We’re at the dawn of a new era of tex­tile in­no­va­tion. As de­sign­ers and sci­en­tists are com­ing to­gether to con­jure up ma­te­ri­als that are kinder to Mother Earth, what does this mean for the wardrobe of the fu­ture?


It’s amaz­ing where you find waste,” says Edwina Ehrman. “Even the sim­plest and seem­ingly in­her­ently sus­tain­able pro­cesses, like silk pro­duc­tion; I was sur­prised about that.” We are hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion in her of­fice at the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum in Lon­don, where the ex­hi­bi­tion she’s cu­rated, Fash­ioned from Na­ture, is show­ing.

It in­cludes the work of Reiko Sudo, a Ja­panese de­signer who uses the rougher outer layer of the silk­worm’s co­coon, which is known as kibiso and is usu­ally dis­carded. Cloth wo­ven from it is coarser than con­ven­tional silk, a fea­ture Sudo plays up in a tex­tured, earth-toned coat and skirt that makes a virtue of it.

Others are de­sign­ing out waste from the equa­tion en­tirely, as with Nike’s Flyknit sneaker: its up­per wo­ven as a sin­gle piece from re­cy­cled PET, which means no fab­ric off-cuts. Ger­man artist Diana Scherer is train­ing plant roots to grow in geo­met­ric for­ma­tions to cre­ate a pre­shaped material. It’s a way off be­ing com­mer­cially ap­pli­ca­ble, but it’s cer­tainly in­trigu­ing. It re­minds me of Par­sons alum­nus Ja­cob Olmedo’s 2017 grad­u­ate col­lec­tion that lit­er­ally sprouted trims – he grew wheat­grass on a beeswax-treated base-cloth to cre­ate gar­ment-gar­den hy­brids.

The first part of Fash­ioned from Na­ture looks at how we’ve ex­ploited na­ture for our adorn­ment since 1600. The sec­ond presents re­sponses

and so­lu­tions from the likes of Stella McCart­ney, Alexan­der McQueen and Christo­pher Rae­burn. Also fea­tured is Emma Wat­son’s 2016 Met Gala look, made from re­cy­cled plas­tic bot­tles by the team at Calvin Klein, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Eco-Age. The clothes in the ex­hi­bi­tion pose ques­tions about where we stand in re­la­tion to na­ture, what we can learn from past mis­takes, and how we might nav­i­gate our way through the An­thro­pocene without en­tirely un­moor­ing our­selves from our ori­gins – be­cause hu­mans, lest we for­get, are fash­ioned from na­ture, too.

The broader story is around how we source, pro­duce and use fash­ion ma­te­ri­als. And it couldn’t be time­lier as fi­bre sci­en­tists, brands and de­sign­ers rush to cre­ate new fab­rics and pro­cesses that de­liver on style, while be­ing gen­tler on the en­vi­ron­ment. What a tragedy it would be if cer­tain flow­ers and bees were seen only in the Gucci gar­den or on a Dries Van Noten print. You think I’m ex­ag­ger­at­ing per­haps. Not so. To­day, the in­dus­try’s car­bon foot­print is about equiv­a­lent to that of the avi­a­tion and mar­itime in­dus­tries com­bined. Global warm­ing is ac­cel­er­at­ing species loss. The UN warns that if we don’t change our ways we may have only about 60 years’ worth of pro­duc­tive top­soil left, while de­mand for fresh wa­ter could out­strip sup­ply by 2030.

Pro­fes­sor Dilys Wil­liams, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Sus­tain­able Fash­ion at Univer­sity of the Arts Lon­don, re­minds us that re­sources aren’t in­fi­nite. “The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem is that we’ve be­come dis­con­nected [from the ori­gins of the things we con­sume]; we don’t pick some­thing up and au­to­mat­i­cally un­der­stand its value. But we do still have the chance to be able to do that.” She says that de­sign­ers can be a cat­a­lyst for change. “Material choices have enor­mous im­pacts on sus­tain­abil­ity.”

Kit Wil­low Pod­gornik re­solved to make that her fo­cus when she launched KitX in 2015. She has de­signed with Ital­ian elas­tane blended with re­cy­cled ny­lon con­tent, zip­pers made from re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als and ac­ces­sories made from used Cam­bo­dian bul­let cas­ings. Now she’s fallen for hemp. “I see it as very mod­ern,” says Wil­low Pod­gornik, “be­cause it grows fast without pes­ti­cides. It’s a great al­ter­na­tive to cot­ton.”

Cot­ton is one of those things peo­ple pre­sume is a no-brainer eco op­tion since it’s a nat­u­ral fi­bre, but a con­ven­tion­ally grown crop ac­counts for one quar­ter of the world’s pes­ti­cide use. It’s also in­cred­i­bly thirsty, both at the field and pro­cess­ing stages. Up to 2,700 litres of wa­ter can be squan­dered on a sin­gle cot­ton T-shirt.

Denim is an­other no­to­ri­ous wa­ter guz­zler. “We see that at sev­eral stages, from grow­ing cot­ton fi­bre, through the in­digo dye­ing process to wash­ing your jeans at home,” says Re­becca Van Am­ber, a fi­bre sci­en­tist at the In­sti­tute for Fron­tier Ma­te­ri­als at Deakin Univer­sity. She’s part of the team be­hind the ‘denim-dyed denim’ process, which was short­listed for H&M’s 2017 Global Change Award. They’ve fig­ured out a way to grind down un­wanted jeans and denim of­f­cuts into a fine pow­der that re­tains its colour, and can used a pig­ment in dig­i­tal print­ers. “Pow­der we can pro­duce from a sin­gle pair of old jeans can be used to colour 10 new ones. Essen­tially, we’re up­cy­cling waste into a re­source”

The cre­ators of Re­fi­bra might say the same. A joint ven­ture be­tween Aus­trian vis­cose pro­duc­ers Len­z­ing and the Span­ish tex­tile com­pany Te­ji­dos Royo, it’s a blend of re­cy­cled cot­ton scraps and wood pulp from FSC Cer­ti­fied sources. Coun­try Road is the first Aus­tralian brand use it. “As an in­dus­try, we need to start re­think­ing the way we use re­sources,” says Lucy King, act­ing sus­tain­abil­ity man­ager for the Coun­try Road Group. “Re­fi­bra is ex­cit­ing be­cause it per­forms beau­ti­fully. I think there’s pre­vi­ously been a of bit scep­ti­cism that re­cy­cled means lower qual­ity, and, in some cases, that’s true, but this is a game-changer.”

We’re gob­bling up vir­gin re­sources like there’s no to­mor­row. Global gar­ment pro­duc­tion dou­bled from 50 bil­lion to 100 bil­lion units per an­num be­tween 2010 and 2015. Dur­ing the same pe­riod, vis­cose pro­duc­tion grew by 35 per cent. Len­z­ing’s fi­bres are pro­duced in a closed loop sys­tem that re­cy­cles the sol­vents used to break down the fi­bre, which is ob­tained from FSC-cer­ti­fied sources. But not all cel­lu­lose fab­rics are pro­duced so re­spon­si­bly.

At the Copen­hagen Fash­ion sum­mit in May, Stella McCart­ney noted “the fash­ion in­dus­try cuts down around 150 mil­lion trees a year for vis­cose [pro­duc­tion].” The Stella McCart­ney and Coun­try Road brands have joined the Canopy ini­tia­tive, which aims to pro­tect pre­cious forests. Ac­cord­ing to Canopy: “Part of the an­swer lies in ‘min­ing’ the mas­sive un­tapped fi­bre re­sources such as used cloth­ing, agri­cul­tural residues and other non-wood op­tions.”

McCart­ney has been us­ing ‘spi­der silk’. De­vel­oped by Bolt Threads, it mim­ics the pro­teins pro­duced by spi­der’s webs and is pro­duced by putting genes into yeast. Fas­ci­nat­ing. Or­ange Fiber is an­other de­light­ful al­ter­na­tive. Adri­ana Santonoc­ito was in­spired to cre­ate it while she was study­ing fash­ion in Mi­lan and no­ticed a news story about the de­pressed Si­cil­ian or­ange mar­ket. “Prices had come down and or­anges were be­ing left on the trees,” ex­plains her busi­ness part­ner En­rica Arena. “She thought: ‘I wish I could do some­thing about this.’ Cel­lu­lose is a very com­mon fi­bre; could she make this from the or­anges?” She could!

“Af­ter we spoke with the peo­ple who har­vest the or­anges for juic­ing, we dis­cov­ered that the big prob­lem is ac­tu­ally the peels and how to dis­pose of them. We now work with waste cit­rus peels.” Last year, Sal­va­tore Fer­rag­amo be­came the duo’s first fash­ion client.

An­other buzzy eco fab­ric is Piña­tex, an an­i­mal-friendly leather al­ter­na­tive de­rived from pineap­ple leaves. Livia Firth wore a metal­lic sil­ver Piña­tex dress by Ital­ian de­signer Laura Strambi to the 2017 Met Gala; Dutch de­signer Liselore Frow­ijn made it her spring/sum­mer ’18 hero; and Ari­zona Muse show­cased it at her Sus­tain­able An­gle event at Lon­don Fash­ion week in Fe­bru­ary.

“To­day we pro­cure cel­lu­lose from trees and plants,” says Al­fie Ger­mano, CEO of an ex­cit­ing Perth-based fi­bre start-up, Nanol­lose. “But we don’t have to do that. Our dis­cov­ery in­volves us­ing mi­cro­bial cel­lu­lose from bac­te­ria.” The com­pany’s agri­cul­tural sci­en­tist founder Gary Cass hit on the idea when work­ing with wine. He called these early at­tempts Fer­mented Fash­ion.

Lab-grown fash­ion is still in its early stages. I re­mem­ber read­ing about how Suzanne Lee’s early at­tempts weren’t weath­er­proof – she once got caught in the rain in one of her BioCou­ture jack­ets and it lit­er­ally dis­solved on her body. To­day, her Bio­fab­ri­cate com­pany holds biotech sum­mits and works suc­cess­fully with bac­te­ria, yeast, al­gae and mam­malian cells to “cul­ti­vate con­sumer goods”.

While there’s only so many ways you can cut a pair of pants, in 2018 the pos­si­bil­i­ties for what you might cut them from – now, or in fu­ture – seem end­less. Who knows what in­no­va­tions lie around the cor­ner?

“Dig­i­tal print­ing is a very hot area,” says Van Am­ber. “Think highly in­di­vid­u­alised gar­ments avail­able for mass cus­tomi­sa­tion. It would be very ef­fi­cient, be­cause you’re print­ing on de­mand, putting colour ex­actly where you want it. In a sci-fi fu­ture, who knows? Imag­ine a store where ev­ery­thing is white: you pick out your styles, and have them printed with what­ever colour or pat­tern you like.”

“Pow­der we can pro­duce from a sin­gle pair of old jeans can be used to colour 10 new ones”

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