Words by Lula Criado
Fashion is a visual language that has an intimate relationship with people and helps define their identity and the communities in which they live. Since the beginning of civilisation, people have used animal hides to cover themselves with a second skin, but what if textiles could be grown using only cultured bacteria?
Suzanne Lee —a London-based fashion designer and a TED Senior fellow— is the Founder and Director of BioCouture Ltd, an innovative and pioneering ‘living materials’ consultancy focused on growing materials from living microorganisms.
Made up of just a few microbes (bacteria and yeast) which multiply while feeding on sugar and tea, the materials are ecological and sustainable. The resulting biomass is a sheet similar to leather that can be cut and sewn into a variety of garments.
Leather manufacturing is a toxic process that has a large negative impact on the environment. These ‘growing biomaterials‘ are something completely different. They are eco-friendly, sustainable and biodegradable textiles that help heal and create a better world and deliver exactly what the fashion industry needs.
Suzanne and her team are working hard on it – ‘I’ll never be bored of thinking about how to design a better future’ Suzanne says.
You are a fashion designer, when and how does the fascination with microorganisms come about?
It started while researching my book, Fashioning The Future: tomorrow’s wardrobe for a chapter on biotechnology. I interviewed a materials scientist and we discussed how it might be possible to use living organisms such as yeast and bacteria to grow clothing. It was quite the most amazing thing I could imagine. That was back in 2003
Green tea, sugar, a few microbes and a little time are the ingredients of your fascinating experiments, how do you feed your creativity?
Nature is the greatest inspiration. The natural world is the best designer I know.
Innovation requires curiosity, what was the first thing awake the curiosity in you?
Science fiction. I was a fan as a child and still am today. I’ll never be bored of thinking about how to design a better future.
When you are blocked, what do you do to get your ideas to come up again?
I wish I had more time to visit museums and galleries, they’re such great places to recharge your imagination. That and foreign travel, I love travelling in Mexico.
Is a mistake an opportunity to do something new?
So much innovation is the result of exploiting when things go wrong – it’s a creative skill to recognize the opportunity in a mistake. That’s how we have penicillin.
You couldn’t live without…
My sense of smell.
One for the road… The material absorbs a lot of water, have you resolved the waterproof problem yet?
It was never a real problem, it got blown out of all proportion. Far bigger issues remain. Like how the cost of materials for fashion is so low it’s hard to compete with oil-based polymers like polyester.