From Circuits to Silkworms: An engineer’s journey into fashion design

Blue (and ivory) gowns designed by Kunal Ghose

At engineering school, high math and science scores are demanded at the door; it’s not a place where art students gravitate. It might be the last place to learn to design elegant high fashion. Yet Kunal Ghose has found surprising common threads between these two fields. He’s an established systems engineer and an emerging fashion designer. When one career can take years to establish, how does a person succeed at two such different paths?

Ghose arrives a little late to Better Buzz, a sleek coffee bar in Hillcrest, to help answer the question. A slender man of 33, he slides through the Saturday morning crowd, shakes off some unaccustomed San Diego rain, and admits there’s one thing he’s not good at.

“I can’t parallel park,” he announces cheerfully, having found a spot away from the crowded city streets. He sips a nitro iced coffee, which sounds both high-tech and designer, symbolizing his dual careers.

The art of fashion design can be seen everywhere on the street, catering to ever-changing tastes for wearable self-expression. And while the science of systems engineering — a methodology uniting multiple technical disciplines –  can help fly a rocket to the moon or enable cell phone technology to reach across the world, it isn’t seen so much as embedded.

Ghose says his engineering coworkers aren’t surprised he’s pursuing such a different second field as fashion design. Several have their own side endeavors; one is a talented musician and another does standup comedy.

But faculty advisors at local schools of engineering and fashion were stumped at the question whether the fields of engineering and fashion design might share any traits.

Richard Baran, program manager for UCSD Extension’s Systems Engineering certificate, whose instructors work mostly in the aerospace industry, couldn’t respond by email whether systems engineering might share any elements of creativity or aesthetics with the field of fashion.

From the perspective of fashion design, Joni Incrocchi, a program advisor at Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, confirmed that basic engineering prerequisites weren’t typically taught in fashion school, saying “I’ve never seen physics in the curriculum in 33 years in the industry.”

Ghose was an avid science geek growing up in India, earning a bachelor’s in science before coming to the U.S. to earn a Master’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering. He has since worked as a systems engineer for ten years at wireless technology giant Qualcomm.

Ghose charted a home-schooled path to his fashion skills. His eyes gleam mischievously as he relays that as a boy on his family’s mango orchard in India, he once tore his shirt and brought it home to be stitched. He chuckles at the memory of his grandmother having other ideas.

“My grandmother – she drove a tractor into her 80s – said ‘No, I’ll teach you to sew it yourself.’”

Ghose learned to love the rich visual culture of his native India. When he was profiled for FINE Magazine last year, he identified his aesthetic as bringing an Indian influence that local customers said they weren’t seeing in the market. His designs include intricate Indian motifs, such as peacocks and elephants, and the handcrafted embroidery of traditional artisans.

The influence of science creeps in, when he comments on a fashion blog about a deep blue dress he designed, saying “I’m a nerd, so these beads at the top remind me of molecules, and that was the inspiration that works in fashion.”

Having established himself at Qualcomm, Ghose felt ready in 2015 to pursue his fashion career, funded by his success as an engineer. He launched his fashion line, Haus of K2, and presented a collection at 2017 Fashion Week San Diego. His evening gowns are selling to socialites and prom queens alike, and he’s excited to note the following he’s gained.

Suddenly he pauses and quietly says “I’m very happy to have my Qualcomm career,” grateful it offers a stable trajectory he can see ten years into the future.

Blue (and ivory) gowns designed by Kunal Ghose
Photo: Jason Aronne

Asked about typical engineering skills that might deter a more creative student, he states “I’m very good at math,” which he uses to perform complex data analysis in his engineering work, saying it calls for “black and white” thinking. It’s a complete switch to then see his work in vivid shades of blue and turquoise.

Ghose’s friends have encouraged him to explore an intersection of technology and fashion. For now, Ghose is clear he wants to keep the two separate. He’s still steeped in a love for the fabrics of India – the lace hand-made by village women, the lush silks and vibrant colors.

“I need to keep them separate” is his firm stance, as his engineering work is all-absorbing when he’s at it.

He’s befriended Manish Malhotra, an Indian designer, who counseled Ghose to think carefully about starting a career in fashion.

“Define your objective” was the advice, and Ghose decided that if he could profit enough from his fashion to pay for his vacations, that would be success. And it’s come to that, as he went on four trips last year, including a visit home to India with his husband Jason Aronne.

Silkworms nested
Photo: Jason Aronne

A side trip to Cambodia led to new design inspiration when they visited Angkor Wat, site of the world’s largest temple and a trove of intricate Asian motifs. One day at an open-air market, a woman approached Ghose and invited him to visit the silk factory nearby, where silkworms nested on woven screens.

Ghose marvels that once the silk fabric is woven, “it’s so fine that you could pull a whole sheet of it through this ring on my finger,” his eyes gleaming at the memory of this feat of beautiful engineering.

But his immediate project is to start a new dress design for a fashion show next week in Los Angeles. (This weekend he hasn’t brought work home from Qualcomm.) Later will come preparation for Fashion Week San Diego in October, where he’s been invited back for a second year. And he’s applying for acceptance to Paris Fashion Week 2019, where he hopes to present his Indian-influenced designs and raise representation for designers of color.

His garage doubles as his work studio, which is being squeezed by a home remodel to make room for a new kind of project:  the baby daughter he and Aronne are expecting in June. Fortunately, a systems engineer is trained to integrate multiple factors using project management skills, not so unlike juggling a design studio.

The rain has cleared now, and Ghose winds to the end of the morning’s answer, patiently explaining he’s been asked before how his two careers do — or don’t — relate.

But his eyes widen with surprise when asked what advice he would give his daughter as she begins to reach for her own goals.

It’s a new question, and he has a faraway look remembering his own beginnings.

“My father was very disciplined and made me go to math camp. I wish I hadn’t had to go,” he confesses, but after a pause, concludes “but I’m glad I did.”

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