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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Click Your Heels To Start The Dishwasher – Smart Trainers vs Traditional Cordwainers

Surrounded by students crafting leather on lasts using traditional methods, Adriana Goldenberg stands alone as the only student on the BA (Hons) Cordwainers Footwear: Design and Product Innovation course grappling with textiles and tech to create smart trainers for her final year footwear collection.   “Why only one?” I wonder, in a world where knitted trainers (see ubiquitous examples below) are grabbing footwear market share as new textile technologies applied to footwear design are revolutionising the texture, fit and speed to market of this entire product category.  Isn’t textile-led trainer design the most exciting area in footwear design at the moment?  Adriana seems to think so.

Top to bottom: Nike Flyknit Air Force One, YEEZY BOOST 350, Adidas Ultra Boost, Adidas Stan Smith

Starting her concept not from a designer standpoint, but from a question about whether there might be a consumer appetite for a hybrid textile apparel/shoe product, she placed a paid Facebook Ad (for £38.61, to be exact) aimed at her demographic (25-37 year old females in the UK and the US), reaching over 400,000 people, from which she had 55 surveys completed.  Her survey was to determine her target market’s attitude towards leggings joined to trainers – a kind of unification of a two products in the hugely successful athleisure movement (sportswear as all day wear – think Lululemon and Nike Lab outside of the yoga studio and gym).  The results, despite being a small sample, pointed to a potential demand for the hybrid product.   

Adriana began exploring leggings with components attached to trainers via zips or laces, allowing them to be mixed and matched – adding customisation and personalisation to the mix.  Taking her concept one step further, she sought to offer product differentiation by making her trainers smart – adding value via programmed switches containing safety and lifestyle features.  Juggling a full time job at SAM Labs and full time study has paid off in a creative and cross-disciplinary sense, inspiring her to utilise SAM Lab switches (’50 pence size’ programmable blocks aimed at getting kids into coding) and rapid prototyping equipment at their co-working space – the Machines Room in East London, resulting in her shoe collection by SAM Labs. 

Images: SAM Labs

Focusing on combining the programmable SAM Labs blocks with her shoe designs, it’s interesting to discover that the tech drove the design process in this instance.  The first prototypes had the blocks sewn on to the textile upper, creating practical issues and a lack of design integration.  In contrast to pursuing this visible ‘stuck on’ fashion tech option, Adriana designed the prototype shoes around the tech, housing the blocks within the sole and using 3D printing in order to create cavities for them to slot into. 

Portfolio images: Adriana Goldenberg –  Bottom image: Techstyler

The SAM switches, or ‘blocks’, connect to a smart phone via Bluetooth and are easily programmable via drag and drop icons on the SAM mobile app, which essentially contain packages of java script pre-coded, so that you just drop the icons containing the code in a sequence to get the block to do what you want.  One of the coolest icons is IFTTT (which stands for “if this, then that”), which contains code that allows you to set your block up to do all sorts of things, like send you a notification when there is breaking news at NASA or get a daily meditation alert acting as both a reminder and light dimmer.  The SAM block can also be connected to the accelerometer and GPS functions in your phone to amp up the functionality.  Want to know more about setting up the SAM Lab blocks?  Here’s an overview of how Adriana did it:

Adriana has used the GPS connectivity in combination with safety information relating to geographic locations in London to programme the block to buzz and send vibrations through the sole of the trainer when the wearer is in a high crime area.  She has also programmed one of the blocks to dial emergency services when the block button is pressed.  The blocks can also be connected to other device software (a smart dishwasher) for example.  By smart I mean connected to the internet, which is increasingly common with smart homes and the growing Internet of Things network.  One of the more fun features is starting the dishwasher when the heels are clicked together three times, utilising the tilt sensor in the block.

Lookbook images:  Adriana Goldenberg

Wrapping up our chat, Adriana admits to feeling a little overwhelmed by the attention a small amount of promotion on her Instagram and Facebook page have generated.  She has had fifteen requests for her smart trainers already and has yet to complete her final major project – part of which is these Sam Labs shoe prototypes, due to be submitted next week to complete her BA degree requirements.  She is looking forward to taking stock and weighing up future opportunities.  Perhaps surprisingly, she isn't fixed on a future in footwear design due to the complexity of the design, development and manufacturing processes, however with textile techniques making this process far cleaner, quicker and more iteration friendly compared to leather techniques, the shoe game appears to be changing.  She is, however, fixed on a future working with fashion and technology and feels there are opportunities to blend fashion and tech in more meaningful ways, with a simple and seamless consumer focus rather than an all singing, all dancing tech 'geek-out' focus.  She mentions invisible tech in seamless smart materials where the tech does cool stuff to enhance the wearer's experience, without making them feel like they're wearing a gadget.  Adriana's smart trainers sure feel like a step in that direction.

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