Paris Haute Couture Week 2022: Back to the future

Through biocouture, international fashion houses use bacteria and other living materials to make fabric, furthering the global goal of attaining sustainable fashion
Vegan dress by Iris Van Herpen
Vegan dress by Iris Van Herpen

At the Paris Haute Couture Week 2022 in July, all eyes were on the fashion industry’s darling, Dutch-designer Iris Van Herpen. Her models sashayed down the ramp in stunning curlicued dresses that pushed the boundaries of high fashion. Of them all, however, one dress caught the world’s attention in particular. It was a striking ensemble in autumnal shades, made with discarded cocoa bean husks—the world’s first vegan haute couture offering.

Van Herpen is one in a growing list of designers championing a switch to sustainable fashion through the use of innovative plant-based methodologies and living materials. The most prominent among these cutting-edge sartorial practices is the concept of ‘biocouture’.

This idea was first envisioned about a decade ago by Suzanne Lee, an American who worked as
a senior researcher at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. It advocates the use of live bacteria and other living materials such as wood and starch to manufacture fabric for crafting high-end clothing. Inspired by the French concept of haute couture, where every garment is made by hand and is, therefore, truly unique, biocouture makes the garments exclusively from natural sources and materials that have been grown from different types of organisms in a lab.

Lee’s interesting  oprietary procedure includes throwing yeast, sweetened tea and bacteria into a vat under specific temperature conditions. The ensuing chemical reaction leads to the production of sheets of cellulose, which act as wearable fibres to be fashioned into garments that look and feel like glossy thin leather.

This cuts down various steps in a long and —in the designer’s words—‘toxic’ chain of production,
and makes the garments compostable, reducing the burden on ever-growing landfills. Since Lee first introduced it to the world, the concept has been picked up by other designers and widenedin scope.

Mainstream fashion houses like LVMH are working to produce plastic-free lab-grown fur, and others like Kering are working on low-impact alternative materials like mushroom leather. Even the former CEO of Jimmy Choo, Pierre Denis, recently invested in microbial textile exploration.

The one who has truly scaled it up, however, is UK-based designer Olivia Rubens, who is best known for her designs of vintage crochet lace and knits.

For a recent collaboration with London-based concept store Machine-A and biotech startup Post Carbon Lab, Rubens created a variety of ‘green garments’, including balaclavas, clothing and handbags, where the organisms used to create them were still alive, through a photosynthesis coating. These garments need sunlight and moisture to actively exhale oxygen, making their care an arduous proposition.
Given their tremendous benefits––good for the earth and great for the skin as they allow for true breathability––this limited-run collection sold out very quickly.

Revolutionary as the idea seems, will it catch on in India? Designer Madhu Jain, an industry pioneer when it comes to the promotion of sustainable fashion through handloom textiles and indigenous crafts, is hopeful. She says, “With the garments industry being the second-highest environment polluter, it is time we went back to pre-industrial revolution consumption patterns. To aid this, we need to take inspiration from our 2,000-year-old textiles tradition, which was in sync with nature. Each region had its own distinctive textile, derived from the surroundings and suited to the region’s climate and aesthetics. The unique methodology of biocouture marries science and technology with this traditional wisdom and is, therefore, a step in the right direction.”

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