24 Oct 2016

Suzanne Lee: creating materials from bacteria

From Labour Day, 9:05 am on 24 October 2016

Fashion designer Suzanne Lee grows her own clothes using ingredients commonly found in the kitchen cupboard.

In the pursuit of creating ethical and sustainable clothing, Suzanne has figured out how to develop fabric made out of bacteria.

The material, which has been developed for her company BioCouture, is created using green tea, sugar, an acetic acid such as apple cider vinegar and some kind of live culture, like those used to brew kombucha. BioCouture works with a sugar-eating bacteria that feeds on the nutrients, producing nanofibres of cellulose, which is then used to create a material with similar properties to leather.

After centuries of using natural materials such as wood, linen and silk, designers of the 20th century became experts in chemistry, turning fossil fuels into new synthetic materials. BioCouture’s material does not require the same amount of resources to produce.

“It’s a naturally occurring organism. It doesn’t need engineering to produce what it does,” Suzanne says. “What you bring through engineering is the possibility to not only get it to produce a fibre for you, which it wants to do naturally, but to manipulate the quality of that fibre or the qualities it might have.”

The more developed the world becomes, the more individual consumption habits increase and there is an expectation that things will be cheaper, and readily available.

“If we continue to consume as we are doing… there isn’t enough land to put animals on to provide the same amount of meat or the same amount of leather that we have been enjoying previously. So we have to find new solutions.”

“Right now you have to grow a plant and harvest it, and we just use a tiny percentage of it, the rest is just waste. We then have to process that fibre with a whole bunch of water and chemistry and mechanical means, then it will get shipped somewhere else to be dyed and then it will get shipped somewhere else to be woven. That is a hugely complex and resource-intensive supply chain.”

Rather than looking at what we will be wearing next season, Suzanne’s focus is on what fashion will look like in 50 years’ time. She expects it to involve a combination of natural and synthetic materials, something that “becomes its own thing”.

“Leather is a reference point for us, but we can also expand a bit beyond that, so we can produce materials that have properties that we haven’t seen before. So they could be very lightweight, very thin but strong.”

Suzanne says that her work at BioCouture and her role as chief creative officer for Modern Meadow is attracting the attention of “literally hundreds” of designers and brands who want to have access to the materials, even though they are not ready for mass production yet.

“We have the potential to grow materials using bacteria in a variety of ways. We’re just at the beginning of this.”

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