Words by Rachel Hodin
Photographs by Bastian Achard
Nature’s influence on fashion over the ages seems less a choice on the part of designers than a matter of course—inescapable, really, as London’s recent Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition “Fashioned from Nature” made explicitly clear. “Everything we wear, from clothes and accessories to jewelry, is ‘fashioned’ from matter found in the world around us, in the raw materials of which they are made, in the energy used to produce and transport them and often in their design inspiration,” according to Edwina Ehrman, senior exhibition curator at the V&A.
It’s evident in the use of animal skins (purported to be the first-ever materials used as clothing) and the dangling earrings fashioned from the taxidermied heads of honeycreeper birds on display at the V&A exhibit. But nature’s mark can also be seen in something as simple as floral embroidery or a palette informed by desert hues. Of course, not all examples are so literal: There have been countless unexpected sartorial renderings and imaginative, mesmerizing worlds created by designers out of a single idea culled from nature.
Alexander McQueen, known to reference nature in the majority of his collections, once said, “Everything I do is connected to nature in one way or another.” His particular strain of ingenuity lay in his more obscure portrayals of the natural world, as seen, for example, in his Spring/Summer 2010 collection “Plato’s Atlantis,” meant to represent Darwin’s theory of evolution in reverse. McQueen sent models down a futuristically lit runway, flanked on either side by robotic cameras, wearing structured minis in his signature cinched-waist-bulbous-skirt style that featured an array of digitally rendered reptilian prints. With draping that resembled gills and folded wings, horn-like hairstyling, and soaring “armadillo” heels, the overall effect was out of the ordinary. It transported the viewer to a hypothetical future in which humans have adapted to underwater life, preparing to return from where we came.
In Christian Dior’s pivotal first collection in 1947, “La Ligne Corolle,” the predominant silhouette—which would become his signature and was, at the time, hailed by the press as the “New Look”—was directly inspired by botanical life. Torsos were “narrow” and “stem-like,” as V&A curator Oriole Cullen describes, flaring out at the waist, like a flower’s corolla, into full, blossoming skirts.
There’s also Iris van Herpen, the avant-garde designer who’s been known to deliver “something organically strange or digitally extraordinary,” as fashion journalist Suzy Menkes puts it. Her “water” dresses from her Spring/Summer 2011 collection, for instance, appeared to be frozen in time just as water splashed against the surface.
Yet, paradoxically, fashion’s continuous celebration of nature is matched by its destruction of the environment. The natural world that’s so often glorified in fashion designs—the world that, in a sense, fashion’s very livelihood depends on—is the same world that the industry has helped to annihilate. We’ve seen the rampant animal cruelty that drives fur and leather production. Less known, however, is that around 120 million trees are cut down each year to make fabric or than an average of 8,183 liters of water is required to grow enough cotton for one pair of jeans. If we continue on this path, by 2030, demand for water may come to outweigh supply. And that’s to say nothing of the human rights violations that riddle the industry and its factories.
For an industry that’s so much about the surface level, fashion’s prodigious damage to the natural world runs remarkably deep. It’s within such dire circumstances that we witness the emergence of biomimicry in fashion, which may be the industry’s only saving grace. When discussing how to combat fashion’s catastrophic impact on the world, it’s easy to throw around oft-heard terms like “sustainability” and “slow fashion” as plausible solutions. But biodesign isn’t about any one of these concepts. The designers working within this field aren’t simply working with biofabricated materials—that is, sustainable and biodegradable fabrics they grow themselves, by harnessing organisms such as bacteria, yeast, algae, and mycelium—they’re employing an entirely new way of looking at the world and our relationship with nature.
It would be impossible to talk about biofabricated materials used in fashion without mentioning Suzanne Lee, a British designer who, after years working in the fashion industry, founded an atelier that pioneered the biodesign movement in the industry and helped launch Zoa, the world’s first bioleather materials brand. The bioleather material is actually a byproduct of SCOBY (an acronym that stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), the living culture that makes kombucha. To grow the bioleather, the SCOBY is submerged in a nourishing concoction—tea and sugar, for instance—prompting the culture to create a layer of cellulose, which after drying, becomes the leather-like material.
When Aurélie Fontan set out to make a dress fashioned from kombucha leather as part of her graduate collection, she naturally began with Lee’s foundational recipe. In order for the material to grow in the cold climate of Scotland, where she was studying at the Edinburgh College of Art, Fontan had to modify the recipe a bit, but the actual growing process remained the same. Once the cellulose—the “slimy brown blob of culture,” as Fontan describes it—was left out to dry, she began creating the actual dress. To create a burnished finish, she invented her own way to coat the kombucha with copper pigments and pattern prints and she used bio-based cable ties to hold the piece together, ensuring that the entire piece is biodegradable. Even outside of its sustainable aspect, the resulting dress—a rather chic, long-sleeve number, swathed in layers of fringe and finished with a plunging V—easily stands on its own as a stunning design in itself.
Meanwhile, Amanda Morglund, a student at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia, is using mushrooms to grow her own fabric for her honors collection. Morglund works with MuSkin, a mushroom “leather” made by Life Materials and grown from parasitic subtropical fungi, the caps of which are shaved into sheets and dried. Morglund describes the texture as “really luxurious” and “similar to velvet.”
Despite the proliferation of new materials, biofashion design is still very much in its embryonic stages, leaving ample room for invention and innovation. Just as Fontan developed her own way of finishing the kombucha fabric, so too did Morglund invent a new way to use mushrooms—specifically, mycelium, the root-like fiber of mushrooms—for her collection. Mycelium isn’t a new ingredient in biodesign: Myx, a felt-like fabric invented by Danish product designer Jonas Edvard, is made from this exact material. In Morglund’s case, however, she used mycelium to grow mushrooms inside the actual garment, creating both embellishments and the garment’s structure.
To do this, she puts the nutrient substrate (that is, the nutrition source for the mushrooms) inside the garment, after which she sterilizes it in a controlled environment to prevent the intrusion of other organisms. Next, she injects a mushroom culture into the garment through a sealed filter and leaves it to sit in a contaminant-free environment for about four weeks. When the garment finally makes contact with oxygen, the mycelium begins to produce grocery store-style mushrooms. They sprout on the surface of the garment, which Morglund likens to natural embellishments, and can be casually picked off (if you so choose) and tossed into a pot of stew. Finally, the garment is dried out and the root network that’s left inside provides structure and insulation, much like tailoring a collar to give it shape.
Amsterdam-based artist Diana Scherer is among the very few (a number that includes Suzanne Lee) whose biofabricated material of choice is her sole invention and is made from materials never before used in biodesign. Unlike Lee, however, Scherer considers her material to be a work of art, rather than something to be mass-produced or available to purchase online—and rightfully so. To create it, she installs templates inside soil that she then uses to grow various crops. After the crops grow for about four weeks, with the templates manipulating their root systems, she cuts these roots from the stems. What she’s left with is an ethereal, extremely delicate, lace-like fabric. This—and the fact that her crop of choice is grass as it’s “quite dense.” And while she doesn’t consider herself to be a fashion designer, she has designed a dress from this material, which was on display at the aforementioned V&A exhibit.
These designers prove that biofabricated materials are completely viable—and that, like any other fabric, they can be fashioned into something beautiful. The latter is an essential component for these materials to be introduced into our everyday lives. As Suzanne Lee has noticed, humans are intrinsically repelled by the look and idea of biofabricated materials—it’s not something that most people are comfortable with. We want the contoured, the polished, the shellacked. We’re wired to covet our buttery Acne Studios leather trench, not a dress that’s growing in our bathtub. That’s why Lee first started creating “biocouture” from kombucha leather: “Production from bacteria is so alien,” she once said, and creating aesthetically pleasing garments from them may be one of their few entry points into the industry.
For proof, look at how the public responded to former Central Saint Martins student Tina Gorjanc’s final MA collection. For the project, she proposed designing and creating a collection from Alexander McQueen’s skin by using the genetic material from strands of his hair sealed by the late designer in little plastic baggies affixed to the garment tags on his first collection. Gorjanc would then employ this genetic material to grow a leather-like skin material, which she planned to casually fashion into a collection of biker jackets and totes. However, In order to harvest his cells, she needed a patent, so for her graduate collection, she instead created prototypes from pigskin (the material that most resembles human skin), which she painstakingly marked with every last freckle and tattoo on McQueen’s body.
The public did not take well to it. The idea made people very uncomfortable, prompting some to call her work “Frankenfashion.” Gorjanc hadn’t intended to elicit this reaction from the public, but it’s quite revealing nonetheless. Yes, on the surface, her project does have some obvious similarities with Hannibal Lecter’s favorite pastimes, but the resounding aversion that it inspired reveals an inherent fear of relinquishing control that lives in all of us. It’s not biofabricated materials that people are so uncomfortable with as much as the fact that these materials are actually alive. The very concept of someone growing your skin, independent of you and separate from your body, requires a lack of control that we’re not used to. Yet relinquishing control—over ourselves and our compulsion to achieve physical perfection, over nature—may be the only way to fully incorporate biofabricated materials.
WhiteFeather Hunter, another bioartist, refers to the microbes she works with as “semi-living” beings. “My approach is to understand and work with living systems, versus trying to conquer or control them,” she says. Likewise, Diana Scherer explains that living materials form the basis of her investigation. “Roots,” she writes on her website, “do not passively grow down, but move and observe. A root navigates, knows what’s up and down, observes gravity and localizes moisture and chemicals...plants are a lot more intelligent than everybody thought.” It’s this attitude that highlights the essence of biodesign: Perceiving nature not as something to control, but as something we can all learn from. Indeed, the term “biomimicry,” according to Janine Benyus, the woman who popularized it, is “the practice of emulating nature’s strategies to create products, processes, and policies that are well adapted to life on earth.”
Although humans are indelibly tied to nature, we’ve somehow collectively deluded ourselves into believing we’re outside of it—above it, even—and impervious to the harm we’ve inflicted on the natural world. But we’re not, and accepting this is essential to working in biodesign. In her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Benyus writes that perceiving “nature as mentor” is fundamental to biomimicry. It’s “a new way of viewing and valuing nature…based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.”
It may take some getting used to. Of the biodesigned MarsBoot she created for the Museum of Modern Art exhibit “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” Liz Ciokajlo says, “it’s still quite ropey looking, it’s still quite unrefined. But we need to find beauty in that unrefinedness and that inconsistency.”
The sooner we stop imposing our idea of perfection onto nature, the sooner we’ll be able to start working with the natural world.