Consider spandex. An anagram of the word "expands", this synthetic fiber - whose aliases include Lycra and variations on elastane - is stronger and more durable than natural rubber. Invented in 1958 by Virginia-based DuPont chemist Joseph Shivers, its introduction into the world of fashion in 1962 was nothing short of a revolution.
But it was. Because it changed the way clothing made from woven fabrics could be constructed. In EPS (Era Pre-Spandex), there were only limited ways to make flat fabric curve around a 3D body. Either turn a piece of fabric at a 45 degree angle and then cut the pattern piece - cutting on the bias allows a woven to stretch somewhat, like a knit - or make things fit using darts and seams. That was it. However, with spandex fibers woven in, a woven didn't need no stinkin' seams no mo'! (image)
Remarkable. (As were all those awesome spandex-loving 80s hair bands.)
"If we look to the history of design, radical innovation mostly occurs where ground-breaking materials or manufacturing techniques are introduced," notes fashion designer Suzanne Lee (left) founder of BioCouture, who created the kimono above by growing it using microorganisms and bacteria. "I think we are entering a dynamic new era for design where, with scientific collaboration, we can explore all manner of material and manufacturing innovations...I’m also intrigued to know if (biologically) living systems could play a role. We have no idea what new hybrid materials/fabrication techniques will emerge in future — rampant mutant algae that turn to concrete?" (image)
Well, if you can make garments from kombucha, why not? But there are some interesting issues that will need to be addressed for this type of approach to become more mainstream in Fashionland.
For when living organisms are employed in manufacturing, what results may not look particularly pleasing from a fashionista perspective. Take, for example, a fermented process. As the item is being grown, it can simultaneously be spun and dyed, condensing many stages of production in one. Which is awesome. However, it may look anything but. "The natural aesthetics that emerge from the process help to explain a narrative," notes Lee, but "this is in stark contrast to how we normally approach fashion: fashion relishes artifice." Even of the "nature'y-looking sort. "Ultimately it’s not what I’m striving for," she adds, "but for now it serves an illustrative purpose."
But more interesting to me than the novelty factor of garments brewed in a vat is the idea of going beyond just being inspired by nature to using actual nature to manufacture fashion items. "Biological processes are far more complex, efficient, precise, adaptive than nearly any manmade process or machine we have today, so it makes perfect sense to use biological processes for what they are good at, or manipulate specific variables within them to achieve something they could never have arrived at themselves," agrees computational architect Skylar Tibbits, whose Self-Assembly Lab at MIT lab focuses on programmable materials and self-assembly technologies. "This points to Suzanne’s incredible work with cellulose. The cellulose doesn’t naturally want to build clothing per say, but we can harness its natural abilities with our own knowledge of the process to achieve something higher."
And while bacteria certainly aren’t desperate to generate dresses or cool jackets, they do come with an inbuilt characteristic that makes them dramatically different from our manmade manufacturing processes - even ones "inspired" by nature, but not actually employing it. And this special feature? Desire.
Desire is what drives plants to grow toward the light and in doing so, convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, the photosynthesis generating energy. "The ability to generate its own energy source, the ability to “want” or need something and know how to change itself in order to acquire it - this is extremely difficult to build into synthetic systems," continues Tibbits. "Man-made systems lack the ability to have “desire,” this gets into the theories of artificial intelligence — and how can a system make decisions internally without external programs or command. How can a system write its own code, or where does the initial genetic code come from?"
- Lesley Scott