“Fashion designer?! But I thought you were a civil engineer?”
There is normally surprise when I tell people what my other profession is. Dresses and catwalks can seem a world away from cleaning half a million tonnes of contaminated soil in the Olympic park or digging new tunnels for London Underground, but the truth is they are all things that society wants and needs. So what does being creative actually mean?
Many people think that to be creative you must be artistic; the traditional painter takes a view and uses their skills to re-create that image using paints and canvas. But I think that true creativity is an art in itself. The engineer and fashion designer have a much more difficult job. They must take one of society’s needs and then use their imagination to find a solution to fulfil that need, and then find a way to create it.
When working as part of a civil engineering team, we must think of what needs to be built and the best way to do it. For example, people need to get around a city, so should we build more roads, a tram or a subway? We prepare the design and specifications, ensure the equipment and materials are suitable for the job and make a plan to ensure it is created efficiently.
To make a piece of clothing, it is actually a very similar process. First we must identify what the clothing is for; a dress for a business meeting or a ball? Then we need to create the design and technical specification, select materials and ensure we have all the tools for putting it together.
As a fashion designer, the best advantage I have is my background as a civil engineer. I have learnt how to imagine processes and experiment with techniques, but most importantly I have learnt to solve problems creatively, allowing my original designs to be created with only minimal restrictions.
At one point we had the challenge of building a tunnel 30 metres deep in central London. First we had to break through seven one-metre-thick concrete columns which were each six metres high. We had to do this without noise or vibration and couldn’t leave the ground behind them unsupported for more than a few hours, or the buildings on Oxford street would start to crack! The running costs were about £35,000 per day, so it was crucial not to waste time. After some brain storming, we decided to cut the columns into sections and then lift them out with a forklift, similar to those used by carpet companies.
Now, when I want a particular clothing design to be created, I have no problem rising to the challenge. In one design, I wanted to use metallic leather and silk satin so that a grid pattern could be shown in a dress. However, this meant that there would be 9 pieces of fabric meeting in one place and all would need to be folded, so the dress could end up 18 layers thick. A fun day and late evening of trials using card, tape, fabric and glue solved the issue!
Another time I wanted strips of leather to overlap and concertina together. No problem! Pi r squared for estimating the semi-circle, plus the thickness of leather, a bit of Pythagoras (plus half a millimetre for movement) and everything is beautiful.
I believe everyone has an engineer’s brain inside their head; it fires the imagination to create the world we want to live in!
Image: new central line interchange tunnel for Tottenham Court Road taken by Matthew Hubble.