Fashion Design winner Christina Kim. Photo: Madison Voelkel/

Neri Oxman, Christina Kim, Mikyoung Kim, Shantell Martin, David Rockwell and other guests at Thursday night’s National Design Awards at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum used the cocktail hour to catch up and congratulate. Instead of the standard gala behavior of being barnacle-ed to the bar, attendees mingled with more than a few looking engrossed in conversation, as in forehead-to-forehead.

“We need to meet to talk about how we are going to fix this world,” one guest told this year’s Interaction winner Oxman. As MIT Media Lab’s wunderkind, the architect and designer would be a good person to turn to and many in the crowd sought her out. She and her team research the crossroads of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science and synthetic biology, using that knowledge base to design across disciplines, media and scales. They start at the micro level and rise up to the building scale.

Oxman was taking a night off from interviews, preferring to graciously accept the stream of well-wishers who sought her out. Some were invited to meet her hedge fund fiancé Bill Ackman, who appeared, dare we say, bubbly at the Target-sponsored event. Martin, a former visiting scholar at MIT’s Media Lab, was another fan of Oxman’s, having worked on the floor below her for two years.

“As the director of her lab, they were working on using material from mollusks, crabs and other shellfish and repurposing that and drawing in another component to make it biodegradable plastic. Being around someone who is able to lead a team with ideas that are quite imaginative, but then conceptualize them to bring them into real life, that’s really inspiring,” said Martin, noting the Media Matter group’s silkworm project. For that one, a dome was built and then a robotic arm was programmed to mimic how a silkworm uses silk to build its cocoon, before live silkworms finished the process.

Environmentally friendly ideas are also paramount to this year’s Fashion Design winner Christina Kim. Her selection was significant, since she no longer does traditional collections. Her Dosa label was at one point sold in Barneys New York and other stores. “I still produce what we call standard issue, which is fabrics that are handmade. The idea is to keep the handwork going,” she said. “My original studies were in fine arts and history, so I’m doing a lot of work that is in relation to larger-scale projects.”

Having worked with the same artisanal communities in Mexico, India and other parts of the world for more than 20 years, she wants to document their practices on paper so that they will have something to reference for the future. The directory of sorts could also “entice the next generation to want to do something different using their traditional skills,” she said.

Her sustainability ethos has led to talks with large fashion companies from time to time. “It would be really interesting if some really true, good-hearted company wanted to look at things from a different place. But so much about the way larger companies work doesn’t follow the transparency system that I established,” she said. “Ultimately, of course, I want to share how I work, but it has to be the right company with the right intention. I have been approached a couple of times, so perhaps it could be done at a much greater scale. The possibility is there.”

Kim continued, “That is the only future. The future is to consider how we make clothing. So yeah, I’m open. I don’t necessarily seek others but larger companies do come to me.”

With that, almost on cue, another guest stepped in for a quick congratulations and to discuss the physical harm that nonorganic cotton causes cotton pickers, spinners and others in fashion production. Kim had alluded to the topic at a Cooper Hewitt panel discussion Wednesday, and he wanted to learn more. “It erodes the skin on their hands. I have seen this firsthand,” Kim said. “It’s interesting because so many aspects of the fashion business are reconsidering how we make things.”

Now is the time “to turn every page carefully” in order to consider the fashion industry’s impact on natural resources, Kim said. “But I always look at this in a positive place, not a negative place. If we do switch a little bit about the way we think and the way we work, the bottom line is not going to suffer. You are going to impact a much larger group of people who are able to still make things with their hands.”

With an estimated $500 billion worth of clothing that is barely worn and rarely recycled lost annually, the power of change lies with the consumer, from Kim’s point of view. “Consumers need to be educated, because they make the decisions,” she said. “I’m trying to do workshops where they have to learn to sew and to understand what it means to recycle. I try to do it so they are engaged and understand the value.

“What’s so interesting is that it wasn’t so long ago that we made things for ourselves. I came to America and I took home ec [economics]. That’s where I learned to sew. That was only 45 years ago. So we could bring it back,” Kim said. “Not to say that you have to choose one or the other. They can coexist. Luckily in our time, we have choice. Choice is a wonderful thing to have.”

Before joining the 515-person crowd to accept her award, Kim said she has plenty of thanks to dole out, starting with the Cooper Hewitt. “They really have supported me for being out-of-the-box. They have been such a support for me as an institution. I feel very, very proud to be a person who is able to speak on behalf of the immigrants, not only the ones I work with,” she said. “I wasn’t born here. I am a citizen now, but still I am coming from another culture. I am bringing something else to this culture than those who were born here. To be accepted for that, I think that’s cool.”

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