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Primal Fashion

Two sisters -- a developmental biologist and high-end fashion designer -- team up to develop a couture collection inspired by the first 1,000 hours of embryonic life.

By | May 20, 2011

Although they grew up under the same roof, the Storey sisters might have well been living in two separate worlds. Kate, a developmental biologist and head of the Division of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Dundee, spends most of her days in a lab working to unravel the mysteries of neural development. Helen, born just 16 months earlier, was drawn to the glamorous world of fashion, training under iconic couturiers such as Valentino before launching her own clothing label.

But that all that changed in 1996 when the Wellcome Trust put out an initiative looking to fund collaborations between artists and scientists. Drawn by the possibility of communicating her science to a broad audience, Kate sent her sister the leaflet with a post-it note bearing a single question mark.

Helen was intrigued. "By nature, I'm an experimentalist," Helen says. "But in the fashion industry, to experiment is to risk going bankrupt."

So the sisters rose to the challenge, producing a fashion collection with developmental biology right at its beating heart. Over the following six months, Kate gave Helen a crash course in embryonic development, having her peer through a microscope to observe a chicken embryo from its first cell division, to its first heartbeat, and all the way into its transformation into a recognizable chick.

"I wanted to communicate to Helen the feeling I had about certain aspects of embryonic development and why they were exciting to me," Kate says.

Helen was mesmerized by what she saw through the microscope. "As an artist, you realize quickly that you can't compete with nature," she says. "At certain stages I was paralyzed just by the beauty of it."

But understanding the mysterious process of how one cell becomes a complex organism was just half the battle. After Helen's trysts at the lab, she would rush to a studio provided by the London College of Fashion, madly sketching during the commute, so she could transform what she saw into tangible, flowing garments.

The result was Primitive Streak, a 27-piece collection that takes its audience through the first 1,000 hours of human life. The project has been touring the world for the past 14 years and has been so successful that last year the Wellcome Trust funded the duo to create new pieces for the collection.

To follow are more details about the design process behind some of the pieces.

The Primitive Streak

Primitive Streak (African Streak) dress and illustration courtesy of Helen Storey Photograph: Justine. Model: Korinna
Primitive Streak (African Streak) dress and illustration courtesy of Helen Storey Photograph: Justine. Model: Korinna

The most important event in a human's life -- to paraphrase a famous quote by developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert -- occurs during the second week of embryonic development, when, out of a blob of cells, the first hint of structure appears. Known as the primitive streak, it heralds the massive reorganization of cells that results in the formation of the three germ layers that form all the tissues in the body.

"It is the key and first 3-D development within the embryo," says Helen, who thought it the perfect namesake for the project itself.

Helen engaged Kate in an intense back-and-forth over her interpretation of the primitive streak in dress form by faxing her sketches, which Kate would then return fully annotated with her thoughts. "What was important to me was that the sense of movement was conveyed and that the layers came out in the way that I know they do," Kate says. Helen incorporated the physical structure of the primitive streak into the design by having layers of metallic cloth that fold into the back of the dress. Meanwhile, the African pattern alludes to the primitiveness.

The Heart of the Matter
"Seeing a heart beat for the first time, it haunts you," Helen recalls. "It stops your breath." But despite these overwhelming sensations, Kate found it particularly hard to turn her observations into a working design. "In fashion, there's a danger that you end up designing theatrical costumes," she says, "and there was something about the nature of the heart that kept me designing things that looked ridiculous."

To help Helen with the creative process, Kate suggested an interesting fact of heart development: the heart forms from cells that are in front of the developing brain, which are eventually displaced into the chest cavity.

"So your heart actually starts above your head," Kate says.

The science immediately clicked in Helen's mind, who reached out to a milliner to help her mold the tubes of a primitive heart into a Nylon straw hat with a base shaped like a diaphragm -- the structure in which the mature heart finally rests.

Spine-Chilling Genius
For Helen, creating art out of Kate's work meant walking a fine line between the literal and the abstract. "I didn't want to just print a DNA pattern into a T-shirt and call it sci-art," she says. At the same time, she had to be mindful that her artistic interpretations weren't stifling the science with abstractions.

A seemingly perfect resonance was achieved with the plush, fake fur dress that drew inspiration from the genesis of the central nervous system. Occurring after the third week of embryonic development, the process of neurulation involves the folding of a flat sheet of cells into a tube open at both ends. Eventually, both ends of the tubes close, one forming the brain, the other forming the tail of the spine. Shaved into the sides of the dress, are squares representing the blocks of cells that flank the neural tube early on and that eventually morph into the individual vertebrae. "It's my favorite piece," Kate says. "This embryonic shape wrapping around the female form worked quite well."

Correction (5/23): The original version of this story stated that Helen Storey is 16 months younger than her sister Kate. It is in fact the other way around. The Scientist regrets the error.

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Comments

Avatar of: Helen Troilo

Anonymous

September 12, 2011

What an interesting idea! Biochemistry, especially developmental biology, is an underexplored subject in art and its really rare and exciting to see two professionals from each field working co-operatively on this. I wish the sisters every success in their project.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 12, 2011

What an interesting idea! Biochemistry, especially developmental biology, is an underexplored subject in art and its really rare and exciting to see two professionals from each field working co-operatively on this. I wish the sisters every success in their project.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

September 12, 2011

What an interesting idea! Biochemistry, especially developmental biology, is an underexplored subject in art and its really rare and exciting to see two professionals from each field working co-operatively on this. I wish the sisters every success in their project.

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Mettler Toledo
BD Biosciences
BD Biosciences