While most school students are dropping subjects like maths and science to realise their dreams of becoming a fashion designer, PhD designate in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building (DAB) Mark Liu is using them to take the fashion world by storm. Liu, who has already been acclaimed for pioneering zero-waste fashion, is now set to redefine how we measure the human body. His new device, which combines fashion with geometry, will not only change the way garments are made, but the way we teach mathematics too.
When Mark Liu was studying for his Bachelor of Design in Fashion and Textiles at UTS in 2004, other students in his fashion theory classes concentrated on subjects like feminism and the corset. Not satisfied with the norm, Liu ventured over the Harris Street bridge to the Faculty of Science to explore how newly emerging nanotechnology could influence his creations.
“At that time, there were only about 10 books on nanotechnology in the entire UTS Library and the information that was there was really technical, written by physicists,” says Liu. “But, I was more interested in how nanotechnology could affect fashion, such as designing self-healing clothing, fabric that changes colour or that you don’t have to wash.”
After completing his degree at UTS, Liu was accepted at Central Saint Martins College in London, where he studied textile futures. It was here that he began to make his mark on the emerging concept of zero-waste fashion.
“Zero-waste had been, basically, rejected by a lot of big companies in the 70s and 80s because it just wasn't working,” explains Liu. “I’m really into fashion pattern cutting, which is the way you construct clothing and that was just a really big challenge for me. I thought, ‘What is the hardest pattern to create?’ and the answer was zero-waste.”
Liu describes zero-waste as a jigsaw puzzle: cutting so no fabric is wasted. “Considering that roughly 15 per cent of the fabric is discarded when a typical garment is made, the cumulative effect of leaving behind no waste has far-reaching environmental consequences,” he says.
Liu’s Saint Martin’s collection led to a series of eco fashion shows and exhibitions, including London Fashion Week, but the young designer still wasn’t satisfied.
“I was exhibiting in museums, got to travel to places like India and exhibit at fashion shows in science museums; but there was this one thing that started grating at me,” he says. “The more I advanced zero-waste patternmaking, the more I was using mathematics and geometry – and this was the complete game changer.
“People thought you could use traditional techniques and just whack patterns together to create zero-waste. But, the more I tried the more the system just started falling apart and I needed an alternative system.”
“So, I cheated,” confesses Liu. “I started borrowing concepts from mathematicians; and the more I did this the more the traditional way of patternmaking started falling apart.
“Until I had this one realisation, which would influence the rest of my research: there are basically three different sets of geometry going on when you make a garment and fashion designers were only using one form of geometry – the geometry of flat surfaces.
“But, they’re using it to measure curved surfaces, which creates all sorts of problems and explains why clothing sometimes doesn’t fit even if you take perfect linear measurements.
“That kind of thinking, from a mathematics point of view, was discovered hundreds of years ago. Fashion needs to catch up to be able to evolve.”
Liu admits, “Once you have an idea like that, it drives you to obsession.”
And it was this that led Liu away from the parties and fashion shows of Europe and back to UTS to embark on a PhD under the supervision of DAB’s Head of School, Design Lawrence Wallen and Professor in the School of Design Thea Brejzek.
Liu’s research has resulted in a new invention that is set to change the way designers measure people for clothes and, at the same time, address the problems of fitting people of different shapes and sizes that are inherent throughout the fashion industry.
And it all started by Liu looking at the curves of the human body the way a mathematician would look at equations.
“The geometry of curved things is far more complicated than fashion designers think,” says Liu.
“If you look at the human body, it is actually a really complicated 3D shape, with all different kinds of curvatures.
“It’s almost more complex to look at the cleavage or moving arm of a person than it is at equations. I don’t think fashion designers understood how complex measuring and dressing this shape is. But, now we can start addressing and explaining it.”
Liu explains that in traditional pattern making, designers take linear measurements of the body then shape those into a flat pattern. But, these flat, linear measurements don’t take into account the curvature of the human body.
“The geometry of the human body is actually very complicated. We don’t have a system sophisticated enough to understand and accurately map everything. We try to make these idealised forms through our patternmaking, but people aren’t like that.”
So Liu came up with the Drape Measure – a device that could measure the human body in 3D. It’s part of a whole new system of fashion patternmaking that Liu has built from the ground up; a system based on modern geometry called Non Euclidean Patternmaking, and one that bypasses many problems encountered in traditional patternmaking.
“The Drape Measure is designed so it's flat, it’s like a protractor and it’s 360 degrees, but say I need to measure something that is spherical, I can change it to fit.
“The device works like a normal tape measure, but it also can capture a conical or 3D shape in a 360 degree angle to then translate onto the pattern and fabric,” he says. “So, with the Drape Measure, we get the exact shape we want; the exact measurement.
“It really simplifies the way that we do things: instead of this very traditional, convoluted system, with adding bits on here and there; the Drape Measure uses a simplified system, with a greater understanding of how the geometry of fashion pattern making works.”
With completion of his PhD and patenting of the Drape Measure in the works, Liu is turning his hand to ensuring aspiring fashion students don’t give up maths and science, through outreach work with UTS’s Senior Lecturer in mathematics Mary Coupland. He has even recently contributed his article ‘So you want to be a fashion designer …’ to the maths’ journal Reflections.
“I’m really interested in pursuing fashion as a way of inspiring young people to engage with maths and science,” says Liu. “Most people seem to think of fashion as frivolous and anti-intellectual, but the future of cutting-edge fashion design will be based on pioneering scientific research.
“Fashion design is actually very technical and more related to maths and science than most people would think. You can’t have one without the other.”