Suzanne Lee is a fashion designer based in Brooklyn, New York. She is also a Senior Research Fellow at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, the Director of The BioCouture Research Project, and Chief Creative Officer at Modern Meadow. The idea for these ventures came from the need to reconsider the approach to manufacturing in the fashion industry. At this moment there is a long and complex supply chain involved in producing clothes, having not only a massive toxicity and environmental impact but also a huge social one. So Lee started thinking about more efficient and sustainable ways to produce fibers and manufacture clothes. Lee: "We have a responsibility as a producer to do things in the absolute best way we can. There are brands out there really trying to lead the way, but it can’t be fixed overnight. From my perspective, materials that can be biofabricated really could help those brands deliver something that is far more efficient and environmentally responsible."
“I'm not suggesting that microbial cellulose is going to be a replacement for cotton, leather or other textile materials. But I do think it could be quite a smart and sustainable addition to our increasingly precious natural resources.”
BioCouture is a London based design consultancy that works with scientists to bring living, bio-based materials to fashion. Lee started the company with David Hepworth, founder of the Scotland-based firm Cellucomp, which develops materials made from non-hydrocarbon-based feedstock. BioCouture explores the use of microbes to synthesize cellulose and ultimately grow a garment in a vat of liquid. They have already successfully explored biological prototypes, but the challenge is to go beyond a low-tech artisan process to one that can be scaled industrially and produced in volume, to really offer an alternative to cheap materials derived from petrochemical or agricultural sources. To be able to compete with existing fibers, like cotton or polyester, you need to deliver a fiber that is either much cheaper than existing materials, which is highly unlikely, or it has to have advanced performance features for which people are willing to pay a premium.
Modern Meadow was founded with the idea of animal products without the animal, as Andras Forgacs, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, explains. But they steered away from food because of the higher technological, regulatory and cultural hurdles. Now Modern Meadow develops lab-grown leather, cultured using mammalian skin cells. The roughly 14 billion square feet of leather produced from bovines annually, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, requires millions of animals, which has a huge environmental impact, is inefficient and cruel. So the bioleather made at Modern Meadow, called Zoa, using a process entirely free of animals is a very welcome alternative. The essential biological component of leather is not animal skin, but a fibrous structural protein called collagen. The traditional process of making leather is the process of removing everything from animal skin that isn’t collagen. When Modern Meadow just started, its scientists grew skin cells to create leather, but they now use a fermentation process to brew collagen directly. They have bio-engineered a strain of yeast that, when fed sugar, produces collagen, which is then purified, assembled and tanned to create a material that is biologically, and visibly, almost identical to animal leather. Modern Meadow’s technology also allows customers to bring processes like dyeing and finishing into the formation of the material, unlocking additional efficiencies.
Modern Meadow has attracted the interest of luxury goods and sportswear companies, important for the future of bioleather. They tend to be the ones most focused on quality and creating things that are truly differentiated in terms of design and performance and bringing novelty and enduring value to consumers,” Forgacs explains. “Plus, the margins are high, so they can underwrite innovation. And they have a mindset for innovation." Lee says she understands fashion’s trend-driven mindset and has been careful to seek partnerships with luxury players who think long-term.
Lee thinks the public is ready for a biofabricated future, especially when it comes to fashion. People are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental costs of where our fabrics are coming from, the carbon footprint of manufacturing, and the way garment factory workers are treated. The fashion and textile industry is working on multiple levels to create a more sustainable industry. Bioproduced fabrics are an important part of such a sustainable future. But Lee sees more. She envisions dynamic clothing that reacts to our bodies like a second skin. “Imagine the garment having a layer of living cells that feed off your dead ones to clean and repair itself,” she says. “Or it could sense your body temperature, and when you’re cold the cells might reorganize, just as feathers and fur fluff up to act as insulators.”