Monday, July 15, 2024

From Petri Dishes to the Runway: The New Materials of the Fashion Industry

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sustainability
Future Fabrics Expo

Words by Kaja Grujic

Clothing made from textiles grown in labs is no longer a distant future of fashion.

Entering the Future Fabrics Expo, London’s influential annual material trade show, is like stepping into Willy Wonka’s whimsical chocolate factory. Amongst more than 10,000 textiles, you can find fabrics with the potential to repair skin, sequins made from fungi, and materials that glow when touched — and some of these textiles have already made their way onto the runway.

Fashion and sustainability have a complicated history. However, in recent years, as the industry has had to reckon with their impact on the planet, a few designers have tapped into their creative innovation and have pioneered new ways of making. As a longtime advocate for leather alternatives, Stella McCartney introduced bags crafted from Bananatex in her Autumn/Winter 2023 collection, a material made from Abacâ bananas; while in 2023, Loewe collaborated with beLEAF to create textiles using an innovative natural tanning process that turns leaves into wearable leather.

Stella McCartney (left), Loewe Paula’s Ibiza 2023 (right)

Responding to the immense amount of textile waste in the industry, Coach presented upcycled denim and aviator jackets as part of their sub-brand Coachtopia, which launched in April 2023. Recently, Marine Serre showcased a couture dress crafted from upcycled embroidered bed sheets in her Spring/Summer 2025 collection, amongst a plethora of upcycled designs.

Marine Serre Spring/Summer 25 (left), @coachtopia/Instagram (right)

As the fashion industry continues to find its place in the global sustainability movement, textile innovation is a worthy pursuit given that a large share of fashion’s footprint comes from the production and processing of materials. Although high fashion brands have joined the movement, the spearheads pushing sustainability forward have predominantly been young designers and innovators. Their key weapon: daring to challenge the status quo and fusing disciplines to redefine what fashion can look like.

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Future Fabrics Expo

GRAZIA is delving deeper into five noteworthy and innovative materials you might see in your future closet and the designers behind them, straight from the front row of the Future Fabrics Expo itself.

1. LUCID LIFE by Christopher Bellamy

Imagine, at your next dinner party, your dress glowing from across the dancefloor. Drawing inspiration from the symbiotic relationships of corals, Lucid Life is a living material that literally glows upon touch. Instead of fabric being accidentally changed by daily wear, or getting stained by food or shrunk in the wash, think of what could happen when a material is designed to change for you, growing and adapting to your body.

Biodesigner and engineer Christopher Ballamy has always been fascinated by living natural ecosystems and headed to French Polynesia in search of novel micro-organisms that could create this living material. Inspired by the relationship between corals and algae, Ballamy infused this new material with bioluminescent micro-algae which live, sequester carbon, and emit light for around six months. Through this design, the algae illuminate in response to movement and touch. This project blends the traditional wisdom of Polynesian artisans with cutting-edge science, which has resulted in the creation of a glowing swimsuit and necklace.

innovative
Christopher Ballamy

In exchange for its lively glow is its ephemerality – just like fashion cycles and natural seasons – its temporal quality might be what makes it even more beautiful. Lucid Life is a luminous pioneer in the exploration of living materials finding their homes in our closets.

Christopher Ballamy

2. ROOTFULL by Zena Holloway

Rootfull is a company that develops textiles by modifying the growth of wheatgrass roots to create functional fabrics. Cultivated in 3D-printed templates carved from beeswax, technology meets nature to guide the root as it grows. In just 12 days, the seed sprouts and the root binds to form a naturally woven structure.

“The idea that we can use nature’s natural processes to create ‘woven’ textile is usually enough to stop people in their tracks,” Zena Holloway, founder of Rootfull, explains to GRAZIA. “I use wheat seed, which is only one in eleven thousand species of grass. The possibilities of designing with roots are endless and simply waiting for us to tap into.”

With this approach to material design, Rootfull weaves together different disciplines to create a space where scientists, designers, and nature can come together to create novel fashion textiles.

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Zena Holloway

3. DETOX BIOEMBELLISHMENT by CQ Studio

Detox Bioembellishment is a material reminiscent of traditional sequins, but instead of being made from petroleum-based microplastics, it’s derived from food waste and fungi. To create this material, fungi is first added to the wastewater left over from dyeing textiles. Next, the remaining liquid is cured to create this plastic-like material in varying shades of amber and ruby red.

Originally trained as a fashion and textile designer, Cassie Quin, founder of CQ Studios, was catapulted into the world of material innovation when she simply could not find existing sustainable textiles while studying Biodesign at Central Saint Martins in London. Quin tells GRAZIA that it is often “in the process of experimentation that the ‘mistakes’ lead to new materials and possibilities.” By being curious and following nature’s lead, we learn that waste – an inevitable byproduct of production’s end – can also be part of its newfound beginnings.

CQ Studio

4. CUEMÁI by Alonso Hernández

In collaboration with tequila distilleries, chemists, and textile mills, Cuemái creates a bio-based pigment and yarn from tequila waste (so now, you can have your margarita and fabric made from the same blue agave!).

To create the yarn, agave leaves are shredded, extracted, pulped, and dried in the sun. These extracted fibers are then spun into the yarn. Through a series of filtration techniques, the pigments are extracted to create vibrant, all-natural dyes from Vinasse, the final byproduct of tequila production.

Like much of bio-design, collaboration is a key to this project’s success. “Without the insights of scientists, tequila experts, and engineers, I wouldn’t have understood many of the elements required to develop the materials,” Alonso Hernández, designer of Cuemái, shares with GRAZIA. “This interdisciplinary approach has allowed me to push the boundaries of what I thought was possible.”

CUEMÁI

5. BIOCOTERIE by Namita Bhatnagar

What if your clothes were another part of your skincare routine? Biocoterie material innovation, which initially started as a research project exploring the medical applications of biomaterials, hopes to encourage a dialogue around the purpose of materials in the fashion industry.

Imagine clothes that could literally heal your skin. Combining micro-algae and bacterial cellulose, Biocoterie investigates how to grow material that can repair wounds. “There is (an understandable) fear around microbes and how they interact with us,” the founder of Biocoterie, Namita Bhatnagar, tells GRAZIA. “But they’re everywhere… just because their life cycles don’t always visibly manifest around us, doesn’t mean they’re not around pulling massive weight.” This material development is in its speculative stage, yet it presents an intriguing outlook on how to design with nature.

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Biocoterie

From celebrity-filled catwalks to small university lab rooms, sustainability is an ever-evolving component of the fashion industry and has many shades and shapes. Dancing between disciplines and cultures, these emerging designers show that fashion is still brimming with creativity. As designer Christopher Bellamy shares with GRAZIA, the future of fashion is bright: “Design can become a bridge between traditional knowledge and science, a common language which allows these two disciplines to collaborate and create something new.”

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