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University of Minnesota
September 2, 2011
Fashion designer Elizabeth Bye, new head of the Department of Design, Housing and Apparel, says fashion helps us communicate who we are.
Photo: Patrick O'Leary
Meet Elizabeth Bye, new head of the Department of Design, Housing and Apparel
By Deane Morrison
This summer Elizabeth "Missy" Bye, a professor in the U's Department of Design, Housing and Apparel (DHA), became the new department head.
It's a milestone she never dreamed of reaching back when she was earning her Ph.D. from the department. Instead, she has always focused on research and her students.
For example, Bye is enmeshed in research on how body measurements can be used to optimize the fit of clothes of varying sizes and of maternity wear in particular. And she has recently published "Fashion Design," a book that introduces students to the modern industry and all its cultural, economic, and ethical issues.
We spoke to her about what inspires her work, as well as her aspirations for DHA.
How did you choose fashion design as a field?
When I was growing up it was difficult to find clothes that fit well. I started sewing at 10. I went to James Madison University to study biology, but switched to textile science at Virginia Tech. I fell in love with being a designer—with originating the idea, making the pattern, making sure it fits, and having it worn.
What are you working on now?
A lot of work we do is relative to shape. Lately, graduate students and I have been working on maternity wear. We found several women in the early stages of pregnancy, put them in the [department's 3-D] body scanner throughout their pregnancies, and watched how their body shapes changed. Most people start buying maternity clothes in month 5 or 6, but then they won't fit in month 9. So the question is how to design clothes that can fit even as the body expands, yet are affordable and stylish. All my research comes under the umbrella of DHA's Wearable Product Design Center.
What are some problems in the apparel industry you're trying to solve?
I think today a lot of people don't know how to recognize good fit and so don't demand it. There's no standardization in women's sizes. We want to go to a store or shop online and get a garment, but fit customization means waiting.
We've worked with the 3-D body scanner to look at body shape and how that plays into fit. You see examples popping up on the market. You can get straight, average, and curvy cuts. I think one day we'll be able to affordably design clothes that fit well. Thin women's garments are an untapped market.
Can you describe your creative process?
I try to be a good observer of the world all the time—art, science, current events, music—because that becomes the influence into the pieces you're designing. Generally, what will spark an actual project is a competition I want to enter, or an RFP for a grant. Next, you do your background research—look at 3-D objects, maybe in [the College of Design's] Goldstein Gallery. I try to do mind-mapping; for example, my thoughts may start with "state fair," then move to "wear" to "hot" (temperature-wise) to "casual" to "must allow me to eat" to "hide stains or spill-proof" to "pockets to carry money" to "pants or shorts to sit on ground comfortably." Then, I look at things that influence the product, such as trends.
My favorite thing is when an idea serendipitously pops in my head because of everything I've been thinking about.
What about DHA makes you proudest?
I've worked with students designing for the annual fashion show. Each has to make four or five pieces. It's exciting and rewarding when they're successful.
Our body scanner has software to make an avatar of anyone. Once, students in a class took their designs and avatars of their own bodies to the virtual reality lab in Walter Library. They saw their avatars, wearing their designs, in 3-D and even walked around them. People sometimes ask, why be in a research university? The answer is, you don't get this kind of cutting-edge experience at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
How do you run a diverse department like DHA, and what plans do you have?
In DHA, we all look at improving the quality of the near environment. For example, retail merchandising is part of our department. Those faculty work on consumer perceptions of products, social responsibility, and helping local retailers reach their markets better. Housing studies looks at housing as a near environment. One faculty member studies the effects of foreclosure on neighborhoods. We have designers and social scientists; we do projects together, and students take classes that have both designers and social scientists. It really is interdisciplinary.
I want to highlight that as one of our successes and help that component grow and develop. Also, I want to maintain our reputation for quality programs and being a leader in new pedagogy. For instance, we were one of first departments at the U to have a formal mentor program for new faculty.
My job is to create opportunities, even when resources are diminished. It's challenging.
Do you have a favorite designer?
Issey Miyake. All his life he has worked to honor and preserve traditional Japanese textile techniques and uses them as inspiration to push development of new technologies relative to apparel. One technique he uses is A-POC, a knit tube with garment parts knitted into it that can be cut into original garment designs, and the technology prevents frayed ends. I think it's important to hold onto the traditional while pushing the boundaries of technology.