The fashion industry has always been a space for constant flux and experimentation – brands are innovating every day while in a continuous race to please shoppers with newer styles and fabrics. But with consumers inching more toward social responsibility with every passing day, just being innovative is not enough anymore.
According to a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry is responsible for as much as 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Add to this the fact that making fibers for fashionable clothing reportedly requires 132 million tons of coal and 6–9 trillion liters of water and leads to huge amounts of chemicals being released into the environment, it’s no wonder that fashion brands are being urged to make the shift to sustainable production.
And Consumers aren’t oblivious to this. The State of Fashion 2019 report reveals that as many as 66% of consumers are even willing to pay more for sustainable goods.
So, more fashion brands today are prioritizing sustainability above all else. The great part is that this is becoming a reality sooner than anticipated thanks to the rise of biofabrication startup businesses. The era of sourcing fibers artificially and producing wastefully ends here!
Biology In Fashion: Making Fashion A More Sustainable Industry
Leather without cows, fiber without chemicals, spider silk without spiders – alternatives like these are likely to become the norm in fashion thanks to biofabrication start-ups that are coming up with sustainable solutions to change the way clothes are made. From synthetic biology to using root structures for potential fibers, these companies are adopting the latest and best technology to make the transition to sustainability smooth and quick for fashion brands.
With livestock being reared exclusively for their hide and tanneries producing toxic cocktails of chemicals, there certainly is the need for an animal- and environment-friendly alternative to leather in the fashion industry. Modern Meadow is working to make this a reality. The start-up has discovered a way to produce leather in the lab without harming any animals using its engineered strain of yeast that can produce collagen – the biological building block of leather found in animal skin. Once produced, this collagen is assembled into a range of materials to create the company’s “Zoa” bioleather.
The bioleather – which even looks and smells like animal skin leather – takes all of 2 weeks to produce. And the great part is that this happens without all the chemically intensive processes otherwise involved in producing leather from animals. Not just that, it can even be made to match any designer specifications in terms of texture, color, and thickness.
There’s no doubt that this start-up is on its way to disrupt the $100 billion a year leather industry with its bioleather, which can be used to manufacture anything from leather clothing to shoes to handbags.
Meanwhile, natural fibers like cotton require a staggeringly high amount of resources to process and petroleum-based fibers like nylon, acrylic, spandex, and polyester not being very environmentally friendly, a sustainable alternative material to produce clothing has become a necessity too.
New York based Algiknit is working to provide an alternative to the conventional options . The company is focused on transforming the apparel ecosystem with rapidly renewable bio-based materials – such as kelp – that have a considerably lower environmental footprint than conventional textiles. It extracts a biopolymer known as “alginate” from kelp and combines it with other renewable biopolymers to produce yarn that is strong and can be stretched enough to be knit by hand or machine. This yarn is then used for making apparel. Algiknit’s specialized techniques help produce products that are knit to shape, allowing for little to no waste. And when the material is worn out, it can be broken down by microorganisms and fed to the next generation of product. Add to this the fact that the bioyarn is completely customizable and Algiknit has a place in fashion.
Biotech company Bolt Threads is also facilitating the production of a sustainable material for use in the fashion industry. It has gone the way of engineering proteins that are inspired by the silk proteins spun by spiders. The resultant material, known as Microsilk, is strong and resilient while being soft and pliable. So, for those fashion brands looking to use the best qualities of silk while ensuring easy maintenance of apparel, Bolt Threads’ sustainable alternative is clearly the way to go. In 2017, Stella McCartney partnered with Bolt Threads to launch the first fashion collection using the bioengineered fabric.
3D Printing: A New Realm In Fashion Design
In the recent past, there has been a notable increase in awareness and interest in technology from fashion designers. 3D printing happens to be one such aspect gaining momentum rapidly. It allows designers to go beyond the traditional boundaries of design with faster visualization and prototyping and the potential to even replace physical samples completely. This is evident in the transition from pattern cutting and sewing materials together to material being entirely 3D developed. And with product sample creation being one of the most time consuming and expensive aspects of design in fashion, 3D printing reduces product timelines by months, allowing designers to keep pace with the faster, seasonally driven sales cycles of the fashion industry today.
It also opens up possibilities for multiple physical properties to be embedded in the same material. For instance, you can have just one garment that is waterproof, flexible, and opaque. This aspect truly takes fashion design to a whole new level.
That said, 3D printing not only allows designers to create intricate geometries and structures with ease but also facilitates a great deal of functionality. So, if a designer wants to have buttons in a specific part of an outfit, certain areas of the material can be made adhesive before the garment is designed.
Dutch designer, Iris van Herpen’s 3D-printed ensembles made in collaboration with US-based designer Neri Oxman and Australian architect Julia Koerner. The outfits, which were debuted during van Herpen’s runway show at the Paris Fashion Week in 2013, took the fashion world by storm at the time. While one outfit had a skirt and cape designed to act like an armor in motion (courtesy of both hard and soft materials being incorporated into it), the other was a black dress intricately designed with selective laser sintering, a process that uses a laser to fuse small particles together.
New York fashion house threeASFOUR’s 3D-printed dresses Pangolin and Harmonograph launched during the 2016 New York Fashion Week also stand out as stellar examples of 3D printing done right in fashion. The Pangolin dress was derived from a signature threeASFOUR design having 14 pattern pieces. The 3D-printed version, however, was made with a single skin created by mixing a variety of interlocking weaves – something that could not have been achieved by traditional means. The Harmonograph dress, on the other hand, circled around the body in 3 spirals t mimicked the Fibonacci sequence.
In a world where technological advancements know no bounds, fashion is a key vehicle for demonstrating the immense scope of both biology and 3D printing. However, each of these trends comes with its own set of challenges that need to be overcome for them to make it big in fashion. That said, researchers are optimistic and suggest that, although it will take time to get past these challenges, biology and 3D printing are certainly on their way to bring a change in the DNA of the fashion industry.