Meet the woman who makes dresses for rocket scientists

Holly Renee's STEM-inspired clothing is our new favourite geek chic

There’s nothing worse than lazy stereotyping, and the idea that women in science and tech have to be ‘nerdy’, ‘dowdy’ or any other variant on that is – frankly – dumb as hell. There’s this weird idea that women who are really into, or work in, STEM (science, tech, engineering and maths) have to reject femininity.

It’s nonsense, obviously. And nobody knows this better than Holly Renee. Holly is a fashion designer who designs STEM-inspired dresses at Shenova. We caught up with her to have a chat about her inspirations and why she’s so passionate about women in STEM.

Code Dress by Shenova

Hi Renee! Can you tell us about your background?

I grew up in Pittsburgh then moved to San Francisco in 2003 to attend school for fashion design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. After that, I took a hiatus to travel and study alternative medicine and worked as a creative freelancer for a while doing illustration and graphic design, then got heavily into digital textile design. The day I got my first digitally printed fabric swatch in the mail, I was hooked!

I think the rather unusual combination of training I’ve had in both fashion and medicine shows up in my designs. The underlying anatomy of the body is often inspiration for how I map the focal points of the prints.

How did you get into designing clothes?

I was very big into the underground electronic music rave scene back when I was a teenager, so I designed wild outfits to wear on many occasions. The types of eccentric, fringe “nightlife characters” these events drew together created a colorful visual style library in my head. Pittsburgh is historically a steel industrial city and we had a lot of large, empty warehouses where the party scene flourished. It became this breeding ground for my ideas because I got to make and wear whatever I wanted and I didn’t get judged because the scene was so accepting of individuality.

Why did you decide to focus on STEM specifically?

My mother is a molecular biologist and my brother is a kind of a computer programming prodigy, so my family was really the initial inspiration. My mum brought me into her lab at work and I would marvel at all of the intricate scientific instruments, safety equipment, hazard signs. For some reason I found fascination in the extreme contrast of elements in the sterile, calculated world of science and technology vs. the extreme unpredictable whimsy of fashion. I liked how the result was this “industrial chic” aesthetic.

I still feel that way but now it has more meaning to me. I think the only way we as humans will be getting ourselves out of this Earth mess we’ve created is through becoming heavily focused on recruiting people into solving problems in these fields. From what I have gathered, women in particular seem to have a more long term view on things and so I think they can bring a valuable perspective on sustainability.

Interactive Particle Physics dress by Shenova

How can we empower more women to enter STEM?

The law of the universe seems to go, “energy flows where attention goes”. I think beauty and femininity get people’s attention, and where we need the attention to go is on STEM. On this I’d like to quote one of my STEM muses Fan-Pei Koung, as she said it so well:

“Women are in a unique position to display beauty and at the same time, one of the most beautiful human endeavours is to derive and discover meaning from the complexities of the natural world. Fashion and science go well together because we are combining the most beautiful elements of mankind.”

What’s the most interesting custom order you’ve had?

My latest Interactive Particle Physics dress commission was an incredible experience. I designed a couture gala dress with an engineered digital particle collision print for a UX designer who wore it to the Breakthrough Prize Award Ceremony on Nov 8th. We ended up collaborating and making the dress a wearable technology piece that had heartbeat-reactive LED’s. The dress even has its own cloud-based app that allows anyone to vote on the colour! The entire project was completed in a mere few weeks and was also shown at the IBM 360 Fashion & Tech Show in San Francisco.

Fibonacci dress by Shenova

Are your clients mainly scientists and academics or do you get a lot of people who just like the designs?

I definitely do get a lot of orders from women in science and academics. I’ve connected with some very interesting and inspiring folks, even some TED speakers and influential women in STEM fields such as Nina Tandon of EpiBone and Planetary Scientist Emily Lakdawalla from Recently I even got an order from an actual female rocket scientist (for the Rocket Scientist Dress)!

I get inspired by learning more about my customers’ fields of study, so I always look forward to meeting new people and hearing about their specialties. I love the idea of pulling concepts out of obscurity and illustrating them through the playful element of fashion. It helps to educate and engage the public and makes learning about STEM so fun.

If you need a little black Fibonacci number in your life, check out Shenova – they ship to the UK. 

Main image: Shenova