Issue 7

DESIGN &
BIOTECHNO-
LOGY

Revolutionary of the fashion industry

Photos by Sharon Radisch Words by Sarah Dorkenwald

SUZANNE
LEE

 

 

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.

 

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.

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