Fashion Grown in a Lab?

Fashion Grown in a Lab?

“I think there is beauty in everything. What ‘normal’ people perceive as ugly, I can usually see something of beauty in it.” Alexander McQueen.

I wonder what the late designer would have thought about Tina Gorjanc’s ‘Pure Human’ project? Gorjanc extracted McQueen’s DNA from a cutting of his hair and reprogrammed a piece of skin to replicate his. She then grew and treated the skin in a lab to create a leather-like material. The end result – a fashion collection of bags and coats made from McQueen’s ‘skin’. And yes, when exposed to the sun the items can burn!

It may sound gross but Gorjanc’s work is just one example of a recent trend of technologists, scientists and designers coming together to reshape the fashion industry. From new materials to more efficient manufacturing processes – nothing is off limits.

Intrigued? If so, then read on.

Too many onesies and too few cows

Did you know that the fashion industry is ranked second amongst the world’s most polluting industries? That’s one behind oil – I know! I’m guessing that the Primark culture (low-cost, high-volume) that we now live in isn’t helping.

Apparently 3 in 4 fashion items end up in a landfill and the fluff from washing our onesies now makes up 85 per cent of debris (human-made) on our shorelines.

On the other end of the spectrum, the luxury market is facing a resource crisis. Climate change is impacting the environments needed to produce materials such as cashmere and silk and the demand for leather items exceeds the amount of cows available.

All of these things are challenging the short-term mindset of the fashion industry to look to the future. Could biotech (like that which produced the McQueen skin) be the answer?

What is biotech?

Biotech, in the context of the fashion industry, is basically the design and engineering of fabrics using nature’s building blocks. With biotech you can control the properties of the material, unlike leather (for example) whereby you have to work with what comes off the cow (barbwire scratches and all).

If you thought that the McQueen ‘skin’ leather was just someone’s college project, then think again. Let’s take a quick look at some other examples of biotech and the companies spear-heading this revolution.

From Mushroom Mulberrys to Spider Silk Shoes

Over in New York, a company called Modern Meadow is growing leather in a lab, minus the cow. They’ve recently received $40 million in funding to transition their product from the research space and into manufacturing. So, what does this mean for you and I? Well, it means that in a few years we’ll be able to buy animal-free leather that has been engineered from collagen protein.

Next, if we hop over to the West Coast of the United States, a company called MycoWorks is creating another type of leather substitute…from mushrooms! Apparently funghi is fed agricultural waste and as the conditions of their environment are altered this produces different textures and strength. In fact, it only takes two weeks to grow mushroom leather as opposed to two years to cultivate leather from a cow. Mushroom Mulberry anyone?

Now, if you are the sort of person who prefers a good hike over a stroll with a Mulberry handbag, then spider silk may be more your thing. Apparently, spider silk is known to be five times stronger than steel, super light and very elastic. For a long time scientists and entrepreneurs have been trying to replicate it in a lab and several companies seem to have now cracked the code.

One company called Bolt Threads has devised a way to create large quantities of silk proteins, which are then spun into fibres. I’m imagining something similar to how you make candy-floss?! The outdoor retailer Patagonia has partnered with Bolt Threads to produce a collection of clothing using spider silk. And Bolt Threads has recently purchased their own outdoor apparel company (Best Made Company) to help them break into the market.

Other companies in the spider silk game include Spiber and AMsilk. The Japanese company Spiber has released several concept pieces of clothing – for example, the Moon Parka for The North Face. Similarly, AMsilk teamed up with Adidas to create a spider silk shoe, which is expected to be released this year.

Shrimp Carrier Bag anyone?

Now, we’re going to need an environmentally friendly carrier bag for all this shopping – could Shrilk be the answer?

Shrilk is made from discarded shrimp shells (amongst other things) and is apparently as strong as aluminium, half the weight and biodegradable. It’s widespread use would have a significant impact on the environment as the amount of plastic sent to land-fill would be reduced. The key is for scientists to figure out a way to tweak it’s production method so that it is suitable for commercial manufacturing. Something which both the Wyss Institute at Harvard and the University of Nottingham (in collaboration with the Nile University) are working on.

The Future of Biotech and you

Therein lies the key to the success of all of these companies – the ability to move from the research space into manufacturing and then into the hands of us the consumer.

It will take designers, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to crack the code but won’t it be worth it?!

As the company Modern Meadow states, ‘There are those who wish the world was different, and those who work to change it every day.’

So, if this post has sparked your interest then here are a few tips to stay on trend with the latest happenings in bio-tech and understand what you would need to do to get involved:

  • Sign-up for updates from the Biofabricate movement and BIO (the Biotechnology Innovation Organisation) 
  • Take a look and follow the companies mentioned above on Twitter and Instagram plus follow #biotech
  • Research the people, companies and jobs associated with ‘biotech’ on LinkedIn – what education and experience do people have, what qualifications do companies ask for?
  • Have a go at growing your own clothes – here is some inspo.

If someone ever questions your interest in biotech, just remember…

“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” Coco Chanel

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, questions and stories. Have fun exploring.


Image Credits

Credits for header image (left) and header image (right).

Alexander McQueen Autumn Collection 2008 Red Coat by Paul David via Flickr

Alexander McQueen Autumn Collection 2008 Black Dress by Paul David via Flickr



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