BREW­ING LEATHER IN A LAB

Fast Company - - Innovation By Design -

SSuzanne Lee was a fash­ion de­signer in the early ’90s when she dis­cov­ered in a lab that bio­fab­ri­ca­tion pro­cesses could pro­duce leather­like ma­te­ri­als via yeast fer­men­ta­tion. She spent the next 10 years ex­per­i­ment­ing with gi­ant vats of bac­te­ria while ad­vis­ing cloth­ing brands on how to in­cor­po­rate newly in­vented ma­te­ri­als. Re­cently, as chief cre­ative of­fi­cer at biotech startup Modern Meadow, she’s helped lead the de­vel­op­ment of an an­i­mal-free leather ma­te­rial called Zoa and is now col­lab­o­rat­ing with in­dus­trial fer­men­ta­tion com­pany Evonik to scale the bio­fab­ri­ca­tion process. As the world be­comes more af­flu­ent, peo­ple want more meat and leather prod­ucts, but the plan­e­tary stress is un­sus­tain­able. Here, we de­sign and edit DNA, put it into yeast cells, and then use a fer­men­ta­tion process to scale. We can ac­tu­ally brew pro­tein col­la­gen like you brew beer, and use it any­where that you might use a leather ma­te­rial, whether that’s fash­ion, in­te­ri­ors, or cars. Many con­sumers care about be­ing able to trace [leather] back to the farm. It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble with the leather sup­ply chain as it is. With Modern Meadow, you have com­plete trace­abil­ity, to the very cell that was en­gi­neered to pro­duce it. We’re start­ing with a liq­uid form of leather that you can trans­form into all kinds of dif­fer­ent shapes, thick­nesses, and sizes that are not bound by the sheet of leather hide that na­ture gives you. And we can re­duce waste to a min­i­mum. Paola An­tonelli, the de­sign cu­ra­tor at MOMA, is in­ter­ested in syn­thetic biology and what it means for the fu­ture of prod­ucts. As we were think­ing about the Fash­ion Modern ex­hibit, we thought this was an op­por­tu­nity for us to make some­thing [un­ex­pected] from leather, like a white T-shirt. Be­cause we’re us­ing liq­uid leather, we can make it in­cred­i­bly thin but strong, and com­bine it with other fab­rics. The T-shirt was ap­peal­ing be­cause it’s time­less, gen­der­less, and age­less. It’s also a gar­ment of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, be­cause peo­ple use the T-shirt as a slo­gan-car­ry­ing de­vice. The ex­hibit at MOMA was very much a bill­board. —As told to El­iz­a­beth Se­gran

Modern Meadow’s chief cre­ative of­fi­cer, Suzanne Lee, wears the cot­ton and Zoa shirt she de­signed for MOMA’S Is Fash­ion Modern? ex­hibit.

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