Photo by Gary Wallis
Imagine leather that grows in a lab into the form of a dress, or sportswear that neutralises odours. From lab-grown leather to microbial cellulose material grown in vats of green tea, and fibres produced with inherent anti-microbial properties, luxury fashion houses are interested in the potential of materials manufactured using living systems – and Suzanne Lee is connecting the dots between high-end fashion and cutting-edge research.
Lee is the founder of BioCouture, the world’s only living-materials consultancy, bringing living and bio-based materials to fashion, sportswear, and luxury brands. “We turn today’s science fiction into tomorrow’s reality,” she says.
Lee’s interest in the world of living materials has its roots in her work as a fashion designer and research consultant for some of the world’s most technology-driven fashion houses. Most notably, she has worked with Hussein Chalayan, who found fame by burying his graduate collection in a backyard and then exhuming it.
In 2007, Lee published Fashioning the Future: Tomorrow’s Wardrobe, in which she predicted today’s obsession with wearable technology. “I was looking at the future of fashion – not in terms of what we might be wearing next season, but what we might be wearing in five or ten years.” A conversation with a biologist during her research led to the realisation that “harnessing living systems is the answer to a more sustainable future,” and BioCouture was born.
BioCouture is about more than fashion, and also works with companies interested in living and biomaterials for furniture, automobiles, architecture and consumer products. “One of the companies we work with,” Lee says, “grows bricks using bacteria.”
Some of these biomaterials are already in everyday use. If you order a Dell computer, the packaging is made from mushrooms and waste crop materials rather than oil-based Styrofoam. But fashionistas eager to wear ethically produced leather still have a few years to wait before biomaterials find their way to high-street boutiques. And when they finally do make an appearance, these materials won’t be cheap.
“As with any new technology, it will be expensive when it first enters the market,” Lee says. “But, obviously something produced this way should be cheaper, as you’re saving on very complex supply chains, and the economy of scale should give us better performance materials at a lower cost, but that will take time.”
To help speed the process, BioCouture is holding the world’s first conference in the area of living and biomaterials in New York at the end of the year. “It’s a whole new industry,” says Lee. “We want to help people navigate this emerging landscape.”