Engineering Fashion: Nere Emiko
The designs of electrical and computer engineering alumna Nere Emiko have gained recognition in industry magazines, landed her in important trade events, and even allowed her to start her own business. But Emiko doesn't design processors, systems, circuits, or computational algorithms.
She designs wedding dresses, jewelry, embroidery, and sometimes even furniture.
Emiko received both her master's and bachelor's through ECE's Integrated Master's/Bachelor's (IMB) program. She became interested in clothing design through the fashion show run by SPIRIT, a minority organization that she was a part of during her time at Carnegie Mellon University, and thought it would be something she might do in addition to her career as an engineer.
"Being a part of an organization helped me get involved in doing things other than engineering—all the things in life that I wanted to do, that I was kind of interested in," says Emiko. "I didn't join SPIRIT with any thought of fashion, but I found out, wow, I really like this. I thought it was a cool hobby, a hobby to eventually do on the side. I never really thought I'd be a fashion designer."
After graduating in 2003, she worked as an engineer for Freescale Semiconductor. While she loved her job, she eventually was drawn back to the fashion world through the problem-solving approach of engineering.
"The way I started doing wedding dresses was that I saw a need," says Emiko. "I thought, 'I can meet this need.' It was just like with engineering where, if you see a problem, you try to fix it."
The need she was interested in meeting was for custom wedding dresses. Emiko watched her friends, each of whom were unique individuals with their own vision for their big day, wear similar dresses when they said, "I do."
"Everyone has different personalities, but we all end up looking the same at the wedding," she explains. "You want to look like a beautiful version of your personality, like your personality could be a dress that you could show the world. That was the inspiration for my first collection."
And so, five years after starting out as an engineer, Emiko changed gears and began her own collection of bridal dresses, called Beth Elis. Her dresses are often inspired by a theme, such as her second collection, for which she asked herself, "What would it look like being wrapped in light? How would you describe radiance in a dress, or starlight, or fire?"
Thinking like an engineer, however, has been essential to her fashion career.
"I find that the engineering background I have helps me with an approach of innovation," she states. "How do we innovate here? What is the design solution for this?"
Not only does her CMU background help her to innovate, but fashion, like the design flow process of engineering, involves making modifications when elements of the original plan turn out to be problematic.
"It's almost like how you go to the lab and make some prototypes, and if it doesn't work out, you reengineer and figure out what went wrong," she says.
She also hopes to use her engineering background in the future to partner with engineering companies and invest in technology, though she doesn't see herself returning to a full-time engineering job.
In addition to Beth Elis, Emiko opened her own boutique a year and a half ago in Austin, Texas, where she lives. The boutique, called Gilda Grace, has a bottom floor that is a lifestyle store, while the top floor contains a custom bridal salon that features both Beth Elis and the work of another designer, Katerina Bocci. The location also has a garden that can be used for small engagement parties, events, and even small weddings.
"Gilda Grace's retail store is a mixture of antique, vintage, modern, historic, shoes, bags, and furniture, so it's a full-scale boutique, almost like shopping through the substance of a house," she says. Many of the items in Gilda Grace are pieces that Emiko, who was born and raised in Nigeria, picked up on her travels from places such as Tanzania, Paris, India, London, or the Middle East.
Emiko emphasizes that, while she is no longer an engineer, her time at CMU was incredibly influential in her fashion career.
"My education at CMU, in the classroom and outside, is really what inspired me to believe that, in the world, you really can work for anything," she says.