Dr. Mathilda Tham

Lecturer in Design, Goldsmith's, University of London


In her research and lectures at universities in Stockholm and London, Professor Tham applies her doctoral work in sustainability to her background in trend forecasting and fashion design. She explores how the environmental movement and the fashion industry might empower one another.


I met the Swedish professor over lunch in Stockholm, and she had me at hello. She combines Juliette Binoche’s warm glamour with Einstein-ian imagination and endearing honesty.

tham quote

This is the sort of nuanced approach Tham takes in her work, and one I greatly appreciated, as someone with a fair bit of neurosis woven into my jeans. Why we buy is a question the Swedish professor examines from many different angles. Is it because, as she said, we want to make friends? And what does that mean? To her, it might mean being perceived a certain way by a select group of people. To me, it might mean visiting the friendly faces in my favorite shops.

"How much [of the thrill of shopping] is handing your card over?" she asked. "And how much is touching the garment?" She doesn't just rhetorically pose these questions over salmon sandwiches; she gathers data through studies like wardrobe inventories. Forty percent of our clothing, she said, is "active." The rest is made up of things we keep, but do not wear.

As Dr. Tham began to list typical categories of these "inactive items," I took a mental inventory of my own closet: clothing I bought on holiday (straw hat from Madagascar), clothing purchased when I thought I was someone else (midriff-baring blouse), things I’m keeping for when I shed a few pounds (ACNE jeans), items I’ve re-purchased because my closet is too stuffed to see what I already have (black bikini bottoms, black bikini bottoms, black bikini bottoms.) This woman clearly knew what she was talking about.

bikini bottoms

I was blown away by Dr. Tham's astute diagnosis of my personal Closet-tosis—but how would she prescribe a solution? For that, she relies on surveys and data, cross-referencing information like wardrobe inventories and product lifecycle analyses to pose creative, but totally feasible, solutions. For example, she explained, women tend to buy party tops on impulse, thinking flashy and fabulous for the evening ahead, but only wear them a few times, and with very little emotional attachment.

So why, she asked, wouldn't we rent them? I thought of a metallic gold sweater I bought last December, and wore to exactly two Christmas parties. Whatever happened to that sweater? I might wear it again next year—if I could find it. Or I could just buy something more timely at H&M. What would Professor Tham say about that?

"Fast fashion," she said, "could be made of things that are almost instantaneously biodegradable materials." Well! I thought. That would be interesting. Sort of like Cinderella—get home before midnight, or your top might biodegrade! No, seriously, if we only wear those truly trendy items a time or two before abandoning them, why not make them entirely evanescent?

I had plans to meet with H&M after lunch, and made a mental note to ask them about the possibility of paper dresses. Meanwhile, Professor Tham was looking much further into the future, or rather, somewhere else entirely. Her most current research is in a field she calls Meta-Design—employing concepts that she says, "can only be explored as metaphors."

As casually as I might explain why I prefer platforms to stilettos, Professor Tham began to unfurl what she calls "a higher of order of design," converging psychology, media and open sourcing to ultimately redesign the design process.

Now I was having fun.

I thought of Cynthia Rowley's recent project, which simultaneously turned the production process, the customer-designer relationship and the fashion calendar on its head. I thought of my office-mates at the Center for Journalistic Innovation, and their open-source site for physics lessons. I thought of Wool and the Gang’s virtual community and shared designs. I thought of my closet.

I wished lunch could last forever, but it was time to run. We had to get to H&M.

I would photograph if I could only find them