Fleshing Out

Living Fabrics for the Fashion Industry. A report by Leonieke Verhoog.

In the 21st century, cutting-edge technology, such as nano-technology, is dropping into our design and clothing, without a second through on the social and ethical consequences. The discourse and values of the fashion industry clash with those of the electronic giants, and we find ourselves in a situation where new manufacturing protocols are required. Below, several design projects are described that spark the discussion on these new manufacturing protocols, before the industry can sneak such developments into our everyday lives.

It was through the publication Fashioning the Future - Tomorrows wardrobe (Thames & Hudson, 2005) that Suzanne Lee, senior research fellow in fashion at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, University of the Arts London, made a landmark contribution to the awareness of the influence of technology on today’s fashion design. By providing an overview of the technological developments that continue to influence contemporary fashion design and by exemplifying new technologies that are about to leave the experimental phase and enter our everyday lives, Lee’s book is not only an excellent overview of past and new technological developments in fashion design, but also a critical signal of things to come.

Taking this critical signal as a starting point to spark discussion on new manufacturing protocols, a selection of the most exciting and critical projects that adopt new technologies for fashion, art, and design were presented at an event titled FLESHING OUT Wearable Interfaces, Smart Materials, Living Fabrics, at V2_ Rotterdam, in November 2006. Some of the most exciting (and sometimes confronting and shocking) projects presented during the FLESHING OUT seminar, were those that adopt biotechnology to grow material into a design. After a history of successively wearing animal skin, creating cotton, and creating nylon, it seems that a new era has started, in which materials will be grown into wearable products. The projects BioCouture, Victimless Leather, and Biojewellery, presented at FLESHING OUT, all adopt biotechnology to allow control over the growth of natural materials and the manipulation of these processes for design purposes at a nano-scale.


Suzanne Lee’s current project BioCouture forms a perfect example of biotechnology in fashion design that may drastically change our future wardrobes. Lee premiered her latest work-in-progress at FLESHING OUT; a blouse made out of material derived from bacterial cellulose. Eager to find an environmental-friendly alternative to the heavy pollution inherent in the cotton and textile industry, Lee came up with the idea to grow garments through the process of bacterial cellulose, and in this way let nature design for us. Due to the fact that the cotton industry uses huge amounts of land, water and pesticides, Lee thought it would be great to design a material that could grow itself organically.

In the project, bacteria are mixed with yeast and sweetened tea, a mixture that makes fibers stick to each other in big clumps. These clumps are then dried and put together to form a compact leathery papyrus-like substance.
After two weeks of growing the fiber, it is 12mm thick and in a wet state. Then it is dried around a bust and ready to be used. At this stage, the dried fiber has a few problematic characteristics, it does not stretch and it absorbs water, making the current prototypes unsuitable to wear. Furthermore, the mixture grows everywhere, making it difficult (perhaps even impossible) to control the growth. Another issue to overcome is the lingering sugary tea smell that accompanies the grown fibers. The advantage, on the other hand, of growing clothes through bacterial cellulose, is that it is far less harmful to the environment. The materials require heat to grow - about 25 degrees - but it needs very little liquid, just white sugar, and samples can be used over and over again to grow new material.

Suzanne Lee has only just begun to experiment with the process of using bacterial cellulose to grow clothes, and plans to experiment further, using different samples of black tea, vegetable dyes, and ink jet printing, to change the patterns of the clothes.

Since the main advantage of growing clothes through bacterial cellulose are the ecological benefits, Lee’s BioCouture project can be regarded as a direct critique of the large scale, worldwide pollution generated by the textile industry, by presenting potential solutions found in biotechnology. Of course, plants and bacteria are not the only ‘growable’ organic materials used in the fashion industry. The projects raising the most heated ethical debates on the future of technology in fashion design are those involving the growth of (semi-)living flesh and bones.
Victimless Leather

In their work, Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts, from the SymbioticA art and science collaborative research laboratory at the School of Anatomy and Human Biology of the University of Western Australia, fire up the debate on how to deal with technologies that enable something to live outside of a body. In Victimless Leather, SymbioticA grew tiny leather coats out of skin cells from mice and presented these jackets at a fashion show/

Although many standard leather designs were shown at the same fashion show, the Victimless leather project received all the criticism. Rather than being disappointed, Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts regarded this criticism as the project’s main success, since their work is about the philosophical discourse on the technology and its ethical implications, rather than commercial success. In Ionat Zurr’s words; SymbioticA’s work is aimed at the 'aesthetic of disappointment'. Such ‘disappointment’ is reached by creating high expectations, tickling the fantasy of the public to make them think about the technology, before revealing that the project is not so valuable in the end at all. This disappointment factor was most apparent in another SymbioticA project called Disembodied Cuisine, where a semi-living steak was grown out of cells from frog legs. The outcome was a jelly-like piece of meat as big as a pea, but the real ‘disappointment’ was achieved by revealing that for 100 grams of this artificial steak, at least one calf has to die to gather the blood required to grow it. While the project was first hailed as a potential solution for many of the problems that the meat industry faces, revealing this fact suddenly made the project worthless in that regard. With the costs of a single gram of steak at around 60 euros, it wouldn’t have made a very good alternative in economical terms anyway.


A potentially economically viable project involving the growth of body cells for aesthetical purposes is the Biojewellery project by design researcher Tobie Kerridge and his team at the Royal College of Art in London (including Nikki Stott and Ian Thompson). The Biojewellery project aims at designing rings from bio-engineered bone tissue. The process starts by taking small samples of (human) bone and growing them inside ring-shaped scaffolds that control the shape in which they grow. This results in ring-shaped bio-engineered bones that are then finalized in a design studio, eventually resulting in bone rings to be worn as jewellery. Although the aims of the project at first glance seem straight forward ‘making jewellery from bones’, the project actually has more sophisticated intentions. Biojewellery aims to change biological material into an artifact to investigate how this changes the way in which we use and think about it. It asks the question how the meaning of design changes when it also involves ethical issues in the application of biotechnology.

At the start of the project it was not really supposed to be carried out, but as it became very popular online, the research group found four couples who wanted a ring grown from their partner’s bone. The decision to proceed the project brought along many new questions and obstacles. How could it be done legally and ethically? Where to get the cells from? Is it even allowed to operate someone who is not ill? And what happens when something goes wrong; when cells die, or get an infection, or don't become what they were supposed to become?

The four couples that wanted to participate in the project donated their wisdom teeth. Bone cells from these wisdom teeth were prepared and seeded onto a bioactive scaffold. This bioactive pioneering material encourages the cells to divide and grow rapidly in a laboratory environment, so that the scaffold disappears and is replaced by living bone tissue. The couples’ cells are grown at Guy’s Hospital and the resulting bone tissue will be taken to a design studio at the Royal College of Art to finalize the design of the rings. Following consultation with the couples, the bone tissue will be combined with traditional precious metals. To date, the rings are still growing in their scaffolds.

Living Fabrics for the Fashion Industry

All three projects, BioCouture, Victimless Leather, and Biojewellery, involve a certain level of artistic activism regarding the biotechnology they adopt. It is interesting that it takes artists to collaborate with scientists to critically assess the technologies researched by the scientists. It seems that scientists researching ethically challenging technologies, such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, are happy to outsource any potential risk of ethical criticism regarding their work. The latter provides artists and designers with a very crucial but two-faced role in society; in which they are the advocate of critical use of the technologies while taking the technologies to the extreme at the same time. The debates sparked by the ventures described above may take place in the ‘aesthetics versus ethics’ context, but will result in new manufacturing protocols that will determine the place of such technologies in our everyday lives.

Parts of this article originally appeared as Fleshing Out: Day 1 Seminar, by Leonieke Verhoog (2007) on www.virtueelplatform.nl

FLESHING OUT Wearable Interfaces, Smart Materials, Living Fabrics was organized by V2_, Institute for the Unstable Media (Rotterdam) and Virtueel Platform (Amsterdam) with financial support from the Mondriaan Foundation and Saxion Hogescholen. The FLESHING OUT seminar formed an edition in the V2_ Test_Lab events series; a bi-monthly informal gathering of artists, scientists, and technicians, to test, present, demonstrate, and discuss artistic Research and Development.


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