Photos by Sharon Radish
Words by Sarah Dorkenwald

 

Lee launched BioCouture, a project creating fashion from kombucha bacteria, as early as fifteen years ago. She researched the process in which microbes produce cellulose through fermentation, enabling whole items of clothing to be ‘grown’ organically. In 2018, her design team at Modern Meadow was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to create an installation for an upcoming exhibit. This iconic piece showcases biotech company Modern Meadow’s first prototype of its biofabricated materials brand, Zoa™.

 

 

Let’s begin at the beginning. Fashion designer Suzanne Lee can look back on an eventful and fascinating career, and what she does is unusual and complex. Now, at the latest, is the point to abandon any idea that Suzanne creates fashion collections in the conventional sense. In our interview she immediately suggests taking things in order, to prevent confusion; this means starting with Suzanne’s previous company, BioCouture, which she launched in the early 2000s. The starting-point was more or less a single idea or, more accurately, a chance encounter. Suzanne was engaged in researching for her book, Fashioning the Future: Tomorrow’s Wardrobe, in which she hoped to present a visionary and creative perspective of the fashion industry for the next 5 to 50 years and examine new technological opportunities that could increase its sustainability. Nobody asked this question at that time in the fashion industry; everybody was just concerned about the next season. Lee can undeniably be described as a pioneer, an early generator of important momentum that is only today gradually taking effect one could say, becoming ready to wear. Over 10 years have passed since she first presented fashion cultured from kombucha bacteria, and her work has influenced researchers and designers throughout the world.

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Aiming to identify developments that could play a leading role in the fashion world, Suzanne sought out not other designers, but scientists and engineers that were already working on new materials and technological innovations. A conversation with a biologist raised the question of why we produce cotton or leather in processes involving enormous effort and negative environmental impact, instead of harnessing microorganisms to create similar materials: growing textiles using bacteria, algae, mycelia, yeast and other living organisms, and crafting clothing from them. Immediately gripped by the potential of the idea, Suzanne was inspired to launch BioCouture. In this research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, she began to produce prototype clothing items such as shoes, skirts and jackets from self-growing organisms.

 

 

Over the next ten years she investigated microbial cellulose, a substance produced by fermentation in a process in which entire garments can be grown organically. Bacteria kept in a sugar culture over two or three weeks create a gel-like surface textile; this process is familiar as the method of making kombucha, a form of health drink that has trended in recent years. The kombucha fungus is a symbiosis of various yeasts that can be fermented with the addition of sugar and tea. This results in a slimy, slippery material that can be dried ­into a kind of vegetable leather and is fully compostable. One disadvantage also for users of the clothing is that it may slowly disintegrate and decompose in the presence of moisture. Not really the behaviour we would expect from clothes but not an insurmountable challenge in Suzanne’s view, as it was solved in various ways eventually.

 

 

Armed with her convincing and inspiring vision, she was invited to hold talks and give interviews to explain her ideas and experiences in more detail. Around 2010 the fashion industry was not yet ready to explore alternative and more eco-friendly materials and processes. Yet the designer was undeterred, confident that she was on the right track; she decided to investigate further avenues after realising that microbial cellulose could not be produced at the volumes required by the fashion industry and for an acceptable price, and would be unable to compete with conventional cellulose produced from plant fibres in these crucial respects.

 

 

Around the same time, new companies like Bolt Threads were shooting up in the USA and researching into manufacturing processes for creating artificial spider silk from spider-web proteins. The silk has all the characteristic properties of spider’s webs it is a combination of strength and elasticity and at the same time ultralight. The company designed a tie from the silk to demonstrate its potential for a variety of applications, and major names in clothing including fashion designer Stella McCartney and outdoor label The North Face launched the first prototypes made from the material. German company AMSilk recently joined forces with sports manufacturer Adidas to design a sports sneaker from spider silk, currently still at the prototype stage.

 

 

In 2013 Suzanne Lee met  Andras Forgacs, co-founder of American-based company Modern Meadow, through the TED networking platform. Forgacs shared her aim of advancing the 21st-century technology of biofabrication. The support of such a prominent figure was welcomed by Modern Meadow; Suzanne had built an impressive reputation from her work with BioCouture and had been providing consultancy ­services for major brands and start-ups alike as a way of continuing to publicise the potential of self-growing materials for consumer products. Now London-based, Suzanne became a consultant for Modern Meadow. I worked with Andras remotely, hoping to create some of the early visions through what Modern Meadow could be, what materials could do that are different to traditional animal material, in order to imagine all of the ways that this material could show up–not only in fashion, but also in interiors, performance sports or automotive. In 2014 she moved to New York as Modern Meadow’s full-time Chief Creative Officer, tasked with expanding the original start-up. At that time there were seven employees; today there are almost 90, she tells me with visible pride. We asked ourselves: how can we engineer growing materials in interesting and different ways that would be better for us as customers, but also for the planet?

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