Interview with Holly Renee

Hi, my name is Holly and I design these nerdy-chic clothes...

Can you tell us about your background?

I grew up in "Steel Town" Pittsburgh then moved to San Francisco in 2003 to attend school for fashion design at the Academy of Art University. After that my career and life has taken many turns from creative to  the health fields to back to being creative.  I got really into learning a breadth of different subjects including fine art, figure drawing, illustration, graphics, nutrition. But the day I found out I could print my drawings onto fabric,  I was hooked! I knew I had found my medium.

 

How did you get into designing clothes?

I was very big into the underground electronic music rave scene back when I was a teenager, so I designed wild outfits to wear on many occasions. The types of eccentric, fringe “nightlife characters” these events drew together created a colorful visual style library in my head. Pittsburgh is historically a steel industrial city and we had a lot of large, empty warehouses where the party scene flourished. It became this breeding ground for my ideas because I got to make and wear whatever I wanted and I didn’t get judged because the scene was so accepting of individuality.

Why did you decide to focus on STEM specifically?

My mother is a molecular biologist and my brother is a kind of a computer programming prodigy, so my family was really the initial inspiration.  She would come into my school on bring your mom to school day and teach my peers about science. I always felt so proud to have a scientist as a mom! At that time it was a lot more unusual, too.

She would bring me into her lab at work and I would marvel at all of the intricate scientific instruments, safety equipment, hazard signs.For some reason I found fascination in the extreme contrast of elements in the sterile, calculated world of science and technology vs. the extreme unpredictable whimsy of fashion. I liked how the result was this “industrial chic” aesthetic.

I still feel that way but now it has more meaning to me. I think the only way we as humans will be getting ourselves out of this "Earth mess" we’ve created is through becoming heavily focused on recruiting people into solving problems in these fields. From what I have gathered, women in particular seem to have a more long term view on things and so I think they can bring a valuable perspective on sustainability.

How can we empower more women to enter STEM?

The law of the universe seems to go, “energy flows where attention goes”. I think beauty and femininity get people’s attention, and where we need the attention to go is on STEM. On this I’d like to quote one of my STEM muses Fan-Pei Koung, as she said it so well:

“Women are in a unique position to display beauty and at the same time, one of the most beautiful human endeavours is to derive and discover meaning from the complexities of the natural world. Fashion and science go well together because we are combining the most beautiful elements of mankind.”

I think there is still a lot of misinformation about what a scientist or a programmer looks like (read: white male) and I like to think that by creating a bolder image for women through my designs will help them make a bigger impact, be more memorable and help remove the stigma of male-domination so prevalent in these fields. 

There's a lot of talk about whether it's okay to show femininity when you're in STEM. I wholeheartedly agree with this quote from a great article by Jamie Bernstein "In Defense of Pink Science": 

"It needs to be ok for people of any gender in STEM fields to be allowed to do traditionally feminine things like wear make-up or dresses or flowers in their hair without being looked down upon in their field, while still leaving room for those who would rather dress in jeans and a nerdy t-shirt."

 

What’s the most interesting custom order you’ve had?

My latest Interactive Particle Physics dress commission was an incredible experience. I designed a couture gala dress with an engineered digital particle collision print for a UX designer who wore it to the Breakthrough Prize Award Ceremony on Nov 8th. We ended up collaborating and making the dress a wearable technology piece that had heartbeat-reactive LED’s. The dress even has its own cloud-based app that allows anyone to vote on the colour! The entire project was completed in a mere few weeks and was also shown at the IBM 360 Fashion & Tech Show in San Francisco in November 2015.

Are your clients mainly scientists and academics or do you get a lot of people who just like the designs?

I definitely do get a lot of orders from women in science and academics. I’ve connected with some very interesting and inspiring folks, even some TED speakers and influential women in STEM fields such as Nina Tandon of EpiBone and Planetary Scientist Emily Lakdawalla from Planetary.org. Recently I even got an order from an actual female rocket scientist (for the Rocket Scientist Dress)!

I am so happy to be located in the SF Bay Area. This place is so diverse, cultured and burning bright with inspiration everywhere. I've met hackers, neuroscientists, artists of all kinds, geneticists, mathematicians, programmers...the list goes on. There are so many interesting minds concentrated where I live, it's just mind boggling! Every time I meet someone and hear their story about this amazing work they are doing, it gets my visual gears turning. You think you've heard everything, and then you get this person w a dress who's telling you about their Artificial Intelligence Startup. It's so exciting!

I get inspired by learning more about my customers’ fields of study, so I always look forward to meeting new people and hearing about their specialties. I love the idea of pulling concepts out of obscurity and illustrating them through the playful element of fashion. It helps to educate and engage the public and makes learning about STEM fun. Because why not? And after all, life is a playground. And what would it be without some lighthearted novelty to brighten your day :)