Fashioning the Future With: Kitty Yeung
At the intersection of physics and fashion and at the top of her fields is superstar Kitty Yeung. To say she has an impressive resume is an extreme understatement. Kitty has a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Harvard (with a B.A., M.A., and M.Sci. from Cambridge before that) and she currently works as a senior program manager and creative technologist at Microsoft. If all that is not cool enough, Kitty is also a fashion tech designer, painter, musician, graphic novelist, maker extraordinaire, and all-and-all inspirational lady.
Her gorgeous smart clothing designs have been featured in Make: magazine and in runway fashion shows, and in 2017 Kitty won the Emerging Designer award from the Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau Fashion Festival.
In her interview with us, Kitty explains what it means to be both an artist and a scientist, what her creative process is like, and even what her own awesome graphic novel is about. Meet Kitty Yeung.
You’re talented in so many areas from fashion to painting and music, which art form attracted you first?
My first art form was painting, which I’ve been doing as long as I can remember. It’s something I just naturally did. I used to carry my sketchbook and colored pencils everywhere. I really loved manga when I was young but then enjoyed classical art more and more. The naturalistic oil painting style is my favorite. So my work now is a little bit of a crossover.
Fashion design is a by-product of my paintings. As I paint my graphic novel characters, I design outfits for them. A couple of years ago, I decided to make the outfits into reality. That was when my Ph.D. thesis work was approaching completion, and I wanted to learn something new. So I taught myself sewing and quickly started using my paintings as fabrics. I also embedded technology into the garments using my knowledge from engineering. Everything comes together now.
When did you know you wanted to be a physicist?
I always wanted to be a scientist since I was little. But at the same time I wanted to be all those other things: a painter, a musician, a philosopher, etc. They share the common theme of being scholarly and intellectual. I get inspired when seeing different systems in nature behave so similarly under the same physical models. It does take years of academic training to reach a professional level in physics. I decided that if I did arts, I might not be able to do science; but if I did science, I might be able to do arts at the same time. It’s been working out and I still get inspired by all three most important fields for me: science, art and music.
Who inspired you in the sciences when you were growing up?
Lots of scientists, e.g. Albert Einstein, who was really good at describing complex concepts in the most intuitive ways; Marie Curie, who had extraordinary tenacity and endured hardships while pursuing answers to extremely difficult problems; Stephen Hawking (I was fortunate to be in Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge, and met him in person), who not only worked extraordinarily hard but also helped the public understand and appreciate science. Many of my teachers, mentors, professors and advisors, who may not be as famous for now, but they have been pushing the boundaries of human knowledge their entire lives. I thank my professors and mentors from Cambridge and Harvard, Yao Liang, Gil Lonzarich, Montu Saxena, Jacqui Cole, Richard Friend, Donhee Ham, Evelyn Hu for teaching me not only physics, but also how to be a scientist more generally.
What about artists?
I like many artists’ work, including classical and contemporary, and have so much to learn from every one of them. For example, I find inspiration from Anouk Wipprecht to explore new tech+art territories, and I love WLOP’s painting style. I’m especially drawn by Vincent van Gogh, who was very different, had a big heart and so much to express but was largely under-appreciated during his lifetime. Only after he had been dead for a very long time was his work picked up and deemed representative of a genre. This happened to many artists. It taught me that true good work may not be visible immediately but once discovered, it will last for generations.
Why do you think the intersection of art and science is so important?
Both are inspirational subjects. Science determines what we can ever know and ever do and art influences people culturally. They lie in the extreme ends of this intellectual spectrum: science <-> engineering <-> design <-> art. Engineering and design are the practical manifestations of science and art. At the intersection between engineering and design, creative new ideas can be generated with inputs from science and art. Well-rounded and inclusive decisions can then be made to better serve the society.
What is your creative process like?
I’ll talk about both painting and fashion design.
My paintings are inspired by science, nature, intellectual conversations, world events and classical art. I paint my memory, imagination and emotions. When I go traveling and see beautiful scenery, images pop into my mind, and I can already imagine the joy of painting them. When I come to a new understanding of technologies and humanity, ideas come as well, especially as my graphic novel chapters. Visiting museums also always inspires me to apply the techniques I see to my own paintings. I look at how the artists used their brush strokes, colors, lighting, etc. It’s funny that at any point in time, there are always about five pictures in my brain.
For fashion design, I usually start with a vision. I envision an effect that the item should display and find the right technologies to achieve it. Sometimes, I start with the visual effects (and they are often astronomy- or nature-inspired). Sometimes, there are certain technologies I want to apply in wearables. For example, I've made clothing that can sense and respond to the wearer's motions, brain-signals, and gestures; a dress that can be trained and display constellations; glasses that communicate through Bluetooth, etc.
Tell us a little bit about the graphic novel characters you created! Where did your inspiration come from?
My graphic novel is called Monologue 1  – the Future [Past] – Original of the Universe [Life].
It consists of four main characters: 1. A contemporary astronomer and engineer who loves nature, humanity and culture and sees the beautiful things in the world but is bothered by the problems in the society. She dreams of a better future; 2. A clone of the scientist travels back from the future, to study the contemporary world. Because she wants to understand the problems she experiences in her world that are caused by historical conflicts from the past; 3. A little girl growing up in a complex world, navigating herself and learning fast to be an intellectual and mentally strong person; 4. A representative from a civilization thousands of years more developed than the human race. They’ve been studying human societal evolution. She’s a guide, a mentor and almost a myth. Living beings on Earth might have come across this civilization a long time ago and imagined them as gods.
This is a project I started in my teens and I will be completing it through the rest of my life as I grow my understanding of the world. Both humanity and science inspire me. I’ve published the storyline, which can be read here.
What excites you most about the realm of smart fashion?
The possibility of an industrial revolution in garment manufacturing. I’d like to push for a more efficient and environmentally friendly manufacturing process in garment production, and for technology be an integral part of fashion design. I’d like to see any designer being able to use technology as a component in their creations and make products that consumers actually need and want through efficient and affordable customizations.
What are you working on now/most recently?
I just made this solar-powered tech-fashion piece with 3D printed parts in the Garage at Microsoft, where I work. I wore this at Maker Faire for a whole day which absorbed enough solar energy to keep my phone charged.
If you were a superhero, what would your go-to wearable tech device/outfit be like?
Probably not a superhero outfit, but I’d really love to have a time-turner like Hermione Granger’s. There are so much I’d love to learn but too little time. I want to have multiple versions of myself learning different things in parallel!
To find out more about Kitty Yeung, check out her website and portfolio. Her open-source projects are available on Hackster.io, and you can also follow Kitty on Twitter and Instagram!