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Moving the needle on fashion education

March 28, 2018

ASU fashion program on the fast track for industry innovation

Just months into its first academic track at Arizona State University, the newly established fashion degree program is already looking like a powerhouse for fashion education. 

Unfolding since last August in the School of Art in ASU’s Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts, the program offers a kaleidoscopic range of topics and experiences that has been drawing students from an array of disciplines to the newly renovated Fashion Studio on ASU’s Tempe campus.  

Dennita Sewell, director of the ASU fashion design program, leads a class on the global fashion industry.

“We are trying to put together a program that is responding to a changing fashion industry right now,” said Dennita Sewell, professor of practice and fashion director at a benefactor event for the Arizona Costume Institute (ACI) on March 26.

“We are striving to see that whatever happens in this space will lead to students getting jobs with this equipment and this program. You can manufacture Donna Karan’s line in this studio with this equipment,” Sewell told attendees gathered at the Fashion Studio for the ACI event.

She thanked Herberger Institute Dean Steven Tepper and School of Art Director Joanna Grabski for their support in designing the fashion program’s first year at ASU. Tepper and Grabski also heaped praise on Sewell for her vision and thought leadership.

Fashion technology making a statement in wearables culture

The event also included a Q&A talkback between Sewell and designer-to-the-stars Zang Toi, who was a special guest for the ACI event. The New York-based dressmaker — who counts Sharon Stone, Melinda Gates and Patti LaBelle among his famous clients — also shared his enthusiasm for ASU’s new fashion program and the innovative work he saw from some of the students designing in the program's Fashion Technology class.

“I think there is room for everything in fashion,” Toi told ASU Now of the unique student creations in wearable tech. “I think functional fashion will be great for people who really need it and it will be great for those who have the mindset to create it — really brilliant.”

A mixed-media class where dresses and drones sometimes meet, ASU’s Fashion Technology will be on full display April 4 at the Phoenix Convention Center in downtown Phoenix when designer and class instructor Galina Mihaleva and her students will exhibit their creations in the Wearables in Smart Fabrics fashion show. The show comes in the midst of the Materials Research Society Meeting and Exhibit, an annual conference that brings together scientists and industrial designers from around the world. It will run from April 2–6 at the Phoenix Convention Center.

“I’m very excited for the students to be able to participate in this show because it’s a labor of love,” Mihaleva said. “After putting so much time and effort into making this class so incredible, they deserve to have this platform to showcase their work, especially at a world-renowned conference such as this.”

What to look for in wearable tech

Since the beginning of the spring 2018 semester, Mihaleva and her students have been working on designs inspired by nature and the environment — areas she says are in need of attention as we trend toward healthier and sustainable lifestyles.

Beyond smart glasses, watches and what we have come to know of wearable tech, Mihaleva says “smart clothing” can inform us, heal us and even protect us from things that are not immediately apparent in our environment.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Fashion Technology student Ben Viton has been working on an LED-enhanced tracksuit that will scroll text down the suit’s sleeves once activated through computer coding. Joking about the branding opportunities that his LED text suit could attract, Viton also told attendees at the ACI-ASU Fashion Studio event that the outfit was actually inspired by HIV awareness and the idea that the suit could be used to share results of health tests in the spirit of transparency.

Carol Wong and Cindy Tran are co-creating a smart dress design to protect wearers from external pollution. The outfit includes a coding-activated oxygen mask that is designed to pop-up for suggested use when oxygen levels decline to an unhealthy state. Wong, a fashion design major who is also organizing a separate student-run fashion showFashion design major Carol Wong is leading the student-run fashion show "Uncertainty," which will be held from 6-9 p.m. March 31 at the Student Pavilion on ASU's Tempe campus. for her capstone project, is handling the dress design for her wearable tech project. Tran, an industrial design senior, is handling the coding.

“We wanted to offer a practical futuristic fashion design for people in cities with high pollution rates,” said Wong, who has experienced her share of health challenges due to questionable air quality. “Incorporating technology into the traditional design process was an overwhelming experience at first but we all got very excited by the possibilities after we started putting products together and seeing it all come together.”

Jenna Forrey, a human systems engineering major, is also excited about getting a platform to show her first experiment in fashion design and wearable tech. Forrey’s dress, a motion-sensing LED-enhanced design, highlights her affinity for bees and flashes when the wearer moves to symbolize buzzing bees.

“With the bee population on the decline, I think it’s important to draw awareness to their importance in nature,” said Forrey, who has spent much of the semester traveling back and forth between the Fashion Studio in Tempe and ASU’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa, where most of her engineering labs are held.

Forrey says she has gained a new level of respect for the fashion industry since enrolling in Fashion Technology, pointing to the effort and long hours that go into transforming fabric and textiles into wearable designs.

Kombucha couture

For her part, Mihaleva — who has shown her wearable technology designs at international competitions — is designing a bodice created from kombuchaKombucha is a fermented colony of yeast and bacteria commonly touted for its health benefits.. She is lab-growing textiles created from the bacteria-yeast combination to demonstrate kombucha’s value in sustainable living and design. Mihaleva also enlisted a group of students from ASU’s Luminosity LabThe Luminosity Lab is a selective group of interdisciplinary students within ASU who are drawing from their network of knowledge to develop and deploy ideas, technologies, and products that aim to provide unconventional and effective solutions to the world’s most complex challenges. to help automate and animate her bodice to mimic the human organ’s interactions with microbiomes.

“I think this class is very important in bringing awareness to things that make life better and more transparent," Mihaleva said. "This is fashion for the future but we need to explore more ideas. It’s not enough today to just be a traditional fashion designer. Some of us will also become fashion fusionists through emerging science and technology.”

If you want to go

'Uncertainty' fashion show
6–9 p.m. March 31, Student Pavilion, Tempe campus

Wearables in Smart Fabrics fashion show
2:30–3:30 p.m. April 4, Phoenix Convention Center

Top photo: Fashion design senior Carol Wong works on her "smart dress" design that will respond to air quality and pollution with LED lights and computer coding. The project will be shown as part of the 2018 MRS Wearables in Smart Fabrics fashion show on April 4. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Suzanne Wilson

Sr. Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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Diversifying our produce portfolio

March 28, 2018

After the extinction of megafauna, humans took up the mantle of dispersing and saving many plant species we can still eat today

Benjamin Blonder's frame of reference for heirloom foods goes far beyond Berkshire pork or San Marzano tomatoes.

Custard apples. Sapodilla fruit. Brazil plums. Cacao.

All of them go back before the arrival of humans in the Western Hemisphere, when they were snacked on by enormous animals known as megafauna.

Blonder, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, co-authored a paper published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that posits that after megafauna like the giant ground sloth became extinct, humans expanded the range of the foods they ate, rather than contracting the areas where the foods grew.

Most of the fruits that have lasted all these tens of thousands of years are exotic to the average American, but are still being sold and eaten in markets in places like Lima, Peru, or Guayaquil, Ecuador.

“One of the big takeaways from this study is that as we seek to diversify human diets and move back to food systems that are less dependent on a small set of crops, it’s incredibly important to think about this bigger legacy of species that humans have used in the past and that megafauna before them have also used for food,” Blonder said.

Traditionally, the idea that humans killed off a vast number of animal species that dispersed plant species has been seen as a negative.

“Think of an avocado,” he said. “You can’t think of many animals that could swallow an avocado whole and then excrete that seed kilometers away, allowing that population to spread. The classic idea has been: You lose the megafauna, you lose the dispersal capability, and many plant populations, especially the large-seeded ones, suffer as a consequence. … What this study is showing is that a lot of that slack has actually been taken up by humans instead. While we’re good hunters, we’re also very good dispersers. While we may not be dispersing for the purpose of helping the landscape directly, we disperse for the purpose of feeding ourselves and that result is the same.”

Ben Blonder

Assistant Professor Ben Blonder recently joined the School of Life Sciences, where he'll continue his research on food sources from tropical areas and their introduction to the modern North American diet. He sits in his new lab, yet to be set up, on March 20. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Ironically, human diets are shrinking in variety all over the world, Blonder said. There’s a huge amount of evidence published showing that diets for the most part are homogenizing on a global scale.

“The set of species and crop types that people are using for food is converging towards a much smaller set of crops, a smaller set of grains,” he said. “Many traditional roots and fruits are now being consumed and traded at much lower levels than they have historically. We’re losing a lot of our heritage and our legacy on that front.”

There are a lot of foods eaten by indigenous people that are being ignored by the world at large. Diets need to be rediversified, Blonder said.

“One of the exciting things about this study is the set of fruit species that people have eaten in the past and could eat now is much larger than the one that most are accustomed to eating,” he said.

The Sonoran Desert has several hundred native species used by Native people, he pointed out. If no more food was being trucked into Arizona, “you would find that there are actually a huge number of species out here that would sustain people, should we choose to use them.”

“We have this multi-thousand-year legacy of human use of plants on our landscapes,” Blonder said. “I think what this study does is help us understand the scope and scale of that legacy and teaches us that we may be able to begin using it again.”

For an in-depth look, read the paper, “Human diets drive range expansion of megafauna-dispersed fruit species.”

Top photo: Cocoa beans in cocoa pod at El Trapiche, Costa Rica. Photo by Aude; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News