SXSW Live | How Bioengineering Fashion Can Change the World

An inspiring conversation around bio fabrication & solutions for a more sustainable industry

in brief

As part of our stay at SxSW in Austin, we came across the panel talk on bioengineering fashion with Bolt Threads, Modern Meadow and H&M’s Foundation. An insightful talk on the current state of research and startup projects around a more sustainable future of fashion through biotechnologies.

Moderated by Rachel Arthur, the panel gathered pioneers like Bolt Threads’ cofounder Dan Widmaier & Suzanne Lee from Modern Meadow, with H&M’s foundation Innovation Lead Erik Bang.

Opening the talk with a catch phrase, Arthur said bioengineered fashion could have as much impact as the first iPhone.

Bolt Threads makes synthetic spider silk based knit accessories, it partnered with Stella McCartney last year, on a dress that was showcased at the MoMA. The partnership however goes beyond this first collaboration, with a long term conversation between the two companies. On the subject of barriers the startup has come and is still coming through,

“The underlying tech to make it is not easy and many things can go wrong. A lot of test and learn makes it challenging to bring the innovation to life and scale”. Widmeier reminded us.

Hence, he told us how expensive such a research process imply. But all this is made because of a consumer demand he said, “it’s going to be harder to get natural materials so the need is urgent”. Pursuing his talk, Widmeier pointed out that there are still very few scientists in this space, and l the need to educate is important.

What does it actually mean to make spider silk in a lab? Bolt Threads works at the spider protein level. There are 7 different kinds of spider silk, with different properties (strong, soft,…). Bolt Threads is working on it as an evolutionary process, the hardest part, Widmeier said, is making it at a bigger scale. His vision for the company is to keep focusing on how to innovate, share this wisdom with end consumers, the ones applying the real pressure, no matter from which channels.

Suzanne Lee, Chief Creative Officer at Modern Meadow, wearing their latest lab-grown leather prototype dress, at SxSW 2018.

Modern Meadow and its prototype clothing features patches-like pieces of lab grown leather. Suzanne Lee (on the picture), the company’s Chief Creative Officer, explained how it is not about copying what nature does, but rather drawing inspiration from it. Modern Meadow creates materials and products from the bottom up. Lee, a pioneer in the field, who previously ran her own BioCouture lab, believes 3D bio printing is an interesting solution to grow animal tissue to create cruelty free leather (which by the way, already exists for human tissues).

But it is still a field in its infancy. As Lee mentions, we are too much impatient nowadays, but still, this technology is not science fiction, we’ve reached a tipping point where it’s something definitely possible and applicable, to which the industry is paying attention right now.

On the notion of barriers, Lee explained how the company is working with nature’s core DNA, trying to make this innovation accessible. The good thing according to her, is that its cost has come down in a significant way. The Startup has recently announced a partnership with Evonik, helping the startup to commercially scale their technology.

As the conversation went on, Lee reminded us how key it is to include the voice from the industry early on in this process, but how it’s also really hard to do so: credentials are needed. We indeed need to bring the field of designers and scientists closer, make everybody speak the same language, and improve the understanding. This tension needs to be broken ASAP, Lee said.

So how does Modern Meadow actually grow leather? Lee explained that they are working to produce protein collagen, designing and engineering proteins. They improve it, purify it and assemble it, in the early stage of the process, Lee specified that it’s in a liquid form. Lee mentioned how we could reinvent how we approach the material, the form of leather, rather than immediately producing a sheet of it, like with animal leather. Hence she said, we could maybe spray or paint with it… playing with it is a better option, she said, and it goes beyond the sole fact of making it. What if the leather itself could be the manufactured device? Lee concluded on how precious feedback from people is for fashion to embrace the science. Her vision for this field’s future lies in the need for consumers to be included in the process, through the storytelling of the materials and their ability, to push brands to think about the materials they are using. Which goes beyond the science push, she said, in 10 years maybe we’ll start to see a real impact.

The votes for this year’s H&M Global Change Awards are opened!

Finally, H&M Foundation’s Innovation Lead Erik Bang told us about how the foundation works on improving conditions for people globally, and to reinvent the entire industry to become circular. As he mentioned, the foundation happens to be a totally separate entity from the fast fashion group, which obviously gives him a wider range of possibilities to work on reaching these goals. As Bang continued, he reminded us how urgent the need to rethink the way we make clothes is: by 2030 the UN expects the middle class to be made of 5 billion people! But the system as it is now, Bang underpinned, won’t be able to sustain their needs.

He pursued with one of the foundation’s biggest initiative, the H&M Global Change Awards, which got more than 8000 entries. Bang explained how innovation is needed for change to happen. The value chain, the resources, and the way we produce and consume clothes until the end cycle today are wrong. But hopefully, science is a very inspiring tool to bring change. Bang is looking at innovation across the value chain (from new materials to new processes,…) and mentioned a few thought provoking innovation, like the Tencel fibers (from Austrian company Lenzing), or Italian startup Orange Fiber (who partnered with Ferragamo on a capsule collection made of waste orange peels silk-like fabric). Bang also mentioned a bioengineered leather made from wine mark, made by Rosa Rosella Longobardo and her team, who won a 300K€ grant as part of last year’s Global Change Awards nominees. Such a grant is key for startups to develop their technology, as they seek to reach scale. With such an example, Bang wanted to highlight how such actors come from outside the industry (and so they need to understand it), but at the same time, the industry does no R&D, and so there’s a need to educate brands and suppliers about the opportunity. Bang explained how today, there’s a cultural shock happening. It will have to go further, as the ability to invest heavily once the innovations are ready is key. He mentioned the foundation’s accelerator program to facilitate things for innovative companies and the interaction with the industry + scientists and fashion brands, who come from very different worlds. Yet there’s a real need for this conversation to happen and build a better understanding between these worlds.

It’s about the industry at large, the entire system is needed to support these kind of innovations that can help rethink the whole industry.

Bang concluded with the example of Sweden, where waste is a municipal issue: you are forced to play along with bureaucracy to make it work, which slows things up so communication is key. Sustainability has to be embedded in the system. Finally, he said, “we need to accept that the perfect solutions might be 1 or 2 generations away”.

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