The Metaphysical Messages inside the Transformative Designs of Helena Dong
What does it mean to create something the world has never seen before? Here, Helena Dong reflects on her creative passions and how she has developed some of her most unique garment designs. It all stems from moving across continents, which has contributed to her strong instinct for adaptability as a person. Consequently, her work shines a light on the impermanency and "transformation" that exists through many chapters of life. Dong asks that her viewers absorb and consider the interweaved messages in her garments, and to actively participate in her work with the mind. This is where technology plays a large role in her oeuvre as she employs augmented reality which serves as an economical and unique means for her to project her visions. In another work of distinction this eminent designer created a game in which the audience's personal narrative is able to interact with her various clothing designs. Helena Dong is paving her own path as a design practitioner, maximizing her resources to invent and to forge relationships in her ever changing environment.
How was your migration from Australia formative of your creative vision and sense of independence in this highly competitive industry?
There is a reiterating theme of change and resourcefulness throughout my work, underpinned by this desire to induce modes of participation. I never really understood the origin of such agenda until recent times where I was prompted to psychoanalyze my practice, and that’s when I uncovered the personal significance of migration.
I had actually spent the former years of my childhood in China before migrating to Australia with my mum. Having learned (or rather, having been impelled) to continuously adapt to shifts in cultural, educational and professional contexts, I tend to find gratification through independence and progression, which also explains my inclination towards the subject of transformation and multi-functionality. Through subtle playfulness and structural intricacies, my interdisciplinary projects fulfill their potential by asking the viewer to engage on a level that is both active and thoughtful, as the experience with garments wouldn’t be as rewarding if you were to simply sit back and consume passively.
What does “multi-functionality” mean to you? What role does it play in your work?
“Multi-functionality” is a response to the demands of change. For me, it is no longer enough for a garment or object to retain a single purpose. The recurring question of how a function could be maximized comes from a specific period of my childhood, where I utilized everything at my disposal out of financial and psychological necessity. While I aspire to instill a sense of convenience and longevity through creating garments that serve multiple functions, there is a cynical side of me that wants to force the participant (user, viewer, or reader) into a position where they must also do some work to understand the various constituents of the project.
What would you like to communicate to your target audience? Who is your target audience?
My target audience is anyone who is not taken aback by the concept of participation. In saying that, I’m not referring to impromptu performances that could unsettle members of the audience (as I personally don’t react very well to moments of improvisation). I engage with contributions that could transpire at one’s own leisure — they could be dialogical, or in the case of my graduate project, take the form of narrative decisions. In turn, these projects could be seen as tangible realizations of collective intuition. If there is anything I wish to highlight through this process, it would be urging my audience to surpass their customary role as a spectator, and to begin considering both the favorable and obstructive consequences of their input.
When did you get into AR effects? How do you see AR effects playing a role in the fashion of the future?
My cross-over into the realm of AR effects happened only about a month ago, following my relocation to New York. Starting a new life here meant a temporary lack of access to my usual resources — studio, sewing equipment and materials. While I pondered pursuing a studio space and re-instigating my fashion practice, the thought of accumulating physical goods given the uncertainty of my living situation didn’t seem very appealing. As I brainstormed other means of creative expression that I had free access to, Augmented Reality struck me as a promising start where I could visualize my ideas, place them on the body and project them instantaneously to the online population.
I understand that there is an existing debate over “digital fashion”, on the basis that it is not real and would only accelerate consumption. I agree that our attention span shortens drastically with the arrival of new technologies such as AR and VR, and we are constantly in search of new forms of (fashion) stimulation. But when implemented with the right intentions, AR has the potential to simplify our methods of production, and to even reduce our need for physical consumption through its capacity to offer immediate visual gratification
Your work seems to be influenced by the concept of distortion. Tell me about the purpose of warping in your creative process from your eyewear to scarf projects. It’s interesting for you to mention that, as I haven’t considered “distortion” as a prevailing concept in my work. I suppose that it is a derivative under the over-arching theme of “transformation”. Objects that are “distorted” serve as visual trickery, actively persuading the viewer to tread carefully in order to identify the other facets. The satin scarf from my graduate collection is layered over a trench coat, so it was designed to mimic the silhouette of a collar, lapel and waistband when draped around the neck. The print itself took on a warped appearance as a result of that design process.
Tell me about Scissors, the game. How do you think technology expands the narrative of your designs? Scissors, Calculator and a Beige Coat is my graduate project. It is a trio of creative outcomes — a capsule collection, an online game, and a performance piece — intending to emphasize the interactions between various roles within the context of a fashion presentation.
The game component is a digital ‘choose your own adventure’ story, composed of a sequence of scenarios alluding to themes of independence, responsibility, turbulence and vulnerability, all of which derive from my childhood experiences. The minimal and empathetic nature of this interactive narrative encourages the participant to draw from their own experiences. Every decision corresponds with a different garment transformation or bodily gesture (rather painstakingly coordinated), and as the narrative progresses, the clothes also transform in appearance according to the participant’s way of thinking.
In this instance, where a fashion-based project resides on a web platform, technology has been employed to heighten its accessibility. It’s a familiar interface that only asks for a few of minutes of your time, so why wouldn’t you give it a go?
What does collaboration mean to you? Can a design’s meaning become convoluted with input from too many creatives?
When interjected with too many characteristics, it is possible for a design to end up without any particular meaning at all, which is definitely not the direction I want to take.
I approach “collaboration” in the sense that it is an experiential exchange. I’d like to think of it as an assemblage of roles — the designer, performer, viewer and garment, and that the inclusivity of a participatory project is not only seen as an idealistic approach for constructing these relationships, but a pragmatic one in facilitating thoughtful engagement. Physical or implicit, I believe a collaboration could take place at any stage of a project, at conception, production, or perception.
Tell me about impermanency and evolution as it relates to your fashion design.
The concept of impermanence is inherent in nearly all of my designs. As mentioned earlier, it stems from having to persistently evolve and adapt upon entering a new environment, while knowing that everything is subjective to change at any given moment.
My first university project was a skirt, designed with an inconspicuous flap that casts the shadow of a face only when light is shone from a certain direction. Ensuing from this, my second year design investigated thermal-chromic and hydro-chromic materials to create clothing that would react to fluctuating temperature and humidity. My collection from third year implemented the technique of ice-dye to document the passage of time. In the same year, I also directed and produced a short film, where I interpreted anecdotes from twenty-seven creative individuals into actions that were then applied to a white slip dress, denoting a on-going state of transformation in our diverse perception of fashion. And then of course, my graduate project was all about locating the source of this agenda and amplifying its effects.