Words by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
Designer Paula Ulargui Escalona is channeling her creativity to grow greenery from clothes. Her mission is to show just how beautiful fashion’s collaboration with nature could be.
The last decade has seen the fashion industry—at least parts of it—make huge strides in an attempt to right its wrongs and move toward more environmentally sustainable practices. Among other developments, we have seen the rise of organic cotton and water-saving denim. We have seen a return to natural dyes and recycled fibers. In some instances, we have seen attempts to grow wearable fabrics from bacteria. With these innovations in mind, it’s easy to reflect on what lies ahead. To some, the answer is living plants.
Spanish designer Paula Ulargui Escalona has spent the past few years cultivating the ideal conditions to grow plants on clothes. From chia plant-adorned coats to catswort-embellished trousers, Ulargui Escalona has found innovative ways to fuse organic matter with wearable fabrics—although she is quick to add that the clothes cannot yet be bought and worn at commercial scale. “Rather, what I’ve been trying to do is use fashion as a means to reconnect with nature in a way that helps us understand it, care for it, and respect it,” Ulargui Escalona told Atmos.
Ulargui Escalona’s interest in innovative design was, perhaps, always on the cards. Born to architect and artist parents, Ulargui Escalona was experimenting with various materials in her mother’s studio from when she was a young child. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she discovered the extent of the environmental harm caused by the fashion industry—around the same time she was finetuning her gardening skills after years of landscaping classes. Combining the two was a logical next step.
“When I started university, I began actively seeking out the history of various materials,” she said. “I learnt how to weave, how to dye fabrics in the most natural way, and other similar techniques. Little by little, I came to understand fully how—and the extent to which—the techniques we deploy within fashion are connected to the natural world.”
According to Ulargui Escalona, the first step is investing in plant knowledge and understanding what their needs are. Each seed has a different set of conditions required for it to grow, and the textiles must be able to replicate these. The process has included multiple trials on various fibers with Ulargui Escalona assessing seeds’ rates of growth as well as color and leaf formations. The latter would give her an idea of whether the plants need more or less light, water or minerals to remain healthy.
“How can we make conscious decisions that respect the planet when we don’t know what it needs?”
The fabrics also have to be as natural as possible to host life. “You always have to use natural fibers—ones that are clean and pure,” she said. “Finding the most natural way of creating those fibers is what is going to adapt most perfectly to the needs of the seeds.” The biggest challenge Ulargui Escalona has faced so far has been growing plants from leather, which was used to create shoes as part of her collaboration with Spanish luxury fashion label Loewe. She describes having to return to the drawing board to nurture the seeds using a specific subset of bacteria that helped to sustain them.
The result was a success. For Loewe’s Spring/Summer 2023 runway show, models walked down the runway graced by stretches of thriving greenery. The presentation came after four months of trialing which garments and accessories could support the seedlings, which were prepared by Ulargui Escalona in Spain ahead of the show. They were then moved to Paris, and grown in a polytunnel for the 20 days leading up to the show. Although none of the clothes will be available to buy, the collaboration was positioned as an opportunity to explore the relationship fashion has—or could have—with the natural world.
Indeed, Ulargui Escalona is clear that her mission within the fashion world is much greater than her individual designs. “These plants have a life cycle. They don’t live forever,” Ulargui Escalona said. “In the past, we had the capacity to understand the needs of plants by just looking at them. We could read the weather, and feel why animals were migrating. Indigenous communities are still able to do this, but many of us in the West have become far removed from the Earth. How can we make conscious decisions that respect the planet when we don’t know what it needs?”
One positive step Ulargui Escalona says she feels encouraged by is the policy that has, in recent years, been put forward by politicians, citizens, and activists—like the coalition responsible for The Fashion Act—as well as institutions like the European Union to protect both people and the planet from the fashion industry’s extractive practices. It’s a direction the Spanish designer wants to push the industry in through her own work. Bio-materials can play a huge role in minimizing the industry’s carbon footprint as and when they are adopted by fashion houses on a commercial scale.
“I want to continue researching zero-impact materials,” said Ulargui Escalona. “Eventually, I want my findings to help the whole industry. There is so much beauty in nature. I want to use my creativity to make people aware of this—to help the world understand how beautiful our collaboration with nature can be.”