Mom and son lighting up the fashion world

What do you get when you combine a mom with a passion for fashion design with a son who’s a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at UC San Diego?

In the case of family entrepreneurs Rachel Merrill and Devon Merrill of San Diego, you get Lighted Clothing, a new company that is pushing boundaries in the field of illuminated fashion.

Since they started their collaboration about 18 months ago, the Merrills have co-created five fashion pieces that incorporate LED lights, fiber optics, hidden batteries and tiny computers that create streaks of lightning on a dress, moving bands of color and pictures on a vest and waves of glowing light on a skirt that grow brighter whenever its wearer moves.

Last month, the Merrills won a national “Textiles in Technology” award in the Surface Design Association’s Future Fabrication: Exhibition in Print 2017. They were among seven winners chosen from a field of 250 entries by jurors Richard Elliott, a textiles expert and professor at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, and Cathryn Hall, from the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.

Elliott said the concept of illuminated clothing has been around for at least five years, but the Merrills have taken the technology up a notch in a visually striking way.

“Their work really exemplifies the optimal combination of sheer fabric to diffuse the light, so it’s not so gaudy and bright, and the element of motion that mimics the movements of the wearer,” Elliott said. “What’s fascinating about their collaboration is that it’s cross-generational. I haven’t seen that before and their abilities are so compatible with one another.”

Rachel Merrill — a retired biotechnology acquisitions attorney who lives with her husband, Lex, in Carmel Valley — said she’s enjoyed finding a new way to express her creativity. But she’s most happy about collaborating with her 29-year-old son.

“I feel like it’s a gift,” she said. “Not many parents have an opportunity to do something with their grown children that’s so creative and that draws so completely on their different interests and skills. It’s precious time.”

Rachel and Devon Merrill both come from crafty backgrounds, but illuminated fashion wasn’t on either of their radars until 2016.

Rachel taught herself to sew in her mid-20s by bringing home Vogue patterns and learning to make clothes by trial and error. Devon developed a love for tinkering from his dad, Lex, whose hobby is rebuilding antique radios. By the time he was at Torrey Pines High School, Devon was soldering his own home electronics and writing computer code.

One hobby the family shares is hiking. When Rachel retired in 2012, she spent four months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, eventually logging more than 2,000 miles. But injuries forced her to give up the sport three years ago and she went looking for a more sedentary hobby. She found it when she signed up for a fashion design class at San Diego Mesa College in spring 2016.

One of her first fashion ideas was Starlight, a hand-dyed blue silk dress with a mesh liner interwoven with 700 strands of illuminated superfine filament. There was just one problem. She had no idea how to work with fiber optics, electronic circuits or computer code.

So she asked Devon — who lives in the UTC area with his girlfriend Enjoli Gomez — to teach her about lights, soldering and building circuits. After she finished weaving the fiber liner for Starlight, he built the computerized controller and wrote the code that creates subtly moving waves of white light.

This sounds easier than it is. The reason illuminated clothes aren’t on every store shelf is the danger factor. A miswired circuit could mean a very real risk of fire.

“I’ve burned myself a few times,” he said, “but I haven’t had a model spontaneously combust yet.”

After Starlight won best of show in Mesa’s 2016 Golden Scissors Fashion Show, the college’s department chair, Susan Lazear, invited Devon to begin teaching a seminar class every semester on wearable technology.

During the first seminar session, the Merrills co-created their next project, Wearlight. Rachel designed the black cotton/polyester zip-up vest and Devon implanted it with 96 hidden fully programmable LED 2-inch pixels that can create millions of colors, patterns and pictures. It won two awards at Mesa’s next fashion show.

Last spring, they created Lightning, a lavender sheath dress implanted with four branched channels of light that create the illusion of a moving lightning storm.

Their biggest project to date was Light Dance, a haute-couture dress built for last fall’s Women & Science fashion gala at the Salk Institute. Rachel was tasked with creating a dress inspired by the work of now-former Salk researcher Hermina Nedelescu, who studies the neural pathways in the cerebellum.

Microscopic photos of cells and neurons in the cerebellum were printed on the dress bodice and decorated with pearls and fine silver chain. The skirt was made with undulating layers of fabric that resembled the folds of the brain.

Devon designed the computer controller which was hidden in a cerebellum-shaped plastic headpiece he created on a 3D printer. It was connected to the dress via a cable that ran down the model’s spine, the same way the cerebellum sends neural signals to the body. The movement-sensitive “cerebellum” controller caused the dress lights to glow brighter whenever the model turned her head or walked.

Their most recent project is Illumination, a denim vest with a quilted fabric panel designed by Rachel’s sister. Its computer controller shifts the light around to different sections of the artwork in a pattern.

Devon said working over the past 18 months on these projects has been illuminating in more ways than one. Besides teaching at Mesa, he also teaches the wearable fashion technology to freshman computer students at UCSD. He sees vast differences between the students’ educational and socio-economic backgrounds and their abilities to learn the technology.

To help close that learning gap, he recently launched the Gadgetron Robot Factory (robots.gadgetron.build), a drag-and-drop website where people can learn how to build circuits and electronics without any fiery mistakes.

Through their website (lightedclothing.com) the Merrills hope to attract some commissions so they can work together again soon.

“We’re both taking it in the directions we want to,” she said, “and somehow we’re doing it together.”

--Pam Kragen is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune

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