Alumnae Bulletin
November 2010

Clothing the feminine and the Feminists

By Alicia Bessette

“Intelligence is very attractive,” says fashion designer Karen Patwa ’97, whose clothing boutique, Dangerous Mathematicians, is in Brooklyn. “The smarter a woman is, the sexier she is. Clothing can be fine-tuned to pick up on this idea. All you need is the right designer to do it.

“My mission is to design for women individually, and fit them properly,” Patwa says. “That’s really a revolutionary concept when you think about it, because many women are focused on what celebrities are wearing, and on what they see in magazines. I design for women based on their body types, not the latest trends. Custom design is a way of respecting difference and bringing democracy to a world that pretends, assumes, and is made to believe that only the elite can look good.”

A physics major, Patwa took Fundamentals of Costume Design with Senior Lecturer in Theater Hiroshi Iwasaki during her junior year. He told her that while costume design might not be her forte, she should definitely pursue fashion design.

Patwa didn’t immediately follow Iwasaki’s advice. While interested in clothing, she felt at odds with the world of fashion, which can be exclusive and cutthroat. Patwa, on the other hand, thinks fashion should be democratic.

The urge to explore her creative side eventually led Patwa to a class at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), State University of New York, where she realized she could design clothes while not necessarily abiding by the rules of the fashion world. She earned an associate’s degree while juggling a fulltime position teaching ninth and eleventh grade math at Friends Seminary in Manhattan.

In February, Patwa moved her boutique from the Lower East side, where it opened in 2006, to its current location in a designoriented block on Atlantic Avenue. On the night of the grand reopening a blizzard was forecast, and friends urged her to postpone the party. But knowing her clientele are “super strongminded,” she predicted a little snow wouldn’t stop them from turning out in droves to celebrate. And it didn’t. Her clientele have an insatiable passion for what interests them, she says; that’s what makes them sexy nerds.

While Dangerous Mathematicians features a few racks of ready-to-wear clothing, most of the space is devoted to Patwa’s design studio, which consists of a giant table, swatches of fabric, lights, and a couch. She calls it a welcoming hangout, conducive to brainstorming and reflective of her customized services.

When a client comes to her, her first order of business is to sit down with that person and get to know her style. Clients can be as involved or as uninvolved as they want to be in the design process, which is “smooth, fun, and collaborative, and leads to great results,” she says.

Her guiding design principle? Lines and curves. She tailors lines and curves to the specific body she’s designing for. Because each woman’s body is different, each woman has different clothing needs.

Patwa doesn’t believe in mass marketed fashion. “It’s not that I don’t think you should be able to get affordable clothing,” she says. “It’s that for all the money women spend on throw-away items that either fall apart or are not in style in one to two years, they could spend instead on one or two good pieces that last forever, and are timeless and classic.”

Overly trendy clothing becomes obsolete very quickly, Patwa says. And fit-wise, trendy clothing tends to be poor quality, because the designs are based on a standard measurement system that draws from one proportion. “You can’t rely on that one proportion, since everyone’s proportions are different and continually changing, especially as you get older and your body changes.”

For Patwa, the connection between mathematics and clothing design is abstract, but very strong. The lines and curves that occur in nature also occur in the human body. Take for example a sine curve, which represents, in mathematics, a smooth, repetitive oscillation. The line that starts along the side of the body, moves up when it hits the area under the breasts, comes back down, and continues to the other side of the body approximates a sine curve.

“If one understands mathematical concepts and scientific concepts and how lines and curves work—if one’s left brain is trained to visualize and understand these concepts—then one will employ that understanding in a special way, in two and in three dimensions,” she says.

“Clothing should look different on each body. I create and structure clothing to go around the body. There’s definitely math and science behind that.”

Patwa thinks Bryn Mawr’s focus on analytical thinking and the honor code taught her to confront situations earnestly and with an open mind, good training for the business world. “It’s sexy to have knowledge, and then use that knowledge to make changes in the world,” she says.

Progressive, modern
“My approach is sort of academic,” says another Brooklyn-based fashion designer, Suzanne Pelaez ’01, whose ready-to-wear pieces in her Suzanne Rae line are sold at boutique New York clothing stores such as Eva and Jumelle, and manufactured entirely in Brooklyn’s garment district. “I do a lot of research on each topic and I always think about how it’s applicable to our current society, particularly the women for whom I design.”

Her next collection will examine Americana, Route 66, and the Wild West; for inspiration, she’s reading On the Road, watching a lot of westerns and other movies like Easy Rider, and working with some female artists for fabric prints. She treats each of her Suzanne Rae collections as a thesis on history, philosophy, sociology, and design, turning to current events, trends, and popular culture, and then “processing these to the point where I reach a sort of epiphany, which I then take and then do more research on. I love people watching and society vibing.”

Pelaez majored in economics and notes that clothing manufacturing is a dying industry in the U.S. “I think it’s important for me, as an American designer and as an American citizen, to produce domestically both for the economy and for the sake of preserving the craft,” she says. “It does come in handy, too, with the business end of things, especially when I consider manufacturing and supply costs, and hence comes my feeling about the importance of domestic production.

“I want to embrace our country by turning to what is good about America. It’s a very, very beautiful country, and the concept of freedom is amazing.”

While in California for the inaugural La Jolla Fashion Film Festival where stay—a short film showcasing her fall 2010 collection—was screened, Pelaez drove to the desert, and was struck by its unique beauty. She draws a connection between the pioneering spirit of the Wild West, and today’s “youth and discovery that is all over and growing in Brooklyn.”

One of Pelaez’s early collections explored the concept of the boudoir, first intended as a private space for female sanctity, then denigrated as a sex chamber via “silly simplistic patriarchal mindset.” Pelaez played with the idea of lingerie as outerwear, giving it an intellectual edge, yet maintaining femininity and grace.

To convey an appreciation for the Native American value of living in harmony with the earth in her spring 2010 collection, she used eco friendly fabrics including hemp, as well as fringe and other Native American aesthetics. And her fall 2010 collection concerned women in domestic space. To juxtapose the 1950s housewife with today’s woman, who works both at home and outside the home, she used upholstery fabrics in conjunction with men’s suiting fabrics.

The two Bryn Mawr classes Pelaez finds most influenced her as a designer were Women, Feminism and Art History with Isabelle Wallace (now teaching at the University of Georgia) and Postmodernism and Visual Culture with Lisa Saltzman, now director of Bryn Mawr’s Center for Visual Culture. She still turns to the readings from those classes every so often.

“Bryn Mawr really turned me into more of an intellectual, artistic type than I would have ever imagined,” she says.

Pelaez never considered clothing design as a career until she was taking classes in Bryn Mawr’s pre-medical post baccalaureate program and found herself growing uninterested in medicine. “I thought about how, if I continued with medicine, my life would be a series of accomplishing predetermined tests, and the thought of that was so gruesome,” she recalls. “When I realized that I would much rather flip through magazines and sketch, instead of studying organic chemistry, I thought that I should think about doing a design program.”

She applied to Parsons, The New School for Design, after the official deadline, and after she’d been accepted to medical school. “I thought that if I got accepted at Parsons, then it was meant to be. Now, here I am.”

After graduating, she interned for six months at Costume National in Milan, Italy, working with a small team of designers on the women’s ready-to-wear collection. She participated in everything from sketching presentation drawings to assisting during fittings.

She then returned to New York City and was hired at Morgane Le Fay as assistant designer, learning the ins and outs of running a business before launching her own label in spring 2008.

Pelaez aspires to make clothing design a full-time pursuit, and someday she’d love to teach college courses that combine art history, fashion and feminism.

A woman who purchased a Suzanne Rae top went online recently to learn more about the clothing, and discovered that they both are Bryn Mawr alumnae. “I was so thrilled because it is exactly this sort of modern, progressive woman that is my ideal, target customer,” says Pelaez. “Feminine and feminist.”

For more information see www.dangerousmathematicians.com and suzannerae.com. To view stay, Pelaez’s short fashion video by RE:fabrication, see http://www.re-fabrication.com