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What Design Can Do for sustainable fashion

At the What Design Can Do conference fashion was an important theme with speakers Suzanne Lee and Catarina Midby tackling the sustainable fashion debate.

By Cassandra Pizzey / 18-05-2012

A bio-couturier is how we could describe UK-based fashion designer Suzanne Lee who takes the stage holding a shopping bag full of groceries. “Green tea, sugar, vinegar and a bag of microbes”, she reveals, taking the items out one at a time. "These are the ingredients needed to create BioCouture.”

In her studio in London, Lee works on a project called BioCouture in which she grows a cellulose-based material from scratch and turns it in to wearable (albeit biodegradable) clothing. “The process is currently being used to create all kinds of health food, but I’m interested in the material itself”, says Lee.

By adding a mother culture to a bath of water, green tea, sugar and vinegar, threads are formed, then layers, then an entire mat. This mat is then dried and can be sewn or moulded. “The fibres knit together to form a strong bond, allowing seams to be the strongest point of the garment, not the weakest.”

Lee is currently focussing on creating timeless classics using her bio material. A denim jacket was a successful experiment in which the designer discovered new and useful qualities to the material. “It takes dye much better than cotton and patterns can be made using metal studs which leave a mark on the material.”

Another company which has long fought a battle with dyes and other chemicals is clothing concern H&M. Trend coordinator Catarina Midby explains: “We started with our ecology collection in 1995 and although it wasn’t as successful as we had hoped, we decided to apply the chemical restrictions from that collection to the entire brand.”

With a new century came new ecological problems and the team at H&M couldn’t just stand by and watch. Organic cotton was introduced early in the naughties but it wasn’t until a collaboration with trend-setting fashion designer Stella McCartney that the demand for eco-materials really took off.

“In 2007 we launched a Trend Collection featuring organic cotton which sold like hot cakes. Research in to supposedly ‘green’ fabrics showed how some organic materials needed a lot of chemicals before being usable, a surprising outcome.” Now walking in to your local H&M store you will find all kinds of green labels attached to the clothing, including a basics collection in bio-cotton.

So what can design do for fashion? The question here is more what can research in the science world do for fashion, and that is a lot. Growing our own materials at home and buying sustainable clothing in the shops seems to be the way forward. And as long as eco-designers can work together with professionals in the field of science and technology developing new materials and sharing ideas, who’s to say we wont all be wearing home-grown garments by 2020?

Main image: Suzanne Lee photo: Leo Veger
Other images: 1.-3. Suzanne Lee, BioCouture 4. Catarina Midby 5. H&M Conscious Collection 2012

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