Textile Futures

Is biotechnology the future of sustainable fashion? ORDRE investigates the disruptive technologies making the case for a truly circular industry

It’s no secret that fashion is one of the least sustainable industries on earth, contributing almost as much pollution and damage to our ecosystems and natural habitats as crude oil. However, between the seams, a sustainable revolution has been tirelessly brewing. In an age where science and fashion have begun to merge, what was once deemed inconceivable is within arm's reach. The scientific discoveries we’ve achieved thus far could positively impact the future of the industry tenfold. ORDRE weighs in on how biotechnology has been radicalising the fashion game.

  • Stella McCartney X Bolt Threads
  • Stella McCartney X Bolt Threads X MoMA
  • Orange Fiber X Ferragamo Capsule Collection


We are approaching a tipping point in biofabrication - the science of using living organisms and natural materials to produce everyday products. These recent advancements in science are providing feasible alternatives to seriously unsustainable fibers currently being used, such as cotton and polyester. Both create unthinkable amounts of waste and take hundreds of years to decompose - the former requiring 79 billion cubic meters of water a year and the latter requiring 70 million barrels of oil a year to produce. 

One of the biggest names championing sustainable fashion today is serial entrepreneur Miroslava Duma, who announced her latest venture-capital fund and accelerator - Fashion Tech Lab - earlier this year at the Copenhagen Sustainability Summit. The experimental lab funds, connects and develops sustainable projects and brands who are breaking boundaries in biotechnology and nanotechnology for the benefit of the environment and responsible fashion - it’s a venture sure to revolutionise the entire supply system. 


THE BYPRODUCTS OF YOUR MORNING ORANGE JUICE COULD PRODUCE YOUR ENTIRE WARDROBE

Miroslava Duma’s portfolio of biotech pursuits includes brands like Osomtex, which re-purpose millions of pounds of consumer and industrial textile waste and turns them into upcycled yarns, using zero water and zero toxic chemicals. Diamond Foundry is another one of her invested ventures, which uses the world’s two biggest greenhouse gases – methane and carbon dioxide – to create diamonds in lab environments, outputting only oxygen and water.

Potentially one of Fashion Tech Lab’s most interesting pursuits is Orange Fiber - an Italian company taking hundreds of thousands of tons of byproducts from citrus juice companies and turning them into operational fabrics. Orange Fiber boasts having successfully identified and developed a way to reduce waste and pollution by repurposing something as simple as the un-edible discarded peels from one of the world’s most commonly consumed fruits. 

Luxury fashion house Ferragamo is the first to test the waters of Orange Fiber, creating a successful SS’17 capsule collection using strictly 100% sustainable Orange Fiber fabrics. The unique collaboration merged Ferragamo’s signature elegant sensibility with the specially produced fabrics, and featured prints by Italian designer Mario Trimarchi. The collection is a milestone in blending innovation, cutting-edge technology, sustainability and modern luxury fashion. 


NEW-AGE LEATHER: LAB-GROWN, MADE FROM MUSHROOMS OR PINEAPPLE LEAVES

Leather is often lauded for its buttery smooth texture; its timelessness; its supple strength; and its chic, sensual versatility. But it’s undeniably one of the most environmentally detrimental products in the industry - affecting tannery workers working with toxic chemicals, nearby communities, and of course, the lives of the animals. However, there are now numerous companies looking to completely transfigure the leather industry, offering groundbreaking and scientifically backed ethical alternatives that can absolutely rival the classic material. Fashion Tech Lab is backing a unique San Francisco-based venture called VitroLabs, which is creating lab-engineered, 100% cruelty-free leathers, bio fur, and pelts. These are grown from the real stem-cells of cows, ostriches and crocodiles - genuine leather, grown in a petri dish rather than taken off the backs of living, breathing animals. 

Ananas Anam, a team founded by Royal College of Art graduate Carmen Hijosa (a leathergoods expert working numerous years in the leather industry), have developed an innovative textile made from pineapple leaves - a byproduct of existing agriculture - known as Piñatex. Not only does this fiber create an additional income stream for farming communities, but its non-woven qualities and smooth texture can be likened to that of real leather, offering yet another highly sustainable alternative to the unethical material. Since it’s produced entirely from the waste of consumed fruits, no extra water, fertilisers or pesticides are required to make it.

However, perhaps one of the most ingenious scientific breakthroughs in producing leather alternatives lies within the humble but other-worldly mushroom. It is now possible to grow leather-like biomaterials from something called mycelium - found in the vegetative tissue and dense root structure of mushrooms. Mycelia can be found in almost every square inch of the natural earth - one of nature’s most abundant resources - with branching root structures that fuse their net-like filaments together in mass biological networks. 

Phil Ross, founder of biotech startup MycoWorks, is pioneering this scientific production method in his San Francisco-based labs, with a team of highly skilled scientists and engineers. Ross has turned mycelium into things like building bricks and furniture. The unique fact that the material is a growing, living organism means it is completely customisable and easily manipulated into any form or shape desired. Subjecting mycelia to varying conditions such as temperature and humidity can result in unique textures and features, akin to the finish of calf, snake, alligator or ostrich skins. 

“The possibilities for what you might use Mycelium for are scarily endless; batteries, airplanes, trains, cars, shoes, your bed, bulletproof vests, kid toys, houses, helmets, insulation, anything that’s made out of wood, boats, making rocket ships, robots that would be partially alive and bio degradable” - Phil Ross

From a fashion standpoint, the potential for this revolutionary material is limitless. Apart from various desirable textures, the growth patterns of the material can be manipulated to add hardware such as zippers, hooks, buttons and fasteners directly into the material while it is incubating, eradicating the need for sewing or applying them at a later time. If two living fungal bricks are grown next to each other, they will fuse together without the need for glue or other binding methods. The material is then baked to kill the organisms and freeze the growing process and fresh sprouting. 

There’s also the astounding fact that the material is naturally antibiotic. This is a highly desirable quality for clothing and shoes where bacteria from sweat and exterior environments find ways to nestle deep into the fibres, calling for them to be constantly cleaned - another huge unsustainable blow to the environment. Or how about it’s myriad of other bonus qualities including being self-extinguishing;  it can be designed to house air pockets to allow it to float; or even the fact that it requires only weeks to grow compared to the years needed to raise livestock for a piece of leather. Furthermore, it produces far less energy than cow leather production and is completely and utterly biodegradable. The possibilities are truly inexhaustible. 

A number of designers have already begun harnessing the unique properties of mycelium and turning them into garments. Dutch textile designer Aniela Hoitink created a dress by growing together disc-shaped pieces of mycelium, and presented it at Dutch Sustainable Fashion Week in 2016. Developing a method to render the material completely flexible - comparable to other synthetic or natural fabrics - she shaped the dress by building it directly onto a mannequin, allowing her to grow just the right amount of material, which also created zero left-over waste.

Irene-Marie Seelig, who studied MA Fashion Entrepreneurship and Innovation at London College of Fashion won the 2016 LCF Kering Award for Innovation, for creating the first footwear made from mushroom leather. Using mycelium from the Amadou mushroom, she developed a textile that possessed the texture of suede or mink, though it was 100% biodegradable and renewable. 


SPIDER SILK REPLICATED FROM SUGAR & YEAST

Stella McCartney is one of the most ethically vocal designers with an ongoing commitment to keeping sustainability a pillar of her label. She’s proactively involved in global environmental and socially sustainable projects, including most recently teaming up with biotechnology company Bolt Threads

Inspired by naturally produced silk fibres from spiders, Bold Threads have developed a 100% sustainable, vegan-friendly lab-produced replication. Examining the protein deposits in the naturally occurring fibers to find out more about its soft, flexible and durable properties, the Bolt Threads team found a way to recreate these proteins through fermentation methods using yeast, sugar, salt and water. These liquid silk proteins could then be turned into fibers through a process called wet-spinning - a common process currently used in the production of fibers like acrylic and rayon.

Bolt Threads were initially called upon by the Museum of Modern art to create a modern version of the classic shift dress with their lab-made threads, for their current exhibition highlighting biofabrication and new technologies called Items: Is Fashion Modern?. This sparked a partnership between Bolt Threads and Stella McCartney, who was approached to design the dress.

“We finally have a fiber that knits on a commercial sewing machine and that for us is a very exciting point. We get this incredible dress designed from Stella McCartney, and now you’ve got the union of art and science” - VP of Product Development at Bolt Threads, Jamie Bainbridge.

This initial collaboration led to a new long-term partnership between the designer and Bolt Threads. McCartney has since created numerous pieces using the sustainable material and incorporated them into her latest SS’18 collection, unveiling it backstage at her recent Paris runway show. 

It seems fashion’s relationship with nature and biofabrication has reached dizzying new heights. These tangible, highly sustainable solutions and riveting scientific developments present real alternatives to the destructive materials we continue to use today en masse. They hold the promising potential to scale up for mass production and hopefully initiate a green domino effect within our industry.