience and appreciation of it. I guess you could say that I've always been attracted to the idea of the immaterial and the space that exists between you and the harnessing, or actualizing, of its existence.

I got really into the scientific mechanisms of sight and visual culture, which culminated in studies that focused on communication theory, history, anthropology, hard (military) vs. soft (cultural) politics, the advent of the leisure society and popular culture. Ultimately, I'm interested in effective modes of communication.

Fashion is a communication system–a conversation that involves everyone (the fashionable and the non-fashionable).

Why do you think technology is important?
I guess you could say that more so than technology itself, I think it's important to better understand the transformative powers of technology. It's crucial to re-examine technology as it's applied to inanimate versus animate materials. Think about it… electricity, the printed word and literacy, personal computers…

The DNA necklaces were your earliest project, what is the story behind them?
The historical role of jewelry has made it significant in many ways. Jewelry can be made from a variety of materials, precious metals and stones, bones and hair from people and animals, and all pieces are believed to bring one closer to something or someone. The value of each piece arising from the reputation of its artist, the mythology of its journey, lineage of past owners… Jewelry is a talisman, worn to declare one's identity and belief. It can be traded, but ultimately it’s worn as a reminder or meditation on an idea or person.

Within our AMULA collection, you can choose from either the Map the Future collection, which features the encapsulated DNA of specially selected plants and animals (based on their symbolic richness or as a result of their status as endangered creatures, like the white tiger, panda, etc.), or personalized DNA necklaces containing the DNA of your choice (people, plant, or animal). We are working together with a privately owned biotech lab called Hai Kang Life to process the DNA.

DNA contains the instructions that create all living things, but perhaps it can be said that the Spirit is created by the interaction between all life. AMULA DNA jewelry is based on the sentiments of the traditional locket, but cast from the predictions and claims of DNA research and exploration.

What is the concept behind the LAByrinth and what is the mission?
LAByrinth is the manifestation of my interests in the facts and fantasies that fuel life. I’ve always been interested in things like the different ways in which creatures “see,” animal behaviors and evolution, attempted explanations for how our minds work and why we dream, and science’s latest postulation as to “why we are who we are.” What is disconcerting now is that “who we are” is being challenged by a small group of people with very specialized knowledge who are making big decisions and claims that will affect everyone. From food to healthcare, the environment and birth, biotechnology has the potential to alter who we are at the molecular level, and there are no guarantees as to what may or may not happen. So LAByrinth is my way of reminding people to not take those things that we can and cannot see (for whatever reason) for granted, by allowing them to “wear the wonders of the invisible world.” Hopefully these items will act as reminders and also spark conversations on these issues.

LAByrinth’s mission is embodied in the map the future INITIATIVE to facilitate innovative projects that question better living, the interaction between the animate and inanimate, the world as an ecosystem and the future. In turn, we donate and assist projects providing basic human needs (food, water, shelter, healthcare, education, and literacy) to those who are without. After all, we shape the things we build and they shape us. Create with responsibility.

Can you talk more about your fashion design?
I am all about comfort, style, and adaptability. Things you can wear while running around all day, or wear on a night out and still be stylish. I like to be ready for anything.

This collection is inspired by insects. I love the shape of their armor, the many perfectly sculpted sections that fold seamlessly on top of and underneath one another and their patterns. The pre-collection's jackets are super warm and comfortable, they'll keep you cozy while trekking around the city and they'll even keep you warm on the slopes!

Is your idea of biotechnology changing as you are working with it?
I'm not so sure I would say that my opinions are changing, since, to be honest, I've never been for or against it. “Enthralled” is probably the most appropriate word to describe my relationship to the topic of biotechnology. It's cliché, but the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know. I just think that it's important, especially now to reconsider these issues.

What are you working on now?
I'm collecting old electronics from friends in preparation for a workshop for high school students on April 13th at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. It coincides with the Hong Kong Design Centre's exhibition called Creative Ecologies that debuted as part of Hong Kong's Shanghai Expo programs last year (where LAByrinth was selected as one of Hong Kong's Future Generation of Designers). The workshop is about e-waste.

I just completed a design for Tomodachi Calling, a charity webshop for the victims of the recent disaster in Japan, and then of course there's the debut of the women’s wear collection (stay tuned), and coming up in June, we'll be at DMY in Berlin as one of the designers representing Hong Kong. The schedule for the rest of the year is intense… I just received notice that I've been selected as one of Perspective Magazine's 2011 list of '40 under 40' design talents to watch, so the momentum is building.

What is the relationship between technology and art? How do they complement each other?
I think what’s important to keep in mind is that art had a different function and could be many other things prior to the industrial era, before standardized education and the advent of mass literacy. Art today is a very different creature, as is the definition of the word itself. Outstanding technical skill is impressive, but without a solid concept, it is only craft. An amazing creative concept can be successful without impressive technical skills. WE need to be careful what responsibilities we give to technology. We need to remember WE are the CREATORS.

Photos courtesy of LAByrinth