Biofashion Show Presents The Future Of Sustainability at London Design Festival

Biodesign Here Now opened last night to a captive audience of designers, architects, manufacturers and enthusiasts who were treated to the first edition of the Biodesign Fashion Show, held at Opencell London. Presenting accessories and clothing from designers and makers whose work is part of the exhibition from 19th-21st September, the show was a window into the materials and aesthetics of the near and far future.

Suzanne Lee at Open Cell, Biodesign Here Now Image: Fashnerd

Part of London Design Festival, this launch event and fashion show included a keynote from biomaterial and design veteran Suzanne Lee, who spoke about the impact this sector is having now, and what the future is likely to bring. Having spent well over a decade working on biomaterial and biodesign innovations at Biocouture, Modern Meadow, and now Biofabricate, she summed up the potential sustainable advantages of this sector, along with the significant challenges of scaling these new material solutions. The challenges include the vast amounts of funding and development time needed, which pose significant difficulties when seeking to meet the material needs of fast-moving industries like fashion.

Biofashion Show

In the fashion show following Lee’s keynote, designers presented bio-based accessories including biodegradable biopolymer flowers by Carolyn Raff developed from algae and agar, using rapidly renewable raw materials from the sea. Lina Nurk and Jonas Johansson’s vegan and biodegradable textiles were like an embroidered second skin, along with Silvio Tinello’s fungi bio agglomerate and bacterial cellulose bags. Rosie Broadhead is exploring embedding healthy bacteria into textiles for enhanced wellbeing through skin absorption and presented a bodysuit proof-of-concept. Denimaize is redesigning denim using wasted corn husks to extract the cellulose fibers, and spinning them with flax.

Monika Blaszczak, Biofashion Show Image: Lonesomesalone

Two designers created bio couture, presenting entire collections utilising hand-craft techniques driven by biological processes of lichen and mycelium growth. I have written about Piero D’Angelo’s prospective lichen fashion (article here) in the past, but last night D’Angelo presented his first entire collection, which proved a refreshing follow-up to London Fashion Week, which while commercial and brilliantly creative in many ways, isn’t proposing such radical ways to reimagine fashion for a future fraught with ecological fragility and scarcity of resources. His pieces were crafted delicately but the result was bold in terms of texture, colour, and structure.

Biodegradable biopolymer flowers by Carolyn Raff.

Biocouture

Aurelie Fontan uses scraps from the automotive and upholstery industries to repurpose and extend the life and visual interest of the materials, by exploring how they can be blended with mycelium. Still in its early stages, the majority of her collection showed dexterity with scraps that concealed the fact that these materials were less than perfect when she received them.

Aurelie Fontan – Process.

Both Fontan and D’Angelo are residents of Open Cell, the biodesign lab with flexible and accessible space for experimentation to support designers, makers, and scientists as they tackle the challenges of developing sustainable solutions to our myriad of material problems.

Sustainability and Design

As the dialogue around climate change intensifies and we grow more anxious about finding solutions, the work of those on show at Biodesign Here Now offers optimism, inspiration, catalysis and hopefully scaling and adoption of the new solutions being presented. If you want to know what’s happening in Biodesign, and to see the edge of where materials are right now, with a view to what’s coming next, catch the exhibition from 19th-21st September at Open Cell, Shepherd’s Bush. See the programme of talks on 20th September here. Entry is free.

Techstyler X LDC – “Why The Future Of Fashion Will Be Grown, Not Sewn”

Climate change is at the forefront of our minds given the critical warnings about our dwindling resources and rising global temperatures. Halting ‘consumption’ of goods is impossible, so the focus, regardless of which part your play (creator and consumer, or just the latter) should be reducing carbon emissions. It may sound complex, but essentially it means finding alternative solutions to our most carbon-emitting problems. In fashion, this resides in materials. The emissions (or impact, for directness) is around 73% due to the materials phase of product creation. So if we address carbon emissions in this phase we are a long way towards securing life on our planet.

Where do we start on this mission? For the three designers on my recent panel ‘Why The Future Of Fashion Will Be Grown, Not Sewn’ in collaboration with Lone Design Club, the use of plant, rather than petroleum-based materials, is key. This approach brings its own set of challenges and the panellists shared the benefits, drawbacks and tales from the unchartered waters of developing and designing using grown materials.

Techstyler X LDC
Techstyler X LDC – “Why The Future Of Fashion Will Be Grown, Not Sewn”

Adam Davies, researcher and product designer, started his journey towards creating interiors materials and products by shaping seaweed into objects on a beach in Wales. Driven by a desire to make use of the abundant seaweed in an ever more plastic-ridden local beach, he put his energy into chopping, shaping and baking seaweed into lampshades. And so began the journey to eventually experimenting with mycelium. Today, his brand Ty Syml sells lampshades made from both materials, which he has developed through trial and error. His development of mycelium (a type of mushroom harvested just prior to the mushroom’s sprouting phase) started with a mycelium kit he bought online and began mixing with other substrates (base materials). Mycelium grows through a substrate, for example wood pulp. This means it provides the opportunity to combine mycelium with byproducts from other industries (as the substrate), boosting the sustainability and performance characteristics of the resulting materials.

Mycelium Light
Mycelium Light

What has been the biggest challenge so far? I asked. Creating a sterile environment in the 3D printed lampshade molds (so that mould doesn’t grow within the materials) was Adam’s response – a rather scientific problem for a designer. In fact, thinking like a designer and working like a scientist is a path he is still navigating. He admits that the next crucial step for his rapidly growing business is to hire a mycologist (a biologist specialising in funghi) as he expands his range of material composites, which currently includes mycelium and wood and mycelium and spent grain from brewing. Following a discussion with an audience member he will also be exploring a mycelium and flax composite, too. All three of these materials take on waste from other processes and put it to good use in combination with mycelium. These materials all remain 100% biodegradable and have powerful natural properties.

Ty Syml - Seaweed Lampshade
Ty Syml – Seaweed Lampshade

The mycelium composite materials are strong, light, water resistant and fire retarding, so are perfect for building interiors and construction. The natural growth of the materials and use of byproducts from other processes make this a closed-loop system, adhering to the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) design principles. Adam is an ardent believer in, and follower of, William McDonough’s C2C framework.

On the speculative side, Piero D’Angleo is working on growing couture with lichen. His MA Fashion at the Royal College of Art, where he is being taught by Helen Steiner, cofounder of Open Cell, has steered him from the study of plant-based aesthetics to plant-specific functions in his design work. In the case of lichen, its ability to absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the atmosphere is a powerful concept that D’Angelo would like to harness in a fibre, then yarn form. Lichen is a unique fungus-based growth that co-exists with either a bacteria or algae, which infiltrates the fungi. The algae or bacteria performs photosynthesis (turning carbon dioxide into oxygen) within the fungi structure. The relationship of the two organisms is mutualistic, providing a perfect metaphor for how we should be living within nature to halt planetary destruction.

Piero D'Angelo - Prospective Lichen Textile
Piero D’Angelo – Prospective Lichen Textile

Having created prospective textile designs and a ‘grow your own couture’ handbook, D’Angelo is now experimenting with how plants can combine with electronics to form nature-driven automation. This is a window into D’Angelo’s belief that we have a stronger emotional connection to things that grow (as opposed to things created synthetically, like polyester, for example). He imagines a future where the power of lichen can be augmented in the way Bolt Threads have isolated spider-silk proteins and placed them in living organisms to generate synthetic silk in a lab. However, as living organisms (bacteria, for example) are producing the fibres to create these yarns, engineering them and ‘putting them to work’ begs questions about ethics that he is still grappling with, he says.

Piero D'Angelo - Prospective Lichen Garment
Piero D’Angelo – Prospective Lichen Garment

Also exploring this lab-grown material conundrum is Ioanna Topouzoglou, founder of London-based accessories brand Mashu. Topouzoglou currently uses plant-based materials (Piñatex ‘pineapple leather’ is one), as well as polyurethane (PU) synthetic leather alternatives. Here, she balances the impact of synthetic versus natural materials, which is no easy feat. The difficulty lies with balancing the non-biodegradability of the PU and recycled polyester linings in her bags, for example, with the water usage and processing impact of using a cotton, for example. On balance, recycled PET in this non-washed product has a lower impact – until end-of-life is reached. Topouzoglou is in the early stages of planning for end-of-life by dismantling and reusing or recycling the product components, but admits this is a complex service to provide to a growing global customer-base.

Mashu - Piñatex bag
Mashu – Piñatex bag

To the lab-grown materials debate she is open to using animal-origin leather if lab-grown, explaining that “as a vegan, this is not straightforward”, but if no harm (to the animals or organisms) is proven, she accepts the output as “an ethical material”. Given that she has fought hard over the past couple of years to convince manufacturers to adapt their animal-leather processes to utilise synthetic and plant-based materials and non-animal based glues instead, this is a strong commitment to using whatever materials have the least impact and help our planet – even if they do originate from animals, resulting in further adaptation to her manufacturing methods.

Mashu - PU bag
Mashu – PU bag

Of course it is impossible to create products and have absolutely “zero impact”. What this panel discussion demonstrated was that the combination of science and design presents us with better alternatives that can reduce the impact on the planet. It also demonstrates powerful natural processes that we can harness and leverage in materials. For all its challenges, it seems that plants and the rapidly evolving area of biomaterial design, holds the key to a naturally ‘smart’ and sustainable materials future.

Techstyler X BOTTLETOP: Grown Materials for Fashion – Past, Present and Future

Growing materials to use in fashion products may be new to most, but the panellists of the Techstyler X Bottletop Speaker Series discussion on ‘Biomaterials and Biodesign: The Next Generation of Sustainable Materials’ have been working in this sector for several years and it is bearing interesting fruit.

Carole Collet, Professor in Design for Sustainable Futures and CSM-LVMH Director of Sustainable Innovation at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London has spent a decade researching biomimicry, biofabrication and biodesign.  Her work gave rise to the MA Materials Futures course at CSM and will soon see the launch of the MA Biodesign degree at the same institution.  Education, ethics and robust frameworks for the future industrialisation of materials grown in living systems are what Carole sees as current imperatives for the responsible and safe development of this sector. In addition to her academic research, Professor Collet has recently supervised the PhD work of Amy Congdon, now a member or the Modern Meadow team, founded by biodesign pioneer Suzanne Lee.  

Image: Carole Collet: Biolace

When asked why the past two years have seen an explosion in biodesign and grown materials she stated that accessibility of ‘recipes’ and equipment, which are fairly rudimentary in the initial phases, have given rise to a surge in interest and experimentation by designers, usually with basic kitchen equipment in their own homes.  She goes on to say that designers remain ill equipped, however, to navigate and document their developments due to a biology and scientific process knowledge gap. The MA Biodesign course aims to fill this gap.

Ex-Adidas designer, Jen Keane, just completed her MA Material Futures degree, during which time she grew a nanocellulose trainer upper, using a hybrid of manually warped threads with a weft grown by bacteria.  Essentially, the process of growing a material requires a sterile environment, into which a living organism (bacteria from Kombucha, for example) and a sugar and water solution is introduced.  The organism then creates the material – in the case of Jen’s material, the nanocellulose weft. The resulting material has a papery feel, but once treated with oil it is smooth and flexible with a semi-translucent finish.  Jen spoke about the challenges in interpreting the biological building blocks of her experiments and controlling the easily contaminated environment (sterilised dishes) used to grow her materials. Household mould was her biggest challenge, but she managed to successfully develop samples in her kitchen and bathroom which she presented to the audience.  

Image: Jen Keane

Having recently visited Bolt Threads to see their synthetic spider silk developments and the scale of their operation, and armed with industry standard experience for materials approval at Adidas, she estimates that her material requires five more years of research and development before reaching commercial readiness.

Imparting a scientific voice and reasoning was Tom Meany, CEO of Cell-Free Tech and Director of Open Cell.bio – the new lab and workspace initiative that supports designers and scientists to rapid test and prototype in lab facilities, usually the preserve of industry or established educational institutions.  Tearing down barriers to entry by allowing quick experimentation, Open Cell residents include Chip[s] Board, who are turning potato waste into an MDF-equivalent material that is 100% biodegradable and sustainable from an as yet un-exploited waste stream.  In addition to the bio-lab space, there is a Maker Space and shipping container space available for residents to set up their own dedicated small-scale labs or production facilities – as the Chip[s] Board team (comprised of two designers and a biochemist) have.

Image: Open Cell.bio

Tom warned against hype-driven new or prospective materials which create ‘Instagram attention’ but are founded on shaky or unproven science.  He points to a danger that this can create unrealistic expectations on those trying to genuinely move the industry forward. The discussion turned to fashion’s propensity for storytelling to sell products, which may lead to style over substance where science is concerned.

While materials grown from living systems offer clean and efficient alternatives to currently polluting material production methods, Professor Collet warned that they currently have severe limitations in terms of cost effectiveness, performance and scalability.  She warned against viewing materials grown from living systems as “saviours” for our urgent sustainability and environmental woes. Using newly created Mylo ‘leather’ from mycelium as an example, she said that we do not know how this leather equivalent will look and perform throughout its life – it may not be a durable long-term replacement for existing leathers.  Additional research and development into biodesign and biofabrication and materials from living systems cannot be rushed, she concluded.

To hear the full panel discussion, listen to the podcast here.

The next talk in the Techstyler X Bottletop Speaker Series with be held at the Bottletop store in November, entitled ‘Sustainability Driven by New Technologies: Reducing Waste using 3D Design and Mixed Reality’.

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