Would you wear a mini-skirt made of mould? What about a corset made from mushrooms? A dress dyed with bacteria? It might sound bizarre, but this is BioDesign, the future of sustainable design technology.
Over the last few years, BioDesign degree courses have sprung up at art and design universities all over the country, including the University of West London and Central Saint Martins. Students on these courses are encouraged to challenge the status quo to design with climate change, natural resource depletion and environmental health at the forefront of their work.
If you look closely, BioDesign has been emerging throughout fashion for a while. At Kimaï, lab-grown diamonds provide an ethical alternative. Elsewhere, Alexander McQueen’s Sarabande Foundation residents, Auroboros, are creating fantastical garments out of natural fibres that crystallise, continuing to grow and evolve on the body. They have recently debuted their innovative designs digitally in a partnership with gaming and e-commerce app Drest.
BioDesign isn’t entirely new to fashion, though. Some fashion fanatics might remember Hussein Chalayan’s 1993 Central Saint Martins graduate collection, The Tangent Flows. Chalayan showed oxidised garments that had been buried and left to decay for months in his friend’s back garden.
Similarly, in Maison Martin Margiela’s 9/4/1615 exhibition, shown at Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in 1997, the clothes on display had been sprayed with bacteria, yeast and mould. Over the course of the exhibition, the garments slowly decayed, so that each visitor saw a different stage of development.
BioDesign is not merely a trend. As one of the world’s most polluting industries, fashion has a lot to answer for: polluting manufacturing and distribution practices, textiles containing harmful microplastics, vast inequalities throughout the production chain…the list goes on. BioDesign offers a symbiotic, environment-first, innovative approach, which has the potential to change the way we live.
For these four designers, the natural world is their sewing kit. Rather than studios, they work in laboratories, and their designs are constantly changing, completely on their own. Through their exploration of the organic world, they are leading the way towards a new, sustainable fashion system.
What is BioDesign?
“BioDesign completely changes the design concept,” says Sarajevo-based designer Maja Halilović, co-founder of Bio Co-Culture with Serbian artist Adrienn Újházi. “We introduce new materials, a new way of working collaboratively as scientists and artists, using living organisms, which we modify to grow our textiles. Currently, the main focus of the BiodDesigner is to analyse, modify and experiment with a living organism in order to obtain healthy, strong material that will have a useful purpose.”
“It’s a way of reconnecting with the natural world. An insight into biology through the eyes of a designer,” muses Simone Lawler. Lawler is the creative brains behind Amanita.Studio, and a final year BA Fashion and Textile Design student at the University of West London. She documents her work-in-progress on TikTok. “BioDesign enables us to work alongside nature, identifying organic processes and applying them to design practices. It’s about utilising what we have around us and figuring out how to limit negative impacts on the environment.”
ForScarlett Yang, a graduate of BA Fashion Womenswear at Central Saint Martins, Biodesign is about looking at the bigger picture, into the biosphere where we live rather than designing with a static method for a particular moment. “It is to understand and celebrate the living quality of a designed object, with bacteria, fungus, or algae,” she says. “A BioDesign project outcome is lively, breathing, sensitive, adaptive, resilient, just like the nature of humans.”
Though certainly a new technology for fashion, Biodesign isn’t limited to just what we wear. German designerMalu Lücking says: “it’s sustainable innovation. Biodesign is a practice that grows beyond human-centred design and strives for symbiosis with other life, integrating living processes and organic matter into the creation of our systems, products, clothes and homes.”
Following a sustainability project at university, Simone Lawler fell out of love with fashion. With the initial intention of becoming a pattern cutter, Lawler had found herself deeply attracted to the technical side of fashion, but turned off by the industry’s unethical and environmentally harmful production methods. Fortunately, through the discovery of BioDesign, Lawler’s spark was reignited. “There is a whole new area to explore,” she says, with the power to transform the industry into something positive.
Lawler’s interest in BioDesign, piqued by two episodes of the Joe Rogan Experience, started with mushrooms. “That’s when I knew I wanted to base my graduate collection around fungi… to learn more about this incredible organism,” she enthuses. “I was oblivious to its importance in our ecosystem.” Through her final project, Lawler had the freedom to explore BioDesign in fashion and textiles, incorporating aspects of BioDesign wherever she can in her collection, Nature’s Threads.
For further research, Lawler visited Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi – the Somerset House exhibition exploring the organism’s potential. As a part of the exhibition, the gallery published an online talk, Fungi Futures: Movements in Mycelium, with Nancy Diniz, Course Leader of MA BioDesign at CSM. “That was the first time I ever even heard of the term BioDesign,” she says. Excited by a new pathway that could combine her passion for biology with her creativity, Lawler was spurred on to apply everything she could learn to come up with sustainable alternatives to the fashion industry’s harmful practices.
As a young designer at the beginning of my career, I have found something that motivates me to look for better solutions.
Working with biomaterials made from food waste, Lawler experiments with BioDesign on a budget. “It’s a challenge,” she says. “I can’t grow my whole collection due to lack of funds and facilities, but I’m working to find solutions to incorporate BioDesign where I can.” But rather than finding herself restricted, she relishes the challenge, incorporating second-hand fabric, deadstock textiles and repurposed materials into Nature’s Threads and her very own brand, Amanita.Studio. “It’s allowed me to be creative, use materials that I usually wouldn’t be able to work with or afford.”
Through Amanita.Studio, Lawler aims to demonstrate that sustainability can be attractive. In classic Gen-Z style, she harnessed TikTok and Instagram to share videos of works-in-progress and finished designs, like a corset made of mycelium moulded to her friend’s torso. Characterised by, “simple silhouettes, with high-quality finishes that extend lifespan,” Lawler recognises the innate ability of BioDesign to captivate attention and hopes to use the platform of Amanita.Studio to motivate people to think about their fast fashion buying habits. “As a young designer at the beginning of my career, I have found something that motivates me to look for better solutions.”
At 16, Maja Halilović started working on their own fashion label, educating themself on handicrafts, machine sewing and modelling. Following a stint working as a costume designer, Halilović studied product design at the Academy of Fine Arts Sarajevo. “I am guided by science and what is new – ideas, perspectives, technologies – constantly questioning and breaking the conventional.” Now a co-founder of Bio Co Culture, they work to educate and bring together research and knowledge on BioDesign and BioArt across the Balkans.
Halilović was introduced to BioDesign via the work of Suzanne Lee, director of the BioCouture Research Project. “I was so inspired by how design connected itself with science,” they say. “It offered a whole new perspective, an interesting future. Instead of ateliers, we work in labs.” Through growing and modifying the culture of bacteria and yeast – a.k.a scoby, the source bacteria for kombucha – they discovered the significance of the fermentation process. “I learned how to speed it up, how to adjust spatial conditioning so the cellulose is of the highest quality and can be used as a material, especially as a substitute for toxic materials like plastic.”
When it comes to aesthetics, Halilović says their work is in perpetual motion “between all of them, or none of them,” but somewhat adheres to the philosophies of minimalism. They are moved to create by the impact of the fashion system on the world. “My view is future-oriented. I always want to be at the centre of discovering new ideas, it’s important to me to change myself, the community and the world with my work.”
“We need BioDesign in the fight against climate change, as an aid to the system in which we live and work.” Averse to design that pollutes and damages during its manufacture and lasting lifespan, BioDesign offers a lasting ethical and ecological solution. “It’s a disruption,” they muse. With BioDesign, even discarded, disused textiles are rapidly degradable and harmless to the environment, benefiting the soil they decompose in. “It offers a whole new way of working. The very fact that we can get textiles in collaboration with a simple living organism – bacteria, proteins, algae – is a completely new, revolutionary branch of design.”
Growing up submerged in the realms of the internet, Scarlett Yang credits it for a large part of her background. After growing up in Hong Kong, she travelled to London to study womenswear design on the Central Saint Martins Fashion BA programme. Yang first discovered BioDesign while on her placement year in Amsterdam. “I spent five months in a textile lab where they focus on BioDesign applications within the fashion industry,” she says. “I was fascinated by the vast possibilities and innovations beyond traditional design methods.”
Incorporating BioDesign into her CSM graduate collection, Yang has been exploring shifting identities. A self-proclaimed “third culture kid” with more than one sense of cultural belonging, she recognises in herself a state of flux, which she likens to the life of natural materials. “Just like any natural growing process, living beings are never static, they’re constantly changing,” she says. This notion of nature and people as dynamic is echoed in Yang’s design ethos. “In the lifespan of a garment, as its surroundings change and it is handled and worn, gradually its material qualities change.”
Fashion businesses should look beyond the existing system and collaborate with the tech and innovation industries, share knowledge and take the risk to experiment with STEM professionals, maintaining full transparency in regards to their processes.
For the collection, Yang created a circular living system, where garments evolve and decompose throughout time, including a glass-like dress made of silk cocoon protein and algae extract which changes differently depending on climate. From the first to the last look, the shapes and materiality of her garments gradually evolve, representing the limbo state between fashion’s tangibility and immateriality. “The process is challenging,” she admits. “Because of the complexity of combining a whole living mechanism into your design, it’s so unpredictable, but BioDesigners can learn so much from the process, and understand the need.”
Yang believes BioDesign can bring a level of reflection to the fashion industry. “A reflection on how the industry incorporates the idea of a life cycle, rather than considering garments as one-off, lifeless objects,” she muses. “Fashion businesses should look beyond the existing system and collaborate with the tech and innovation industries, share knowledge and take the risk to experiment with STEM professionals, maintaining full transparency in regards to their processes.”
“My work is all about the material,” says Malu Lücking. “I study my surroundings closely, analysing what often remains unnoticed in everyday life.” Like filamentous algae: “they grow almost everywhere, but we don’t notice them, or we think of them negatively, like when you’re swimming in summer.” But by translating this into her design, Lücking uncovered the fascinating natural beauty of the materials for her textiles brand, Mujō Lab.
Design was a natural pathway for Lücking, the daughter of a photographer and a graphic designer. “It was something I was born into,” she laughs. A desire to study fashion design took her to the Berlin Weissensee School of Art, where her interest in materiality quickly led to her discovery of material innovation on the Textile and Surface Design programme. Following an eye-opening three-month internship in Italy’s textile industry, it was clear to Lücking that the conventional industry was not for her. “In the dyeing mills, workers were in contact with toxic chemicals, without protective clothing,” she divulges.
This dissonance with her ethical principles and the search for another way led Lücking to Amsterdam for a ten-week Biohacking programme at Waag. “I learned so much about organisms and how to work with them, how to grow algae and dye with bacteria.” Back in Berlin, freshly inspired and motivated, she worked for the artist Andreas Greiner, who was working on an installation using Bioluminescent algae. “I took care of the 50 litres of algae for the exhibition, and that’s when I fell in love with it,” she says.
BioDesign presents ways in which we can create high-quality fashion that isn’t produced at the expense of other living organisms
Lücking founded Mujō in 2020 with an industrial engineer and a textile designer. Together, they are currently developing brown algae-based, water-soluble materials for the packing industry, with the view of soon manufacturing yarns for the fashion industry. “I don’t try to develop a substitute for conventional materials like cotton, I’m not trying to imitate their aesthetics or properties,” she explains. Rather, Lücking chooses to consciously present its unique origin, in shape and colour.
“BioDesign presents ways in which we can create high-quality fashion that isn’t produced at the expense of other living organisms,” Lücking says. In principle, her main goals are: to use waste or undiscovered resources as a basis for design; to preserve the material’s unique properties and natural beauty as far as possible; to gain a full awareness of the material and its lifecycle; and to not use anything that is unrenewable, finite, or non-compostable. “There are alternatives to conventional resources that can close the material cycle and make waste obsolete,” she says. “It’s such an exciting challenge to create holistic design solutions, to shape a future where humans and the environment can finally co-exist in harmony.”
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