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.

Aubrey Wang’s Fashion Feeding Machine – Next Level Fashion Tech

Aubrey (Xintong) Wang earned the nickname ‘Aubruino’ (a play on Arduino) from her tutor Zowie Broach early on in the first year of her MA fashion degree at the Royal College of Art.  A BA fashion graduate from a degree in South Korea, now nearing completion of her MA, Aubrey is a designer cut from an entirely different cloth, or 3D printed from another filament, to use a more fitting analogy.  A designer of heaving techno-fashion leanings and a longing for a more symbiotic relationship between these two disciplines, Aubrey spent her first MA year collaborating with Information Experience Design and Service Design students, exploring biolace, chairs that are impossible to sit on and a hamster to human communication device.  Aubrey designs not for a fashion show, but for a future world where a philosophy that primarily asks ‘why?’ leads design inquisition.  She favours critical design reasoning and methodology, leading her to read Speculative Everything and explore the work of Anthony Dunne.

Flicking through her sketch books reveals x-rays and MRI scans (attention well piqued!) and orthopaedic devices for correcting posture.  These are intermixed with images of 80’s and 90’s sci-fi fashion editorials and still life representations by artist Mariko Mori which portray a kind of ‘sci-fi normal’ – the extraordinary in an everyday setting.  That’s where Aubrey’s design thinking lives.  She casts aside the idea of very sleek modern gadgets in favour of ephemeral and spirited 80’s and 90’s sci-fi inspired design.  Where is the personality in an iWatch, after all?

Three artworks – Mariko MoriTerry Gilliam’s Brazil Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner

Her design thinking is about individual needs in an increasingly tech-enabled world, with a dose of surrealism thrown in to underscore the absurdity of how technology may take over our lives to the point where we wear a helmet that feeds us so that our hands remain free to clutch a smart ‘phone and ‘stay connected’.  Leading her process is the creation of the object, and it’s the fashion that follows.  What results is an unfolding story, and in the case of her final collection, a series of helmets culminating in a ‘feeding machine’ and augmented clothing that has been pattern cut to correct the slump in posture caused by hunching over a smart ‘phone.  Her toile developments and fittings recreated this exact slumped scenario.

Sketches and Toiles

Following the RCA graduate show held a week before our interview, to which Aubrey’s collection had a great response, a buyer asked for the clothes minus the augmentation – just made really simply, because the buyer liked the fabric but the design was ‘not commercial enough’.  Cue an open reflection where Aubrey explains that she feels it would be a shame to make a ‘commercial version’ and loose the purpose and story of her collection, and that there is a space for her to explore story telling and commerciality through her plan to launch a studio that fuses her design thinking with real life briefs from brands, for example the Nina Ricci perfume project she completed during her MA at the RCA.

Work in progress

Fashion isn’t enough, it seems, and Aubrey is clear in her mandate for maintaining her collaborate style of work.  She believes that collaboration is the only way to achieve the fashion revolution that is required, and by many accounts, inevitable, in our impending fashion tech future.  Aubrey thinks science, technology and fashion should work closer together, and that there should be a specific MA programme for fashion tech to avoid the limitations in this area of fashion designers today.

Aubrey Wang, RCA MA Fashion Show

Reflecting on my interview with Aubrey and Zahra ‘Sooty’ Hosseini (to follow soon) I’d describe the RCA graduates that I have met as having a potent individualism.  It’s their understanding of themselves and their studious conviction that makes for such powerful storytelling in their work.  Aubrey explains her view of the future as a very long road, along which her work will grow and when she is older she will shoot all of it – everything she has created will be interlinked and part of a continuum, creating a film that ‘makes sense’. Her work is ever evolving and she is learning and growing with it.  She is incredibly calm and happy in the knowledge that she is nowhere near the finished article.  With such an open mind and challenging concepts I can’t wait to see how Aubrey’s journey unfolds.

The Gourd Film stills and trailer by Aubruino Studio 

At the end of the interview, Aubrey and I chatted about our feelings on sustainability, challenges in fusing science and fashion and finding opportunities for creating and presenting this ‘hybrid’ work.  In terms of fashion, she declares catwalk as ‘dead’ and pointless – a platform unfit for her work.  So what is the right platform?  We discuss the current gaping hole that fashion tech will eventually fill, both in terms of more suitable products and more dynamic and engaging presentation of work.  We talk about alternative formats including installation and film, lamenting the restrictive nature of the current fashion week formats and our frustration on the lack of vision of those setting said formats.

  Aubrey Wang Lookbook

It strikes me as a paradox that the RCA graduates I have met are fiercely individual yet so readily looking to collaborate.  Fashion is often secretive, protective and insular.  I’ve always believed that if you have a unique point of view (surely crucial in the overly noisy and crowded fashion arena) then why the need to be protective and secretive?  Aubrey and her peers apparently don’t seem to suffer from this insular mentality, advertising the fact that they are working alongside other creatives to test and enrich their practice and designs, celebrating the fusion of disciplines and sharing the credit for the work, which has not traditionally been the way of fashion designers.  A new dawn of hybrid creativity and collaborative individualism appears upon to be upon us and set to shape our fashion tech future.

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