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Boston Society of Architects

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the needle

Fashion and architecture share common goals

Threading IMG 3213 02

June Kim's garment for the MIT Trashion Show, 2017.

Photo by June Kim

Project Runway was one of the first TV shows I watched when I came to the United States in 2006. I was drawn to the show because amazing outfits could be created within a few days from just a kernel of an idea. The “unconventional materials” challenge—which required designers to use items not normally used to create clothing, such as seeds, paper, or even candy wrappers—was my favorite. Contestants had to have a clear understanding of how materials act, knowledge of different construction methods, and sheer ingenuity to incorporate those elements into their outfits.

Dress sketch by June Kim

Eleven years later, my interest in unconventional-material outfits resurfaced because of a student-run competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called “The Trashion Show,” which involves creating outfits out of recycled objects or trash. The goal of the competition is to celebrate creative design while promoting environmental sustainability and waste reduction. In my last year at MIT, I was determined to create a show-stopping outfit using all the design skills and fabrication methods I learned through my architectural studies, along with random self-taught crafting skills.

It’s not uncommon for architects or people with architectural backgrounds to work in the fashion industry. Notable examples of designers who have experienced both worlds are Tom Ford, Pierre Balmain, and Gianni Versace, to name just a few. By using their problem-solving skills in the overlap between architecture and fashion, designers make their ideas come to fruition.

An architect has to first think of the overall form of a building and then figure out how to make the building stand up and function for the people inhabiting the space. A fashion designer has to think about the silhouette of the outfit and how the clothes are going to function on a body. Clothing is a smaller-scale “architecture” that provides a definition and boundary of personal space. The goal of both disciplines is to create a shelter for the user while expressing certain aesthetics.

For the Trashion Show, I envisioned a Victorian hoop dress with a modern twist. I wanted to maintain its highly structural aspects, such as the crinoline cage and waist-cinching corset, while incorporating modern trends, such as a high-low dress form and cold-shoulder style. Both fashion and architecture draw inspiration from past trends, reinterpreted to match the modern lifestyle—that’s why old clothing gets altered and buildings get renovated. Shoulder pads from the 1980s are making a reappearance on the runways, and architects are designing buildings inspired by traditional styles, such as neotraditional Colonial-era houses.

I had to understand Victorian fashion trends in order to modernize the look. It was the first piece of clothing I’d ever attempted to create, so there was a lot of research and testing involved. I read up on how crinoline cages were made and found a book in one of the MIT libraries on how to make corset patterns. Then I had to consider how to incorporate recycled materials and construct the outfit. I collected materials from recycling bins, scrap crafting boxes, and people who were throwing out their old items.

After some trial and error, I was able to replace the flattened steel wires used for the crinoline cage with plastic packing straps and strips of framing mat board scraps formed into hoops and then taping and wrapping them with fabric. These materials were not as sturdy as the original materials, of course, but I needed the outfit to last only for the fashion show. I cut some old leggings into a pair of shorts, which was used as a base to attach the cage “wires.”

The muslin corset prototype that I made to test the pattern I created became the base of the corset body. I sewed on strips of framing mat board for corset boning and used a discarded black T-shirt to cover up the boning. To create the lacework, I used an old lace-making technique called tatting. Tatting is thought to have originated in the 1800s, inspired by decorative rope work used by sailors and fishermen. Normally, thin-gauged cotton or silk threads are used for tatting; instead, I created my own threads by twisting together three strands of plastic bag strips and had to make my own tatting tools to match the larger-gauge plastic bag thread. Through this design process, I reinterpreted the silhouette of the traditional Victorian hoop dress while using such modern materials as plastic and synthetic stretchy fabric to execute traditional crafting methods. Similarly, neotraditional architecture is inspired by historic styles but constructed with modern materials such as vinyl and faux brick.

At some point, I realized I could use the leftover portion of the leggings as detached sleeves. Unlike buildings that can cost millions of dollars, fashion is a personal-scale “shelter” for the body, so it is much easier to explore spontaneous ideas. Even though both fashion and architecture go through a problem-solving process, one is created to keep up with rapidly changing trends, whereas the other is built to last for centuries. It is easier for fashion designers to take creative risks, be influenced by pop culture, and pave the way for the new “it look” that can change the industry. In the 1920s, short skirts and unrestrictive clothes that defined the flapper style became wildly popular, reflecting and representing the women who were determined to become independent and free from the restrictive Victorian lifestyle.

Architects, on the other hand, must take into consideration how their buildings are going to affect the general character of the neighborhood. If a building’s design doesn’t complement the surrounding scenery, it could look grossly out of place. Certainly, some “out of the norm” designs can transcend into art or historical landmarks, but they can also become unsightly when executed incorrectly. Initially, French artists harshly criticized the Eiffel Tower because of its radically industrial look, which clashed with the elegant design of the surrounding city. Over time, of course, the beloved landmark outlived its critics and original purpose as a temporary structure designed to last for only 20 years.

New technologies also influence fashion designers and architects to experiment, pushing the boundaries of design. The rise of digital modeling and three-dimensional (3D) printing allows designers to create something complicated that previously could not be conveyed by hand-drawn images or constructed by traditional fabrication techniques. Today, designers are able to digitally represent their models by scanning the body and then designing an outfit entirely in the 3D space. The virtual model of the outfits can then be produced directly by a 3D printer, forgoing the difficult process of translating two-dimensional materials into a 3D object.

Two recent examples showcase this approach: Voltage by Iris van Herpen with Neri Oxman and Julia Koerner was created using a multimaterial 3D printer that incorporates both soft and hard materials, allowing the armorlike outfit to move with the body. The Kinematics Dress by Nervous System is composed of thousands of unique interlocking pieces that are 3D printed as a single unit and unfolded into a custom-fit outfit—without the need to assemble it by hand. Because these new technologies are experimental and costly, they are not yet being used in the retail fashion industry or for buildings.

The Trashion Show outfit I created ended up winning first place that year. Fashion and architecture remain my two fields of interest, and I’m now taking a class at the School of Fashion Design in Boston to get formalized training in clothing construction. Who knows, I might even create outfits that Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn would approve of.