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Fashion accessories dance with environment

By Tiffany Tan | China Daily | Updated: 2013-10-09 07:45

The last thing most people would expect from a hair accessory is for it to function as a hygrometer. That's an instrument that measures humidity in the atmosphere. But this is exactly the kind of head piece - as well as ring, bracelet, pendant, earring and epaulet - that Elaine Ng Yan Ling sets out to create.

The pieces make up the British-Chinese designer's latest collection, Dancing Wooden Skin, which debuted at the Beijing Design Week recently.

The fashion accessories are made from wooden sheets, fabric and thermoplastic, an invention Ng calls "smart veneer". The material allows the pieces to change colors and shapes - or "dance" - according to the humidity, temperature and sunlight they're exposed to.

They can dress you up and, at the same time, tell you how to dress up.

"Whenever I go to America, I never understand how to convert from Fahrenheit. It's so different from Celsius," Ng says in an interview at her Beijing home studio, tucked in a hutong off Houhai Lake. "If I say, 'What's the temperature like tomorrow?' and somebody responds, 'It's 75 F'. What is 75 F? You have to study the unit, otherwise the numbers will be meaningless."

With her smart veneer designs, you only have to look at how their swirls behave. "Oh, it's curled, so it's quite hot today. If it's flat, it's cold," says Ng, who was awarded a 2012 TED Fellowship for her work on smart materials.

The 28-year-old, a child of Chinese immigrants to London, is not out to displace meteorological instruments. Instead, Ng wants to illustrate the importance of creating products with materials that can adapt to changes in the environment.

This, she says, will promote a more sustainable lifestyle since it can mean fewer clothes that get ruined in the wash.

Or brand-new, imported cars that need to be repainted because their shade of color doesn't match what the owner picked out in the catalogue.

"A red car, when it's in LA, will look different from what it does in China, because the strength of the sun's ultraviolet rays is different. Even though it uses exactly the same paint," says Ng, who worked as a color and material designer for Nissan after receiving her master's degree in textile design from Central Saint Martins in London.

The idea for Ng's latest project was born in July 2012, during the heaviest rainstorm to hit Beijing in six decades. By then, Ng had moved to the Chinese capital to work as a color and material designer at Nokia, and lived amid construction sites in eastern Beijing.

"The water was knee high and I got bitten by something. My legs got swollen the next day," she says. "The building sites and everything else was a mess. The only things that survived were the plants. This really encouraged me to look into the natural ecosystem and how they live."

Now, a year later, the fruits of Ng's artistic-cum-scientific inquiry are on the market. Her design series Climatology: Celebrating Nature's Survival Tactics, which includes Dancing Wooden Skin, is on sale exclusively at the Beijing concept store Wuhao.

The price of her accessories ranges from 580 yuan ($95) for an ear piece to 22,800 yuan for an extra-large hair ornament. The designer says she objects to the concept of fast fashion, which churns out inexpensive but low-quality goods.

She established her own company Fabrick Lab this year, with the hope of collaborating with clothing manufacturers, architects and furniture makers to create more sustainable designs. Dancing tables and chairs might be on the horizon.

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